Gothic sexualities: female necrophilia

Posted by Lena Wånggren on May 10, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lena Wånggren tagged with , , , ,

When thinking about what to write for the Gothic Imagination blog, I must necessarily think about what is gothic. While my own work, both research and teaching, often moves in and out of fields linked to or belonging to the gothic, and while I often read and write about literature termed gothic, I don’t often write about what constitutes the gothic itself – although I discuss this with colleagues and students. In these blog posts, I’ll try to give a few glimpses of projects I’ve been working on, which I think move in and out of definitions of the gothic, articulating themes that can be considered as inhabiting, if momentarily, gothic spaces.

The three blog posts will concern, in very broad terms, gothic sexualities, gothic bodies and affections, and gothic socioeconomic structures, focusing on specific texts through which I consider these topics. The three posts will be taken from work I’ve done previously, work I’m currently doing, and lastly (in a post that might be embarrassingly tentative) work that I’m just starting out on. Any comments or suggestions you might have on the writings would be very much welcome.

First up is a subject I wrote on for a book chapter some time ago: female necrophilia.

Beardsley, 'The Dancer's Reward'

If, as Fred Botting has posited, the gothic is characterised by transgression as well as excess, then necrophilia might be one of the most gothic sexual practices. Transgressing the bounds of reality and possibility, Botting states, gothic narratives may ‘subvert rational codes of understanding’ and thus ‘blurring definitions of reason and morality’ (6). Gothic texts are open to a play of ambivalence, ‘a dynamic of limit and transgression that both restores and contests boundaries’ (9). Often considered the most horrible or unspeakable of sexual aberrations, necrophilia – a sexual attraction to corpses – could arguably be considered the ultimate transgression between life and death. Cast as a kind of gothic sexuality, necrophilia might work to question established social orders and norms. And, as I hope to sketch out in this post, female necrophilia might work also as a specifically gendered transgression.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines necrophilia as a ‘[f]ascination with death and dead bodies; esp. sexual attraction to, or intercourse with, dead bodies’. The term necrophilia first gained recognition through Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s groundbreaking sexological work Psychopathia Sexualis (1886, English translation 1892), where Krafft-Ebing gives examples of this ‘horrible kind of sexual indulgence … so monstrous … abnormal and decidedly perverse’ (430). Sigmund Freud mentions necrophilia only in passing in his lecture ‘The Sexual Life of Human Beings’ (1916), before cutting himself short by exclaiming: ‘But enough of this kind of horror!’ (306). As Botting notes, the horrors of transgression in gothic texts may also become means to reassert the values of society: ‘transgression, by crossing the social and aesthetic limits, serves to reinforce or underline their value and necessity, restoring or defining limits’ (7). To Krafft-Ebing and Freud at least, necrophilia seems to be the biggest taboo of all.

The main contemporary investigation of necrophilia was until recently the 1989 study by Jonathan Rosman and Phillip Resnick, which classifies necrophilia into three types: necrophilic fantasy, ‘regular’ necrophilia, and necrophilic homicide. The most common motive for necrophilia is posed as possession of an unresisting and unrejecting partner (154-6, 158). An example of this can be found in sexologist Havelock Ellis’s ‘Erotic Symbolism’ (1906), where a young man has been digging up the bodies of young girls ‘to satisfy his passions with’. He explains his behavior by not finding anyone who would have sex with him: ‘”As living women felt nothing but repulsion for me, it was quite natural that I should turn to the dead, who have never repulsed me”‘ (81-2). The image of the necrophiliac is here almost always male. Krafft-Ebing and Freud provide only male cases, and of the 122 cases that Rosman and Resnick analyse, ninety-five percent are male – all necrophilic homicides were committed by men (156).

Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis

‘for mine own pleasure’

Female necrophilia then might be seen as not only transgressing boundaries of life and death, or what might be the biggest sexual taboo, but also as transgressing prescribed gender roles. If the possession on an unrejecting partner is the most common motive for necrophilia, what happens when the passive, unresisting partner is male? Figurations of death, as Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin argue, ‘bring into play the binary tensions of gender constructs, as life/death engages permutations with masculinity/femininity and with fantasies of power’ (20). Similarly, the desire for the dead, as Lisa Downing states, might open up to notions of ‘plural and shifting identification, unstable gender positions, and the undermining of heterosexuality and genital sex as natural and inevitable’ (131).

There are various examples of female necrophilia, both in literature and in terms of ‘real-life’ cases. One of the most famous literary depictions of female necrophilia is Oscar Wilde’s figuration of Salome (from the 1891 play of the same name). After falling in love with and having been rebuked by Jokanaan (Wilde’s figuring of John the Baptist), Salome demands the head of her lover on a silver charger. She states that she wants his head ‘for mine own pleasure’ (29), and, when given it, she caresses and kisses it fondly: ‘Ah! thou wouldst not suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan. Well! I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit’. In this manner she can finally control her previously resisting lover: ‘Thou wouldst have none of me, Jokanaan. Thou rejectedst me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. … Well, I still live, but thou art dead, and thy head belongs to me. I can do with it what I will’ (34-5). Salome here actively desires, and obtains, her now unresisting partner, much like the statistically and culturally overrepresented male necrophiliac.

Beardsley, 'The Kiss'

‘How does she do it?’

The most famous ‘real-life’ case must be Karen Greenlee (1956-), a necrophiliac and former funeral worker, who in 1979 in California, at the age of 23, was arrested for necrophilic activities after having abducted a corpse and confessed to further similar episodes. In a 1985 interview, Greenlee explains her necrophiliac desires, stating that the most common question she receives is: ‘How does she do it?’ ‘I don’t mind telling people how I do it’, she says: ‘It doesn’t matter to me, but anyone adept sexually shouldn’t have to ask. People have this misconception that there has to be penetration for sexual gratification, which is bull! The most sensitive part of a woman is the front area anyway and that is what needs to be stimulated. Besides, there are different aspects of sexual expression: touchy-feely, 69, even holding hands’ (29). Here, Greenlee questions the heteronormative focus on penetration, a focus which might be one of the reasons that lead to necrophilia being considered a mainly male desire, and to the discrediting of female necrophilia. As Downing notes, the repeated focus in medical writing on penetration of the corpse ‘implicitly relegates necrophilia to the realms of male perversion’ (3). The figure of the female necrophiliac here challenges traditional oppositional and hierarchical sexual configurations, perhaps, as Patricia MacCormack argues, affecting us ‘into thinking – or unthinking – the body differently’, affording ‘reorientations or challenges in reference to gender and sexual act’ (par. 26). Not only transgressing the accepted boundaries of life and death, figurations of female necrophilia also transgress traditional notions of gendered and sexual practices.

Karen Greenlee, newspaper clipping 1979/1980

‘Necrophiles aren’t supposed to be blond and pretty, let alone female’

Greenlee’s case laid the basis for Barbara Gowdy’s short story ‘We So Seldom Look on Love’ (1992), and its exploration of what is considered ‘normal’ sexual behaviour. This story, which also later inspired the full-length film Kissed (1996), in many ways follows Greenlee’s own account of her experiences, further investigating female necrophilic eroticism as a potential way of negotiating traditional gender roles. Like Greenlee, the main character and unnamed narrator of the story is interested in death even as a child, burying dead animals in complex ceremonies. Instead of such interests more common among her classmates, at age thirteen she develops a ‘craving to perform autopsies’ (149), and after having cut up animals for some time, by the time she is sixteen she ‘want[s] human corpses’ (150). She starts working as a hearse driver at a funeral home, and studies embalming at night. The narrator never lets anyone else in the story know of her desires and, in turn, no one suspects her. She is even asked to enter the town’s beauty pageant; concerning this, she remarks ironically: ‘Necrophiles aren’t supposed to be blond and pretty, let alone female’ (151). Like Greenlee, the narrator confesses to being asked the question of ‘how does she do it?’: ‘For fifteen years, ever since Matt died, people have been asking me how a woman makes love to a corpse’ (151). Once again, the figure of the female necrophiliac destabilises conceptions of any reproductive sexuality. Matt is a medical student in love with the narrator, and also the first person to whom the narrator discloses her obsession. They meet regularly, and have sex, but after every encounter with him she goes straight to the mortuary; her attempts at ‘normal’ sexual behaviour do not pertain for long.

