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The Frightening Connection Between Horror Films and Porn

For much of history, horror and porn were conjoined twins attached at the head. Who separated them — and why?

Earlier this year, the indie horror-comedy film Porno scored a few headlines when it chose to run an uncensored version of its trailer on Pornhub. For a film about a sex demon escaping a haunted skin flick to terrorize repressed teens, this was a thematic and logical move. But it was also clearly meant to be edgy, an “unprecedented” step to link a mainstream film with the marginal world of porn.

It wasn’t unprecedented at all, though. Not by a long shot. In fact, while horror and porn seem to live in wholly separate spheres today, they’ve had deep ties to each other for decades, frequently swapping tropes and talents back and forth. Not too long ago, many Americans even viewed some now-mainstream horror films, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Friday the 13th (1980), as straight-up porn. Though now faded, this inextricable porn-horror connection arguably helped give rise to key features of the horror genre, like the hypersexual subtext of slasher films and the excesses of gore fests — and to the modern anti-porn movement.

Media scholars have long argued that there’s at least a spark of eroticism in many horror stories, and of dread in most erotica. Linda Williams, an expert on sex in film and a pioneering porn researcher, suggests this stems in part from the fact that both types of story belong to one super-genre — a “body genre” meant to elicit strong physical responses like tears, screams and even erections. Conjuring those intense responses, writes media scholar Steve Jones, often involves similar processes, like building toward one big, cathartic release. That core, conceptual resonance invites intentional and accidental genre bending and blending.

The gothic tales that influenced many early filmmakers, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, often leaned into overt and free-flowing sexual anxiety and tension. So unsurprisingly, early fantastical films likewise dipped freely and frequently into the well of sexuality for quick, hard visceral punches. To wit, L’inferno, a 1911 attempt at translating Dante’s hell onto the silver screen, featured an enduringly skin-tingling tableaux of writhing naked bodies and lusty, aggressive devils. And 1922’s Häxan, a quasi-documentary about witchcraft, featured scenes of a lascivious Satan suggestively churning butter and flicking his tongue at women, as well as long shots of nudity.

But despite the thin line between erotica and other genres in early films, no mainstream American directors went so far as to show explicit, unsimulated sex in horror films. That was reserved for the underground stag film industry, which produced thousands of hardcore clips from the 1900s to 1960s yet had little impact on the wider film world. But early legal softcore filmmakers, who used weak narrative justifications to give horny moviegoers the flesh they craved, often drew on clips or cues from early horror like L’inferno and Häxan.

From the early 1900s onward, the intrusion of sex into mainstream cinema rankled conservative sensibilities in the U.S., creating an ever-growing patchwork of censorship, which gave local authorities the right to review movies for objectionable content before they could run in a jurisdiction, ban anything that failed their tests and potentially sue banned films’ makers or distributors for peddling moral-corrupting smut. Religiously-motivated censors often blacklisted violence and blasphemy as well as erotic content, claiming that these horror staples harmed the public. And so, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, many filmmakers reacted by sublimating their sex and violence into heavy symbolism, like the animalistic menace of a movie monster (Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Gill Man are notable examples).

Increasing studio conservatism and public outcry against “extreme” content choked innovative and transgressive horror out of the mainstream as much as it did eroticism. Notably, after 1931’s Dracula made bank, MGM gave director Tod Browning the green light to make Freaks, a project he’d been pushing for about a decade. The film blended groundbreaking, thoughtful portrayals of disability with a psychosexual murder plot and a body horror revenge ending, but growing censorship concerns led to a series of crippling cuts, then to the abandonment of the film after a month of screenings in 1932.

However, the rise of mainstream censorship — culminating in the 1934 Hays Code, which set the standards for studio productions until 1968 — didn’t quash erotic films or challenging horror. Rather, it just led to the rise of traveling “exploitation” film shows. As early as the 1910s, hucksters realized that audiences wanted scintillation and revulsion and would pay top dollar to see it, even in shit films. So, they started making cheap “educational” movies, acquired bargain-bin documentary footage and used hype and gimmicks to bring people to the theater to see something new and shocking. Kroger Babb, the archetypal early exploitation man, made a small fortune screening footage of African circumcision rituals and Nazi atrocities, and shooting simple narratives to frame clips of sexually transmitted infections and live births.

