The Grotesque Orgasm: Gothic’s Dirtiest Trick.

Posted by Danielle Hancock on June 01, 2015 in Blog, Danielle Hancock tagged with , , , , , ,

Note: This post contains sexually explicit language.


“The grotesque orgasm” is a phrase that’s been lurking in my mind for a long time – since some friends and myself admitted to getting hot under the collar during parts of Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, only to be bodily horrified at the next line. Simply, American Psycho constituted  some of the most bluntly provocative literature we’d ever read, with the unhappiest endings we’d ever experienced. Let me give you an example:

[here imagine the antics of an explicit 2.5 page consensual three-person sex scene, building in tempo, now resultant in the enjoyed use of a strap-on dildo] During this I lick Christie’s tits and suck hard on each nipple until both of them are red and stiff. I keep fingering them to make sure they stay that way. During this Christie has kept on a pair of thigh-high suede boots from Henri Benedel that I’ve made her wear.

Elizabeth, naked, running from the bedroom, blood already on her, is moving with difficulty and she screams out something garbled. My orgasm has been prolonged and it’s release was intense and my knees are weak. I’m naked too, shouting “You bitch, you piece of bitch trash” at her and since most of the blood is coming from her feet , she slips, manages to get up, and I strike out at her with the already wet butcher knife that I’m gripping in my right hand, clumsily, slashing her neck from behind, severing something, some veins (278).

The two paragraphs are a perfect match in pace – both use elongated, run-on sentences to simulate protagonist Bateman’s mounting excitement and loss of control. Both employ a pornographic level of focus on exteriority, image, and action rather than emotion or thought. And of course, both are aimed to generate a physical response in the reader: sexual excitement, bodily disgust. The sex-scene is lewd, but it successfully emulates pornography – a worldwide industry which appeals not to our ‘better’ cerebral self but to our basest level of arousal – and which often does so regardless of personal or political feeling. It may not be to everyone’s true taste, but after 2.5 pages, it is as difficult to remain unaware of one’s own sexuality as if one stumbled into an ecstatic orgy. And whilst the paragraphs are vitally different in the responses they (aim to) provoke, they are linked as an experience as the reader slips from one state of physical manipulation, unwittingly, to the next. Just when something approaching seduction starts weaving its way from the words on the page to the body parts under your clothes, sexual objectification switches for sadistic.

Not long till the grotesque orgasm in Mary Harron's American Psycho.

Not long till the grotesque orgasm in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.

Perhaps unsurprising to you now is that the ‘severing [of] something, some veins’ gives over to an ejaculation of blood:

blood shoots even into the living room, across the apartment, spattering against the tempered glass … I’ve cut her jugular and it’s spraying everywhere, blinding both of us momentarily … the blood’s spurting out in jets and I’m leaning over to inhale its perfume – her muscles stiffen, become rigid and she goes into death throes (278).

Elizabeth’s death throes, her sudden halting rigidity resemble the female orgasm, ‘la petite mort’, and both her and Bateman are spent, exhausted, the ‘sex scene’ complete. The manipulation of rising reader sexual tension and excitement swiftly met with repulsive, violent catharsis is something that Ellis does consistently and well. Throughout the novel “normal” sexually explicit yet frustrated scenes slowly evolve into orgiastically violent releases. This technique works on two levels – creating both immediate, shocking rejection of the previously idealised sexual body, and also building a more consistent level of uncertainty throughout the text. After Bateman’s first gestures towards the grotesque culmination of his energetic, creative, pornographically-detailed sex-scenes, we are mistrustful of succumbing to future arousal. Overall it’s an effective form of fear-mongery, because it strikes at one of our greatest points of vulnerability – sexual arousal. The aroused reader is relaxed, lost to the words that are doing the deed, half immersed in the literature, and yet also sentient of themselves and their own responses: they are both extradiegetically preoccupied with physical sensations, and hyper engaged with the text, dependant on its next word to keep the sensation going. And when the next word along spurs something so drastically different in tone, yet necessarily linked in corporeal locus as physical revulsion, the end result  is a truly appalling sensation. The sexual body, that thing that caused so much mounting pleasure just seconds again becomes an object of revulsion and terror – defamiliarized so drastically that readers barely have the time to respond on anything but the most visceral level.  They are subjected then to a climax of bodily horror and release of disgust – an orgasm of the grotesque.


Jonathan Harker and his three sisters in Francis Coppola's Dracula.

Jonathan Harker and his three sisters in Francis Coppola’s Dracula.

Ellis didn’t invent this technique. As, intrigued by the hideous levels of horror that this little trick achieved, I started looking for precedents, I soon found the grotesque orgasm to be a well established and time-tested Gothic trait. Take the three broads in a bed scene from Dracula. As Harker succumbs to the ‘thrilling’, caress of three ‘voluptuous’ vamps, one’s head going ‘lower and lower’ as she ‘laps’ at her lips:

… I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer – nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in languorous ecstasy and waited – waited with beating heart.

But in that instant another sensation swept through me as quick as lightening (42).

Enter Dracula, complete with wailing infant sacrifice to the vamp’s hunger. As lust becomes disgust Harker swoons, exhausted.

Consider Stephen King’s bath scene in The Shining: a slow, voyeuristic scene of sexual titillation mounts to a cacophony of screams as the desired body becomes rotten corpse.  And if we look to cinematic evolutions of Gothic, such as the horror film, we find it again as objectively thrilling teenage sex-scenes are inevitably ‘finished off’ in the slasher’s timely and explosive arrival. American Horror Story II opens with a high-tension sex scene abruptly culminated in lover-boy’s ripped-off arm. Reminiscent of Bhaktin’s “Grotesque Body”, these aren’t sexy scenes stilled by ghosts/mental terror, nor are they taboo couplings of monster and maiden – these are sexy scenes peaking in bodily maiming, amputations, infiltrations and ooze. They are scenes constructed from the direct subversion of our manipulated sexual anticipation to bodily repulsion. They rely on our bodily arousal and engagement and as a reward they give us that truly intimate, disturbing horror sensation – the grotesque orgasm.


Works cited:

Ellis, Brett American Psycho Picador (2011).

Stoker, Bram Dracula Vintage Books (2007).

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