The Act of Sex and the Horror Film
Stephen King says we watch horror to exercise our fears. To let them out into the open and scare the shit out of us so that we can feel a little better about ourselves after the film ends (unless it’s a particularly terrific film). The pleasure derived from the horror film is covered in layers of identification and in context. We feel good at the end of Friday the 13th because the killer is killed at the end, but we don’t feel good at the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre because of our uncertainty about the final sequences; the killer is unpunished and we are afraid he will strike again. Yet both movies were hugely popular and spawned sequel after sequel. We frighten ourselves to feel good and we pay good money to do it; this is the nature of the horror film. Another nature of horror films, however, lies within a coin.
If taken seriously, a coin toss is a wonderfully scary thing. It can determine the answer to anything boiled down to the right yes-or-no questions because of its two sides. Those same two sides are the things that give the coin its distinct advantage over other probability devices, dice and the like. Horror Films are a lot like coins, and I think their allure is in their coin-like properties. There are two types of horror films then, the type that are two sided and the type that make one side appear to be the other; still both two sided movies. The two sidedness of horror comes from many aspects used within the genre as standards: The sexual lure of the cannibalistic Vampire, the sympathy one feels for the violently clumsy Frankenstein monster, and the confrontation of our darker selves through the primal Werewolf. Sex, gender, and religion are also always two sided in a horror film.
Carol Clover makes this point by generalizing that each Religious Horror is about a possessed female and a conflicted male within her book, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. She constructs women as the link between the supernatural and the secular, and men as rational and scientific within the religious horror film. Within the slasher/stalker films she constructs the Final Girl as an emasculated woman while she generalizes that men are inadequate and are effeminate by comparison to the Final Girls and killers. Religion, defined as a set of beliefs and not necessarily as a ‘religion’ like overt Catholicism, Clover defines as White Science and Black Magic; as two sides of a coin that perform certain functions. Sex, still within the theme of duality, is a tad more curious.
Sex within the Horror film is constructed in the same way we construct sex in our morality view: as pleasure or as reproduction. Sex for pleasure shares a link to the slasher film while sex for reproduction shares a link to the religious horror film, especially the demonic possession film. Unlike other conventions of horror film, the two links of sex are not crossed over, Clover mentions no exceptions and I did not find any in my research either. It would seem that Sex is two sided, but the two sides are even more frigidly defined than the other two sided conventions, which is where a generalization can occur. Using the ‘possession’ film as an archetype, we can say that due to the link of sex and the type of horror film played around it, I will interject that the more ‘secular’ or ‘pleasurable’ the sex depicted in a movie, the more ‘secular’ the possession of the victims and the more ‘secular’ the monster, where as the more ‘reproductive’ the sex depicted in a film, the more ‘supernatural’ the possession and monster.
I’m using the ‘demonic possession’ film as the archetype because I am defining Clover’s ‘assaultive gaze’(think the peep hole shower sequence in Psycho) as a hermaphroditic complex where the gazer objectifies and thereby ‘possesses’ that which he or she is gazing upon (If I can find the paper in which I did this I will node it). Using this, the slasher film becomes a ‘possession’ film through indirect means rather than direct. For example, Freddy Krueger ‘possesses’ his victims through their dreams the same way a demon ‘possesses’ its victim through the body like in The Exorcist; it is merely a means to an end.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is probably the easiest of the slasher films to relate to demonic possession. Freddy is half demonic himself, never actually materializing in the real world until the last sequence, inhabiting only the inner depths of the mind for much of the film. Even the way he kills his victims makes it seem like they are possessed: Girl 1 flies around the room as if tossed, resting and crawling on the walls and ceiling, Boy 1 dies because the bed sheet decided to hang him, and Boy 2 dies because he is swallowed by a bed. Only Girl 2 perceives the threat both natural and supernatural, which Clover takes to mean she will survive. Since Freddy materializes outside of his victim though, I would not count him as a demonic presence, and he is not exorcised or expelled by a third party like supernatural possessions. Getting to the point, Freddy chooses his victims utilizing ‘assaultive gaze,’ he gazes into the minds of the victims and kills them according to Clover’s serial killer formula: when the victims had sex or are available for sex. The sexual activities by the victims in Nightmare are strictly recreational (one of the ‘consequences’ of being a teenager, perhaps?) and Freddy is secular in that he is eventually materialized outside of a dream. Of course, Freddy is the most supernatural of the serial killers, being both undead and existing in the dreams of his victims. Other slasher titles tend to just have a super human killer like the nearly invincible Micheal Myers of the Halloween titles or the ever-undead Jason from the Friday the 13th titles. Both killers choose their victims according to the aforementioned formula, all their victims (with numerous exceptions for men of varying ages) are available for sex or had just had sex, and the killers are very secular in that they are human (despite being undead) and can be killed by non-expansionary ways, i.e. a knife wound rather than an exorcism.
