DIE, OR GET LAID TRYING (ON THE ROLE OF HORROR SHAPING ’90S SOFT-CORE)

Do successful horror films grow into franchises, or are they genetically bound to the insatiable libido of culture, forcing them to evolve into soft-core porn? While longevity among any horror brand has both its inevitable shark-jumping-in-space moment and inevitable reactionary prestige moment (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare; Halloween [2018]), there is a spiraling into eroticism that is particular to direct-to-video senility. Ghoulies only took three installments before it became Animal House plus rubber. Wishmaster‘s third and fourth installments were filmed in tandem and somehow still became sequentially more erotic, almost as if the process of filmmaking itself made the director hornier and hornier.

It would be easy to dismiss this trend as a reflection of producer greed. Certainly producers were aware that the video industry was built on giving people the two things they couldn’t get easily elsewhere: porn and video nasties. So why not just give people both? Greed is never the sole driving force of artistic creation though, not even when the art is purely pornographic. Waves of young, experimental directors were drawn to porn in the ’70s as laws loosened towards allowing more and more hardcore imagery. These artists wanted to be the first to work on this cutting edge. The specific motivations of every boobie-obsessed DTV horror director a decade later may not be as noble, but in the very least we can assume that artists, like all humans, enjoy sex and wouldn’t need a producer to twist their arms. There is another really important factor to consider, though. By the early ’90s it isn’t just horror that veers exponentially towards eroticism. Thrillers (Single White Female), crime dramas (Bound), coming of age films (Heavenly Creatures), and the marketing of an idea called “the indie film” all indulge unapologetically in deep sensuality. Skinemax rises, and what was once the slapstick of being Up-All-Nite morphs into something statuesque and serious. Even outside of cinema, culture has another sexual awakening with Madonna putting Sex right on the living room coffee table, HBO giving us permission to have Real Sex, and Demi Moore pregnant and nude on Vanity Fair just to barely describe the dildo-shaped iceberg tip. With this cultural and artistic inevitability everyone was hive-minding towards, perhaps the permissiveness of DTV horror sequels was allowing directors to participate in the swelling truth of society at that historic moment. While during the ’80s, the inserting of soft-core into horror was typically dismissed as cheapening, the sexual awakening of the ’90s gives us reason to reconsider. From the point of view of this illumination, it is the sequels made for theaters that look restrained and prudish, unable to take part in the growing wave of a new American awakening.

All of these intuitions are for exploring another day, though. What excites me the most – even in the midst of such an aroused topic – is when this sexual awakening in horror hit a mainstream beyond even DTV. In 1996, Showtime launched a TV series loosely based on the Poltergeist movies called Poltergeist: The Legacy. While the films themselves never took an erotic twist, the series is defined by it. Nearly all the primary characters work together as ghost busters, but the dramatic thrust tends to be an exploration of their shared character trait. They all use being workaholics as a coping mechanism for denying that they’re actually nymphomaniacs. Helping others spiritually 24/7 provides a self-imposed celibacy. The evil demons they face off against tend then to win battles by literally seducing them. The most common sort of villainous monologue in the show is always about how people shouldn’t deny their carnal instincts. There are sex scenes and the occasional flash of nudity, yet most of this eroticism exists as sexual tension and a general mood of psychological self-flagellation. This is not a far cry from the tension that X-Files was famous for, but Poltergeist: The Legacy aesthetically stays breathy with model-y actors breaking ground for the entire CW lineup of the 2010s. If Supernatural has a parent, it is this.

