Graphic Sexual Horror was a documentary I watched a couple of years ago at the Hot Docs festival, and the film was a very intense experience to say the least. The film documents the beginnings of the Insex website that started the live bondage feed, and was directed by Barbara Bell and Anna Lorentzon, two women who used to work for Insex. The women all lived together in a house and were the stars of live feeds which featured extreme bondage and sadomasochistic situations. In the beginning of the documentary I was actually fascinated by the bondage – they were like erotic pieces of art. However, as the documentary progressed, the darker side of this world arose. The women interviewed said that although they were all willing participants, because they were being filmed live, there was a certain standard to live up to. If the women held up their “no” signal during a live feed, they were directly or indirectly shunned and most likely would not get called back. So they were placed in a position where they felt that they shouldn’t resist or say no to anything.
Obviously, as a woman, this is greatly disturbing to me. I feel as though the moment that you link sex with violence and power, you’re contributing to the problem. Despite participants or owners claiming that everyone is there voluntarily, you must accept a certain responsibility that you are participating in a culture that is difficult to control – especially in this circumstance; a live internet feed, where anyone could be watching. You are feeding the need, and with this need comes powerful people who also crave that need and will do anything to fulfill it. There is a reason why sex trafficking is the highest profiting underground trade over weapons and drugs, and the hardest to monitor and prosecute. I’ve worked on sex trafficking documentaries, transcribing hours of horrific stories by sex trade victims. My final thesis analyzed hard core pornography, slasher films and the effects on women. Connecting the violence against women and sex was not difficult at all and a terrifying and a sickly fascinating topic that disturbs me to no end. I would say that violence against women is probably my greatest fear.
So why then, one would ask, would I go see a documentary called “Graphic Sexual Horror”? Why am I such a big fan of horror movies when they largely focus on linking sex and violence against woman? The reason is that because this is my greatest fear, I have a need to face it. To face my fear is to explore where it comes from in society and understand what one is up against. The fascinating aspect about all genres of horror is the commentary they make on our culture. The root theory that can be applied to all horror films is: whatever the “bourgeois” society represses – The Other, comes back as the monster. Even the shittiest horror film can still have some resonance and contribute to the genre. Sexuality, consumerism, family, religion – these are all common “Other” themes that when examined, reveal a certain cultural identity, especially when one considers the era in which they were produced. This is why horror films really spark an interest for me; for they are a historical commentary on society.
The evolution of the the woman’s role in horror is also another very interesting aspect to analyze within the genre. Once the monster in a horror film is determined, the corresponding relationship is with the female and the way her gaze is portrayed, for this links the woman to the monster. This is why “Psycho” broke down so many barriers. Not only did it bring the monster into society’s home, but it also spurred the beginnings of the horror genre by breaking down the barrier between the screen and the audience with the female gaze. By featuring a close up reaction shot of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower, the male viewer is allowed to be in the voyeuristic position of the monster. She is positioned through the male gaze as an object to be surveyed and eroticized before being killed, linking sex and violence and projecting this connection through the screen onto the male voyeur. Through her gaze, the monster experiences “castration anxiety” for he sees a mutilated version of his own body and ultimately punishes the woman for being sexual and for holding the power of the gaze. When the female is being punished, the release of this tension within the male viewer gives him sadistic pleasure.
Over the years, females have slowly started to gain power in the horror genre as “the gaze” has evolved. Though many slasher films seem to only be an excuse to kill off scantily clad women, they can also turn into a statement of empowerment. The rape/revenge film “I Spit On Her Grave” being one of the first slasher films to reverse this power, for the female victim turned heroine literally castrates her attackers. Asian cinema is one of the worst offenders for violence against women, the violence in their horror films almost an endless indulgence directed at the female sex. But in recent years Asian cinema has released equally powerful role reversing films, transcending the violent subculture they became famous for.
One of the best examples of progressive Asian cinema is the film “Audition” by Takashi Miike – one of Japan’s most controversial “fucked up” directors – producing many mind bending masterpieces. “Audition” starts off simple enough: a widowed rich businessman Shigeharu Aoyama, is convinced by his partner that a good scheme to meet a new wife would be to hold a fake audition for a movie, and call back any women who attract his attention. He is immediately taken in by ex-ballerina Yamazaki Asami. He calls her and they start dating but he slowly discovers that she is not who she seems and a dark, abused past begins to emerge. Turns out for all her elegance and beauty she is equally as deadly. In one of the best disturbing scenes, we see her waiting for Aoyama’s phone call, sitting in an empty room with a phone and a large burlap bag. Suddenly the bag jolts and gurgles. It’s a dismembered man, her pet now, dependent on her vomit to keep him alive. While Aoyama investigates Asami, Asami also discovers that Aoyama had a wife and also has a son. This is unacceptable to her because he will never be able to love only her. She drugs him and slowly proceeds to torture him using some kind of messed up acupuncture. He has betrayed her and he must understand the feeling to need someone. “Words cause lies, pain can be trusted” she sweetly tells him, and than hacks off his feet with a wire saw. The movie ends with Aoyama’s son interrupting the torture session, kicking Asami down a flight of stairs and breaking her neck. Both Aoyama and Asami lie on the floor facing each other as Asami mutters how she is excited to see him again.
Asami embodies all the qualities of the post-horror female victim turned heroine. Though initially she seems to be a typical passive model of Japanese femininity, Asami is revealed to be a much stronger, dangerous force.
She is actually the one with all the power, wreaking vengeance on any one who seeks to objectify or exploit her. Asami embodies the Other – as the monster, she also holds the power of the gaze, punishing the man for gazing upon her, but also retaining her femininity without sliding into a dominant masculine role. She performs the torture sequence with elegance, in an apron, sticking the needles in a very dainty fashion and choosing to “castrate” her victim by sawing off his feet – instead of his penis – so that they can no longer “walk all over her”. Previous victims have also lost their tongue, ear and fingers – the ability to speak, “hear” or touch. Unlike the dominant male in a typical horror film who tortures for pleasure, her goal is more internal, an emotional need at her core, and is not sexual in any way. She experiences a certain “castration anxiety” by sharing the gaze with Aoyama, and acknowledges his lack of dependency on her as a reason for punishment. Asami is an incredibly powerful female character because of this completely separate need and the way she goes about achieving her goal, and she holds her gaze right up to her death. She is the reason why “Audition” plays such an important role in horror film culture, the tables are completely turned and the roles are reversed yet without Asami sacrificing her femininity – she continues to play a female role until the end. It is interesting to note that I don’t particularly find this film hard to watch, but that both notable horror directors John Landis and Rob Zombie found the film very difficult to watch. Not that I necessarily enjoy male torture scenes, but I think this goes to show how effective the role reversal was in this film. Usually in a typical slasher film, when the “Final Girl” kills the monster at the end, she stabs or shoots them, and although she appears to be in a role of power she is still embodying male characteristics to do so, leaving the female viewer ultimately unsatisfied.
Asami is a refreshing example of a new kind of Final Girl, for she is beautiful but does not punish others for her sexual needs as her revenge is based on an emotional attack, not sexual. She alone is in control of all her actions from the very start of the movie, and neither loses nor gains anyone around her. Audition is a very good example of how my fear is being conquered in a progressive way, and a reflection of how the female role is changing within the horror genre, and hopefully continues to evolve in our society as well.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.