March 15, 2000
life | extra
Some like it cold
The joy of sex with the dead.
By Thomas Roche
NECROPHILIA: IT is, quite literally, the last sexual frontier. The mere mention of this far-out fetish brings nervous titters to the lips of jaded urban perverts and awestruck rapture to the eyes of wanna-be Goths everywhere. Necrophilia is, in a sense, the epitome of sexual transgression and it's coming soon to a graveyard near you.
Or is it?
Jacquie Taylor, president of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, says necrophilia is almost unheard of in her profession. "We teach to a standardized curriculum outline, and I'm not even sure that it's mentioned per se," she says. "I've been doing this a long time, and it would be such a rare subject to have come up. I guess it's something in our industry that polite company just doesn't talk about."
Asked whether the practice actually occurs but is hushed up, as the urban legends would have us believe, Taylor says, "I just really don't think so, because the funeral industry is pretty small, and people know each other pretty well. There would be rumors going around. Personally, my conclusion has been that it is more of an urban legend. I'm sure there are people out there that are inclined that way, but it's just not something that comes across our radar screen."
Even if a lot of morticians aren't out there having sex with the dead, there's certainly a widespread cultural fascination with necrophilia. The erotic content of many horror films especially older films, from a time when sexuality wasn't nearly as accepted in cinema speaks to the connection between fear, especially fear of death, and sex. And doesn't the sexy femme fatale always try to kill James Bond, a scene that usually ends with her ending up croaked instead? Kiss-kiss bang-bang is a time-honored formula for box office dollars, and it all boils down to death equals sex, something authority figures have told us since Moses came down from the mountain.
In today's cyberworld, in which the Internet offers a 24-7 orgy where any perversion can be had, there's a whole subculture of people who get off on death in one form or another. Some of them even do it in real life, not by screwing the dead but by playing dead and screwing. Yet "pure" necrophilia, in which one is aroused by actual dead bodies, is comparatively rare.
Necrophilic erotica differs from snuff, the erotic treatment of murder fantasies, because necrophilia is about congress with the dead, not making them that way. There are dozens of stories out there about getting off on murder, but very little about sex with people who just happen to be dead. There's a world of difference between whacking somebody and simply appreciating the body of someone who's already met his or her untimely end. But in such taboo territory, how do you draw that line?
Sex with the dead
Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary defines necrophilia as "1. Abnormal interest in corpses" and "2. Sexual intercourse with a dead body." By that definition, necrophilia is either exceedingly common or incredibly rare. Abnormal interest in corpses is, if you ask me, the flip side of most people's death aversion just note the body count in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
In common parlance the word is often used metaphorically to refer to an obsession with the past, everything from the baby boomers' admiration of Jefferson Airplane and JFK to speaking favorably of Richard Nixon. For stand-up comics and UCLA frat boys, necrophilia creeps its creepy way into tasteless jokes about rape, murder, sadism, and bestiality, as if all so-called extreme behaviors were equivalent to it. And one has only to look as far as the covers of pulp crime-noir paperbacks from the '50s and '60s for proof of the more explicit male pop culture obsession with the dead female body. Of course, whether those covers represent an actual death fetish or just a convenient way to show a bound and lingerie-clad knockout dame on a Mickey Spillane novel is anyone's guess.
Alfred Kinsey's landmark studies Sexual Behavior in the Human Female and Sexual Behavior in the Human Male are largely silent on the subject of necrophilia, says Ted McIlvenna, president of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. He says that subsequent studies at the institute and elsewhere also haven't turned up much about necrophilia, in statistical terms, to study. "We find such a small percentage. We do find it does take place, but it's very, very rare. Much rarer than people realize."
Au contraire, retorts necrophilia poster child Karen Greenlee, faced with the same question, in her famous interview with Jim Morton in the Adam Parfrey book Apocalypse Culture. Greenlee was arrested after stealing a young male body (and the Hearse) from a Sacramento funeral home; in a letter left in the coffin, she confessed to having had sex with numerous male corpses. At Greenlee's trial one funeral director testified regarding how often necrophilia occurs. According to Greenlee, "He said, 'It's almost unheard of in this profession.' " Greenlee countered, "Necrophilia is more prevalent than most people imagine. Funeral homes just don't report it."
I asked McIlvenna if his information on the prevalence of necrophilia might say more about the infrequency of reporting than the actual incidence of necrophilia. He replied that he just didn't think the behavior was at all common. "When we asked the question in a medical school situation, we found only two people out of seven thousand who'd ever done it," he said. "They had touched genitalia, but there was not actually any penetration."
