The filmic representation of necrophilia is a highly contentious topic of debate that integrates and explores a transgressive desire for (sexual) affirmation/gratification with a highly gothic engagement with, and attraction to, death. Eroticism, for philosopher Georges Bataille, refers to a transgression between life and death, with sex and desire at the meeting place between the two, which re-vitalises or affirms a subject free of boundaries and constraint. Bataille argued that, ‘the essence of eroticism is to be found in the inextricable confusion of sexual pleasure and taboo’.[i] In this paper I contend that nowhere does this confusion become more apparent than in the case of necrophiliac representation in contemporary horror cinema. In which, as I describe in the following, the female necrophile underscores the monstrosity and subversive potential of feminine desire, as she transgresses prescribed notions of female identity, agency and sexuality.
Rosman and Resnick, in their comprehensive psychiatric review of necrophilia, define necrophilia as a ‘sexual attraction to corpses’.[ii] Lisa Downing has further argued, in relation to the topic of necrophilia in 19th Century French literature that, ‘[it] is one of the few sexual taboos that remain in the secular, post-modern Western world’.[iii] Despite the cross-genre filmic representations of other arguably sexually taboo topics, such as incest and BDSM, necrophilia is a rarely broached subject within mainstream film, with only a handle of cult and banned horrors like Flesh for Frankenstein (Paul Morrissey, 1974) and Nekromantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987) tackling the theme in detail. As Lena Wånggren summarises, the critical approach to necrophilia has often centered on the specifically aesthetic relationship between death and desire, which are ‘taken to signify mainly a transgression of established boundaries between life and death, a dissolving of the boundaries of subjectivity, a pure eroticism – death as aesthetics’.[iv] Aesthetic representations of necrophiles, and the acts they commit, are typically utilised within the horror genre, where either the taboo nature is used to horrify and disgust the spectator, or where the fetishisation of death is symbolically deployed to confront the past within the narrative. Building on the likes of Wånggren and Downing, it is my contention that the in scenes of necrophilia exhibited by the female necrophile, there is much more at stake than simply aesthetics and cinematic shock-tactics. I contend that the filmic representation of the female necrophile serves a much more contentious role, as she emphasises the monstrosity of feminine desire, and transgresses prescribed notions of unacceptable and acceptable female exhibitions of power and sexuality. In this article, I explore these ideas through reference to various films that include female necrophiles, and especially, Nicholas Winding Refn’s film The Neon Demon (2016).
The Neon Demon is a psychological horror film about an up-and-coming young model named Jesse (Elle Fanning), who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career. The film depicts the cutthroat modelling industry through Jesse’s experiences, showing her rapid rise in popularity and success at the cost of her female peers, who in response plot their revenge. At the film’s close, Jesse, who by this point seems transformed by a monstrous and unnatural narcissism of her own, is murdered and cannibalised by more established rival models, Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), and her makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone). On its opening, the film was not universally well received critically. Notably, it received a chorus of boos by bewildered audiences at the Cannes Film Festival, and was subsequently pilloried in the press who criticized its privileging of aesthetics over substance, and shock tactics to enliven and otherwise flat and depthless narrative.[v] Despite the initial furore, later reviews in The Telegraph and The Guardian, for example, praised the film’s ‘glistening, spluttering’ and surrealist visuals for their ‘jaw-dropping depravity’.[vi] The Cannes reception, and much of the following negative media attention, was arguably induced by Refn’s inclusion of necrophilia within the narrative. In perhaps the film’s most notorious and shocking scene, Ruby has sex with a female cadaver whose makeup she is applying, the suggestion being that she is simulating – and even foreshadowing – a post-mortem sexual encounter with the object of her attraction, Jesse. Refn’s stylized portrayal of Ruby, the necrophile seductress whose obsession with Jesse is followed by a series of sexually taboo acts, sexual violence, murder and cannibalism proved divisive for both film critics and audiences. The transgressive and taboo nature of The Neon Demon, particularly concerning female necrophilia, demands greater critical engagement precisely due to the extreme reactions it has garnered. In order to adequately situate Ruby and her transgressions within the genre, the wider thematic issues of female necrophilia must be contextualised.
