Women, Sex, and Death — From Vampires to Psychoanalysis

"Melancholia," "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," and "A Dangerous Method" explore dark passions, along with remembrances of death, violence, and dangerous female sexuality.

Picture three young women, all sensitive and ravishing.

One greets the end of the world by offering her naked body to an oncoming asteroid. Another pursues dangerous sex with an undead creature, conceiving a monster that threatens to kill her. A third enjoys a naked beating from her doctor as she contemplates the relation of sex to death.

These three wild and disturbing scenarios greeted moviegoers in recent weeks, begging the question: What’s up with all that?

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and Bill Condon’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, each explore the labyrinthine connections between women, sex, and death. One of them, A Dangerous Method, actually tells the story of the woman who contributed a theory of their linkage to psychoanalysis with a question: Why does sex, the most powerful human drive, harbor both negative and positive emotions? Her answer convinced Sigmund Freud that his theory of sexuality was missing something.

In quite different ways, these three films investigate that something.

Sexy Time With Vampires

The Twilight film series, based on the best-selling teen books by Stephenie Meyer, presents a love story between a girl and a boy who happens to be an animated corpse — a fact that hardly promises the normal path of courtship and marriage. For starters, coupling with preternaturally strong vampires is potentially fatal to humans. There’s also a presumption that male vampires can’t impregnate live women. So in choosing Edward as her one and only, Bella signs up for sex that may result in severe bodily harm, if not death, and forsakes the traditional basis for marriage, i.e., reproduction.

Part of Edward’s appeal is that sexy time with him carries the exhilaration of danger. In marrying the vampire (who has nobly restrained himself sexually through two films), Bella chooses to plunge into a grand and melancholy world of dazzling sensual imagery, forbidden emotions, and sex that brings the house down — literally. The broken furniture and the small bruises that mark her body after sadistically tinged hanky-panky are a source of anxiety to the tender Edward — but not to Bella. She’s into it.

Anglo-American vampire stories took off in the 19th century, serving up tales of irrational desires struggling for expression in a social world unwilling to acknowledge them. The Twilight films offer an update by making a young girl’s desire central to both the spectacle (those muscled young men ripping their shirts off!) and a romantic trajectory in which she presses for sex, not he. On her wedding night, the virginal Bella prepares her body as if for a ritual offering, and then joins Edward in a moonlit swim/baptism that symbolizes her rejection of the “normal” world. In the aftermath of the Night of Broken Bed-frames, the two lovers frolic in a primeval jungle of splendid natural beauty, awakened to a primitive realm of sexual — and spiritual — fulfillment. Fun times!

But the conventional moralist in Meyer can’t openly endorse the subversive sexual freedom that the coupling promises. The idyll abruptly ends when the radiant bride is transformed into the monstrous mother, a corpse-like being pregnant with a creature that is literally eating her from the inside out. A conservative pro-life theme centers on Bella’s decision to go through with the unexpected pregnancy, even if it kills her (she is saved by a last-minute transformation into a vampire). The wages of sexual transgression for the female are steep, as plenty of mythic women punished for their sexuality and beauty attest — Medusa, Lamia, Scylla, Arachne, Melusine, Eve ... The list goes on. Bella’s horrific gestation puts the destructive element of sex and reproduction on full display.

In Condon’s film, a woman’s confrontation with forbidden desire results in grotesque suffering. But early psychoanalysts hoped that such confrontations could be healing.

Talk to Her

A Dangerous Method conjures the relationships between early female psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud. The young Spielrein is tormented by beatings from her father that have rendered her prone to jaw-locking and fixated on attaining sexual pleasure through pain and humiliation. Spielrein, portrayed by a tightly wound Keira Knightly, was the patient of Jung, who later became her medical dissertation adviser — and her lover. The Spielrien character talks to Jung through clenched teeth about the agony of her forbidden desires in analytic sessions, then acts them out in masochistic scenes in which Jung willingly participates.

