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Why are horror films, which often depict realistic and graphic violence, so widely accepted in mainstream cinema, while pornography is still taboo, and even non-porn films which depict realistic sex are marginalized? Is it fair to simply chalk it up to our puritanical North American society, which considers sex totally unmentionable while violence is, considerably more acceptable, and we sure like watching it on the big screen? Obviously, there are parts of the world where more liberal attitudes toward sex prevail, but when Hollywood dominates the cinematic landscape as much as it does here in Canada, it’s an attitude worth examining.

Pornography and horror films actually have a fair amount in common (and no, I don’t just mean gratuitous boob shots). Both porn and horror appeal to our most primal impulses. After all, what could be more basic than sex and fear. The way we experience the films themselves is also similar; they equally share a sense of anticipation, thrill and catharsis.

Thrill-seeking in the cinema

The reason we like horror films is something that’s been written about a lot, and the prevailing theory makes a lot of sense. We enjoy feeling scared. Much like a roller coaster, or a haunted house, horror films allow us to feel scared in a safe environment. Within the confines of the cinema, we can exorcise our demons, face our deepest fears, and experience the catharsis that comes from everything turning out okay in the end (and even if it doesn’t for the characters in the film, it does for us when the lights go up and we return to our normal lives). Pornography offers a similar escape into the world of sexual desire, allowing the viewer to indulge fantasies (sometimes even dangerous ones) in total safety. You’re not really engaging in any high risk behaviour. You don’t even have to face the possible rejection of telling a partner about an odd kink. You’re just allowed to enjoy it, whatever it is, vicariously through the film.

Mainstream acceptance is one of the key factors that traditionally sets porn and horror apart. Sure, horror films have found their way into the mainstream, though they rarely receive the kind of respect that other, more “˜serious’ genres get (with a few notable exceptions like Kubrick’s The Shining , a couple of films by David Cronenberg and more recently, Guillermo del Toro). While porn came pretty close with the relatively mainstream success of Deep Throat back in 1972, the genre has always remained on the margins, something to be enjoyed in secret.

Bringing sex into the mainstream

In an interview with The Guardian  about his body of work, three time Palm D’Or nominee and this year’s Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Director, Carlos Reygadas, said:

We are all naked when we go to the shower. At least twice or three times a day we are naked. And most of us have sex, once a week or more. It’s a thing that occurs often. But it’s not represented ever on film. So the normal thing to do would be to ask every other director why they don’t have sex in their film and not ask me about it. I am the only normal one.

Reygadas was making reference to the notorious opening of his film Battle in Heaven , which shocked viewers with its depiction of obviously non-simulated fellatio. It’s also a fair point about the absurdity of our relationship to sex (a normal, and dare we say, healthy activity) and violence (which is none of those things) in film.

The extent to which these attitudes toward sex and violence are out of whack is most glaringly apparent in the United States, where the dreaded box office killer rating of NC-17 is deployed overwhelmingly for sexual content. Violence often gets a pass (the ultra-gory Hatchet 2 is a recent exception), but sex, pretty much never. It’s a fact that’s been extensively written about (I like this NPR blog post’s take on the issue, and it’s addressed well in the excellent 2006 documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated .)

But of course, films like Blue Valentine (which did eventually get its NC-17 rating reversed) and Shame aren’t pornography, they’re simply films that depict sex in a realistic way. And while they’re not necessarily mega-blockbusters, those kinds of films have certainly made it into the mainstream, as one of our previous cover stories  this month delved into in more detail.

Porn and horror: uneasy bedfellows

But is it actually unfair that horror films should be so (relatively) embraced while porn is pushed to the sidelines? The difference between the way we experience porn and horror doesn’t lie in our cavalier attitude toward violence and prudish revulsion for sex. The key is actually in the communal act of watching a movie in a cinema with a group of other fans. Horror films are enhanced by the shared experience. Going through it together makes us feel less alone, less frightened, and ultimately less wimpy for having been scared in the first place. Having someone next to you whose arm you can squeeze, and hearing the squeals, gasps and nervous giggles of the strangers who are in the thick of it with you is precisely what makes feeling scared fun and not just scary.

Porn, on the other hand, is a usually private affair. We might want the taboos around watching pornography to be loosened up, but that doesn’t mean we really want to know what turns on a total stranger who happens to be sitting near us. The gleeful audience yelps that make a horror screening more fun become, in the context of a porn screening, kind of creepy. Who wants to hear 100 other people in a movie theatre moan around them? Just expressing sexual desires and fantasies to a partner can be hard enough. Broadcasting them to a roomful of strangers who also turned up to see that screening of Sex Trek: The Next Penetration is decidedly not a turn-on. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Toronto Film Scene is turning up the heat for the month of July and looking at Pornography as a Legitimate Art Form. Don’t miss our scintillating coverage on everything from soft to hard core films, including a look at the Feminist Porn awards, what makes a truly classic porno, erotica translated from book to screen and the golden age of geek porn.

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