As horror films and novels, such as The Horrible Doctor Hichcock (Riccardo Freda, 1962), Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie (1995), Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996) and the film Deadgirl (Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel, 2008) demonstrate, it is the male necrophile who is more than willing to go the extra mile, however abhorrent his acts, to satisfy his urges; Whether that be homicide with the intention of necrophilia, as in Poppy Z. Brite’s notorious novel, or the brutal creation of a zombie sex-slave, as in Zombie and Deadgirl. In the latter, two teenage boys find a dead woman in an abandoned psychiatric institution. She is chained to a slab and covered in plastic. Instead of reporting the situation to the police, the boys decide to use the woman as a sex slave. It transpires that the woman is, in fact, undead – a zombie, in a loose sense of the term. She is not capable of speaking but she can move, bite and, possibly, experience sexual pleasure. J.T. (Noah Segan), the more confident and despicable of the two, says of their ‘deadgirl’ that she is like ‘something out of a magazine’.[vii] She is repeatedly objectified by the men and by the camera lens, even before the discovery that she is in fact the living dead. The boys’ reaction to the corpse would, undoubtedly, have been different if the deadgirl (Jenny Spain) had not conformed to western beauty ideals (she is slim, attractive and has long hair). In its perverse use of her as sexual object, the film makes no effort to conceal the naked body. Whilst J.T. does acknowledge that she is ‘unwilling’, there is a clear indication that because of ‘deadgirl’s’ inability to say ‘no’, J.T. feels guilt-free and able to use her body for his own sexual pleasure. Rickie (Shiloh Fernandez), the more sympathetic of the two boys, calls J.T. ‘fucking sick’ for wanting to have sex with Deadgirl. However, it is worth pointing out that this rebuke has nothing to do with his gross abuse of a female and his misogyny, but with the fact that he believes having sex with a dead body is aesthetically repulsive. As the narrative continues, J.T. not only takes to having sex with her, he starts pimping her out to other school friends. When her body starts to deteriorate from the beatings and numerous rapes, J.T. takes it upon himself to create a new deadgirl/sex-object.
Disturbingly and problematically, in the film, deadgirl is denied a voice, figuratively and literally. She is pure image; an entropic, desirable-yet-dangerous beauty who must be owned and controlled by a male, and chained up to keep her from harming other people (men). Deadgirl, with her beauty and sharp animal-like teeth, is an example of what Barbara Creed defines as the ‘vagina dentata’; the toothed vagina that reveals a literalisation of the castration anxiety, and signifies the supposedly duplicitous and dangerous nature of woman, who promise much only in order to ensnare her male victims[viii]. Although the film positions J.T., the main instigator of rape, as a negative character with low morals, Rickie, the ‘good guy’, by the end has his own Deadgirl. Ultimately, in Deadgirl, it seems that a dead body which is female and beautiful is irresistible and is there for the taking.
Within Deadgirl’s narrative, Deadgirl functions as an every-woman, a cipher. She is denied any type of satisfactory revenge for her rape, but also what we can only imagine to have happened to her whilst she was alive (she is found chained up in an asylum, naked). Although arguably a misogynist film, Deadgirl denies the audience the satisfying resolution and suggesting that even ‘nice’ guys would have zombie sex slaves if they were given the opportunity, and therefore implies that extreme objectification of women is part of male heterosexual desire, rather than limited to two particularly nasty, sick and anomalous necrophiles. The lack of a rape revenge-type narrative in this necrophiliac film is particularly harrowing as the audience are denied opportunity to see the abused take on her abusers, as would be expected in the typical Hollywood, horror Slasher film, which generally conform to a rape-revenge narrative. Carol Clover in Men, Women and Chainsaws defines the rape revenge film as one in which a woman who is raped must enact revenge upon the perpetrator of the crime. Often in these films, law enforcement and society at-large are unable or unwilling to help, and as Clover states, as a result ‘rape becomes a problem for women themselves to solve’.[ix] Although deadgirl escapes her tormentors, by exhibiting a new deadgirl as her replacement at the end of the narrative, the film suggests the subjugation of women – both alive, dead and undead – in the context of heterosexual, patriarchal power dynamics is cyclical. If the male necrophile is problematic in films such as Deadgirl, this is primarily due to his deviant, eroticized transgression of sexual conventions and symptomatic of the revulsion held towards necrophilia, rather than an outrage against the inherent misogyny of his transgressive desires. The representation and role of the female necrophile is, by contrast, much more problematic. In her modern, filmic representation, the female necrophile is symptomatic of an ‘unacceptable’ disregard for, or transgression of, established binary gender constructs, as well as the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable sexual desire.
