Sex, Nudity, And Rape In Horror Comics: Where Are The New Lines?

By Alex Townsend

CW: Rape

Horror is arguably one of the most difficult genres to understand. Just what is it about being frightened that people love? Is it the literal heady rush of adrenaline? The lancing of psychological blisters? How do we navigate between what is “art,” what is “fun,” and what is “too far?” Can a creator traverse arguably invisible — but recognizable — societal boundaries while depicting a certain story? And how do we all agree on what those lines should be, as we all find different things frightening, disturbing, or sacred?

While these are all complicated questions to answer, perhaps one of the most prevalent — and problematic — manifestations of horror is the ubiquity of sexualized violence. Time and again we’ve seen young women get their clothes ripped off by murderers, monsters seeking scantily-clad virgins, and female corpses left behind in the most provocative of poses. A 2009 study from the University of Albany on sex and violence in horror films found that 83% of the films studied featured at least partial nudity. Of these, 76% of the disrobed characters were women. These images aren’t just common; they’re cliché. It’s an issue seen throughout horror in every medium, including in comic books.

That’s why it’s intriguing to see that some major horror comics are going in a new direction when it comes to dealing with sexuality. Two of the most prominent horror titles on the stands — Clean Room, by Gail Simone and Jonathan Davis-Hunt, and Providence, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows — feature nudity, sex, and rape quite heavily, but diverge in their depictions, surfacing salient lines in the sand when depicting sexual violence and the human form.

Clean Room tells the story of Chloe Pierce, a reporter determined to discover the truth about a dangerously powerful cult and its charismatic leader, Astrid Mueller. Astrid seems heartless, but is actually using her hold on the people around her to fight against mysterious and monstrous Entities that are slowly but surely taking over people across the globe. The Entities are invisible to most, but know all of humanity’s deepest, darkest fears.

Clean Room features many scenes that depict different facets of sexuality, nudity being the least of what it tackles. But every time sex is presented, literally or metaphysically, it’s obvious that the reader is intended to see these parts as either horrific or matter-of-fact. At the beginning of the series, for instance, we first see Chloe in her underwear, preparing to drown herself in a pond. Although she is topless, there is nothing provocative about the scene; the mood is somber and her nudity feels incidental.

On the other hand, when it’s time to scare readers, Clean Room doesn’t hold back from offering up sex on the altar of terror. The Entities speak in sickening detail about the sex lives of those around them, about how wet Astrid or Chloe are at any given time, and about the perverse things they could make even the most wholesome person say. The Entities are unnerving in every way, yet they also never suggest rape, even as they take control of a person’s body and use it to maim them, twist them into literal knots, or reshape them so they don’t even look human anymore. Some things remain sacred.

When I asked Simone to talk to me about the exclusion of sexual violence as a vehicle for terror, she explained, “What the Entities enjoy is torment. It can be physical, it can be emotional, mental. But we have not yet seen any evidence of them committing sexual violence. It’s not that I don’t think those stories can be told with integrity in thrillers and horror, but in this case, that has not been shown to be what they’re about . . . they don’t want to see your flesh; they want to see your flesh crawl.”

Simone also explained that her use of nudity in non-sexual situations was very deliberate, as something that has a special way of unnerving readers. “The interesting contrast for me is the mixture of sex and horror, within a sterile, institutional environment. A naked person on a four-poster bed is one thing; a naked person standing upright in a hospital or laboratory creates a little disconnect on a gut-level that I find very interesting. There’s a fatalism, a clinical detachment that somehow makes it more shocking.”

Providence is also about a reporter — a man named Robert Black hailing from the year 1919. Robert decides to investigate the occult communities of America, which inevitably leads him down a dark and maddening path as he encounters many of the most famous characters penned by H.P. Lovecraft. These characters include murderers looking for a way to bring back the dead, cultists who seek to summon otherworldly monsters, and men who willingly breed with frightening fish-creatures who want to take over the world. At first Robert assumes all these people are delusional and dismisses any odd things he sees as being the result of hallucinations or bizarre misunderstandings. Eventually he can no longer deny that he’s found himself embedded in a deadly culture filled with evil magic.

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Lovecraft gets a sickening makeover in ‘Providence.’

Once again, like in Clean Room, nudity and sexuality have a strong presence without ever being voyeuristic. When monsters appear, their genitals are often visible, but there is a clear sense that this is meant to provoke discomfort in the reader, as opposed to the titillation that’s more common in horror. The monsters just aren’t the sorts of creatures that would wear clothes. There’s also symbolic nudity in dreams, and in situations where lovers are casually enjoying each other’s company.

However, Providence crosses a line that Clean Room never does. There are both creatures and people in Providence that are more-than-willing to commit rape, and the reader bears witness to every gruesome detail.

In short, these scenes seem to reflect Moore’s intention to make Lovecraft more frightening than ever before, as he said in an interview with Bleeding Cool: “We are trying to come up with a form of fiction that can address Lovecraft’s writings, his philosophy, and all the other aspects of the man and his world. At the same time, hopefully, it can be a more powerful, more shocking, and more intense vision of Lovecraft than any of the readers out there will have ever seen before.”