Much earlier than Poltergeist: The Legacy is Friday The 13th: The Series. Arriving in 1987 and going off air just at the ’90s era of sexual rediscovery begins, the connection to the Friday the 13th films is even less sensical here. But that doesn’t matter. In terms of evolving the franchise’s eroticism, what it lacks in showing breasts (it was syndicated, okay), it more than makes up for in pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable by status quo viewers. While each episode focused more on curses than the pitfalls of dating, the narrative through line is shockingly taboo. These particular ghost busters are founded by two cousins, Micki and Ryan. Over time these blood relatives are written with a thinly veiled, almost stumbling attraction. Episodes where one cousin cock blocks the other from new love interests are common. Nearly every 20 minute story ends with the cousins back together in their dusty little haunted antique parlor, sharing the only true intimate time have together. The sexual tension, again, feels a bit like X-Files in that it must never be actualized, but this is far from reasons of professional courtesy. They can’t give in because of, you know, incest. When this narrative arc finally reaches a bursting point, it is revealed that the male cousin never knew his mom, then immediately finds her, and also immediately gets a spell cast upon him so that he reverts to being six years old and can be raised by her. He is unceremoniously written off the show, and a new male (but not familial) ghost buster takes his place. With a strong porn name like Johnny Ventura, one would expect romantic sparks to fly. Strangely, they continue with the frustrating flirting and never actualize anything on camera. Maybe without the incest taboo it just didn’t feel right to Micki. Also of note here are the mommy issues used to remove Ryan from the narrative, but again, everything is a narrative car wreck here, so the audience is left free to imagine any filthy thing they wish.

So the entire world wanted to bang in the ’90s, not just horror heads. It makes sense, though, that horror franchises would take a starring role in this revolution, given the whole sex drive/death drive thing that has made countless film theorists titillate us with tales of phallic knives penetrating to the literal core of petite mort. If horror is inherently sexual, why not also evolve a sexy franchise into something scary? David Hasselhoff said “Don’t mind if I do,” and humanity was blessed with the second season of Baywatch Nights. Landing squarely in the mid-90s at 1995, the dream really comes true of a DTV-inspired schlocky horror show that leans heavier on boners than fear. Modeled clearly after X-Files, Hasselhoff’s Mitch character from the original sunshine series now plays the Scully role of supernatural denier. His libido leads the way, and he joins along for the ghost busting in order to impress Mulder’s female doppelgänger, Ryan. What happens from there is neither a soft-core as Poltergeist: The Legacy nor as taboo as Friday The 13th: The Series, but makes up for both of these short comings with constant flirting and bold proclamations of how randy Mitch is. Yet again, an unexplained air of puritanism prevents the characters from sealing the deal, but that is for the best. The Silk Stockings mood is in high effect and, just like gel lights and smoke machines in ’80s horror, it is the vibe we want to live inside while escaping to a world of unrequited death drive WAP. If the cosmic, or sub-molecular, or genetic link between sex and death / porn and horror is unbreakable, then forever we’ll find fright mythology being retold in terms of arousal. We’ll get romance reframed as scares. We’re also destined to eternally have the romance novel middle ground where our focus is on an anticipation of being so frightened that we cum (or maybe that we cum so hard it’s frightening?), rather than on the sex act itself. While not G-rated, the middle ground is family friendly enough to gain audiences hardcore cannot, making it an important missionary for all things distasteful.

In the chicken and egg game of deciding if horror was submissive to ’90s soft-core norms or if it helped define them, one should consider how frequently scary movies flashed brief erotic moments into their otherwise non-pornographic narratives. Typically these are knucklehead moments without any lavish sense of mood like those found in ’90s soft-core and diet soft-core. Friday the 13th: The Series, on the other hand, breaks that norm. Being an ’80s series, its sense of mood is a template for later ’90s descendants. Riding high on a franchise name it may not have deserved due to Jason never appearing once, nor even being mentioned, Friday The 13th: The Series is a bold interpretation. It gets away with questionable content by hiding it behind a
faux-puritanism that could only exist in the wake of post-AIDS “celibacy is the only 100%” education. It even takes risks that feel uncomfortable today. Anyone who watches Riverdale or Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and loves their approach to reinvention should ask themselves, “Do I also want to date an older series on the side, just to get a taste of what experience brings to the bedroom?”