Although some academic attention has been paid to the representation of necrophilia, it predominantly focuses on the male necrophile and his monstrosity.[x] It is interesting that in Rosman and Resnick’s benchmark study of the 122 cases of necrophilia, ‘ninety-two percent of the true necrophiles were male [and] all of the homicides were committed by men’.[xi] Similarly, Steve Finbow, in his book Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (2014), documents only two female necrophiles amongst a plethora of necrophiles spanning from Ancient Egypt until modern times.[xii] These figures would suggest two things: that there has been an undoubted male-centric engagement with necrophilia in past studies, or that necrophilia is a specifically male paraphilia, which seems unlikely (although as Rosman and Resnick highlight, many instances of necrophilia go unreported and unobserved, due to the nature of the crime). Rosman and Resnick’s study also shows that necrophiliac desires span across binary genders (the study does not acknowledge any non-binary genders), with 15% of the total sample of regular, non-homicidal necrophiles being women.
By these statistics, it seems apparent that women are less likely than men to act upon their necrophiliac desires, violently or otherwise. A reason for this is some-way suggested by Freud, who seems to attribute passivity to female sexuality, arguing that female sexuality is born from the female submission to the power of the father, upon discovering that she is lacking the phallus that he possesses.[xiii] Passive female sexuality, by this standard, would not allow for the realization of necrophiliac desire, and perhaps neither would a patriarchal society that shames female sexual autonomy and desire. The male-centric history of, and filmic/literary engagement with, the necrophile as described by Finbow does raise an important critical question, namely, what it is about this specific brand of transgression that so predominantly victimises and objectifies the female at the hands of the male transgressor and to what extent the filmic representation of the female necrophile, examined here, can challenge or admonish normative gender binaries.
The filmic representation of the female necrophile can function both normatively, in reiterating hegemonic notions of gender and further serving to monster the feminine, but it also has radical capabilities in its privileging of female sexuality and autonomy. In his wide-ranging, well-researched and creative examination of necrophilia as a culturally significant and historically prevalent pathology, Finbow asks the contemporary reader/viewer to (re-)consider necrophilia as a deviant, degenerate and transgressive sexuality that opposes society and cultural norms, which is destructive and, for many, sickening in its opposition to life and pursuit of destruction and death. In short, he asks whether or not we should ‘consider this extreme act of individuation (although endemic in past cultures) a perversion or a representation of human divergence?’[xiv] The artistic representation and application of necrophilia – and specifically its female propagators – can and should be considered as a critically significant, aesthetic and ethically transgressive means of contesting cultural and societal norms and exploring the possibilities for individuality and agency. In order to, at least in part, answer the questions posed above, it is necessary to firstly contextualise the representation of the cadaver culturally and in film, paying particular attention to the covert objectification of the female cadaver in Western popular culture. I then turn to the ways in which female necrophiles are represented on screen, and how transgressive or normative those representations are in relation to the representation of women in contemporary horror theory. Through close textual analysis of the key female necrophile texts, feminist film theory and spectatorship theory the transgressive possibilities of the female necrophile become evident.