McIlvenna says the survey he referred to was not an anonymous sample, leading me to wonder what the hell inspired those two medical students to confess to necrophilia, penetrative or otherwise. If I were screwing corpses, I sure as hell wouldn't tell anybody about it. Unless she asked nicely.
McIlvenna muses, "I think people are fascinated by the fact that suddenly somebody can't fight back. But the touch factor turns people off. Touching a dead body is quite different from touching a live body. It's a real turnoff."
Predictably enough, Greenlee disagrees. As she told Morton, "That body is just lying there, but it has what it takes to make me happy. The cold, the aura of death, the smell of death, the funereal surroundings, it all contributes.... I find the odor of death very erotic. There are death odors and there are death odors. Now you get your body that's been floating in the bay for two weeks, or a burn victim, that doesn't attract me much, but a freshly embalmed corpse is something else. There is also this attraction to blood. When you're on top of a body it tends to purge blood out of its mouth, while you're making passionate love.... You'd have to be there, I guess."
Since all corpses are hardly created equal, it's worth mentioning the difference between the processing of bodies intended for dissection by med students and those meant to look pretty for the wife and kids.
"In medical school most of the cadavers they're getting are highly embalmed," points out Michael (a pseudonym), a cemetery worker who was trained and apprenticed as an embalmer. "They're being embalmed specifically for cadaveric work. So the strength of the embalming solution they use is much higher, because it's not about aesthetics, and it's not about making them look even remotely lifelike. It's just preserving them. So yeah, I could see how a med student wouldn't be interested. But in a mortuary it's different, because it's all about making them look like they're 'sleeping.' "
Even so, he says, after his years in the funeral industry, "I can only think of one instance when I worked with a guy who would spend a little bit more time than he should bathing [the dead] and that sort of thing. It wasn't penetration, it wasn't out-and-out sex, but it was enough that it certainly made me uncomfortable."
Michael feels strongly that necrophilia is an extremely objectionable behavior. "On one level, it's such an affront," he says. "You're entrusted with the body of someone's loved one or their spouse. And to take advantage of that trust is tantamount to rape or child molestation. To use someone's body not only against their will or without their consent but you're talking about someone who can't give their consent. And yeah, you'll hear those who will argue the point that well, it's just a shell, and the person is really not there. And my answer to that is, yes, let me hear you answer that same question when we're talking about your mom. A lot of people will joke about it and think it's really funny or whatever. But I don't see the humor in it, the same way I don't see the humor in jokes made about rape or about pedophilia. It is a sacred trust given to you by a family to take care of something worth, to them, more than any material possession could ever be."
Taylor of the mortuary college also puts to rest, if you'll forgive the pun, that most tired of necrophiliac urban legends. Male corpses do not get erections. "It just doesn't happen." She does mention that in some cases of "death by sexual misadventure" the coroner's term for autoerotic asphyxiation the body might have an erection for a short time after death, but she says it would not be a lasting condition. Anatomic and clinical pathologist Ed Friedlander says, "Erection and ejaculation during judicial hanging are probably legends," he says. And numerous other sources corroborate the fact that postmortem erections don't exist.
Not that that would matter to a dedicated necrophiliac. "People have this misconception that there has to be penetration for sexual gratification, which is bull!" Greenlee told Morton. "The most sensitive part of a woman is the front area anyway and that is what needs to be stimulated."
Canadian Lynne Stopkewich's film Kissed is undoubtedly the most mainstream film about necrophilia, though a few others have touched on the topic (infamous underground film Necromantik being a particularly tasteless example and Nacho Cerda's Aftermath being a more recent, more artfully done, entry). Stopkewich, now 35, made Kissed, interestingly enough, with grants from the Canadian government. Despite its unusual subject matter and a fair amount of controversy surrounding it, Kissed was very well received in Canada and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. It won the Special Jury Citation for Best Canadian Feature at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival.
Based on the short story "We So Seldom Speak of Love," by Toronto writer Barbara Gowdy, Kissed portrays the ongoing relationship between a young woman and the dead bodies she desires. Her obsession begins at adolescence, when a playfully pagan ritual with dead animals heralds the coming of the girl's first period. This sense of coming of age, of transition from one phase to another, suffuses Kissed and gives it its greater metaphor. The girl believes she is guiding her charges from the land of the living to the land of the dead, and she holds a high spiritual regard for their bodies and spirits. "I've seen bodies shining like stars," enthuses the film's main character, giving us a hint of the kind of spiritual perspective we're about to get, as the character talks about "crossing over" with her expired lovers. It's an effective film, quite beautiful, and eminently tasteful.
