Jenny Piston

The Relationship between Sex & Terror in the Horror Genre

Sexuality and terror are so closely related that it is very difficult to find a horror film that does not use sexuality to complement sequences of horror. The spectator is granted a double-dose of id-fulfillment and bodily excitement when viewing this film genre, which not only offers both sexuality and horror as themes of the film . . . but in the same sequence! The female body, notably the scantily clad and thus sexually arousing female body, and the monster accompany each other to evoke intense emotional and physical feelings from the spectator, which is why these films are so popular.

The cliched heterosexual female preference for a "man in uniform" coincides with the appeal of the masked man, the animalistic man, or a monster such as King Kong or Satan: The presence of the aesthetics of a uniform, inhuman qualities, and/or a mask signify a non-traditional, and thus "kinky," or sexually arousing in an eccentric sense, setting. The appeal of the unknown -- a sexual encounter, to the virgin, which is typical in the horror film -- complemented by the unnatural, inhuman or "kinky" killer comprises most contemporary horror films.

Film theorist Linda Williams, in "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess" addresses the similarities of the pornographic, or sexual, film and the horror film. Williams argues for the underlying significance in the "seemingly gratuitous excesses" (Williams 702) in the horror, pornography, and tear-jerker genres, the latter of which this paper will ignore. She notes how the "female body in the grips of an out-of-control ecstasy" provides the spectator with a "most sensational sight" (Williams 704). Williams is correct in that horror and sexuality work well together, evident in the box-office ratings of such films as Psycho, which is famous for its naked woman / disguised phallic-weapon-wielding man shower scene; Scream, a film that features, in one scene, a tightly-clothed female teenager trapped and killed in a garage's dog entrance/exit door in hopes of escaping the masked murderer, the dog-door utilization objectifying her as an animal herself, interestingly providing the spectator even more room for sexual arousal if the above animalistically sexual arousal theory holds true; and the A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Freddy Kruegger, series, in which Kruegger's clawed hands are five-fold phallic, and, interestingly enough, are only capable of teenager destruction -- that is correct, Freddy does not pursue adults -- while the teenager is asleep and dreaming - the melange of young bodies, beds, and nightfall can be found just as easily in a pornographic film as in a Freddy Kruegger flick. Indeed, the above examples of the horror film feature the "female body in the grips of an out-of-control ecstasy" (Williams 704).

Film theorist Gregory A. Waller discusses the cinematic staples and stereotypes of the horror genre in his article, "Sex and the Beast Within." His observations that the "sadistic psychopath" who "stalks promiscuous teenagers" -- or on the other hand, "isolated, independent women" (Waller 9) -- very closely resemble the genre's stereotypes as portrayed in the contemporary horror film Scream, in which characters discuss the genre and, ironically, are attacked by the exact methods which they have discussed.

The appeal of the dichotomies of human/inhuman, sexual norm/sexual eccentricity, and safe/dangerous in horror films can be studied through the workings of psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud argues that the human id, or desire for pleasure (usually in the form of sex, aggression, or trouble-making), is forced into submission by the human ego, which performs action that will honor the human superego, which understands a moral conscience of ideas of right and wrong. The inhuman monster or even the human killer in horror surpass the human Freudian tendencies and thus have an intense craving for sex, aggression and trouble-making (id fulfillment) and ignore both the ego and superego to commit acts of sex, aggression and trouble-making; since the monster or killer is in many cases beyond the human race in its characteristics (fur, claws, horns, fangs, the ability to know exactly where and when to strike its victims), it is not punished the same way in which humans are (ultimate death) and thus, the sequel! The horror genre spawns more sequels than any other genre of narrative filmmaking. Since conscience ceases to exist for the monster or the inhuman-like killer, it is able to kill without guilt and seeks the most primordial desire of both human and non-human: sex. This desire is thus usually found in the female body (the younger and more promiscuous the better) but on the other hand, the monster or inhuman-like killer will hunt the "isolated, independent" woman, as Waller observes, typically found in the virgin or the traditionally unattractive horror film staple female character, because it sees her as a threat.

Like sexual encounters, the horror film's killing sequence usually takes place in a secluded, romantic location. In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), the murder of the Marion Crane takes place at an old Victorian hotel that, in some shots, resembles a cozy bed and breakfast. In Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), the action revolves around a sprawling and isolated Colorado hotel in the mountains. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, a coastal town's landscape composes most of the film's cinematography. In King Kong, the film begins on a safari in beautiful and romantic wilderness (the perfect backdrop for young lovers like characters Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll) and ends atop the Empire State Building in New York City (the perfect backdrop for such romantic comedies as the later Sleepless in Seattle; also notable is the extremely phallic role of the Empire State Building). In Friday the 13th VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, lovers are killed on a cruise boat. In the above films' primary locations -- the hotel, the romantic beach town, the safari, the New York City skyscraper, the cruise boat -- the typical sexual encounter is implied and its location doubly-utilized. With the exception of such films as Romero's Dawn of the Dead, in which zombies take over a commercial shopping center, the majority of horror films make good use of exotic and romantic locations. Film theorist Noel Carroll recognizes this phenomenon in The Philosophy of Horror, noting that horror films' settings are often locations such as "lost continents and outer space" (Rony 161).

Evidently the female body is both terrorized and ultra-feminized in the horror film, and interestingly the male body in the horror film is sometimes as well. In David Cronenberg's Videodrome, James Woods' character is intrigued and manipulated by a sadistic pornographic television program, which ensues in nightmarish hallucinations, a blurred sense of reality and fantasy, and a "gaping, vagina-like wound" (Modleski 695) in his stomach. In this film, the monster or killer is video and television, or, metaphorically, mass media in general. The wound resembling a vagina in the protagonist's stomach feminizes him, and the insertion of a videotape into the wound by a Videodrome villain symbolizes an unwanted violation of the body; much like the generic female-terrorizing monster or killer.

The videotape, though not a phallic weapon, serves a phallic purpose: an object forcing its way into the feminized body. Remarkably, the most popular horror films -- in the broadest sense - make good use of phallic weapons, or weapons that denote an insertion into the body (usually the female body). In Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Wes Craven's Scream trilogy, a knife plunging into the body is the final destruction of the victim. In the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, Freddy Kruegger's knife-fingers tear his victims open (in their sleep, and often teenage girls!). In Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, a tree's branches pin down, rape, and kill a young woman. In the Jaws series, Jaws' sharp teeth feast primarily on young scantily clad bodies.

The absence of a phallic weapon in the horror film would not necessarily result in a disappointing horror film (frankly, though, a horror film would not be very interesting if the monster or killer used, for instance, a net or a bomb to finish off its victims) but would stray from the traditional -- and evidently successful -- horror and sexuality coupling. The terror and sexual arousal evoked by the horror film in the spectator are amazingly similar; to neglect one of these components would neglect the viewer of its craving for bodily pleasure.


Modleski, Tania. "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary
Horror Film and Postmodern Theory." Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 691-700.

Rony, Fatimah Tobing. "King Kong and the Monster." The
Third Eye. Ed. Unknown. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 157-170.

Waller, Gregory A. "Sex and the Beast Within." Sex and Love
in Motion Pictures. Ed. Douglas Radcliff-Umstead. City Unknown: Kent State University Romance Languages Department, 1984. 9-13.

Williams, Linda. "Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess."
Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 701-715.


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