The human desire to sexualize the body, or its signifiers and semblances, after death if often prevalent in western culture and cinema. In popular culture the female cadaver is often fetishized and the male relationship to it romanticized. Kanye West’s music video for ‘Monster’ utilised young, female models made up as murder victims in place of the more generic use of conventionally attractive, alive models. Tom Petty’s music video for ‘The Last Dance of Mary Jane’ has Petty play a mortician who falls in love with a beautiful cadaver (Kim Basinger). Petty then steals the body, dresses her and dances with her in a twisted retelling of a classic romance narrative. At the end of the video Petty lets the cadaver float into the ocean, the final shot of Basinger mirroring Robert Millias’ ‘Ophelia’. Milliais’ Ophelia depicts the fictional character of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the point of drowning in a river. Both women are presented as beautiful, if not more beautiful, in death than in living. Arguably in Millias’ painting, given the context of Ophelia’s character in Hamlet, she may be more at peace than beautiful given her escape from patriarchal oppression. Elisabeth Bronfen in Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (1992), argues that the cadaver is the ultimate aestheticized object to place meaning and desire upon.[xv] Bronfen argues that desire cannot relate to a real object, it must relate to a fantasy, as desire is ‘inherently unsatisfied and unsatisfiable’.[xvi] In similar terms, the cadaver is viewed by thinkers such as Slavoj Žižek as:
an object that becomes a commodity of desire, an erotic vessel, a sex doll; a receptacle not of a transgressive sexual act but a reference to the shifting paradigms […] of human morality and sexuality.[xvii]
The female cadaver serves as a constantly desirable object, and it is not deemed transgressive within society to present it as such. It is only when the desires become actualized through necrophilia, or when the body is in decay, that the desire becomes more problematic.
To return to the nature of the cinematic image in its representation of the female, in her seminal article ‘Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure’, Laura Mulvey defines the voyeuristic nature of the cinema and the intrinsic objectification of the female body innate to the cinematic apparatus. She notes that, within the cinema, women are coded with ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’, and this is particularly evident within the representation of females in horror film.[xviii] Taking this further, Clover’s seminal study on gender in modern horror film, the earlier introduced Men, Women and Chainsaws, utilises Mulvey’s spectatorship theory, in combination with psychoanalysis, to typify the slasher film and survey the fundamental importance of key generic features, such as the anguished and suffering ‘final girl’. Paying particular attention to the male gaze and modes of identification available to the spectator in Horror cinema Clover argues that, ‘horror privileges eyes because, more crucially than any other kind of cinema, it is about eyes […] more particularly, it is about eyes watching horror’.[xix] What necrophilia shares with Horror cinema, is that the gaze of the necrophile, much like the spectatorial gaze, fetishes and does violence to the image. In so doing, the body becomes interchangeable with the image through its lack of autonomy, through its semblance to life or the sexual fantasy ascribed to it. Both the spectator’s relationship to the screen, and the necrophile’s relationship to the cadaver rely on a power imbalance in which the image/body lack subjectivity. Rosman and Resnick note that one of the more common reasons that necrophiles commit necrophilia is to possess an un-rejecting partner.[xx] The dead body is an object to be viewed, consumed and used. This again posits the question, if female cadavers are typically viewed by men, how is the relationship shifted when the necrophile/voyeur is female?
Despite it being more common for male necrophiles to be represented on screen, there are a handful of films that represent female necrophiles such as Love Me Deadly (Jacque La Certe, 1972), Macabre (Lamberto Bava, 1980), Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 (Jörg Buttgereit, 1991), Kissed (Lynne Stopkewitch, 1996) and The Neon Demon. Love Me Deadly, which portrays a coven of devil-worshiping necrophiliacs in Los Angeles, and the audacious and controversial German film Nekromantik are both highly influential examples of body horror films that utilise the shock and revulsion of necrophilia to incite fear in the spectator. As Xavier Aldana Reyes states, in his comprehensive exploration of body horror in Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and horror Film (2014), ‘disgust is indeed crucial because it is premised on the estrangement of the body via an exaggeration or transformation of its ordinary qualities or capacities’.[xxi] The possibility that a dead body could be deemed sexually appealing, and that a person could gain sexual pleasure from it, outside of any ethical issues, is disgusting to the spectator. In Nekromantik (1987) Betty and her partner Robert Schmadtke (Rob) are both necrophiles whose terrible desires are accommodated by Rob when he steals a male body from his job as a crime scene cleaner for the couple to copulate with. Although Betty takes an active role in having penetrative and oral sex (using a metal pipe) with the badly decomposed body, she is not the central protagonist of the film and her liaisons with, and eventual elopement with the body serve more to show Rob’s poor treatment by Betty, than to celebrate Betty’s autonomy. On this point, Linnie Blake argues that:
Rob masturbates his memorably tumescent penis while slowly disembowelling himself, coming in an impressively colourful splatter of blood and semen, back-masked sound and chiaroscuro lighting. Far from being gore-for-gore’s sake though, Rob’s suicidal masochism does seem to posit a traumatised subjectivity so wracked by sexual dysfunction, existential despair and utter isolation that […] suicide is the only option.[xxii]
Blake’s argument focuses on the national ideological context of the film, particularly in its relationship to a presumed premature burial of Germany’s Nazi past. As Blake demonstrates, Rob’s character is somewhat sympathetic, despite his sexual perversities and homicidal behaviour as they are allegorical. It could also be argued that, Rob’s attempt to initiate necrophilia within his relationship, and consequently shape Betty’s sexuality to his own perversities backfires, empowering her to regain ownership of her own sexuality. To the extent at which continuing a relationship with a dead body, becomes more appealing than one with Rob.
