On the things that get your heart racing.
Halloween is somehow simultaneously about scariness and sexiness at the same time, and horror movies are frequently as titillating as they are terrifying.
The idea that your body responds to both fear and arousal in similar ways, dimmed lights, the slight roleplay element of allowing yourself to be terrified: there is a reason it's a trope to watch a horror movie on a first date. Despite feeling so opposed, how did sexiness become integral in our understanding of the horror genre?
The way movies are classified, sex and horror have both been historically associated with lower-status entertainment with few pretensions towards art. (The recent term ‘elevated horror’ for more arthouse-friendly films contains the implicit assumption that horror in and of itself is un-elevated, i.e. low in status.) Perhaps part of the shared appeal isn’t what movie star you’re going to see, it’s what’s going to happen to them.
Both involve an element of primality, a casting aside of boundaries and notions of properness to give into ones instincts. Many iconic horror tales involve characters giving into their most base instincts. When Dracula sinks his teeth into a maiden’s neck, there’s clearly more than just bloodlust going on — the non-blood kind is very present too. Werewolves are overcome in the night by power they can’t control, waking up in the morning with torn clothes. Almost every culture has some kind of witch figure who hypnotizes men with her feminine wiles. There are BDSM-like elements in Gothic horror novels that pre-date that initialism by a century.
The connective tissue may be as simple as bodies — both the ones on screen and those of the viewers themselves. They both create physical reactions in their audience. Some of the language used around fear and sexual arousal — tingling, shivering, moaning, gasping — is the same, even if the contexts can be very different.
Both sex and horror can involve secrecy and betrayal. Both are associated with the night. And, plotwise, nothing justifies terrible decision-making like extreme horniness. Why would an otherwise intelligent character walk into what is clearly a murderous scenario? Well, because they think they might get laid. One of the most beloved tropes of the slasher sub-genre that exploded in popularity in the 1970s, that of the ‘Final Girl’ is traditionally the character who doesn’t give into the baser instincts of the people around her, who are picked off one by one.
Ultimately, sex and horror thrill in similar ways because they remind us that, as well as being humans, we’re instinctual. When we’re terrified or overcome with desire, life is simpler. The complexities of modern human existence are replaced, even briefly, with animalistic, primal instincts. There’s no cost of living crisis when you’re jumping out of your skin, no climate anxiety when in the throes of passion. Heart racing, skin flushed… sounds familiar.