Babb and company also bought up censor-unfriendly horror and porn films, spliced in new footage to make them more “extreme,” then toured them around the country. Notably, Babb brought Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika to America for the first time in 1955, cut most of the Swedish auteur’s plot, and sprinkled in more nudity. Dwain Esper, another notorious exploitation expert, snatched Freaks out of the trash in 1947 and screened it far and wide, drawing in audiences with taglines like: “Do Siamese twins make love? Come and see.”

The popularity and reach of these cynical cultural raiders meant that, in the early 20th century, many Americans (including merry schlock monger John Waters) got their first look at surreal horror and melodrama in these hypersexualized shows, whose content toed the line of outright porn.

These men’s success with cheap thrills set the stage for a wave of indie filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s, who used educational veneers to pump out softcore flicks and get them into theaters, themselves eager to fill seats by any means to compete with the rise of television. These directors also followed the exploitation roadshow example of slowly pushing the line, seeing how extreme they could get. A Babb devotee, Russ Meyer, used exploitation hype and gimmicks to sell The Immoral Mr. Teas, the 1959 film that finally dropped all pretenses, showing nudity for its own erotic sake. (I’d give a plot synopsis, but there isn’t one, really. It’s just a movie about a traveling salesman who somehow acquires X-ray vision and wanders around looking at naked ladies.)

Another Babb acolyte, a former employee named William Castle, took the same cheap thrills and over-the-top showmanship into the world of horror. He’d pack houses with gimmicks, like life insurance policies against death by fright, then amplify the effect of early jump scares by, say, in the case of 1958’s House on Haunted Hill, rigging a skeleton to fly over the audience at a key moment. Castle’s genius for turning low budgets into easy scares and high returns reportedly inspired Alfred Hitchcock, informing parts of his mainstream 1960 proto-slasher Psycho.

The bridge that roadshow exploitation created between early B-movie horror and softcore porn meant that it was relatively easy for directors to slipstream from one genre to the other. After Mr. Teas, Meyer notably gave the world Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the 1966 ultra-violent cult classic about murderous go-go dancers, among other psycho-sexual thrillers that reportedly inspired Quentin Tarantino, among others. (Tarantino’s Death Proof even features a thank you to Meyer in its credits.) Around the same time, filmmakers David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, previously known for their “nudie-cutie” films, decided they were sick of neat, easy deaths in mainstream horror, and so, they took their boundary-pushing sensibilities to the genre. They created Blood Feast (1963), which follows an old caterer as he carries out a series of gorey murders in order to collect body parts for a brutal ritual intended to revive the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, and which arguably laid the groundwork for modern splatter films.

Cheap, easy and still a little taboo, early quasi-licit porn was also a good entry point for poorly connected filmmakers looking to break into other marginal genres. That’s how Wes Craven, the late master of modern horror, made a jump from teaching college classes to toiling in porn to directing his brutal and salaciously marketed debut, 1972’s The Last House on the Left.

Conversely, after crafting his 1968 horror opus Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero made movies like 1973’s Hungry Wives, also known as Season of the Witch, which distributors marketed as softcore thanks to its focus on a suburban housewife’s sexuality as she drifts toward the occult. (The film’s eroticism is mostly oblique, apparently because Romero resisted pressure from producers to work in more explicit nudity and sex scenes.) Friedman blurred the lines with dreck like 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which blended BDSM, breasts and a tasteless backdrop of Nazi atrocities. And filmmaker Roger Corman built an empire — and helped launch the careers of Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard and more — by churning out cheap yet profitable blends of horror, humor and sex.

Connections between porn and horror were so dense, and attitudes toward the genres in polite society so similar, that well into the 1980s, conservative voices described brutal horror as just another form of porn, one in which “women are killed in sexual ways,” as a Minneapolis censor put it while discussing 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at a hearing on pornography.

As artists slowly pushed back censorship laws, bringing gory horror and hardcore porn alike into the full light of the mainstream from the early to the mid-1970s, a brief window opened in which it seemed like both genres might become normalized parts of public life. Around the same time films like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) started to elevate horror, Gerard Damiano drew mainstream critical attention and crowds to his notorious hardcore feature, Deep Throat (1972). He then reportedly entered talks to direct erotic-tinged films for MGM. “There was a lot of press speculating that we would soon see major Hollywood stars boffing on screen,” notes film historian Eric Schaefer.