A similar notion is pursued in Love Me Deadly (1972), a film in which a young female (fantasy) necrophile is being pressured into acting out her desires. Again, here it takes a male instigator for the realization of the unstable and supposedly incapable female’s desire for necrophilia. Love Me Deadly depicts the story of an attractive, young female necrophile named Lindsay Finch, who is left traumatised after the accidental murder of her own father whilst still a child and who, as an adult, is sexually dysfunctional. Lindsay, having seemingly regressed into a permanent and cyclical state of the Electra complex visits the funerals of dead men who resemble her father, and fantasises about having sex with them.[xxiii] A mortician at a local funeral parlour notices Lindsay’s repeated visits and correctly surmises that she is a necrophile. Unlike Lindsay, the mortician is a homicidal necrophile who kidnaps and embalms male and female prostitutes alive, before participating in large and sadistic necrophiliac orgies.[xxiv] Whilst Lindsay wishes to have sex with the bodies, she cannot bring herself to participate in the orgies, that is, until she actualizes her necrophiliac desires on the corpse of her murdered and embalmed husband. There is, however, a stark difference in the portrayal of Lindsay and the mortician in Love Me Deadly, as he is a murderous psychosexual killer, more akin to the Clover’s archetypal slasher killer. In contrast, Lindsay, although portrayed as infantile and disturbed, maintains ownership of her sexuality throughout the narrative. To participate in the orgy, she must make her sexuality and her body visible, reiterating her position as a surveyed female. She refuses to adopt this position, and maintains her own voyeuristic position in relation to the male cadavers. By having a monstrous male mediate the act, the act could have been rendered normative. However, at the end of the narrative Lindsay possesses exactly what she desires – a dead father/husband.
A film that manages to approach necrophilia whilst situating itself firmly outside of the horror genre is the Canadian film Kissed. Kissed depicts the story of Sandra (Molly Parker), a young woman obsessed with death who, in a similar convention to that described in the previous films, gets a job at a funeral home. There she begins having necrophiliac relationships with the male bodies at the morgue. Sandra is shown to be intelligent, attractive and capable of attracting a living man. The representation of sex with the dead bodies throughout Kissed is depicted romantically, rather than grotesquely, as per Nekromantik and Love Me Deadly. When Sandra has sex with the bodies, it is significant that a bright light shines above her (presumably a metaphor for her climaxing), and that neither her nor the male bodies are overtly fetishized within the film’s narrative or aesthetic.
