Before we begin, now that I definitely have your attention, I want to preface that I’m talking about sex in horror with this post. Although a lot of writers have horror elements, we won’t wander into True Blood or Anita Blake or Dresden territory (if I do it’ll be really quick, I swear), because technically those are more urban fantasy than horror.
Again, I get sex sells. I’m also going to surprise you and say that I’m not against it in horror. However, like nudity, I feel like when I talk about sex and when the horror genre talks about sex, we’re talking about two wildly different things. I’m not above using it to excite or shock – I have a piece in an anthology coming out hopefully this year that delves into that territory. It’s not like I’m saying NO FUN SEXY TIMES WITH YOUR SCARES. I get it. And yet…
For one, I feel like we’re kinda back to that uneven gender territory. Inevitably when I watch a modern horror movie with sex scenes, I get a screen full of boobs and no hot guy action to make it worth my while. Horror industry, please correct this.
Now on to concepts…First we have the whole slasher-movie trope that those who get it on get axed later on. On the one hand, this was interesting for a while. I can see why it’s a successful formula. People like clues as to who’s going to live and die in movies, and when you subvert the norm it makes it doubly interesting. It gives an interesting moral twist to things (or attempted moral twist). Yet, as we’ve gone further and further in horror and things have gotten more and more graphic, I tend to have a problem with this trope… 1. There are only so many ways to do this before it gets boring. 2. This is more excuse for female nudity. 3. Lack of hot guy naked flesh.
That aside, it also leads to kind of a cultural thing. It’s also a thing in the horror genre to see girls in the slasher/torture movies that classifies women as sluts or the good girls or the bitch or some variation. Maybe it makes it easier to categorize women, but it also makes it easier to not care if/when they’re tortured or hacked apart. Is this really an attitude we want to be encouraging? Is the only role of girls in these movies to be categorized by their sex lives, then get chased and cut up? With so much violence still going on directed towards women, I’m not saying that this encourages it per say, but watching a lot of it sure makes it easier to turn your brain off. You don’t see guys type cast as much in this way. Yeah, they’re typecast, but not as the male whore or the STD-infected guy or whatever the male counterpart of all this is. Sure, this quirk can be seen as the universal message for “don’t be stupid and let your hormones rule you when there’s weird stuff going on.” It could also be because it’s another way to see boobs. You don’t see a male character accidentally get it on with the zombie antagonist, you don’t see him walk around naked and then get impaled by a random object. Guys may end up dead in these movies, too, and by graphic means, but usually it’s with masculinity or being seen as a tragic character. With women (and the growing tendency to push the envelope), there tends to be a little bit more glee about it. How dare you have sex! How dare you stay chaste! How dare you have woman parts! Chainsaw for you! And when it is equal-opportunity, well..haven’t we seen those scenes a thousand times by now?
The thing is, there are a lot of ways to use sex in horror that you don’t see all that often. Think of it…it would be terrifying – TERRIFYING – to be with the one you love, finally getting a moment of intimacy, and then look over and see something watching you. Or to roll over and drape your arm over the crazy monster killer thing. Or come out of the bathroom after getting ready and find the thing waiting for you. Or be playing with your partner and suddenly realized you’re on someone who’s possessed by a demon or someone who has a monster creature in them. We’ve seen degrees of it done, but more on network television where the rating system is more restricted.
This happens in fiction, too. In horror (and dark urban fantasy) there’s the tendency to go for the jugular in one scene instead of exploring the issue. Now, I will admit in the Sookie series you do get some interesting insights into vampires by delving into their sex lives. I’ll admit, it can be effective, but in some of the shorts I’ve read it seems like more of a way to keep readers interested in who’s with who until the next book. Anne Rice does a great job in the Vampire Chronicles of exploring sexual undertones between characters of all types. Plus, Claudia’s growing urges and yearning to become a woman…that’s just creepy in certain ways. It’s milked really, really well, treading a fine line between uncomfortable and not quite over the line.
And then there are the books that make you go what the hell.
I don’t like giving negative examples, but in this case, I feel like it’s good to provide something to give an idea of what I’m talking about. I don’t usually finish books that drive me crazy, but even I have my days where I have to be sure what I’m reading is actually for real.
The Traveling Vampire Show by Richard Laymon – I found this at the library years ago and was SO EXCITED. Vampires and creepy traveling carnivals are total buzz words for me, and the back cover had reviews that likened it to Something Wicked This Way Comes. I plunged into this and read…and read…and kept waiting for vampires…and read….