A Dangerous Method follows Cronenberg’s interest in the dark side of sex, this time illustrating the psychology of a woman’s unconventional yearnings that emerge in a culture of severe repression. Such repression accounts for plenty of suffering by women diagnosed as neurotics and hysterics in the early days of psychoanalysis as they reacted to a society that bound them figuratively and literally. In pursuing even the most straightforward impulses, a woman of early 19th century Europe might face condemnation, rape, unwanted pregnancy, disease, social ostracism, death in childbirth, marriage to an alcoholic or a wife-beater — a whole litany of horrors. It is no accident that the horror genre emerged as women’s literature, a point brought home in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. For women, the connection between desire, pain, and death is all too real. Only in the late 20th century did they begin to free themselves from some of most frightening consequences of sex through the advent of birth control and changes in their legal and social status.

Women have long confronted the idea that they will be corrupted by sex — even for just thinking about it. This is doubly true if desires are unorthodox. “I'm vile, and I should be put away forever," moans Spielrein early on in her treatment. Part of the “talking cure” that Jung administers is predicated on the notion that simply naming what one is afraid of will free a person from its domination. Spielrein’s cure comes from both talking and gaining mastery through the initiation of sexual encounters that “speak” her desires.

Jung's irresistible attraction to Spielrein forces him to question a culture of sexual repression, the restrictions of monogamy, and the preservation of his marriage to a fabulously wealthy wife. Spielrein, in her turn, wrestles with the shame of her sexual urges and the fashioning of her independence and intellectual autonomy in the shadow of Jung, and later his mentor, Freud. She also expresses the transformative potential of that process, eventually claiming a brilliant career as well as a family of her own. Creation and destruction are two sides of a coin. Sadly, destiny flipped the coin back for the Jewish Spielrein: She and her two daughters were shot to death by Nazis. Instead of taking her place among the titans of psychoanalysis, she became a footnote and a victim of the 20th century’s greatest horror of all.

In his early work, Freud conceived of sexuality as an expression solely of the drive for pleasure. But Spielrein saw the instincts for destruction and transformation lurking there, too. She presented her theory to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1912 in a paper many scholars believe to have directly influenced her two colleagues. In 1920, with Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud asserted that in every human being, there is a life drive and a death driveas well. That which lives also wants to die again.

Eros and Thanatos. The inseparable twins.

Why did it take a woman to make this connection? Links between women, sex, and death are as old as the primitive nature goddesses who both created and destroyed. Humans have always struggled with the disturbing recognition that cycles of nature contain both life and death. Women’s bodies express disturbing closeness to these cycles in their transformations through pregnancy and the way they bleed in monthly rhythms. They remind us that what is born must die. The womb and the tomb are intimately connected.

Sexual attraction evokes both the potential for life and for annihilation. There is the feeling of losing oneself in the moment of ecstasy (the French refer to orgasm as “la petite mort”). Especially for women there is also the introduction of a foreign body into the self and possibility of producing an entirely separate being — a source of both thrilling transformation and fear. Beyond the obvious physical fears, the notion of the mother “giving herself up” for her children is a powerful cultural pressure. And, of course, we still construct the compact of marriage and children as the end of sexual freedom — a condition that many humans find unbearable. For women, these restrictions are typically amplified.

Eve of Destruction

In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, nature’s destructive force is an asteroid whose cycle is on a collision course with Earth’s. Kristen Dunst is Justine, a depressive whose name evokes the Marquis de Sade, from whom the term “sadism” derives. His novel Justine, subtitled The Misfortunes of Virtue, depicts a girl rewarded with sexual abuse in her quest for virtue; a meditation both on individual psychology and the social corruption of institutions. Von Trier, too, shows his character’s individual psychic disintegration as the mirror of a barren culture in which the life-instinct cannot survive.