Arguably Sandra’s female necrophile is a positive example that does not attempt to render her monstrous, or to psychoanalytically ‘explain’ her behaviour (like in Love Me Deadly). In the film, Sandra starts a relationship with a young attractive, male medical student called Matt (Peter Outerbridge) whom she meets and tells about her necrophilia. He attempts to convince her to let him also experience necrophilia, to allow him to role-play as a cadaver whilst they make love and to let him watch her in the act. She rejects all of these ideas and is offended. Ultimately, he cannot handle her having a sexuality that is non-conventional or other to the sexual politics he is accustomed to; that is, a sexuality which is not predicated on his/male dominance and, secondly, something he is a part of. By denying him all these things she refuses to make him central to her sexuality, and rejects allowing herself to be fetishized and become the object of the patriarchal gaze. Kissed instead allows Sandra a voice and subjectivity – she is allowed to actively explore and follow her own sexual desires. Lena Wånggren argues that the image of the female necrophiliac, by expressing her own desire, ‘opens up possibilities for the reworking of prevalent notions of gender and sexuality […] but also destabilizing conceptions of gender and what is considered “normal” reproductive sexual desire and behavior as the unresisting and unrejecting passive partner is now male’.[xxv] As mentioned above, the sexualisation of the female cadaver is not uncommon and Kissed, by reversing the gendered dichotomy of necrophile to cadaver, allows its protagonist a greater deal of autonomy whilst problematizing the dichotomy it has inverted.
There is a comparison made between Sarah’s brand of necrophilia and the necrophilia of Mr. Wallis, the embalmer at the funeral home. When she discusses the bodies with the janitor he tells her that he has caught Mr. Wallis having sex with the bodies of young boys, and he justifies his behaviour by saying, ‘it’s all dead flesh, they can’t feel anything’.[xxvi] Sandra and the janitor, on the other hand, discuss the subjectivity of the cadavers and both agree that they can ‘feel’. The film juxtaposes the sexual consumption of dead bodies by men with the sensual experience of Sandra. Mr. Wallis is using the bodies as an outlet for his paedophilic urges, whereas Sandra feels that she is connecting with the body on a spiritual level. Ultimately, she refuses to conform to standard, passive female sexuality and give herself completely to a male partner. Matt realises this and commits suicide in front of her so that he can have her love completely. In this way, Matt is symbolically the necrophile in that he too desires ‘an unresisting and unrejecting partner’.[xxvii]
Finally, I turn my attention back to Refn’s controversial and acclaimed film, The Neon Demon, in which a similar, yet even more thought-provoking, situation as those previously described arises. In one of the first scenes of The Neon Demon, Ruby initiates a conversation with Jesse and the two older models Gigi and Sarah about lipstick. She states that lipstick colours are always named after either food or sex, and after asking the other models what they would name their lipstick she asked Jesse, ‘So, what are you? Food or sex?’[xxviii] Ultimately, Jesse becomes both for these women, but what Ruby is summating is that eating and sex are one and the same, that bodies, however used, are for consuming. In her study on good and the Gothic, Lorna Piatti-Farnell approaches the two often horrific topics of slaughter and cannibalism in relation to consumption. In so doing, she re-contextualises what is seminally defined as food as based on a dichotomy between the inedible and the edible, stating that they are ‘dynamic categories’ that ‘refus[e] to be tied to one specific context, and regulat[e] not only individual alimentary structures, but also wider collective ones’.[xxix] In regards to the actual consumption of human bodies (cannibalism), ‘the cultural prohibition regarding the consumption of human flesh is not a “natural” preclusion, but a strictly cultural one. In truth there is no bodily wisdom in the avoidance of human flesh as food, as there is no actual threat of nutritional efficacy in its consumption.’[xxx] The Neon Demon, in its presentation of both cannibalism and necrophilia, negates this natural ‘preclusion’ by positing both actions as the logical progression of the modelling industry as a whole. Consumption is equivalent to power, and women’s bodies are blank slates for which meaning/sexual desire can be sited.
