I’ve noticed (because I look for it) that some erotic romance publishing companies ask for horror on their sites. And I wonder what they’re really asking for.
Sanitized horror monsters, perhaps? Sexy vampires, sexy werewolves, sexy zombies who ask before they bite? Nothing’s wrong with these things. But it’s not horror.
Because horror on its own, by its nature, pushes envelopes. Throw in hot, plot-moving sex, and you’ve got sex that pushes envelopes, sex that’s sometimes not pretty, sex with people who aren’t nice, and often not a happily ever after, and well… that doesn’t sound much like erotic romance, does it?
I’m sure it can be done, perhaps having hot sex around the genuine horror going on around the erotic pairing, but I can guarantee that there will be an unhealthy overlap of sex and mind-blowing terror, and it all kind of cascades down into: what kind of sex do you fear?
And as you might expect, the kind of sex we often fear is the kind of sex that isn’t allowed in romantic circles, at least not explicitly.
Horror already has a leg up on a lot of other non-romance genres, because it’s de rigeur to have a good amount of sex in it. Of course, in horror, that sex is usually exploitative and male-gaze driven, like the ubiquitous tit shot, and often tied in with death. The dead female body, in particular, desecrated and artfully mutilated, is a staple in horror. Rarely is the male body mutilated in such a sexual way.
The horror-fied male is often in a position of dominance, which can be decidedly sexual – Pyramid Head from the Silent Hill games and movie comes to mind. And the Priest, aka Pinhead, from the Hellraiser movies. But it’s quite interesting that you rarely see a femme fatale as the horror villain. Most sexually dominating women are eliminated. And most females, period, except for the Lone Survivor.
In a way, while the villains are often dominating males, the horror that the villains wreak is often presented in a feminized way, hence the sexualized dead girls. I wonder if it’s the connection of the gouts of blood with the menstrual cycle (see: the Johnny Depp death scene in Nightmare on Elm Street) or the male-perceived strangeness and scariness of women (see: Silent Hill movie).
There’s a lot of good sexual things about the horror genre and a lot of bad. The punishment of sex is right at the top of the bad list. These days, and even in the era of the 80s slasher, sex itself wasn’t punished, but sex on screen was. If you had sex where the audience could see you (which is totally at the discretion of the director rather than the characters, which I thought was completely unfair), then you probably had to die. Sometimes while having sex, like the infamous Kevin Bacon and what’s-her-name in the first Friday the 13th film.
However, our Female Survivors (one of the good things about horror) while they often didn’t have sex on screen, their sexual history was implied, which I always found interesting. And in the case of the second Friday the 13th film, the female protagonist and her lover had sex … we just didn’t see it.
With all the bad, one thing that horror is really good at is providing a venue for transgressive sex, particularly shades of BDSM and ravishment fantasy. Of course, things aren’t perfect, since these things are usually presented as 1) the purview of the evil (Like when Buffy sneers at Spike that he likes pain. “Hello, vampire. We’re supposed to be treading on the dark side. What’s your excuse?”) and 2) ultimately punished.
But even if it’s punished, there’s no denying that the audience gets their thrill from it – that’s why it’s constantly there. Sure, a bunch of teenagers and young adults get slaughtered, but man, the cat-and-mouse between the Lone Survivor and the villain is often quite hot, let’s face it. It’s an intriguing tension, the intrinsic moral conservatism of the message and the moral liberalism of the images and the audience. Sex that’s denigrated and yet reveled in.
All of that to say that it’s not really a huge leap to go from horror to erotic horror, since horror is already very eroticized – just not always in the healthiest way. The fact that a lot of the negative stuff is such an overwhelming trend practically begs for subversion.
But erotic horror doesn’t always translate into easy erotic romance, even when there’s romance involved. Take, for example, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (spoilers ahead). Total-E-Bound put out a Clandestine Classic version of Dracula that you can find HERE. It’s not mine, so I don’t feel self-promotional linking to it.
I also haven’t read it, so I don’t know the kind of sex that turns up, although I know that the most erotic scene in the original, Dracula forcing Mina to drink his blood, was quite non-consensual, yet I knew from a very young age that this was an incredibly hot scene. At least it was non-con in terms of how Mina described it, and that’s why a lot of retellings pull the “unreliable narrator” bit (even though Mina had been perfectly reliable before) and depict her willingly taking Dracula’s blood.
Including Coppola’s version. But it’s worth noting that this intensely and explicitly erotic movie includes a vampire bride orgy, an old man leching on a much younger woman (although who wouldn’t let Anthony Hopkins have his way with you, I tell you?), a bestiality scene where Dracula-as-wolf drinks and kills Lucy while she moans and climaxes in ecstasy and clings to it, a bestial scene in which Dracula-as-strange-wolfish-bearish-beast has sex with a sleepwalking Lucy, the inevitable bloodplay and dubcon/noncon of vampirism … and so on.
