LURID: Dead Sexy Valentine - Necrophilia In Fiction
LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.
Necrophilia. From the Greek, of course: ‘Necros’, meaning ‘dead’, and ‘philia’ – the verb ‘to fill’.
—The Doug Anthony Allstars, Dead & Alive
This Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for necrophiles. They won’t be parading alongside their partners in over-priced restaurants tonight, nor will they be exchanging gifts. They’ll be conducting clandestine assignations, furtive caresses in the stainless steel silence of an after-hours morgue or the clammy dark of a cemetery. They won’t be seeking the pop-song cliché of two hearts beating as one, but yearn instead for the thump of one heart beating for two. They’re unlikely to share, even with their closest friends, that their idea of a romantic evening is "to crack open a cold one". During today’s celebration of all things hearts and flowers, it’s still the love that genuinely dare not speak its name.
We’re talking about the real deal, copulation with inert, decomposing envelopes of skin and organs, not the necro-lite peddled by urban fantasies about ambulatory, emo personalities who merely refuse to define themselves as “alive”. In Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects (2011) Dr Anil Aggrawal categorizes ten different types of necrophiles, ranging from those who enjoy sexual roleplay with a partner pretending to be dead to those who kill with the express intent of copulating with a corpse. As with any other aspect of human sexuality there’s a spectrum of behavior involved, from secret fantasies to graverobbing.
Is necrophilia the ultimate taboo? There are plenty of death-metal rockers who like to think so, as they incorporate images of corpse violation into their album art and lyrics — see Formaldehyde Fuckbag by Cesspool of Vermin (“Trusted with your loved one’s remains/before they're taken to the grave/The hunger grows inside me/My loins burn as if they're on fire”) – expressly to outrage the straights. Horror movie icons like Jason, Freddy, and Otis B. Driftwood long ago learned the value of a gross-out “Eww” from pleasuring themselves with rotting flesh. Even characters in video games are getting in on the unmentionable act – Donald Love in Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories asks players to fetch corpses as his dates.
Fiction writers also like to toss a spot of slab jockeying into a character’s resumé as a badge of transgressive bravado. Patrick Bateman wouldn’t be Patrick Bateman if he didn’t indulge in a post-mortem priapic workout (“I’m so hard I can even walk around the blood-soaked room carrying the head, which feels warm and weightless, on my dick”). Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Lester Ballard (“a crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse”), decorates his cave with dead girlfriends, arranging them alongside his cherished plush toys. In Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, Carl Streator has to live with the memory of what he did to his wife (“The loose smile on her face, the way her mouth came open at the last moment and her head sunk deep into the pillow, she was so quiet. It was the best it had been since before Katrin was born”) without knowing she had been dead for some hours.
Despite all this open-fly posturing alongside human remains, necrophilia isn’t quite as outrageous or abnormal as other paraphilias. It’s easier to comprehend the attraction to a corpse – which was once human – than it is to grasp exactly why people want to hump trees or cars. Necrophiles are often lonely, isolated individuals who’ve had off-putting experiences when attempting to form relationships with the living. Loving the dead isn’t easy, but rejection, cruelty, or ridicule is never going to be an issue – at least not with the sex partner. It’s not actually illegal in a number of US states, and, where a law is on the books, interfering with a corpse in a manner that “would outrage ordinary family sensibilities” ranges from a Class A felony (Nevada) to a second degree misdemeanor (Pennsylvania). Illinois only outlawed sex acts with a corpse (now a Class 2 felony) on January 1st this year. From a technical standpoint, it’s a victimless crime, as a corpse has passed beyond the point of harm or consent. It boils down to the nitty-gritty of property and personhood and, yes, you’ve guessed it, the states with the most stringent anti-abortion measures have the vaguest statutes about rights after death – Mississippi, we’re looking at you.