Although the cannibalistic aspect of The Neon Demon is not a primary focus for the film, it is necessary to make a comparison here, between the consumption of bodies for sex, and the actual consumption of flesh/blood. Barbara Creed makes the argument in The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (1993), that although woman within horror film is often figured as ‘victim’, that the components of monstrosity can be found within the female reproductive body.[xxxi] Utilising Freudian psychoanalysis she categorizes the archetypal monsters within Horror cinema and demonstrates how they rely on techniques of female abjection to create fear. Ruby, The Neon Demon’s cannibal/necrophile, shares most commonality with Creed’s notion of woman as vampire, in that she is charismatic, seemingly maternal but ultimately predatory. She attempts lesbian seduction, bathes in blood and crosses the boundaries between ‘sex, violence and death’.[xxxii] Creed, discussing the representation of the archetypal lesbian vampire in The Hunger, states that, ‘the figure of the archaic mother in two forms – as a beautiful, ageless woman and as an ancient, crumbling figure’.[xxxiii] Where Ruby differs from Creed’s vampire, and from Sarah and Gigi, is that she is not an ancient creature. She is not a model/vampire, she does not need blood to keep her young and beautiful, and she is not punished within the narrative for her transgressions. Creed argues that the sexual desires of the lesbian vampire ‘render her the most abject of all vampire monsters’.[xxxiv] Ruby’s lesbian desires towards Jesse and the cadaver in the morgue, within the context of a narrative in which women’s bodies are constantly fetishised and used for the monetary gain of men, are comparatively acceptable. Ruby’s orchestration of Jesse’s murder, in which she, Gigi and Sarah chase Jesse around Gigi’s grand, old mansion in Beverley Hills should figure the girls as monsters, but in reality, this scenario translates into four final girls fighting each other for the one position as true victim.
There are obvious divergent paths of discussion to take regarding this subject and its comparisons to consumerism, particularly the decision to make all central characters female and the associations often made between women and consumerism. However, what is more notable is the attitude to the dead body. Jesse’s dead body should be ‘inedible’ to the other models, and unattractive to Ruby. All three women must transgress what society has deemed disgusting to feed their appetites, sexual or otherwise. In the scene following Jesse’s death we see the two models covered in blood and showering together, whilst ruby is bathing in blood. The scene is highly aestheticised and fetishistic, but not abject. The cannibalism of Jesse functions differently to that of Ruby’s necrophilia, however, as the models’ are envious of Jesse’s beauty and though her consumption they aim to possess her youth and power. Ruby bathes in blood in the finale of the narrative, positioning her as the Blood Countess (Elizabeth Bathory) of the narrative. Bathory was a Hungarian Nobel woman who was accused of mutilating and murdering hundreds of women in the 16th century, and bathing in the blood of virgins in order to maintain her youth. Folklore surrounding Bathory has inspired numerous works of fiction, in which her tropes have been adopted for the representation of vampires. Unlike Gigi and Sarah, whose superficial motives are explanatory within the narrative, Ruby does not envy any of the girls’ beauty. Ruby’s lack of motive, beyond her rejection by Jesse, renders her even more disturbing as a villain.
Ruby’s sexualisation of women and their bodies, is both transgressive and potentially exploitative. Refn’s representation of lesbianism, and women’s bodies, is highly fetishistic and reads as a heterosexual male fantasy. Simultaneously, it denies male autonomy by excluding male protagonists, instead opting to portray an array of ineffective or abusive minor male characters. Ruby then functions as the classic male necrophile, like those explored in Deadgirl, in her lack of morality when realising her sexual desires. Ultimately, then, Ruby’s survival of the narrative, without consequence, despite occupying the space of the male necrophile is innately disruptive to the representation of necrophilia in Horror cinema. To conclude, as I have explored throughout this paper, I have demonstrated that the female necrophile, in her four previously uncovered guises, is ultimately defined by her sexuality. Her sexuality can be represented as shameful (Love Me Deadly), grotesque (Nekromantik), sensual (Kissed) and homicidal (The Neon Demon), but ultimately it is her own. The female necrophile rejects the role of objectified cadaver – one natural to cinema in its fetishisation and objectification of the female body – and alternatively adopts the position of surveying female, inciting her own sexual desires onto the cadaver. The female necrophile consistently survives the narrative, avoiding the generic horror trap, as astutely defined in the Scream rules as, ‘you may not survive the movie if you have sex’.[xxxv] The female necrophile film, in reversing the normalized subject/object representation of necrophilia, reveals the patriarchal power structures that reiterate the ideal of woman as passive body. In particular, The Neon Demon, through the inclusion of female necrophiliac desire within mainstream cinema, has contributed to the normalising of the dominant, sexual female within cinema, by unapologetically taking her to her darkest extreme.
