Horror films as sex ed

Alone in the dark: Barbara Crampton and Bruce Abbott in Re-Animator.

For those of you keeping score at home, I’m still in the process of working my way through a list of fifteen or so horror films from the silent era to the present, a project that will likely be wrapping up around mid-April.  Most recently, I screened Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985)—an utterly zonked, splatter-happy update of the Dr. Frankenstein story—for the first time.  Initially I wondered how, having grown up scouring the cable TV listings for horror movies in the early to mid-1990s, I had never seen it before.  It soon became clear to me why: the film is so gory, and so nudity-heavy, that it never would have survived being cut for television.

While I never actually saw Re-Animator growing up, I was very much aware of it, thanks mainly to John McCarty’s book The Modern Horror Film, of which I made a careful study from roughly the ages of ten through fourteen.  The book runs through most of the major horror films from the 1950s to the late 1980s, illustrated with numerous black and white photos (it was there that I first learned about Roman Polanski’s Repulsion).  The entry on Re-Animator was mainly noteworthy for featuring at least three still photos of the nubile Meg (Barbara Crampton) fully nude and laid out on an operating table beside the severed but still-animate head of Dr. Hill (David Gale).  To an adolescent boy who hadn’t yet discovered his homosexuality, these images were tantalizing—and disturbing.  In one of the images, the severed head is about to attempt oral sex on the helpless Meg; seen in the context of the film, it makes a grotesque rhyme with an earlier scene in which we see Meg in the throes of sexual ecstasy with her med-student boyfriend (Bruce Abbott) (see above). 

Explicit sex has been a key ingredient in horror films since the ’60s, when the horror genre enjoyed a veritable renaissance via the rise of exploitation cinema.  Horror films, like Samuel Arkoff’s beach party movies, were teenage fare; sex was used to sell both.  By the ’80s, the slasher pic had become more or less defined by its requisite scenes of teenagers getting it on in cabins and cars.  It was these sex scenes that most puzzled and unsettled me as a kid, not those of violence.  They were, in essence, the first representations of sex to which I was exposed—my first sex ed lessons, my primal scenes.  Perhaps I understood, if only on an unconscious level, that sex was the thing that the horror genre was really about.  For what characterizes all of these teen-driven slasher pics if not the displacement of sexual fears onto the fear of dismemberment and mutilation?  Sex and violence have proven to be a particularly vital combination not only because of their shared potential to titillate but also because the horror genre understands them to be related at the most basic level.  The horror genre, tapping as it does into the realm of the unconscious, plays on the relation between sexual pleasure and mortal terror—even when it’s also playing it for a laugh, as in Re-Animator.

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