Necrophilia has been a part of our shared sexual consciousness for a long time – at least since Thersites accused Achilles of boffing the slain Amazonian Queen, Penthesilea, during the Trojan War. It’s part of the litany of both high and low culture over centuries. Traditional European fairy tales, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty feature deceased females who are brought back to life by “a kiss”. The desire of the living for the dead has been a plot device since Shakespeare’s day. The Elizabethans were fascinated by new scientific ideas about physical decomposition and the separation of body and soul. For them, the act of copulation with a corpse was situated at the intersection of Love and Death (quite literally, it represents a probing of the mystery). The Bard depicts Hamlet and Laertes leaping into Ophelia’s open grave, where they grapple over who loves her most. In The Revenger’s Tragedy, Vindice carries the skull of his nine-years-dead love, Gloriana, around with him, fondling it, kissing it, and using it as a prop in his nefarious schemes.
Half In Love With Easeful Death
In his 1846 essay, The Philosophy of Composition, Edgar Allan Poe declares “the death of a beautiful woman” to be “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”. In his writing, corpse women play just as vital a part in proceedings as their live counterparts. Death might even make them more desirable. Necrophilia casts a shadow across several of his creations. In The Fall of The House of Usher, the narrator approves the “singular proceeding” of interring Madeline’s remains in a secure vault for a fortnight, citing her beauty and “the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family” as grounds for taking this precaution. Ligeia returns from beyond the grave by occupying the corpse of her successor. As her opium-addled husband watches the ‘revivication’ take place, he’s fascinated by the necrophiliac aesthetic, the “icy chilliness, the livid hue, the intense rigidity, the sunken outline”. When “the thing that was enshrouded” totters towards him, he’s ready and waiting for his lost love. In Annabel Lee, the dedication of the bereaved narrator is framed in the terms of highest, purest romance, rather than what might be interpreted as a damp and uncomfortable reality:
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride
In her sepulcher there by the sea—
In her tomb by the side of the sea.
Poe’s elevation of dead women to sacred status inaugurates the Victorian obsession with the mystery and purity of death. The Victorians embraced Spiritualism, built elaborate mausoleums where the dead could be housed and receive visitors, and conducted extended ‘Memento Mori’ photography sessions with corpses, posing the deceased in a lifelike manner alongside still-living family members. During the Civil War, the thousands of soldiers who died several days’ journey from home created a demand for embalming and it gradually became the norm (in North America at least) to seek lifelike preservation of the corpse for as long as possible. The lily-scented, brightly lit funeral parlor replaced the charnel house, and a whole new industry, undertaking, sprang up with the sole purpose of making dead bodies as attractive, naturalistic and sanitary as possible. Instead of encouraging rapid decomposition, funeral directors sold grieving relatives on the idea of ‘protecting’ their lost loved ones inside steel caskets and waterproof liners, without ever explaining why this was a desirable outcome. It's become part of the American Dream: No matter how fast you live, or how young you die, everyone gets a beautiful corpse.
If The Mausoleum’s A-Rocking, Don’t Come A-Knocking
As the twentieth century evolved, this fetishization of the ‘lifelike’ in funerary arrangements hinted at tacit cultural approval of necrophilic fantasy. Indeed, when an eccentric German radiologist turned Annabel Lee into reality, he was hailed as a romantic hero, not a criminal.
In 1930, the self-proclaimed “Count” Carl Von Cosel (aka Carl Tanzler) worked at the Marine Hospital in Key West, where he met 21 year-old tuberculosis patient, Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos. Despite the fact that both Von Cosel and de Hoyos were already married to other people, he believed her to be “the one”, the bride from a past life who had been appearing to him in visions. The fifty year-old showered the object of his affections with gifts, but there’s no evidence it was anything but unrequited lust. At least, while de Hoyos was still alive. She died in October 1931, and was initially buried, unembalmed, in a common grave. Von Cosel was horrified, and, with her family’s permission, had her remains exhumed, cleaned up and reinterred in a metal casket in an above-ground mausoleum. To which he had the only key.