Let me just tell you right now: there’s no vampire. No there’s not. The shock-jump thing at the end is not enough to prove there’s a vampire in this book. But what really made it a hugely uncomfortable read was the fact that not only does it deal with three 16-year-olds, but there is repeated use of sex on nearly every page. And not good sex, this is really uncomfortable stuff. I can’t tell if the author was trying to think like a 16-year-old boy, or trying to up the sensationalism, but it doesn’t read like a horror novel. It reads like a teenage nerd’s lust diary mixed with a Tales from the Crypt episode. Not only do you have off-handed recollections about gang rape and abuse, but two of the three teens are guys, and on nearly every other page there’s some mention of how the they notice the girl’s boobs under her shirt, her underwear under her skirt, how they brush against her, and on and on and on. And on. Seriously, there’s a bit where they confront a rabid dog and it’s all about how her clothes nearly come off. This is really, really uncomfortable to read and contributes nothing to the main story. Seriously, by time they get to the carnival, you could cut out three-fourths of the dead action and underwear-noticing. Things get more interesting when the main character’s older sister gets into the mix. Here’s a girl who could be a confident side-character, who could watch the kids and make sure things don’t get out of hand when they go to see the only vampire in captivity, this is a girl who could maybe kick some butt. Again, her smart attitude is quickly reduced to a lot of body description, and a lot of her falling for the (announcer? Ring leader guy? Vampire in captivity owner?) guy who’s running the attraction (it’s strongly hinted that it could be mind control or against her will, too, btw).
The big climax of the book is not being chased by a vampire, by the way. The “vampire” is an actress (again, hypnosis or maybe not) in tight, tight clothes, and the turning point is when the narrator’s male friends gets in her cage with her and gets her clothes off. And then the sister goes to fight the vampire and both of their clothes come off. And what follows is a long description of naked flesh, jiggling breasts, and girl on girl action.
The thing is, all the blurbs talked about how much fun this book was. This book was not fun. It wasn’t done in a nostalgic manner at all. I’m really uncomfortable with reading hundreds of pages about a young girl so sexualized for no real reason, and the plot reduced to girl on girl. It’s not even written to glorify it or for any real purpose…I don’t even understand what the point was, because there’s nothing scary about it. There’s nothing that makes you wonder about yourself, no point to going so deep into all of this description. It’s all about the ripping clothes and girl on girl.
Which is something I don’t understand…this and another recent title I’ve read, Darkened Hills, both feature vampire arcs. Both sound really, really good from their blurbs. And both feature the big kapow moment as a woman being hypnotized to get on another girl.
I’m not against any form of sexuality, so it’s not the girl on girl that bothers me. It bothers me because there’s no point. The characters are easily discarded afterwards, so they’re not dealing with the result of this. Their minds are either wiped, they’re turned, killed, or it just isn’t brought up. So, if you’re not going to bring it up or explore it or have it torment the person being hypnotized………..then why on earth are you even putting it in the book?
Here’s my other thing. You’re looking for a moment to send the character in question over the edge, to push her to the brink…and the absolute worst thing that could ever happen is for her to kiss and get on top of another woman? Um…isn’t that really derogatory? Isn’t that pretty silly? If you’re trying to make someone do something that totally goes against them, why not use your mind control or whatever to have them murder the person they love most, then have to deal with it? Why not have them torture themselves or destroy something dear to them? Why not have them systematically go after a bunch of people, bring them back to normal each time so they can fall apart, then re-instate control so you can have them do it again and again so that when you finally release them, they’re totally shattered? If you’re going to go sexual, why not make them LOVE you (presuming you’re the creature of evil in question), body and soul, and have those they love stumble upon that horrific union and realize that they’ve lost the one they love most to the dark side?
Seriously, the most original thing you can think of to do to a female character is mind control them into being a lesbian for like ten minutes?
I’ve seen this in Dresden Files, too, and I’m really, really tired of this. I get sensationalism, I get you’re looking for something to get attention. At least in Dresden it kind of makes sense at times because the demons in question are sexual-based. Still…this is getting way, way overused and just reads like a male fantasy. It takes you out of the plot. It makes you wonder what twilight zone you’ve just wandered into.
