How Horror Movies Conjure Nightmares out of Human Sexuality

     October 24, 2017


Violence and sex have always gone hand in hand, for as long as horror has existed. As the narrator explains in the 1965 film Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!, “While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains…sex”. From the moment Bela Lugosi seduced his first maiden in the 1931 Universal monster movie Dracula, penetrating her flesh and sinking his fangs into her supple skin; since Lon Chaney Jr. unleashed the beast within in 1941’s The Wolf Man, falling in love with a girl while simultaneously hunting down prey at night; all the way till Laurie Strode embodied the final girl in John Carpenter’s Halloween, setting the standard for yonic symbolism in slasher cinema, sex and violence have always been intertwined. But of all these analogies, perhaps the most fascinating, and one of the more modern examples of how these two incendiary sins overlap is the slippery slope experimentation and self-identification through sexual awakening and the tendency towards violence during adolescence.  

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock unleashed Psycho onto the masses, an unconventional and shocking thriller about the consequences of a sexually confused man faced with the possibility of a carnal encounter. It all starts when a woman named Marion Crane steals $40,000 from her boss, switches cars, and rides off into the sunset in the hopes of skipping town with her lover Sam. She just wanted to stop and take a little rest at the Bates Motel, but little did she know that a killer lay in wait, and he has not only the keys to the establishment but access to the secret peephole in Marion’s bedroom. Norman Bates is his name, and after growing up in an abusive household with his mother as his only company, Norman goes a little mad when his only friend passes away. Norman quite literally internalizes his pain, taking on the role of his mother after her death, dressing up in her garments and talking to himself in her voice. On this lonely stretch of highway, in this desolate area, there’s no one around to witness his odd cross-dressing behavior, but when Marion arrives and provides a sense of sexual excitement in Norman’s otherwise vanilla, hum-drive life, the mother inside of him simply won’t stand for the inappropriate arousal and decides to remove the sickening thoughts from Norman’s brain by physically removing Marion from the earth. 


Image via Filmways Pictures

A similar scenario plays out in Brian De Palma’s highly stylized murder mystery Dressed To Kill. De Palma has always been extremely influenced by filmmaking master Alfred Hitchcock, and this beautifully shot exercise in tension is perhaps the clearest example. Like an unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 timeless classic, Dressed To Kill switches protagonists halfway through the film after Kate Miller is brutally slain by an unknown female assassin in an elevator. Her son, Peter, aware of the fact that his mother was having an affair and that her therapist, Dr. Robert Elliott, was the last person to see her alive, decides to take matters into his own hands, and hunt down the killer himself with the help of his new friend Liz Blake. Liz agrees to see the psychologist in the hopes of outing his murderous behavior to the world, but the secret she brings to the surface is far more shocking than mere misanthropy. It turns out that Dr. Elliott didn’t just disguise himself as a woman and attack Kate because of his killer tendencies, but because he is waging his own personal war inside of his own body, ( edit) which identifies as a woman, but grows furious whenever he becomes turned on by a female. To Dr. Elliott, the only way to snuff out his unwanted lust towards Kate was to punish her for exciting him and snuffing out the air from her lungs. 

Then there’s the slasher genre, which is filled to the brim with sexual connotation. The key to any slasher film is the “final girl,” a term coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws. But she can’t don that title at the beginning of the movie. She must be born-again before she can be crowned. Plucked from a group of everyday youngsters, the final girl is the one who must rise above the intellect and the morality of her fellow peers – usually consisting of a jock, a nerd, a provocative teen (or two), and a burnout. As the formula typically goes, while her friends make love, get high, and get into whatever kind of trouble they can muster while they’re on the lake, at a party, or babysitting small children, the final girl remains pure, maintaining her virginity, turning down her friends’ offers for drugs and alcohol, and consistently being the voice of reason. At some point, a madman arrives, hacking and slashing his way through her friend group until the killer comes face to face with the final girl herself – the only one who can outsmart him and live to see the dawn. 


Image via Dimension Films

Whether it’s Alice or Laurie Strode or Nancy Thompson or whatever her name may be, she starts out as a sweet and shy girl, she is transformed into something greater over the course of the film. Her Michael Myers, her Freddy Krueger spends a good portion of the film chasing the virgin girl with a phallic weapon of some kind, whether it be a butcher knife or a machete, but she averts his every attempt to penetrate her. At some point, there’s a good chance the girl will have to crawl through a small enclosure, and it will be an extremely painful experience for her until she comes out the other side – not unlike a birth canal, which is where the yonic symbolism comes into play, as the once naïve virgin girl is reborn and reincarnated as a blood-soaked warrior woman hell-bent on revenge for her fallen peers. This is when the villain truly meets his match, and is often butchered by his own weapon; the final girl taking the phallic symbol,l which he has been hunting her with, and morphing from the prey to the predator. Now she is a no longer a girl, but a woman, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned by a short-sighted man. 

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