Izzi Smith is a recent graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University, where she completed the MA English Studies: The Gothic. Izzi also holds a BA (Hons) Film Studies, from the University of Sussex. To date, Izzi has written on necrophilia, faux snuff and plastic surgery in contemporary cinema. Her research interests centre on the politics of representing transgressive, transitional and desired bodies on screen. Izzi can be contacted via email at email@example.com
[i] Georges Batailles, ‘Sexual Plethora and Death’ in Eroticism. (London: Penguin, 2012.) 94-108. (p.108)
[ii] Jonathon P. Rosman and Phillip J Resnick, ‘Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric Review of Necrophilia’, Bull Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 17.2 (1989). 153-63 (p.158).
[iii] Lisa Downing, ‘Death and the Maidens: A Century of Necrophilia in Female-Authored Textual Production.” French Cultural Studies. 14.2. (2003). 157-68. (p.157).
[iv] Lena Wånggren, ‘Death and Desire: Female Necrophilia as Gender Transgression’ in Transgression and its Limits, ed. by Matt Foley, Neil McRobert and Aspasia Stephanou (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012) 71–82 (p. 74).
[v] Hannah Furness, ‘The Neon Demon booed in Cannes over Cannibalism and Necrophilia’, The Telegraph (20/05/2016), < https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/20/the-neon-demon-booed-in-cannes-over-cannibalism-and-necrophilia/ > [accessed 5 June 2018].
[vi] Mark Kermode, ‘The Neon Demon review – beauty as the beast’, The Guardian (10/07/2016), < https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/10/the-neon-demon-review-nicholas-winding-refn > [accessed 5 June 2018]; Robbie Collin, ‘The Neon Demon’s jaw-dropping depravity will leave you wondering whether to howl or cheer’, The Telegraph (19/05/2016) < https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/05/19/the-neon-demon-is-a-depraved-deliciously-divisive-nightmare—re/ > [accessed 05 June 2018].
[vii] Marcel Sarmiento (dir.), Deadgirl [DVD]. (2008).
[viii] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[ix] Carol Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992).
[x] See Steve Jones, ‘Gender Monstrosity: Deadgirl and the politics of zombie rape’ in Feminist Media Studies, 13(3) (2013), 1-15.
[xi] Rosman and Resnick, p. 154.
[xii] Steve Finbow, Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia (Hants: Zero Books, 2014).
[xiii] Sigmund Freud, New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. Lecture 33: Feminity. Standard Edition, v.22. 136 -157.
[xiv] Finbow, p. 14.
[xv] Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992).
[xvi] Bronfen, p. 96.
[xvii] Finbow, p. 48.
[xviii] Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989).
[xix] Clover, p. 167
[xx] Rosman and Resnick, p.158.
[xxi] Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014), p. 56.
[xxii] Linnie Blake, ‘The horror of the Nazi past in the reunification present: Jorg’s Buttgereit’s Nekromantiks’ The Wounds of nations: Horror cinema, historical trauma and national identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), 26 – 43, (p. 38).
[xxiii] The Electra complex being Carl Jung’s reworking of Freud’s Oedipus complex in a girl’s psychosexual development in which she competes with the mother for the attention of the father.
[xxiv] Whether the term sadism is accurate here is questionable, as the mutilation of the bodies is post-mortem, for a queering of necrophilia that addresses the epistemological queries associated see Patricia MacCormack’s ‘Necrosexuality’ in Rhizomes issue 11/12.
[xxv] Wånggren, p.79.
[xxvi] Lynne Stopkewich (dir.), Kissed [DVD], (1996).
[xxvii] Rosman and Resnick, p. 158.
[xxviii] Nicolas Winding-Refn (dir.), The Neon Demon [DVD], (2016).
[xxix] Lorna Piatti-Farnell, Consuming Gothic: Food and Horror in Film (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p. 135.
[xxx] Piatti-Farnell, p. 135.
[xxxi] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 1993).
[xxxii] Creed, p. 59.
[xxxiii] Creed, p. 72.
[xxxiv] Creed, p. 72.
[xxxv] Wes Craven (dir.), Scream [DVD], (1996).