As Stopkewich told Thom Carnell of Carpe Noctem magazine in a recent interview, "Part of the reason why I chose this story was that I was absolutely and utterly terrified of death. It's almost like forced therapy! Confronting the thing that terrifies you the most and not only deal with it, but eroticize it. The larger taboo of the film is not the fact that she's having sex with dead men, but that the film even deals with death."
Talking about the trials of having her actors play dead, Stopkewich told a Canadian wire service, "We had to pull out a lot of shots where you could see the pulse and that. It's a very difficult thing to achieve. People think all you have to do is close your eyes and lie back."
But if playing dead isn't easy, it can certainly be fun. Witness a group of hot, naked, wanna-be dead chicks who reside, predictably enough, on the Internet, at www.NecroBabes.com. Billed as "A Friendly Place to Play Dead" and administered by Vicki (who, not incidentally, makes a hell of a fetching stiff), NecroBabes offers you guessed it necrophilia porn. Professional photographers take shots of attractive young women posing in various states of postmortem repose for example, stretched on an aluminum autopsy table or sprawled nude on an apartment floor outlined in chalk. With its still photographs divided into "The Morgue," "Crime Scenes," and "The Funeral Home," NecroBabes raises the fetish for cold flesh to an art form.
There are other erotic sites that focus on death, but it's usually mingled with cannibalism, torture, and murder. NecroBabes and Rob's Necrophilia Fantasy (www.burknet.com/robsfantasy) are about the only Web sites that spend a fair amount of time on actual dead folks, as opposed to how they got that way. There has yet to be a club formed, even in pervert-heavy San Francisco, for people who want to play dead. (Any takers?)
Vicki's interest in NecroBabes' subject matter stems from her own desire to play dead. It's a little harder (though certainly not impossible) to level charges of exploitation when Vicki admits freely on the NecroBabes site that her fondest sexual fantasy is to be dead in a sense, totally helpless, and totally available. "The turn-on, I would have to say, is the idea of having a woman who is letting the guy do all the work as she plays dead," Vicki says. Asked whether that fetish might translate into any actual necrophilia, Vicki has this to say: "I don't have much insight into anything 'real.' Our site is strictly fantasy. This is just about girls playing dead. Or perhaps Sleepy Girls," she adds, referring to an associated fetish, popular on the Internet, for passed-out, drugged, or sleeping women. NecroBabes links to a site that features numerous photo stories and still photographs on that topic.
As far as the demographics of their members/viewers goes, Vicki says, "I would take a stab here and say they're mostly European, but we have many members from Japan. These are guys who were turned on by the girl next door when they played cowboys and Indians and she played dead. Or seeing the covers of the detective magazines with the model posing in a crime scene. Anything real is a turnoff."
Myriel, another NecroBabes model, points out that most of the women who pose for NecroBabes are just professional models doing a modeling job and that they are not turned on by death. "Except for Vicki and me," she adds.
Vicki's fetish for death began at an early age, when she played a dead girl in a school play. "Although I didn't know it at the time, I enjoyed being handled and moved while playing dead," she says. "After the experience, I would always enjoy opportunities to play dead. When we would play cowboys, Indians, or war, I died well. I enjoy fantasizing about being killed. This includes handling and sexual manipulation of my body."
Vicki muses, "I'm normally a very independent, controlled person. In my fantasies, I'm killed. Then I have no more control. My killer can then do what ever he (or she) wants with my body. I don't have to orchestrate, just allow them to indulge themselves."
NecroBabes recently launched NecroDudes, with the tag line "Now It's Our Turn," giving equal time to the other side of the gender gravestone.
Speaking just for myself, I'm flattered.
However taboo a given topic, sexual or otherwise, may be whatever horrific response it may evoke in people confronted with it its taboo nature doesn't end where it begins. We are frightened, titillated, and disgusted by necrophilia because we are frightened, titillated, and disgusted by death. And how could we not be? In many ways, death is the defining moment of our humanity. Beyond it, we are something else. Whatever your attitude toward necrophilia, death is something you are going to kiss, like it or not, sooner or later.