There is an interesting focus on the question of activity and passivity in Gowdy’s story. While Rosman and Resnick pose the possession on an unrejecting partner as the most common motive for necrophilia, in Gowdy’s short story the passive, unresisting partner is male. When visiting the corpses, the narrator actively seeks them out, climbing onto the table, and straddles the body; she plays the active part. These meetings are juxtaposed with her and Matt’s sexual encounters, in which she plays the passive part, the part of the corpse: ‘With Matt, when we made love, I was the receiving end, I was the cadaver. When I left him and went to the funeral home, I was the lover’ (154). Her passive sexual encounters with Matt become a sort of foreplay to her ‘real’ sexual activities as a necrophiliac.

Gowdy, We So Seldom Look on Love

Like Wilde’s Salome, who actively desires her dead lover’s head ‘for mine own pleasure’, the figure of the female necrophiliac by expressing her own desire might open up possibilities for the reworking of prevalent notions of gender and sexuality. Female necrophilia can thus be seen as potentially transgressing not only the boundaries of life and death, or more broadly ‘the values of society, virtue and propriety’ (Botting 7), but also as destabilising heteronormative conceptions of gender and of reproductive sexual desire and practices. Transgressing not only aesthetic boundaries, but also specifically gendered ones, female necrophilia might indeed function as a kind of gothic sexuality.

(A note: The research for the topic has caused me both amusement and, perhaps not surprisingly, some less pleasant experiences. Those of you who maintain pages will be familiar with the google function where one will see what search words people use to find one’s page. While many people who find my page want more information on Karen Greenlee, on literary Victorian depictions of necrophilia, or simply want to know whether female necrophiliacs exist, there are also some people searching for ‘real necrophilia download’ or ‘sex with dead women’ and other more disturbing terms. My text on female necrophilia was an attempt to rethink the concept and literary trope of necrophilia in order to question the gendered assumptions many people have about sex, critiquing heteronormative constructions of sexuality. Needless to say, any sex act that isn’t consensual must be considered rape (a notion from which stemmed Stewart Home’s necrocard stunt) – which I hope the authors of creepy search terms on google will some day understand.)


Botting, Fred. The Gothic. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Bronfen, Elisabeth and Sarah Webster Goodwin. ‘Introduction.’ Death and Representation. Ed. Elisabeth Bronfen and Sarah Webster Goodwin. Baltimore; London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993. 3-25.

Downing, Lisa. Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature. Oxford: Legenda, 2003.

Ellis, Havelock. ‘Erotic Symbolism.’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 5. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Co., 1906. 1-114.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘The Sexual Life of Human Beings.’ 1916. Trans. James Strachey. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 16. Ed. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1963. 303-319.

Gowdy, Barbara. We So Seldom Look on Love. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Krafft-Ebing, Richard. Psychopathia Sexualis. 1886. Trans. Charles Gilbert Chaddock. Philadelphia; London: The F. A. Davis Co., 1892.

MacCormack, Patricia. ‘Necrosexuality.’ Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 11/12 (2005/2006).

‘necrophilia, n.’ Oxford English Dictionary. 13 May 2011.

Rosman, Jonathan P. and Phillip J. Resnick. ‘Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric Review of Necrophilia.’ Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 17 (1989): 153–163.

‘The Unrepentant Necrophile: An Interview with Karen Greenlee.’ 1985. Apocalypse Culture. Ed. Adam Parfrey. Portland: Feral House, 1990. 28-35.

Wilde, Oscar. Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act. 1891. [English translation 1894.] Boston: Branding Publishing Company, 1989.

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