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Horror and Sexuality: Anatomy of Desire

Updated on October 16, 2012

Humanity has been after the unholy grail of desire for a long time: while it may not be possible to have a definite answer, vampire fiction does offer the perfe


“Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself”

S.T. Coleridge

The fascination with finding an ‘anatomy of desire’ is not new: the subject has been hotly debated and researched throughout history. How does attraction happen? Why are we attracted to some people and not others? How can one make another fall in love? Desire is one of the great mysteries and joys of human existence, and to produce an ‘anatomy of desire’ would mean that one needs to tear ‘desire’ to pieces, and understand how these pieces fit together. And what about anatomy? There is something dark and gothic about anatomy: and something voyeuristic, definitely ‘disgusting’ about dissecting and opening up the mass that is the ‘dead body’, the former carrier of the spiritual essence. Bodies stink, are messy and bloody: especially dead ones. Perhaps it’s the same thing with desire.

In the short gothic tale ‘The Anatomy of Desire’ by John L'Heureux, sexuality and the sexual union precedes vampiric action: it’s through desire that the protagonist gets a new skin. First there is sexual union, then he will be ‘in’ her. The story so goes: a prisoner of war (and soldier) has lost his skin in battle and is therefore reduced to a disgusting ‘mass’ of bloody muscles. In hospital, the soldier persuades the nurse who is looking after him to have sex: he then asks her to give him her skin. He doesn’t simply want to be possessed by her, he wants to be in her, as this passage shows:

The saint was swabbing his chest and belly with blood retardant.

"Nothing is ever enough," she said.

"I love, but I am not possessed by love," he said. "'I want to be surrounded by you. I want to be enclosed. I want to be enveloped. I don't have the words for it. But do you' understand?"

"'You want to be possessed," she said,

"I want to be inside you."

And so they made love, but afterward he said, "That was not enough. That is only a metaphor for what I want."

When she agrees, the nurse is left with ‘being without skin’: this is a metaphor for vampirism. The body is our main resource, and the protagonist is at first deprived of such resource, as his body is rendered inefficient and disgusting by the lack of skin; he will ‘vampirise’ another, the nurse, who willingly gives him her skin, thus becoming ‘him’- after sexual intercourse. This is a macabre ‘anatomy of desire’, a metaphor for sexuality and vampirism.

The anatomy of desire is also the subject of ‘The Anatomist’ by Argentinean author Federico Andanahzi. His interpretation is not as macabre: it’s rather one of ‘exploration’. This is the fictional recount of the discovery of the clitoris, by Mateo Colon (Matteo Colombo), a real person, who studied at the University of Padua in the XVI century: an ironic parallel with the discovery of America by the homonymous Cristobal Colon (Cristoforo Colombo or Christopher Colombus).


Mateo Colon, infatuated with the beautiful courtesan Mona Sophia, is rejected; a fortuitous discovery (the mysteries of the clitoris, thanks to a patient, Ines), makes him confident that he has ‘cracked’ the code to make any woman fall in love- through the clitoris. For this, he will be almost arrested and burnt at the stake by the Church. When he returns to Mona Sophia, he finds her wasted and dying of syphilis: hence he will not be able to put his discoveries into practice, and, heartbroken, he commits suicide. A work on fiction based on a true story, the book is hilariously funny: it runs as two parallel stories, the discovery of America- and the discovery of the clitoris.

‘Anatomy’ is in both cases used to access a higher knowledge: this knowledge is not anatomical in essence. The real mystery is the mystery of attraction and desire, associated to the body but also to something that goes beyond the body: what that is, no-one can explain. There is a whole ‘industry’ dedicated to ‘seduction’ and understanding what ‘the other’ desires: books, scents, films, experts, clothing. It’s true that there may be individuals who are more skilled than others at ‘selling’ themselves to attract a sexual mate or a relationship, hence there is indeed a space of for discussion and sharing: but there are so many variations in human nature that there can’t possibly be a ‘formula’ to seduce. A lot is down to chance, chemistry and what the individual is looking for in that stage of their life, their programming and overall awareness. Some even say it’s down to karma.


