Since it’s the Halloween season, stories about hauntings, ghosts, and horror have begun to fill the society and culture sections of mainstream publications in an annual orgy of macabre journalism. Over at Salon.com, sex and porn correspondent Tracy Clark-Flory published a piece linking horror to sadomasochistic sex, reflecting outdated conceptions of horror that trace their descent to Sigmund Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919). Or, as Clark-Flory put it in her inimitably eloquent style:
Sex, sexuality, sexiness — they are all so blatantly hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-fist-sized-dildo present in everything from slasher movies to women’s Halloween costumes. Then again, sex is such a long-time staple of horror that it’s easy not to notice or wonder about it. It just is, as the sky is blue.
Clark-Flory assumes, wrongly, that because modern horror movies and Halloween costumes are predicated on sexiness that sex is an inherent facet of horror. This is the same argument made by David J. Skal in The Monster Show (2001), an argument I disliked so much that I wrote a book in argument against it, Knowing Fear (2008). The trouble is that horror is, by definition, the literature of fear, and its relationship to sex is not a 1:1 correlation since not all fear is related to sexual performance anxieties or, in Clark-Flory’s preferred idea, puberty panic.
Name a movie genre aimed at anyone over the age of 12 that has no sexual connotations. It’s impossible to do, not because comedy, drama, or action are inherently tied to sex but because moviemaking, like most media products, relies on sex to draw in an audience. That “sexy” Halloween costumes are not inherent in the holiday requires nothing more than memory of Halloween parties from a few decades ago, when creepy rather than sexy was all the rage.
Clark-Flory asked a porn star why horror is sexy, and Lorelei Lee said she thinks it’s because sex and fear both activate endorphins, and that a good scare is similar to an orgasm. This really says much less than Clark-Flory thinks, since one can make the same argument that the thrill of an action movie is the same pseudo-sexual release, with explosions mimicking orgasms; or that the release of laughter in a comedy offers similar pleasures. In other words, fear isn’t unique in that regard, as Clark-Flory accidentally admits in citing psychological studies that link sexual arousal to any strong emotional state, not just fear.
She further cites the work of Walter Evans (“Monster Movies: A Sexual Theory”) and the late film critic Robin Wood, both of whom used Freudian theories to explain horror. Clark-Flory is particularly taken with Evans’s idea that horror is essential a reenactment of the transformative horror of puberty—this is the same argument Skal seized upon to argue that horror movie monsters like the Wolf Man are projections of teenaged boys’ anxieties about secondary sex characteristics and masturbation. Evans in particular argued that all horror could be reduced to one of two fears: masturbation (male) and menstruation (female).
Here’s how Skal actually described what he saw as masturbation imagery in ads for Universal Horror monster models in the 1960s: “Dracula, in his typical mesmeric stance, strokes and pulls at the air; the Frankenstein monster is caught in a startled, ‘hands-off’ pose, and the Wolf Man’s hair-spouting palms hardly require comment.” Seriously: He thinks everything is masturbation imagery. Even Noël Carroll, one of the major philosophers of horror, originally tried to understand horror as Freudian in his early work before eventually rejecting the argument as unsustainable in his classic Philosophy of Horror (1990).
I criticized the Freudian argument in Knowing Fear, which I encourage you to buy! There I argued that the primary reason that horror seems to conform to Freudian readings is because the creators of the most famous horror movies—those of the 1930s to the 1980s—were working at the height of Freudian psychology and intentionally used Freud in creating their horror movies. The best illustration of this is Psycho. The novel’s writer, Robert Bloch, explicitly modeled Norman Bates on Freudian concepts because he thought they’d make for a good story, despite not being a firm believer in Freud; and Hitchcock ended the movie version with a lecture on Freudian psychology.
I had thought about trying to list some examples of horror that clearly had nothing to do with sex, but if you’re a determined enough Freudian, you can find sex in anything. I wouldn’t think that Ambrose Bierce’s “Damned Thing,” or Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” or Fitz-James O’Brien’s “What Was It?” were terribly sex-filled stories, but I guess a case could be made if you really wanted to stretch it.
So instead I would like to point out that horror literature and sex are closely entwined, and have been since the Gothic launched the horror genre in 1764. The first wave of horror stories were Gothic novels, and they tied their terrors to the traditional subject of romantic fiction: sex and relationships. The typical Gothic novel built toward a wedding and took its form from earlier romances. And I think that’s the key: The Gothic was one variation on the romance (traditional usage: narrative fiction), which also gave rise to the novels of Jane Austen (who penned the Gothic parody Northanger Abbey) and thus to the romance (modern usage: love) genre.
The romantic aspects were not unique to the Gothic, and the work of the horror genre in the nineteenth century was to remove horror from the romantic strain of romance and give it a different purpose. In my mind, that different purpose was related to the concept of forbidden knowledge, of which sexual knowledge was reduced to a subset, albeit a large one. But for that argument, buy my book!
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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