Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sex and Horror, Part 8: A Gallery of Sex and Horror

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

While it is not the intent of Chillers and Thrillers to titillate its readers, no series concerning sex and horror truly conveys the subgenre without a display of some of the images that have come to represent it, which is the reason that I conclude this series with some examples of such images.

Abducted by the Daleks

Cemetery Man

Friday the 13th 2: Jason Goes to Hell

Outer Limits (episode with Alyssa Milano)


The Entity

Perhaps the most blatant example in this gallery for the inclusion of gratuitous nudity in a horror film is Zombie Strippers.  The misogynistic attitude toward women that is displayed by many of these images is also striking, suggesting that Hollywood moviemakers seem to have low regard for the female of the species, considering them to be fallen angels, "breeders" (a term that homosexual men sometimes use to describe heterosexual women), living dolls, victims of abduction and rape, playthings, transsexuals, alien monsters, food, and (even when they are dead) strippers.  However, to be fair, some directors do not find fault with women as such; rather, they find sex itself repugnant and grotesque, as the fiilms of David Cronenberg, for example, often show.

However, sex in horror is not always as gratuitious as it is in Zombie Strippers. As we have seen, it sometimes has a satirical, a philosophical, or even a religious theme.

No pun intended, but, in literature, horror fiction included, nudity is often more complex than it may appear. Frequently, it takes on symbolic significance, representing such states and conditions as human beings’ animality, vulnerability, and mortality. Sex itself, as we have seen, is often linked, in horror fiction, to perversions of, and deviations form, normal, heterosexual, genital (and generative) sex. In horror fiction, sex often involves adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, incest, transsexuality, and even necrophilia. It also sometimes features extraterrestrials, demons, witches, ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and other paranormal or supernatural participants. Such behavior flaunts the will of God, as it is established by the Ten Commandments and other divine laws that are transmitted through Judeo-Christian religious traditions. In other words, such behaviors are sinful acts of disobedience to the divine will.

Indeed, sex with aliens challenges the Judeo-Christian doctrine of a great chain of being in which various creatures occupy greater or lesser levels of significance and value, with God at the apex, followed by angels, human beings, animals, and plants, in this order, for it inserts another creature, extraterrestrial beings, into his chain. Such entities may not be the equal of God, but they seem to transcend human beings. Are aliens superior or interior to angels and their fallen peers, demons? Some consider aliens to be demons in disguise, intent upon deceiving humans, as, indeed, Hamlet suspected the alleged ghost of his father might be. Whether aliens are demons or extraterrestrials, they disturb the great chain of being, because such creatures were never part of it before the skies became home to flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects.

Sex in horror fiction is also a means of introducing twists on traditional understandings and folkways. Demonic possession which also involves sexual acts, perverted or otherwise, may signify sexual conquest. As femme fatales, women, who are traditionally regarded as weak or powerless, become strong and powerful in demon or alien guise, and men, traditionally the strong and powerful ones become the weak and impotent ones. Sex can be described in mechanical, going-through-the-motions terms, especially when one or more of the participants is a robot or a cyborg. In horror fiction, sex is also often misogynistic, expressing or suggesting a fear, and, sometimes, a hatred, of women. The vagina may be described as having, or be shown to have, teeth with which it mutilates (dismembers, in both a literal and a Freudian sense) males, castrating them as they penetrate or have intercourse with them. Alternatively, the penis can be a serpent-like monster with teeth of its own, used to devour women from within.

The movies we have listed in this post depict all of these impulses, themes, and ideas and more. Sex in horror is multivalent, multidimensional, and multifaceted.

In Horror Films of the 1980s, published in 2002 by McFarland & Company, Inc., of Jefferson City, NC, John Kenneth Muir points out some of the additional concerns of sex in horror. The movie Demon Seed (1977), based upon an early Dean Koontz novel, addresses “women’s rights,” Muir says, as well as “technology run amok,” and the story, which involves “rape by [a] computer” that is “programmed by men,” denies the protagonist, Susan Harris, “control” over both “her own body” and, since it causes her to experience an orgasm, against her will, even the very “biochemical” processes of her body (467-470).

Likewise, Muir sees David Cronenberg’s Shivers as a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of so-called casual sex. It is about the consequences, Muir says, of “infidelity, STDs, pedophilia,” and other perverted, deviant, criminal or otherwise incautious sexual behaviors. In the film, a parasite that resembles a phallus (or “fecal matter,” in Muir’s view), and may or may not have been inspired by the disembodied, living, often winged phalli of ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, infect hosts with an aphrodisiac-like chemical that turns men and women into promiscuous sex maniacs who further spread the parasites and their disease. Equal opportunity parasites, the phallic pests enter their hosts orally, anally, or vaginally, through both hetero- and homosexual sex acts. AIDS and other STDs, Muir believes, are the subtext to this film, which, he argues, in some ways anticipates the movie Alien.

The sex in Wes Craven’s film The Last House on the Left serves a theological, or at least a metaphysical theme. In this film, sex takes the form of the rape of a teenage girl and represents, Muir contends, an atheistic world view in which there is no God and, therefore, no purpose in life and “terrible things” can and do “happen to good people” for no reason. The movie’s “theme song,” “The Road Leads to Nowhere” suggests, Muir says, as does the futility of the religious characters’ prayers, to the movie’s theme, that there is neither an “afterlife” nor a God, and that the journey of life “ends only in death.”

Sex in horror can transcend just sex for sex’s sake, or gratuitous sex, and can symbolize social, political, economic, and even metaphysical or theological issues. Often, for Judeo-Christian readers and moviegoers, sex in horror is related to, and often critical of, human beings relationships with themselves, each other, nature, and God. Even when sex in horror is limited to psychoanalytical interpretations, it can sometimes elucidate the causes and consequences of sublimation, repression, and other alleged psychosexual mechanisms.

No comments:

Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

Popular Posts