Sex in Horror

Several years ago, I began thinking about the relationship of sex and horror. The two seem inextricably linked. Slasher movies are blunt about it, with all those topless women in peril. But consider the overabundance of gratuitous sex scenes in R-rated horror in general. Of course in PG-13 horror, we have the opposing struggles of a young woman holding onto her virginity and the boyfriend determined to take it. The entire serial killer genre is comprised of muderous sex maniacs. A whole subset of horror is aptly labeled “torture porn,” and most of those movies don’t even bother with plot. Not that sex and horror is a new development. Gothic fiction is all about love and terror, only there the women dress in heavy layers of Victorian corsets and dresses.

Horror literature is full of sex and fear. Stephen King uses sex all the time. Carrie begins with a girl getting her first period in the gym showers. The Shining has that rotting hag seducing Jack and terrorizing Danny. Clive Barker’s Galilee features a character who hires prostitutes to lay on a big block ice so he can have a necrophiliac experience. His Coldheart Canyon is rife with depraved sexual scenes and themes. Peter Straub’s title character Julia flees her huge, domineering husband and sleeps with his kindler, gentle brother. And in Straub’s If You Could See Me Now, Miles Teagarden is repeatedly seduced by his cousin. These are just a few examples by three of my favorite authors.

Perhaps the reason for this pairing is the total mind-and-body envelopment of both lust and fear. No other emotions have the ability to take us over so completely. When you’re terrified, there’s no room for anything else. Likewise, love and sexual attraction—and especially down-and-dirty carnal lust—can overwhelm logic and sense with little provocation. Both represent a loss of control. Nakedness can be scary as it leaves one vulnerable. And there is the ever-popular exploration of sex and morality.

Whatever an individual writer’s or director’s purpose for it, sex and horror go almost everywhere together. We have the overt plot and theme of terror: the face peering into the window, the ghost rattling chains in an empty room. And time and time again, we have this undercurrent of sex: nudity, deviance, or simple love and lust. But what if we reversed them? What would happen if we had a novel or a movie that was ostensibly about sex—in plot, theme, and character—but had an undercurrent of terror? 

Well, what we got is Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film. As wretched and disgusting as many of the scenes were, it was an interesting experiment. I don’t support the particular extremes to which this film goes, but I think Spasojevic tried to invert the roles of sex and horror. The movie is filled with sex. Every kind of dirty, filthy, deplorable sexual deviance one could think of. The main character is a porn star. The plot is about making a porn movie. And the film revels in sex scenes.  And yet… As I watched it, a sense of dread settled upon me. Just like when the family in a scary movie buys the haunted house, I shook my head when Miloš agrees to participate in this “art-porn” film. As if I were watching a horror movie when the protagonist ventures downstairs to check out mysterious noises, I shouted at Miloš not to go into that warehouse. Yes, A Serbian Film shatters the boundaries of any semblance of good taste. But it also builds unbearable tension. At every turn, a new sort of terror is unveiled. It is, ultimately, an experience in horror.

A while back, I tried my hand at this role reversal. I wrote a couple of short stories that used sex as the driving force, with more classic elements of horror as a counterpoint. One, “Xenophobia”—about an obsessed man who cannot control his homicidal lust for the new next-door neighbor—can be found in Infernal Ink’s January 2014 issue. Writing that tale proved to be a dark journey. The pursuit of art usually is. The creation of horror certainly must be.

Sex and horror may be wedded forever, but that’s not a bad thing. They’ve gotten us this far, offering myriad subtleties and variations. No one will be getting bored anytime soon. Ours is a resilient genre, constantly renewing itself like the demon house of Burnt Offerings . . . and This House Possessed . . . and The Amityville Horror . . .