For the next two years, Von Cosel visited de Hoyos nightly, chatting with her on a specially installed telephone, wooing her with flowers and expensive gifts. He concluded that she was unhappy with her present digs, and, one dark and moonless night, he liberated her from the tomb. Unfortunately, where her spirit may, apparently, have been willing, her rotting flesh was weak. Von Cosel was faced with a major reconstruction project. He replaced her splitting skin with a mixture of wax and silk, rewired her skeleton with piano wire, gave her glass eyes, a wig made from her own hair. He stuffed her hollow body cavities with preservative-soaked rags and anointed her with perfumes to mask the stench. He garbed her in a wedding dress, and didn’t just give her a ring, but a whole prosthetic finger to put it on. Then, he laid her beside him in his bed, where she remained (apart from – according to neighbors – the odd dance session in the living room) for the next seven years.
This was life imitating art. William Faulkner’s A Rose For Emily, a short story about a haughty Southern spinster determined not to let a suitor slip from her clutches, was published in 1930. While Emily’s secret, the poisoned lover putrefying between her sheets, isn’t discovered until after she, too, is dead, Von Cosel was eventually found out. In 1940, De Hoyos’ sister, Nana, became very suspicious of Von Cosel’s behavior and investigated his domestic arrangements. She was horrified to discover Elena posed as a corpse bride, and called the police. Von Cosel was imprisoned pending trial, while his reconstructive handiwork was put on display at a funeral home. More than 6000 visitors came to pay their respects, and Von Cosel became something of a celebrity, with people offering him gifts and financial support. Unfortunately for the Florida prosecutors, the statute of limitation on grave robbing was two years. As Von Cosel had committed the offence seven years previously, he walked free. To prevent a repeat offense, Elena was chopped into pieces and buried in an unmarked plot.
Von Cosel lived for many years, enjoying visits from curious well-wishers (who paid to look around his ‘laboratory’, the disused airplane where he rebuilt Elena), and penning his memoirs. Public opinion cast him as a kooky, broken-hearted lover, unable to handle bereavement, unable to let Elena go, a chaste widower-wannabe rather than a full-blown necrophile. However, twenty years after his death (in 1952, hunched over a wax effigy of his beloved), the coroner (Dr. DePoo) saw fit to release this nugget of information: “I made the examination in the funeral home. The breasts really felt real. In the vaginal area, I found a tube wide enough to permit sexual intercourse. At the bottom of the tube was cotton, and in an examination of the cotton, I found there was sperm. Then I knew we were dealing with a sexual pervert.”
Von Cosel’s case continues to fascinate, and is the subject of a couple of books (Ben Harrison’s Undying Love: The True Story of a Passion that Defied Death and Tom Swicegood’s Von Cosel) that go into all the lurid peccadilloes of the affair, which include a massive Tesla coil and a pipe organ. Along with Von Cosel’s memoir, sold as The Secret of Elena's Tomb: The Confessions of Carl Von Cosel, they make disturbing reading in the context of twenty-first century discussions about consent. Even in Florida, it’s difficult to imagine Von Cosel being treated as a sympathetic figure today: Elena’s “No” should have continued to mean “No”, even after she was dead.
While the majority of necrophiliacs are male, there are some significant female cases, in both fact and fiction. Oscar Wilde’s Salomé demands the head of John The Baptist “for mine own pleasure”. Alive, John spurned her advances, but once she has his decapitated head in her hands she’s the one making all the decisions:
Ah, thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit.
Jim Morton’s 1985 interview with self-confessed “morgue rat”, Karen Greenlee (The Unrepentant Necrophile) offers unique insight into the mindset of a woman who much prefers the dead to the living. Like many others who want easy access to a morgue, Karen was a career mortician, above suspicion until she stole a hearse and disappeared for a two-day jaunt with the body inside. When the police caught up with her, they discovered a lengthy letter inside the casket describing her sexual escapades with dozens of other male corpses. She was subjected to eleven days in jail, fined $255 and placed on two years’ probation including therapy. She was also slapped with a civil lawsuit by the mother of the deceased. Five years after the scandal, she exhibits little remorse to Morton, and instead talks candidly about her unusual erotic impulses:
There are different aspects of sexual expression: touchy-feely, 69, even holding hands. 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… Sure, 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.
