Horror Movies and America's Sex Problem
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
A review on horror movie pop culture and a reflection on society's attitude towards sex.
Written by Emi Grant
Edited by Eliana Horning
Artwork by Megan May Walsh
Picture this: The year is 1980. Ronald Reagan has just been elected. A new age of law and order has descended upon the country. Teenagers are out of control, having sex, disobeying their helpless parents, and saying YES to drugs. On the horizon: the AIDS epidemic. A health crisis so insurmountable the only solution must be to heckle that gay couple walking down Broadway.
That spring, a movie comes out. Friday the 13th in all of its bloody, sexy glory hits the big screen that May. It tells modern viewers just about everything we need to know about the 1980s. Set against the backdrop of a classic Americana summer camp, teenage counselors are brutally slashed to death one by one. The aggressor is none other than Mrs. Vorhees, mother of a deceased camper, Jason. The story goes: the young boy drowned after irresponsible camp counselors chose sex over her son’s life.
Through this horrifying revelation, we gain some major insights into the perverted minds of 80s moviegoers: Americans are obsessed with sex…and terrified of it.
Friday the 13th holds nothing back when it comes to sex. It’s like we, too, are peering through the window watching in horrified fascination as the young couples get it on. We are voyeurs, much like Vorhees herself, into their vile acts of sin. After all, what’s the point of a good telling-off if it’s not a little bit sexy? The audience can’t help themselves: they are equally addicted to the sex and the eventual destruction that follows.
The movie provides a clear message: sex is hot but under no circumstances should you enjoy it.
Flash forward and the year is 2022. Two and a half years into a public health crisis and the only way to solve it is to heckle people on Twitter for too many grocery store trips. There’s a debate online about if sex has any place in movies at all. A new age of law and order ushers increasingly alarming bans on abortion and restrictions for trans children.
Then, that spring, a sex-filled slasher movie set in the late 70s comes out. X hits theaters and once again we learn everything we need to know.
Welcome to 1980 with a twist, everyone!
Unlike its predecessor, X isn’t horrified by the idea of sex. In fact, its jaunty humor takes a loving jab at the 80s unwillingness to give in to its desires. Starring a cast of self-actualized southern porn stars, the film points the camera back at the divisive relationship between film and sex.
While this film is an updated satirical spin on dated horror tropes, there’s still a lot to learn from self-aware movies like X. The introduction of comedy into the horror genre is, in fact, a signal of a new kind of fear. In the age of social media, where everyone’s movements are documented and scrutinized, horror movies have become incredibly self-conscious.
X presents us with a lively discussion on the issues of sex, exploitation, religious fervor, and autonomy. Our fearless final girl Maxine is a self-assured, bonafide star in the adult film industry and has no qualms about her profession. She and her costars (including a meek but curious scene-stealer, Lorraine) discover that the real problem is shame and false morality, not sex itself.
They are sex-positive, self-effacing critiques of the culture and political landscape. Where horror used to be a look solely at the unconscious mind, it is now a vessel for subversive cultural criticism. Our fears have twisted. Sure, we’re still afraid of the classics: disease, sex, and the ‘other’ all haunt our nightmares. But there’s a new boogieman in town and he’s a gnawing itch that we’re not as morally righteous as we’d like to think.
Though X’s cultural critique is biting and on the mark, it comes from a place of uncertain self-reflection. Audience members of 2022 want to be seen as morally right and socially conscious and the only way to prove that is through our media. If the protagonist makes an off-colored comment, what does that say about us, the viewers?
We cannot ignore the fact that X is set in 1979, just one year before the release of Friday the 13th. Nestled right between the free-love era and the age of social conservatism, X points to a fear of regression. After years and years of social progress, it seems that our culture is in an age of backtracking.
From 40% of the public believing #MeToo has gone “too far” to mainstream discussions about the ethics of showing teenage romance (even devoid of sex), our culture has descended into an era of sexual repulsion. We are once again afraid of sex but this time it’s under the guise of progress. Our self-conscious, well-intentioned attitudes have put us in a moral corner that once again believes all sex is exploitation.
While in the 80s, we could attribute sex shaming to the AIDS epidemic and ties to drug/party culture, 2022’s fear comes from a generation scarred by our own health crisis. In lieu of actual human interaction during the pandemic, gen Z found connection through internet dialogue. In place of in-person conversation, relationships, and yes, even sex, gen z found solace in dissecting cultural phenomena to the minute level.
X demonstrates a fear of backsliding into a time of sexual shame––something that is inherently linked to homophobia, racism, and mass incarceration. Though we’ve found ourselves in a time of sexual moral panic, we need to remember that sex is not inherently a vehicle for oppression. In fact, in many cases, healthy sex is a link to our liberation.
In the past decade, we’ve seen a major value shift in the world of mainstream horror. Where the slasher genre used to house unchecked racism and misogyny, a future of subversive commentary is on the horizon.
As horror movies continue to become increasingly self-aware, audiences need to heed their warnings. We’ve seen throughout history that horror is a mirror of our society. Right now, that mirror is reflecting a dangerously closed-minded attitude about sex, power, and relationships. Will we be able to look that horror in the face?
Emi Grant is a writing MFA student at the New School for Social Research in New York. She is passionate about social justice, horror movies, and all things pop culture.