Sexual perversion is also covered in the slasher film genre. Clover makes an argument that all the serial killers are slightly, if not overtly, sexually scarred or perverted due to earlier negative treatment, usually from the mother but occasionally from the father. This holds true in movies like The Cell and The Silence of the Lambs where the serial killers are sexual deviants participating in ‘unnatural’ acts of sex. The link to ‘possession’ comes from the ‘assaultive gaze’ the killers have rather than heterosexual links to women, the killers will have some sort of ‘perversion’ that links their gaze to something or some one else for some purpose other than ‘natural sex.’ It is arguable that sexual perversion is a personalized version of sexual pleasure that is only perversion because it deviates from the normal practices.
I was unable to find a horror movie that could demonstrate the half-way point between pleasurable serial killers and reproductive demons, but I was fortunate enough to watch a comedy that does fit the criteria of a possession film (since ‘horror and comedy are two sides of the same coin.’). Saved! is about three teenagers who go to a Christian school where Jesus is praised in assemblies and everyone tries to live up to being a good Christian. But then sex happens. Mary has sex with her gay boy friend because she wants to save him from eternal damnation for being gay (she wants to turn him straight through sex). Roland and Cassandra have sex implicitly off screen (though deleted scenes on the DVD reveal more explicitly on screen) because they are in love. These are not recreational or reproductive reasons (though Mary does get pregnant = literal ‘possession’). It is worth noting here that Cassandra was sexually active before her involvement with Roland, and following Clover’s assumptions that possession is a vaginal ‘problem’ this would explain her radical, punkish, and unpredictable personality or ‘possession’ in the movie (one character wants to try to ‘save’ the Jewish Cassandra by introducing her to Jesus’ love). Roland and Mary, however, were not sexually active prior, and afterwards their personalities change too, or maybe they’re all just possessed now. Their possession leads them all to abandon or change their faith by the end of the movie; their change is similar to Clover’s ABC change in males that ‘open up’ through the progression of the movie (i.e. Males discovering their feminine side through allegorical means, kind of like the lead man in The Omen). Their sex is neither secular nor reproductive, and their ‘possession’ is not a serial killer or a demon as a result; their ‘possession’ is strictly psychological change through social change through sexual activity. And most demonic possessions, in real life, could be attributed to psychological disorders.
Clover cites that demonic possession is much like reproductive sex. Demons inherently occupy females’ abdomens, and Clover even goes as far as to directly link the entrance to the body for the Demons through the uterus, later making relations of the uterus and throat as the same in the symbolic sense for receiving demons (implicitly stating that the throat and uterus are the same sexually too. I know many males that will agree). This symbolism plays an important role in all the ‘religious horror’ films, naturally. The terror exercised here, for Stephen King’s purposes, is both inability to control one’s actions, body, thoughts, or words, as well as the fear of child birth and child rearing. Teenagers out on a date with the thoughts of sex running through their head would be scared stiff.
Stigmata is the least ‘demonic’ of the religious horrors I reviewed, and it also had the least to do with the vagina. The story is simple due to the non-horrific direction the movie takes Frankie, the lead girl, receives a dead priest’s rosary from her mother in South America and soon begins to suffer the wounds of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. The ‘demon’ that possesses her occupies the rosary, and enters and ‘attacks’ her while she is bathing and thinking about her possible pregnancy. In a shortly following sequence, Frankie sees a hooded woman and a baby wrapped in cloth across the street, and then sees that woman drop the baby into oncoming traffic. Frankie hallucinated the ordeal, and later on the subway is ‘attacked’ again with noise effects similar to an animal growl. Subsequent White Science tests show that she is no longer, if ever, pregnant and that there’s really nothing wrong with her, except it “might be epilepsy.” We learn that the ‘demon’ that occupies her is actually the spirit of the dead priest, and that he has a message to the Church, that ‘the church doesn’t need to exist because God is everywhere.’ The demon-ness of the ‘possessor’ is eventually disassociated with Frankie much like how the failed pregnancy (and her boyfriend) completely drops out of the film with no explanation (poor directing?). The audience does not learn of the possible godliness of her possessor until after the pregnancy has been announced as non-existent, and the only remaining vaginal-demonic symbolism is a line that is repeated more than once, “the closer you are to God, the more open you are to demonic attacks.”