The movie doesn’t scrounge on the blood and death, and yet the movie is deeply romantic. Coppola manages to balance Dracula as the villain and the tragic hero, a murderous monster and a charming gentleman … which is actually in keeping with the spirit if not the word of the source material. Of course, most of the props probably have to go to Gary Oldman, who is a boss. The villain can be endearing and engaging, and then turn around and rip your arms off; he can love and be loathsome, and it’s okay.
That, my friends, is erotic horror, even erotic romance horror. And yet it crosses so many lines that most erotic romance writers are not allowed to cross.
When writing erotic sci-fi, sci-fi elements enhance the erotica and the erotica enhances the science-fiction aspects – an alien perhaps, with non-humanoid anatomy and/or custom. When writing supernatural erotica, the supernatural elements enhance the erotica and vice versa – using magic to alter the experience of sex, the danger of a more powerful being with a weaker one, etc.
But in erotic horror, sex and fear are so intermingled as to be inseparable. The erotic elements are tinged by the horrific, and the horror makes you hot. Like in Dracula, a story that practically seethes with sexuality underneath Victorian sensibility and fear of hedonistic excess – and the key to unlocking that sexuality is a foreign monster.
Erotic romance must be sex-positive and, in some ways, safe – there can be some strain to that, but it cannot be broken. In erotic horror, the list of unacceptable scenarios becomes an anti-guideline. Oh, those are the kinds of sex you fear? Then by the nature of horror, that’s the sex that must be written.
Freddy Krueger’s gleeful obscenity. The cenobites’ exquisite torment. The sexual blasphemy of the unrepentant demon. The terrible bone-cracking of the naked werewolf. Dr. Hannibal Lecter’s ambiguous appetites (will he eat you out or just eat you?). The vicious, ravaging vampire.
These are the monsters of horror. Sex and death irrevocably combined in simultaneous sex-positive and sex-negative ways. Punishment without safewords that still titillates in a terribly beautiful way.
This is erotic horror.
I have written a few erotic horror pieces. At least one of them has made it out of my trunk, namely my first published story ever, “In Circles” in Fist of the Spider Woman. Fortunately, Amber Dawn outright asked for horror, the kind of horror that accompanies queerness made supernatural. So I gave her that unrepentant horror, a mutilating, murderous femme fatale Bloody Mary and a deeply conflicted protagonist who found her sexuality through Bloody Mary’s horror. Not pretty. Not pretty at all. And yet the protagonist – and I – found it extremely liberating.
I have another long short story that I wrote for a company that went under, and I’ve tried to unload it a few more times with no success yet. I wrote it in a very dark personal place, and I think the undeniable and awful eroticism of the story portrays a very real despair that many queer people, and people in general, feel in their lives. Not a stitch of romance and non-con to boot, so it’s kind of stuck in limbo.
I’m intrigued by the possibility of writing a genuine erotic horror novel one of these days. I was raised morally conservative. I’ve got a good handle on sex and fear and shame. I think navigating the complicated feelings and fears about sex, unwanted desires, unconventional appetites, is a worthy endeavor. It’s just not a safe one.
And I’m increasingly of the opinion that fiction should be the one place where we can engage in these fantasies without shame because it’s the fiction that’s safe, not the fantasy.
This is the one place that we can do these things with no repercussions, no victims, no one getting hurt. And the truth is, most fantasies were never made for reality. I’d be willing to venture about 99 percent of fantasies, you wouldn’t ever dream of them actually being a reality, unconscionable as they are, and the idea of it would horrify you – no sexiness about it. You’ll find people in the ravishment fantasy arena are sincerely horrified by actual rape and very vocal against it.
But in the realm of fantasy … well, there, anything can happen, because no one gets hurt, and you’re the one completely in control and calling the shots. You are villain and victim, hero and martyr, all at the same time. That’s just not real life, but fantasy was never supposed to be real.
There’s a place for erotic romance, don’t get me wrong about that. I write it plenty, and I like it. I’m not knocking the erotic romance genre at all.
I just think there’s a place for erotic horror as well, not-so-nice erotica, the kind of erotica that horrifies you and the kind of horror that makes arousal ooze down your spine. The darker side of the human psyche that can stretch its limbs in a safe space. Depending on the idea passing through my head, I sometimes feel like I’m being kept in a cage, rattling the bars to get out and ravage something.
I don’t think this kind of erotica is low or bad or dangerous. I think that if treated with respect and written well, it reveals darker truths of human nature. In the right hands, perhaps it expands our understanding of ourselves.
Maybe that is what’s truly frightening.