And just to play devil’s advocate…I have yet to see a plot do this to a male character. It’s never male on male. (If you’ve seen examples of this, let me know, I’d love to read how someone actually pulled this off). Honestly, if you’re going to make a reader/viewer uncomfortable and since the genre assumes that most horror fans are men…..wouldn’t it make more sense to do the scene with two guys? I mean if you’re going to go there and the point is to write a horror title, wouldn’t that make people pay more attention than random girl on girl?
And now, to show that I’m not totally un-fun…here are some moments that I think are done really, really well. Also keep in mind, I happen to like the Friday the 13th franchise which really got the horny teenager trope going, so it’s not that I’m against that per say. I just think we go back to that cliché way, way too much.
The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker – this is a book ALL ABOUT SEX. Sadomasochism, BDSM, pleasure vs. pain, affairs, marriage, pining away for someone you can’t have…this thing has it all. It works because it takes the time to explore the emotions behind all of this, WHY each character is doing what they do. It’s not a novella full of Julia dropping her clothes all the time. You have Frank pushed to the point where he can’t enjoy anything anymore and is so desperate he lets the cenobites take him. You’ve got Julia, a married woman who can’t forget the man she had an affair with stoop to seducing men and killing them to bring him back. You’ve got Rory who’s devoted to his wife and clueless. You’ve got Kirsty who’s pining away for Rory and doing what she can to save him. You’ve got a LOT to work with here. There are parts that are uncomfortable, but it’s handled well. Not once did I ever feel like it pushed me past my breaking point or made me go WHAT THE HELL…if anything, it made me wonder about myself, about what would happened to me if I found a puzzle box. That’s what makes it truly unnerving – you begin to wonder what your own limits are and what you interpret things as.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – Theo isn’t as overt as she is in the movie remake, but it’s subtly hinted at that she’s into girls. Her relationship with Eleanor is played on a very fine line, and you’re never quite sure if Theo is trying to be a friend or something else. It makes the scenes with her and Eleanor alone together genuinely tense – Eleanor isn’t sure what her motives are or what she even feels, plus there’s a crazy house trying to get them. It’s much more of a Gothic and subtle way of handling it (and sorry, no boobs), but it helps build the story really, really well.
Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes: Issue 6: 24 Hours by Neil Gaiman – This is a really, really intense part of this volume, and probably one of the more disturbing comic arcs I’ve read. At this point Doctor Destiny has Morpheus’ ruby that lets him control people’s dreams. Deluded and desperate to dominate the world, he pretty much wanders into a diner and takes everyone hostage. He makes them do a lot of cruel things: act out their hate on each other, self-mutilate, worship him, and sleep with each other. The thing is, these are normal people. There’s an older waitress, some of her regular customers, an uppity husband and wife, and a lesbian who’s desperate to get her partner back after abusing her. You don’t see any of the sex on-screen, but by that time you realize that everyone in the building has some kind of prejudice against each other, plus their own problems. You feel sorry for them, you identify with them somewhat, and you dislike them somewhat. Still, no one deserves that kind of mind control, and the fact that Doctor Dee pairs them with people who would probably hate them if they were in their right minds…it’s intense. It’s brief, but shocking and shudder-inducing.
The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein – There’s a lot of sexual references in this, plus it explores the girl-crush concept very deftly. The narrator is convinced her best friend Lucy is with the new girl Ernessa, there are girls in the boarding school sneaking out to meet guys, references to self-pleasure, and on and on. It’s handled in a really natural way, and it makes sense for it to be such a part of that environment. Hell, it’s almost refreshing that the references are included in a plot about a girl’s school.
Poseidon’s Children by Michael West – through the whole man vs. killer fish people adventure, you have some nice moments. Larry and Peggy’s relationship contrasts the guilt Larry feels about his past failings. When Peggy is accidentally transformed, you have some great moments where Larry has to decide how he feels about her, and she worries about what she is to him. This is one of those books that could read like a B-movie, but it doesn’t, because the relationships (including sex) are so believable. You also have the Christine/Karl/Jason love triangle, and Christine’s attraction to Karl vs. his dark side. The bits where you peek in on the characters being with each other fit – they make you realize that whether they’re human or creature, they’re characters you can relate to. It’s almost a relief to feel that in all the crazy action of the book, these characters have moments of real emotion and passion.
