The human body has been a point of fascination since the dawn of time, causing the human mind to wander to lustful places filled with the sinful cries and moans of those experiencing orgasmic dreams. It is the tangible flesh of the body that has always drawn humans to one another, whether it be for a tender embrace, an adrenaline rushed sexual encounter, or even to taste the pain another can inflict.
This obsession with the body keeps our society living and breathing, copulating to create more bodies filled with desires that must be satisfied. Cinema has always encouraged eroticism and used the screen to display our most secretive, lurid, and perverted daydreams allowing many of us to fetishize without fear of judgement or ever having to really commit acts on a living human body. But where does the boundary lie when it comes to turning the human body into a decaying object of sexualisation?
Extreme horror and body horror films have stripped eroticism of its sensual elements and replaced them with dismemberment, mutilation, decomposition, and the eradication of the flesh. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the sexual elements are erased from the experience in their entirety, more so these films aim to provoke and arouse the viewer through their grotesque use of the human body, turning it into an object of fetishism regardless of how mutilated it is. Even though we as the viewer are disturbed and disgusted by what we see on screen, there is an element of which we are instinctually drawn to and become fascinated with.
Perhaps it is society’s nature to be enamoured with the flesh of the body that excites our inner desires and causes us to want to seek out and view such depraved sexual acts on the human body. Or maybe it is our curiosity regarding the characters in such films and how their state of mind allows them to be sexually magnetised to such a depreciated condition of the human body. This lustful adoration for the decaying body is a point of controversy for these films, and garners them their reputation as ‘most disturbing’, but does not completely force viewers away, instead capturing peaked interests and allowing us to indulge in erotic depravity.
The 1987 German film Nekromantik by Jorg Buttgereit is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made, which is due to the graphic depiction of necrophilia. Presented to us is the slimy, stinking, and skeletal remains of something even more arousing and tantalizing than the conscious breathing body of a human. Rob and Betty find themselves entangled in a sinful love triangle with a decaying corpse that enhances their sexual experiences and allows them to satiate their need for more than just a consenting, living carcass to caress.
The irony of Nekromantik is that even though the rotting bones are given to Betty as the most sacrificial gift of all from Rob, she becomes so entwined with her need for death that she departs from her loving relationship with Rob to have the corpse all to herself. But Buttgereit’s portrayal of the human flesh as a point of sensuality doesn’t stop there; in an extremely graphic climax, the viewer sees Rob decimate himself whilst ejaculating, reiterating the point that pain and pleasure are closely linked and part of the obsession with the body. Even though Nekromantik is gruesome, grimy and beyond shocking to so many, there’s a sensual element to the film, one that forces the viewer to question our fascination with the human body in all forms.
Similarly, David Cronenberg’s bizarre 1983 body horror film Videodrome examines how a society dominated by their TV screens are constantly searching for sexual entertainment through their need to watch perverse softcore pornography coupled with punishment, torture and potentially subsequent death. Albeit presented in a tamer and more digestible format than Nekromantik, this is a film that displays the human flesh as a sexual organ, one that becomes even more erotic and sexually capable when mutilated and deformed with gauging holes that linger with the temptation to be filled.
Videodrome is the existence of boundaries, but being able to push past them all to transcend into a space that allows for anything the mind desires, without the repercussions of judgement, regret, or controversy; it represents the human flesh as the embodiment of dark fetishes that are there to be explored and exploited. Even though everything shown within Videodrome feels grotesque, it also feels sexual, which causes the viewer to question why and how films can provoke two seemingly opposing yet intimately entwined instinctive reactions.
So why do extreme and body horror films have their own fascination with pushing the viewer to feel internally conflicted by evoking stimulating emotions of arousal and feeling disturbed? Films of this nature are designed to confront the viewer not only on a cerebral level but on an unconscious, physical level too. They are films that challenge societal norms, and the morals we feel restricted to when it comes to sexuality and fantasies.
Brian Yuzna’s 1989 film Society challenges our perceptions and reminds us that although often considered forbidden, everyone has dark sexual fetishes. Dom Roth, true crime podcaster and horror fan, says that “in particular it plays on the urge to ‘fit in’ while deep down knowing that all that chastity and purity is just a wafer-thin layer concealing the most basic primitive urges and possibly something more dark and twisted than even the minds of those supposed ‘outsiders’ are holding.” It’s this show of acceptance that sexuality can also be disturbing, which allows a film like Society to allure the viewer with this fleshy, sweaty, sickening yet carnal portrayal of fantasies. But why does seeing the body decayed, mutilated, or malformed produce any kind of sexual response in us? It all drives back to the fascination humans have with flesh, regardless of the form it comes in. There is something inside us that craves the flesh of another; when the pull of attraction becomes almost like hunger there’s an animalistic desire to lick and bite the other’s flesh and feel their skin on us, in us and let ourselves be consumed by it.
In Eric Farlardeau’s 2014 film Thanatomorphose, Laura begins to discover that the carcass her soul dwells in is gradually rotting and decaying with every breath she takes. The entirety of the film focuses on her slow decline from fully formed to something more likened to a decomposed body. Thanatomorphose combines this disgusting aesthetic with sexuality by showing how Laura explores her body with masturbation and pleasure, but also allows men to use her rotting flesh for their pleasures. In one scene, Laura performs fellatio on a man and he inserts his finger into the putrid hole forming in her skull. An example of how the human obsession with sex, the flesh and body allows us to push past personal boundaries, even ones that disgust us, to reach our climax through pleasure.
It is within this obsession that we begin to see there isn’t a boundary within extreme and body horror when it comes to turning the body into a decaying sexual fantasy. Brandon Cronenberg’s 2012 film Antiviral, whilst removing the sexual elements, examines society’s depressing obsession with celebrity flesh, going as far as to consume genetically modified flesh steaks. In the 1988 pornographic Japanese film Tumbling Doll of Flesh, every boundary regarding the human body is stripped away and portrayed as merely a sexualised object to be manipulated and mutilated to arouse, and cause the most pleasure in the most demeaning of ways.
Academic and author Alison Taylor says “watching bodies moved—to tremble, to tears, to orgasm—makes us acutely aware of our own as spectators.” which shows how eroticism and the flesh is all about discovering the body in any form and state, regardless of if we find it repulsive too. “I think films like Nekromantik, In My Skin, and The Neon Demon simply make the connection explicit… These films link the body’s potential for eroticism and deterioration in ways that make us uncomfortable because they force us to acknowledge that these things are connected.” Alison raises the point that essentially the eradication of the human body, although disturbing to witness, connects our minds to our flesh, which in turn is exponentially linked with sexuality and eroticism.
So why do extreme and body horror movies constantly show the decaying human body as something to be aroused by? Humans have obsessions and fantasies, all of which are linked to the sensuality of flesh, the body, and pushing boundaries. Sex has been a taboo, controversial topic since forever and continues to be, which in turn makes us hyper-aware of our sexualities and what could be perceived as abnormal eroticisms. However, extreme and body horror films allow for an outlet that both disturbs and disgusts whilst arousing and exciting our complex minds, souls, and bodies.