The Exorcist is the next in line for reproductive sexual imagery. The possessed girl is Regan, age 12 and on the verge of puberty. It is unclear where the demonic spirit that later possesses her comes from, or how it gets to Regan (it is implied that the demon comes from a statue in Iraq, quite a ways away from Georgetown, but I don’t think you could be a spirit without being able to ignore a few laws of time and space), but the most obvious symbolism is Regan’s second story window. The house is a three story house, including the attic, and Regan’s window, being on the second story, can be loosely interpreted as the middle part of the body of the house; the house’s genitals. Clover uses this assumption as the only reproduction-possession link in her book for the entire movie, supporting the idea with a quote from the police officer that visits the house: “A draught in the fall when the house is hot is a magic carpet for bacteria.” The link, if not obvious, is simple, ‘women should watch out for things blowing into them.’ Just prior to the final decision to perform an exorcism on the Regan-demon, the message “help me” is scribbled, from the inside projected onto the skin, on Regan-demon’s abdomen; apparently Regan’s consciousness is kept in the womb for safe keeping. The demon’s first act of ‘self inflicted’ wounds are violently masturbating (a.k.a. stabbing) with a crucifix. Another attack is where Regean crawls backwards down the stairs in the house, head first, symbollically coming out of the womb of the house.
The Prophecy deals with reproduction-possession in a different way than the traditional sense. The basic premise of the movie is that a war between the angels in heaven is going on over the rights humans will have to be able to enter heaven. Led by the arch-angel Gabriel, the anti-human forces are searching for a dark and militaristic human soul to lead their war (after all, who knows more about war than we humans). The soul is stolen before Gabrielle can get to it however, and ends up inside a little girl named Mary. The soul is placed orally inside Mary by Simon, another angel on the pro-human side, again take note of Clover’s relation of the uterus and the throat. Mary then exhibits a split personality with the darkened soul, and whenever she regains control of herself, she holds her abdomen in pain. Naturally, White Science cannot find anything wrong with the girl, but Black Magic Native Americans know there’s another soul in her body, and perform their version of an exorcism. The oral transfer of the ‘demonic’ spirit is not that radical of an idea. Clover cites a few examples including a scene from Evil Dead, but to cite an example from outside the movies, the spirit of Jesus Christ is transferred into his followers’ bodies via the oral consumption of a blessed piece of bread. A particularly horrific parody, if you ask me, of the Eucharist: demonic possession through oral consumption, the demonic soul resting in the abdomen until digested and spread throughout the body through the blood stream, eventually afflicting the brain and gaining control of the entire body. In The Prophecy, Mary becomes increasingly hostile, as if the evil soul is taking over her body; her last words in the movie aren’t even hers, they are those of the evil soul.
Where all the previous movies stopped inside the womb, The Omen explicitly plays with the birth of a demonic child, the Antichrist, rather than the possession of a woman that could lead to the birth of a demonic child. Clover claims it is an exception to the formula, and she makes it more of an afterthought than a fully developed idea. Cathy and Robert Thorn are in Rome and have a still born child. The ‘possession’ of Cathy failed to create life in the same way Mary was ‘possessed’ in Saved! and even in the biblical sense. Robert quickly and secretly adopts another child born on the same day, and at the exact same time. You never learn about the boy’s real mother (or where she went off to, if he were born the same day at the same time), but one priest in the movie knows enough about her to attempt to warn Robert about his antichrist-child, but the priest fails and we never hear exactly what the boy’s real mother is or was. Except through very explicit clues revealed in the movie, I would have never guessed Damien, the boy, was the antichrist; I would have thought his nanny was. She is the only one who actually kills some one. All the other deaths are bizarre accidents or suicide, like in the case of Damien’s first nanny. Through this manner, Damien’s real mother is transcribed as the nanny, as a possessed woman in the service of Satan. Clover’s afterthought comes from her opinion that the movie focuses around the product of a possessed woman, rather than the possession. I feel a tad differently. Throughout the movie, there are numerous birth-related, and thereby possession-related, events, scenes, and mysteries. Cathy becomes ‘possessed’ again, but Robert does not agree to an abortion. Cathy also becomes convinced that Damien is not her child; a sort of ‘dispossession,’ if you will. Robert learns that his stillborn child was not really stillborn, it received a blow to the head that killed it; Cathy’s first ‘possession’ produced life and a third party exterminated the ‘possessor,’ via execution, rather than exorcism. The movie rarely focuses around Damien as anything but a monster, the same as any slasher film doesn’t really focus on the killer too much. The means of Damien’s mother’s possession are unclear, but due to the birth of Damien, it is clear that if she was possessed, the demon possessed her womb.
Sex and the horror film are closely related. When given the type of sex act portrayed in a movie, it is easy to determine the type of horror film it is: two sides of a coin, if it isn’t heads, clearly it is tails. Pleasurable sex is a secular view, so those that punish secular sex are secular. They are serial killers armed with phallic symbols more often than not. Sex for reproduction is not strictly a religious view, but it is the only type of sex recognized by the Christian religion. Therefore, those that punish for godly sex, must be ‘godly’ themselves, demons and angels and priests. The duality of sex is only a single part of the duality of horror.
Stephen King; Danse Macabre
Carol J. Clover; Men, Women, And Chainsaws.
And all the movies mentioned, plus a few.