The Sonja Blue series by Nancy A. Collins – Okay, now when I refer to sex in this one I’m talking about how Sonja finally begins to pursue relationships, not how she’s turned – we’ll talk about that later. There are moments where she talks about her past relationships with men: Chaz, Judd, and a few others I know I’m forgetting. The thing is, the books take the time to explore a lot of aspects of her dealings. She talks about the sex and her attraction to certain people, but it almost always leads to fall-out, which provides a very nice mental tug of war in the reader. You want her to be happy, you know she can’t be happy with The Other running rampant in her, yet you’re transfixed watching her seduce or be seduced anyway. Plus, there’s the odd attraction/repulsion to her sire, which is a whole other complicated thing. The fact that she pretty much takes him down by making out with him (you have to read it, it’s way too hard to describe) is way more gritty and mind-bending than it sounds. The whole series is sexualized to a point, and a lot of it is done to shock in the splatterpunk style, but it’s not necessarily done to excite. It grabs your attention, but also plays with your emotions until you don’t know which way is up.
Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman – (Chapter 5) – This while volume is pretty much Morpheus and Delirium road-tripping, searching for their brother Destruction. This leads them to the strip club Suffragette City, where Morpheus stops to talk to Ishtar, a dancer. She and a younger dancer, Tiffany, talk about the nature of men, dancing, and temple prostitution. You come to realize that Ishtar is the lingering incarnation of the old goddess, and there are some really poignant thoughts about what happens to gods and goddesses when they stopped being worshiped. This thing ends in one of the most striking scenes of the whole series, for me, at least. Ishtar knows she’s going to die or fade to something else. She doesn’t know what comes next. She admits to being afraid. And she walks out there, naked and perfect, and dances. All the men in attendance climax in adoration – they’re transfixed, they’re driven out of their minds. And as she reaches her peak, the club explodes. And the whole thing is set against the lyrics to Sister Midnight. This is one of the most mesmerizing sequences in comics I’ve seen. It should be trashy, it should read as skeazy…but it doesn’t. It’s beautiful. The whole thing is dramatic and a little sad and just…amazing. There’s so much power and wisdom drawn and conveyed in Ishtar, that it really shines a light on how her sexual power is much, much different from those of the human dancers. The strip club definitely isn’t glorified, but the girls aren’t treated as less than what they are, either. This could have easily gotten out of hand or been turned into something else, but it’s masterfully handled and is nothing short of incredible.
Like I said – I’m not against the momentary bit of sensationalism, but I also think we’re at a point where it’s all been done. I’m not saying all sex in horror is bad, but it a lot of it seems to be done for reasons that have nothing to do with being scary or enhancing the story. Which I get, but I think it’s also time for us to take a deep breath and see what’s really going on with scenes like that and how we can use this aspect of human life to make the genre better.
8 thoughts on “Women in Horror: Let’s Talk About Sex”
Great post, Selah. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. Sensationalist-sex to sell books makes me want to punch someone; and same-sex interludes haven’t been taboo in god-knows how long. I do, however, believe sex and horror are a great synthesis if done well and contribute to the story arc. I’ve used it in my stories, but always with purpose and insight (hopefully!). I’m not uncomfortable with so-called taboo subjects, but I *am* uncomfortable when these subjects are inserted (let it go) for shock-value and nothing more.
Great post. Really, really great post!
Thanks so much!
Wonderful post! I agree. Now I will admit, I have my guilty pleasures. And I love to read well written sex scenes. But for the most part I want there to be a reason for the sex scene. Don’t write it just because you can. Write it if it adds to your story in some way.
Oh I agree. I’m not above or beyond guilty pleasure scenes, and I think they can be included in all genres – not just romance/erotica, too. Hell, if you want to get really picky Gaiman’s adult titles have some pretty racy moments that creep into the plots, and I think that’s fabulous. It encompasses all of life, and not just a minute bit of a character’s personality. Like you, though, I like for there to be a reason, and for the characters to treated well. I get frustrated because I can see how it COULD be done well and instead the extra work is overlooked for a cheap shot. I mean it gets attention, it definitely works, but to me it leaves a sour taste in my book-reading or movie-viewing.
I happen to love the Sonja Blue series and love whenever it gets a nod.
It’s definitely one of my faves. One of the pangs of my life is that for some reason I got rid of my Sonja Blue titles a few years ago – I can’t even remember why I’d do something like that or if they accidentally got put in the wrong back. While parts definitely made me want to crawl up a wall, I still consider it one of the best splatterpunk series there is. It makes me sad that it doesn’t get nearly enough exposure.