The first rape we see is in issue four, whose story is inspired by The Dunwich Horror. A woman named Letty is raped by her father while he is possessed by the cosmic entity Yog-Sothoth, impregnating her with a monster. It’s worth noting that there is no rape in the original Dunwich Horror. Instead Letty’s pregnancy is more of a mystery, possibly even willed into existence by Yog-Sothoth in a perverse retelling of the Virgin Mary story. Letty’s rape in Providence is something that Moore decidedly added to the story to make it more “intense.”

The second rape is by far the most disturbing part of the comic to date. At one point Robert — our reporter protagonist — meets a very precocious 13-year-old girl named Elspeth. When they are alone, Elspeth begins to take off her clothes, saying she plans to have sex with him. Robert is horrified and tries to leave, but in that instant Elspeth casts a spell and the two switch bodies.

It turns out that “Elspeth” is actually a very old man who has been living for centuries by stealing other people’s bodies. Now he seeks to impress Robert by showing off his skills. He does this by raping Robert with his own body while the reporter is still trapped as a 13-year-old girl. Afterwards they switch back and Robert can’t even comprehend what happened. Days later he wonders if he snapped and was himself the rapist, inexplicably attacking an innocent girl.

After that dark scene, Robert is raped again in issue 10 by a harbinger of the elder gods who wants to “thank” Robert for his services.

These scenes are all disturbing, frightening, and not at all erotic. But as provocative as they are, their inclusion in Providence also seems entirely unnecessary to the story. What’s worse, they don’t treat the subject of rape with the sort of sensitivity it requires. Of course, these are both complicated elements to explore for any genre, and after all, horror is meant to examine the darkest fears of humanity. Craig Fischer, comic book scholar and long-time fan of Alan Moore (creator of Watchman and V or Vendetta) acknowledges this tension between terror and tact:

“Should Moore (and Jacen Burrows) present such graphic sexual violence, especially in a patriarchal culture where we already have too many representations of violence against women? And especially if Moore and Burrows can still tell their story without being so explicit? . . . I’m a horror fan, and I find Moore and Burrows’ representations of sexual violence to be non-gratuitous, in no small measure because they are, providing me with the feelings of revulsion and dread I expect from effective horror . . . Others might disagree.”

What’s disconcerting at best and offensive at worst regarding these rape scenes is not that they boast any sort of titillation. Instead the problem is that the rapes seem to be present just for the sake of being shocking. Letty could have been magically impregnated like in The Dunwich Horror, Robert could have been terrified by Elspeth’s powers simply because of the body switch or even with an additional violent attack, and the harbinger’s “thanks” never needed to be sexual to be frightening.

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The torment of the Entities.

It’s here that it becomes very interesting to directly compare Providence with Clean Room. Both comics have strong sexual themes, body horror, and nudity. Both are very chilling comics in word and deed. But what Clean Room wonderfully demonstrates is that it’s possible to have all these elements without including scenes that reveal a stark lack of understanding and sympathy for the many victims of sexual assault in the world.

In Providence, women are barely present aside from scenes when they’re needed as sexual objects. In Clean Room, the majority of the cast is female. In fact, this was one of the selling points for comic shop worker Katie Proctor, who spoke to me on the subject. “I enjoy that powerful women can be villain, victim, and hero in Clean Room; I enjoy that there are enough women in the narrative that I don’t feel like their role is only to be naked on the page.”

Between these two comics, we can also see the shift in focus and the broadening perspective comic books have had in the last decade. Alan Moore is widely praised as one of the greatest comic writers of all time, but he also comes from an older generation, one that didn’t spend much time thinking about perspectives outside of those of white men. Gail Simone has made a name for herself in recent years, not just for her excellent storytelling, but also because of her dedication to increasing the visibility of women and minorities. In a way, Simone’s use of sexuality in Clean Room is all about philosophical empowerment through horror:

“Body horror is very powerful, and there’s more than a little of it in this book. But what is happening with a lot of these instances is more about the fact that we don’t normalize our own bodies at any stage of our development. We are sexualized, categorized, and prioritized by people we don’t even know all day long, every day of our lives. We are found desirable or undesirable, we are taught to hate ourselves regardless, to the point that when we meet someone who doesn’t have that point of view, we almost can’t relate to them at all.”

Clean Room is about being vulnerable,” Simone continued. “You can be strong, and have weak spots. You can be dignified, and be terrified to lose that dignity. My hope is that people read the book and give others less power over their own sense of worth. It’s difficult, but it’s very powerful.”

Clean Room is scary, but it also manages to be empowering because the people in it aren’t trapped by old tropes and stereotypes. There are people of color who are there organically. The women are complex and well-rounded characters. These characters have a chance to be brave and fight back. And, of course, anyone could still be gruesomely murdered at any time.

Providence and Clean Room are both refreshing for the way they solidly separate the issues of arousing sexuality and terrible violence. However, it’s clear that only Clean Room is aware that it has an audience that is more than white men. It’s an audience that needs and deserves to see stories where they can be scared, but also be present and treated with the respect that stems from equal treatment.

Sexual violence can happen to anyone, but it’s only certain groups (most notably women and those who are trans or gender nonbinary) who are taught to live in fear of it. Clean Room understands that good horror is based in good fantasy. It’s not about making us fear the real world more than we already do.

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