The Forbidden Body
Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination
- ISBN: 9781479803118
- Published By: New York University Press
- Published: May 2022
Horror stories scare us in many ways. Sometimes it is unbearable violence or horrifying creatures that jump out of the dark. In his book The Forbidden Body: Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination, Douglas E. Cowan explores a further terrifying dimension of horror fiction. The author scrutinizes the dark spaces where sexuality and the religious imagination meet, showing “bodies out of place” (30) in all their terrifying facets. By looking not only at films, but also at literature, graphic storytelling, comics and visual arts, Cowan argues that the meaningful mix of sex, horror, and religious imagination causes the transgression of cultural and moral guidelines by reinforcing, transforming, or challenging fundamental attitudes towards the human body and our nature.
In the introduction, Cowan references his earlier publication Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Baylor University Press, 2008), arguing that we are fascinated by scary stories because they “consistently challenge our lack of durable answers to . . . ‘properly human questions’” (4), such as: What happens when we die? Why do we suffer? Do we matter? Cowan considers religion as a starting point to answer these questions of human life. In contrast, horror films force us to reconsider our basic beliefs by questioning them and offering frightening alternatives. For this reason, Cowan highlights the interrelation of horror and religion, not as competitors, but as “cultural siblings” (6). He also claims that supernatural horror-worlds only make sense in the context of the religious imagination, because they are embedded in its normative worldviews and reproduce, transform, or defamiliarize its values. Cowan more specifically aims to connect sex and horror, and to explain why they are “so often intimately bound together on religion’s altar” (7).
Chapter 1 starts with two crucial theoretical considerations. Rejecting the idea of a horror genre, Cowan instead uses the concept of the horror “mode,” a narrative dimension defined by the emotional transaction between receiver and production. He also emphasizes the centrality of the religious imagination (rather than focusing on a generic definition of “religion”), which he describes as “the ubiquitous impulse to picture a world beyond our own and to locate ourselves in cosmic circumstances” (48). By placing these theoretical assumptions at the beginning of his book, Cowan avoids discussing the theoretical dimensions of religion, debates about the proper representation of religious references, and the assumption that religion is something good and morally correct, and instead takes a broader view of religious phenomena, viewing them through the lens of popular culture and various forms of storytelling.
In chapter 2 Cowan begins to explore the gloomy world of sex, horror, and the religious imagination by giving the reader a glimpse into the fascinating world of B-movies. There, stories about monsters and giant leeches depict different kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior and show how certain values and norms about the body are reinforced or challenged. Cowan reveals how B-movies prey on our social fears but also play with the general fascination with nudity. He also demonstrates how horror films reflect our understanding of reality and the role religious ideas play in regulating these ideas of the world.
The next three chapters focus on bodies. Chapter 3 analyzes the staging of the naked (mostly female) body in horror films as a ritual intended as an offering to the gods. Cowan also points out the influence of visual culture on storytelling and narration. In the fourth chapter, Cowan describes the fear of displaced bodies as “sociophobics,” which refers to our irrational social fears, because “culture warns us that too much is at stake for us not to fear them” (115). He further explores this theme in chapter 5 by examining the fetishization and sexualization of witches as the demonic other. This motif includes the phobia of nudity and the fear of excessive (female) sexuality, both of which pose a grave threat to even the strictest believer.
In chapter 6 Cowan shows how horror fiction stages the ongoing struggle between our rational and strong belief in reality and the voice in our heads that keep asking “What if things are not what they seem?” In doing so, he argues that part of the fascination with the themes of sex, horror, and religion lies in the dichotomy between the need to generate meaning and a fascination with the unknown.
Chapter 7 is dedicated to a closer exploration of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction and the stories that were inspired by what he calls “Lovecraft Principles” (196). Cowan relates different aspects of the Lovecraftian mode to the religious imagination and thereby highlights Lovecraft’s influence on horror culture.
The book ends with a discussion of three different waypoints to continue the exploration of the horror mode. He suggests we look at the subgenre of splatter horror and the importance of queer theory for the horror mode, and especially urges further research into stories by Marquis de Sade, or what Cowan also calls “the Sadenian imaginary.” (229).
Constantly alternating between expressive examples and theoretical considerations about the relationship between the religious imagination, sex, and horror, Cowan successfully illuminates representations of disfigured (sexualized) bodies in the horror mode while demonstrating how the religious imagination supports or enacts these representations. The book also offers a striking perspective on the different culturally internalized fears that shape our living together and influence our daily choices, preferences, fears, and attitudes. Drawing on various visual and textual media of the horror mode both past and present, Cowan describes the great variety of media in horror culture and their influence on each other. With a great number of examples and rapid shifts between different theoretical approaches, Cowan challenges the reader’s concentration, drawing attention to a hitherto neglected field. Thanks to the appealing and entertaining way of writing, the book also stimulates curiosity for exploring the abysses in the cosmos of sexuality, horror fiction, and religion.
Katharina Luise Merkert is a doctoral student in the study of religion at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU).Luise MerkertDate Of Review:March 21, 2023