But while horror maintained its rising star, the novelty of mainstream hardcore porn quickly faded. The most ambitious attempt to fuse explicit, unsimulated sex into the wider Hollywood milieu, 1979’s Caligula — which involved a script by Gore Vidal and funding from Penthouse’s Bob Guccione — flopped badly. So, “stars and directors realized that porn was sort of a dead end,” Schaefer argues.

Hardcore porn’s failure to shake off stigmas as it kept on pushing boundaries, and a continued slipstream between porn and horror ultimately led to a disaster for the adult industry, in the form of one Alan Shackleton. A murky figure who ran a softcore distribution company in the 1960s, he got skittish about potential blowback against hardcore, which had slowly eclipsed his nudie-cutie fare. So rather than follow boundary-pushing porn directors and risk an obscenity bust and trial, he, like many others in the field, shifted his focus to acquiring and distributing old sci-fi and horror fare. After the success of the 1974 erotic sci-fi parody Flesh Gordon, he also decided to work with the pornographer Carter Stevens to make a softcore comedy parody of Star Trek.

But when they were almost done shooting, they learned Paramount wanted to make a Star Trek movie. Shackleton panicked and abandoned the project. On the hunt for quick cash to recoup his losses, he somehow acquired an irredeemably bad erotic serial killer film, 1971’s The Slaughter, inspired by the Manson murders and shot by low-budget porn and horror filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay. Recalling unsubstantiated rumors that the Manson family made “snuff” films of some of their murders, he decided he’d make a new found-footage ending for The Slaughter, showing its purported sex-crazed director getting keyed up and brutally murdering his starlet on camera, in front of his crew. He’d market it as footage of a real murder, profiting on the scandal.

His Babbian marketing tactics worked too well, leading thousands, even millions of Americans to believe the murder in 1975’s Snuff was indeed real — despite its god-awful special effects — or at least that it was inspired by actual snuff films. Based on his sexual posters and the era’s porn-horror overlaps, many also believed this live murder must be a turn-on for perverts grown accustomed to free-flowing hardcore.

Shackleton fueled (or perhaps created) the enduring urban myth and horror-thriller movie trope of the sexual snuff film. He also triggered a wave of protests led by feminist groups, who argued his film laid bare the violence against women inherent in porn — despite the fact that Snuff was made and marketed as horror. Conservative religious groups started making alliances with these protesters. This sort of anti-porn coalition is common today, but sexual historian Whitney Strub notes that it was unprecedented back then. “Before Snuff, there was no organized anti-pornography movement, outside of the right,” he says. Most people viewed porn as a victimless vice.

Snuff helped to ramp up the re-stigmatization of porn, sending it backwards into the cultural trash pile. On top of that, porn glommed onto home video distribution faster than other genres, eviscerating the popular demand for screenings of softcore and hardcore content at low-rate theaters that initially made pornographic films so profitable, and thus forcing producers to push the envelope even further to stay fresh, courting evermore legal and popular backlash in the process.

This led to one last major exodus of early legal porn folks to the once inviting shores of B-movie horror in the early 1980s. But their schlock didn’t stick well with viewers, perhaps because it hadn’t kept up with new horror-specific audience demands and sensibilities. So, most retired by the 1990s, their contributions to the history of porn and horror falling to the wayside of history — like most “unrespectable” content.

By the late 1990s and early aughts, horror movies still had an aura of schlock about them — a cash-grab cynicism, an obsession with exploitative tropes and cheap thrills. But they were mainstream schlock, with no connection whatsoever to the adult industry.

Yet the legacy of the old porn-horror connection lives on. In the bloody excesses of torture porn, like the aughts-defining Hostel and Saw franchises, with their echoes of roadshow shock. In the sublimated sexuality of teen horror, among other salacious tropes that inventive indie flicks like Porno and modern “smart horror” like It Follows (2014) has critically re-explored over the past decade with a critical eye. Even in the low-budget, high-return ethos and voyeuristic sensibilities of films like Paranormal Activity (2007) and its infinite successors of diminishing returns.

So, in many ways, horror is still porn. Not explicitly and fully. But somewhere deep in its soul.

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