This is a deceptive book. First, the cover art is “The Lamia in the Penthouse” by Virgil Finlay — a quintessential example of pulp illustration. Second, according to the back cover, “The Forbidden Body: Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination” by Douglas E. Cowan belongs in the religion section of the bookstore. So, a book about sex and horror with a sexy witch and a cadre of devils on the cover is somehow religious. Am I missing something?
The answer, according to Cowan, is an emphatic “no.” The intertwinedness of sex, horror and religion is persistent and inescapable. The religion here is unspecified, but there is a good deal of Christian-based horror, with 1973’s “The Exorcist” being one of the early texts given an in-depth exploration.
An important first step that Cowan makes is distinguishing between religion and the religious imagination. Religion is a set of beliefs and practices; religious imagination, in short and in part, is the world of worries that opens as a result of having those beliefs and enacting those practices — or the consequences if you don’t. Being possessed by a demon, the source of horror in “The Exorcist,” is horrifying specifically through a Christian religious imaginative lens.
A further point Cowan makes is that many religious taboos are predicated on “bodies out of place.” This is where the “sex” part of the title comes in. Continuing with Cowan’s first example, “The Exorcist,” one scene that secured that movie’s place in cinematic history involved a crucifix going someplace it normally doesn’t. I won’t elaborate here. Nonconforming sexuality or sexual practices, in a religious imagination, are invitations for retribution and invoke horrifying worries.
That is a very basic summary of the work being done in Cowan’s book. It is actually much more interesting than that, but it takes some time to really get to the crux of what Cowan wants to argue.
The introduction and first chapter function as a template for Cowan’s analysis and lay out very particularly what I summarized above. These 50 pages or so could make or break your experience. Unless you really take time to make sense of Cowan’s framework, the rest of the work reads just like a true fan geeking out about their favorite stuff.
Let’s be clear, though: Cowan is a fan of horror. Like, a big fan. And there are times when it feels like some of the tangents being followed are just excuses to really display how much he knows about horror. There are parts of the third chapter, provocatively titled, with a purposeful misnomer, “Altared Bodies: Sexuality, Sacrifice, and the Horrific Aesthetic,” where Cowan explores the illustrators of pulp fiction and seems to stray too far from the ultimate point. However, this does provide a reason to include some salacious illustrations.
It should be noted that these sexy pictures aren’t included in this book to be sexy pictures; they are to demonstrate the longstanding sexualization of horror. Their inclusion in the original books was as sexy pictures — and this slight shift in understanding is what is ultimately being argued for and about. Cowan wants to make a rigorous case for the connection between horror and sexuality in human existence.
These two modes — sexy picture stuff and philosophical exploration about sexy picture stuff — are what sometimes make this book seem deceptive. More specifically, Cowan begins each chapter with a scene from a horror movie, book or show recreated with gusto. He opens the fourth chapter like this:
“A secret room, hidden for centuries in the lowest level of a remote Spanish convent. Its massive, wooden-planked door, banded with steel bars and secured by complex locks, does not appear on any building plan in the church archives. An architectural metaphor for everything we struggle to keep hidden away. What could possibly go wrong?”
In these moments, Cowan’s joy surrounding the genre comes through. In a sense, it feels like he would really just like to write horror fiction. At the same time, the analytical work is deep and thoughtful. Also, Cowan states that he has dealt with no small amount of eye-rolling from those who don’t share his interest. The attempt to intellectualize the realm of horror could be his attempt to find more people to talk to about his favorite stuff.
I have no specific enjoyment of horror movies or for many of the stories Cowan discusses throughout his work. I was in many ways one of the eye-rolling acquaintances listening to someone go on and on about their hobby. However, in the end, I did find myself questioning my position. Yes, there is no small amount of gratuitous description in this work. There are points when the scenes being described are too misogynist, racist and what-have-you, where the genre really needs no one to argue for it; Cowan does specifically address this aspect of horror in relation to H.P. Lovecraft.
But, as the final chapter reveals, horror exists as a genre outside of religion specifically and is a product of social fears. These social fears exist in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and are a source of evolution in the genre. The spaces horror focuses on are often the spaces that require the greatest social adjustment.
Cowan has managed to write a philosophical take on what is clearly his favorite genre, inviting readers to figure out why and how they, religion and sex fit into these salacious, silly and scary stories. While I still may not be the biggest horror fan, I at least know what to look for now.
Chris LaCroix lives in Seattle. He likes all the staircases around the city.
Read more of the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2022 issue.