Just as in the Twilight movie, we begin with a bride on the eve of her marriage. Justine tries to put on a good show for the wealthy European social realm she inhabits but secretly has no interest in the life expected of her. She thinks that her family is warped, her public relations job a farce, her boss an abomination, and if sex with her doting husband might mean the preservation of this malevolent species, she can’t have any part of it. On her wedding night, she prefers to have sex with a random young man on a golf course just after squatting to take a pee. The coupling is an expression not of creative union but the mere relief of a sexual tension shown to be much the same as relieving her bladder. Like Bella, she abandons the traditional path of marriage and motherhood, but in Lars von Trier’s treatment, Justine’s abandonment is total.

Meanwhile, the asteroid Melancholia is on the way, its name bringing to mind the famous 16th century Dürer engraving of a seeker of knowledge consumed with exhausted sadness amid all the instruments of science and learning. While scientists proclaim the asteroid harmless, Justine knows better. Far from being further depressed by this knowledge, however, she is gladdened by it.

Justine’s nihilistic pleasure in death is Von Trier's commentary on the corruption of a 21st century elite European culture in which a sensitive, truth-seeking woman like Justine can find no place. In a pop-culture production like Twilight, a girl may toy with expectations, but you won't get any great reordering of the world. Bella eagerly partakes of the prevalent consumerism of her day, enjoying endless goodies delivered by Edward’s inexhaustible supply of money (vampires, like bankers, always seem to have money), from private jets to a $35,000 wedding frock created by celebrity designer Carolina Herrera. The only avowed social challenge is the possibility of a bland, let’s-all-get-along truce between vampires and werewolves. But Von Trier faces the falseless and cruelty of the world in which his heroine finds herself head-on —- like an oncoming asteroid. “Life on earth is evil,” says Justine. “No one will miss it.”

Von Trier’s fascination with female psychology and sexuality was most recently displayed in the controversial Antichrist, in which a husband/therapist’s attempt to understand his wife results in her subjecting him to sadomasochistic fantasies so gruesome as to render the film nearly unwatchable. In Melancholia, he presents a world in which modes of existence are barren; capitalism has emphasized greed, arrogance, and shallowness, ineluctably distancing one human being from the other. The complete negation of the will to live is terrifyingly embodied in a young woman of plentiful gifts. Her sexuality is stripped of all positive emotion, save the intense rapture she finds in lying naked in the woods, bathing in Melancholia’s incandescent rays and giving herself, Endymion-like, to the massive rock hurtling toward Earth. It’s the “big death” that Justine desires, and her expectant pleasure gives her an increasing sense of calm as the day of destruction approaches. Strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde call forth a story in which young lovers find peace only through annihilation. For Justine, dissolving back into nature is the cure for estrangement.

Spielrein points out that young women often have dreams of lying in a coffin, symbolizing a desire to return to the womb (the tomb). When she explained the forces that drive human beings, Spielrein noted that the essential desire for transformation is often constructed as death. The Twilight movie’s subtitle, “Breaking Dawn,” signals that in order to fully connect with her beloved, Bella must become a vampire and relinquish her humanity. Justine is not willing to relinquish her humanity. She rejects an inhumane future for a headlong plunge into undifferentiated nature. The world can be saved only when life returns to its primal source.

The three films show an increasing willingness to express the subjectivity of women on the screen — each young woman pursues her desires and is not simply a passive temptress waiting to be captured. They think of how to please themselves, not just their men. But a frustration with social institutions, particularly marriage and motherhood that still do not accommodate women’s desires and creative potential are evident. Consumer culture is deadening for all: In Twilight, ever-flowing money is a compensation for emptiness, while in A Dangerous Method, Jung's allegiance to the kingdom of wealth is sterile and limiting. But it is Von Trier’s film that speaks most clearly to why these expressions of women, sex, and death are so popular just now in this era of late capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations, vampiric financial forces, and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our nurturing, loving instincts. Climate change and the destruction of our Earth feel much like a slow-moving asteroid on its way. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, the "Eves" of destruction we see in these films — monstrous mothers, suicidal brides, young women pondering pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong. We'll have to be damned creative to avoid the destruction.

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Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.