There are parallels between sexuality and horror. There is something voyeuristic about horror, whatever the reasons why the reader/viewer approaches the subject: there is a component of curiosity in watching a fictional but disturbing situation from a place of safety. While images are the main currency of cinema and TV, obviously, words are what literature trades with: and words can be used as ‘triggers’. This is why phone and online sex have become so popular – it’s a safe, fantasy world where the reality of dealing with a ‘real’ person and consequences do not apply: the same with horror, where we are presented with what we know is a ‘fantasy’ situation.


Fantasy is also the main currency in chat rooms and in internet ‘relationships’ in general. Having interviewed several participants in sub/dom chat rooms, what emerged was that such internet relationships are generally considered harmless by the perpetrators, because they satisfy a need that is not primarily sexual, it’s psychological. The participants need to either feel dominated or dominate: the fact that this actually happens via words makes it safe and perhaps acceptable. Such activities are not viewed as interfering with ‘normal life’ e.i. a partner: it is generally agreed though that the partner might not see it that way. ‘Words are your tool’, in the very words of an anonymous chatter, ‘Since there is no way for physical contact, you must find out what words are "triggers" to get your partner charged up.’


Literature uses the same process, and so do desire and horror: words are there to trigger and emotional/physiological response: words though are symbols, and as such they are associated to a whole background of ‘concepts’ based on our cultural experience. The vampire for example lives in a ‘horrotica’ zone: a living dead, who reproduces through ‘infection’; the vampire is also the personification of lust; and s/he is unholy because s/he has no soul. When the vampire first became popular, in the XVIII-XIX century, society was governed by much stricter sexual mores: the vampire was therefore ‘monstrous’ because of the fact that it was seen as a corrupting influence (whether people were happy to be ‘corrupted’, is a different matter altogether). Modern vampires have become rather sexy: Western society has also become openly hedonistic - sexual mores have evolved dramatically.

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to analyse desire: it’s a primal force, like fear. Physiologically speaking, there is little difference between what happens in a fight-or-flight situation or when desire is triggered, although the sensations involved are different.


Vampire horror fiction satisfy the public’s need to experience fear/dominance/submission/horror/sex: it’s a powerful package that it contains not only ‘fear triggers’, but also ‘sexual triggers’- and a cathartic encounter with the unspeakable ‘shadow’ self.



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    • holisticthealth profile image
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      holisticthealth 5 years ago from London , UK

      Absolutely, I agree: 'desire' as described in the article is physical attraction, rather than the whole package. Relationships are about desire and emotions and 'blending' and so much more than sexual attraction. The vampire is by definition a being that is incapable of emotions: hence there can't be a relationship, rather I would say a vampiric act resulting in death , or, in the best case scenario, death of the previous self and transformation into a vampire. A new being is born, via infection rather than reproduction.

    • psychicdog.net profile image

      psychicdog.net 5 years ago

      Very interesting thanks HH. This reminds me of my Arts degree years ago - the unspeakable shadow indeed - however I think fear is a function of an apprehension with sex because it is an encounter rather than a relationship with an unknown partner - vampires are unknown or anonymous monsters and that is part of the "anatomy" I think you attempt to describe here. However, I would say it is not the whole anatomy of desire - there is a huge difference between a committed relationship and a half-hearted encounter.

    • holisticthealth profile image
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      holisticthealth 5 years ago from London , UK

      Totally agree Zionsphere :) I find this aspect of the human psyche rather fascinating! I think it's about the need of expressing the 'shadow' in us, a shadow that is unacceptable in civilized society: personally I think it's very important, as 'repressing' the shadow can only bring people to become it.

    • zionsphere profile image

      zionsphere 5 years ago from Oregon

      I think both desire and horror have an element of forbidden love. We are not supposed to be entertained by either torrid lust, or intense violence, so when we are exposed to either, it creates an unparaelled physical and emotional reaction. The combination can be overwhelming.