The Unrepentant Necrophile was the inspiration for We So Seldom Look on Love by Barbara Gowdy (filmed in 1996 as Kissed). This elegant story takes a similarly open-minded approach to the material, and represents the heroine’s desire to lie down with the dead as unusual, rather than evil. The unnamed narrator has a long history of fascination with the dead and dying, but she’s also “blonde and pretty” (she’s asked at one point to compete in a local beauty pageant) and has a living boyfriend, Matt. She believes her attraction to corpses comes from the burst of energy that occurs as a human transitions between the state of life and death (“I’ve seen cadavers shining like stars”) rather than any feelings of rejection or inadequacy with living lovers. She goes straight from Matt’s bed to break into the morgue, lured by the scent “of danger and permission”, where she “broke into a wild dance, tearing my clothes off, spinning around, pulling at my hair”. This is just foreplay:
Once the dancing was over I was always very calm, almost entranced. I drew back the sheet. This was the most exquisite moment. I felt as if I were being blasted by white light. Almost blinded, I climbed onto the table and straddled the corpse. I ran my hands over his skin. My hands and the insides of my thighs burned as if I were touching dry ice. After a few minutes I lay down and pulled the sheet up over my head. I began to kiss his mouth. By now he might be drooling blood. A corpse’s blood is thick, cool and sweet. My head roared.
The female necrophile is a strangely subversive figure, challenging conventions about female passivity during sex. Although Gowdy’s narrator frames her necrophilia as worshipful, the ultimate act of homage, she’s still a predator. Her professed spirituality can’t hide the fact that she seeks out the mute and unresisting in order to sate her sexual desires. At least she only hunts among the already dead. She never crosses the line into homicidal (or “warm”) necrophilia, which involves killing specifically for the purpose of having sex with the victim.
Love is… Aggravated Homicide
Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse revolves around two necrophiliacs who are as warm as they come. The title comes from a game invented by the Surrealists, in which players write or draw on a piece of paper, fold it, then hand it on to the next player to continue the creation. Brite fictionalizes real-life necrophile serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer and constructs their strange meeting in New Orleans, against the backdrop of the first-wave AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. She builds on their actual case histories (Nilsen, the Muswell Hill Murderer, was jailed in the UK for the murder of 15 young men and boys in 1983, while Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, was beaten to death in jail in 1994, after also being convicted of 15 homicides), but makes the characters entirely her own. The sensual narrative shifts between Andrew Compton (Nilsen) and Jay Byrne (Dahmer), luxuriating in their degenerate desires.
I [Andrew] liked my boys as they were, big dead dolls with an extra weeping crimson mouth or two. I would keep them with me for as much as a week, until the smell in my flat grew obvious. I did not find the odour of death unpleasant. It was rather like cut flowers left too long in stagnant water, a heavy sickish sweetness that coated the nostrils and curled into the back of the throat with every breath.
Andrew escapes from jail (by, naturally, playing dead) and arrives in New Orleans where he flirts with Jay in a bar, before accompanying him home to his French Quarter mansion. Jay’s planning to kill Andrew, Andrew’s planning to kill Jay, so imagine the mutual shock when the cat-and-mouse maneuvers turn into something completely different: cat vs. cat. Their brief mating dance involves handcuffs, a brandished corkscrew, and a key hidden inside a frozen head. It’s a match made in hell, especially when they start hunting for threesome partners. This is necrophilia at its most extreme and degenerate, but it’s a love story, nonetheless. Graphic, brutal, deeply disturbing, Exquisite Corpse is not for the faint-hearted. Just as Carl Streator can’t unfuck his dead wife, you can't unread this book.
Honest, decent, normosexual citizens may recoil at the idea of getting up close and personal with decomp, but loving the dead remains a seductive concept for artists of all stripes. In a culture transfixed by the belief that only the smooth vitality of youth can be sexually attractive, the eroticism of decay is truly seditious. In our self-obsessed society, necrophilia might even represent the optimum in short-term, instantly gratifying relationships: it won't last, and your partner will take all your dirty little secrets to their grave.
Happy Valentine's Day!
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