The micro-genre is a rare place to push prevailing myths about sexually transmitted infections to the extreme, exploring themes of promiscuity, perversion, and violation.
Photo by Jonathan Straiton, treatment by Lia Kantrowitz
Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise, and apparently there's a similar trend in cinema. Since 2012, at least five horror films have debuted with plots centering dangers spread through sex, a theme that's cropped up periodically in earlier decades as well. The most high profile of these, 2015's It Follows, was simultaneously summarized as an STD horror flick and defended by film commentators as not really about STDs. Indeed, far from educating the public in order to stop epidemics, horror fantasizes and hyperbolizes the concept of sex-induced illness to speak greater truths about the human experience—or just to freak us the hell out. But even if horror films aren't about the monsters, ghosts, or microbes they portray, the question lingers: What gives these antagonists their power?
In the case of STD horror, one could describe the fear factor as our anxieties around sexual health set to ominous music. Most people would rather not contract STDs and some are downright terrified of the prospect. But in a society that heavily stigmatizes conditions acquired through sex, what people fear is often worse than the thing itself.
Meanwhile, on screen, the consequences of a hookup surpass even the most dire warnings from sex ed class. In It Follows, "it" is the curse of a form-changing creature that trails the infected with the intent to kill; the only way to avoid this destiny is to pass "it" on to another person by having sex with them. In Contracted, a mysterious STD causes the infected to become zombie-like and increasingly violent. However, these storylines are driven by more than fanciful biology. Interpersonal dynamics are scripted to create circumstances ripe for exposure, and it's in the social, rather than physical, qualities of these fictional STDs that we catch a glimpse of real life, in the form of negative stereotypes about sexually contracted illness.
In the 1975 David Cronenberg film Shivers, an experimental medical researcher believes that "man is an ... over-rational animal that's lost touch with its body" and develops a parasite that increases its host's sex drive. He implants this parasite, which he calls "a combination of aphrodisiac and venereal disease," in his 19-year-old mistress Annabelle, who then spreads it to several men in the high-rise apartment complex where the movie takes place. "Annabelle Brown was a pretty popular girl around the Starliner Towers," says the building's in-house doctor. "I got three men here, maybe four, hosting large, free-moving, apparently pathogenic abdominal growths that nobody … can identify."
Annabelle is described as promiscuous, despite her increased libido being the primary symptom of the parasite living inside her (and implanted without her knowledge). Likewise, according to popular misbelief, STDs are only a problem for promiscuous people (even though most sexually active individuals will contract one of these infections in their lifetimes). Shivers takes this association a step further: becoming a host makes one promiscuous, and uncontrollably so.
But we know that promiscuity isn't objective. Where men are seen as playing the field, women are sluts and home-wreckers—and the unintended outcomes of sex are judged accordingly. Such is the case for the 2013 film Contracted's main character Samantha, who goes to a party in the midst of a difficult breakup with her girlfriend. We watch a man with a blurred face surveilling Samantha from across the room before moving in on his target. He tricks her into believing a roofied drink is hers, then lures her into the back of a car. Above the vehicle's rhythmic shaking, Samantha can be heard saying, "We should stop…please…please…" He does not stop.
Samantha wakes up disoriented, in pain, bleeding, and covered in dark veins. When she visits a clinic the next day, a male doctor grills her on her sexual history with the tone of a scolding parent, only to dismiss her alarming condition as "a head cold and a rash." Later, Samantha shows up at her ex-girlfriend's house, where she's derided for sleeping with a man, an act that supposedly delegitimized her queerness. Her ex, friends, and the script itself regard Samantha as reckless and loose, as opposed to someone who's been drugged and raped. Here, like in Shivers, the woman is seen as the source or cause of infection, as opposed to a victim of violence. Transmission on its own does not equal violence, but in these cases, transmission is a byproduct of breached boundaries, for which women are then blamed.
As it turns out, violation is a common theme across all STD horror movies. Whether it's the constant molestation in Shivers or the abusive relationship in which protagonist Laura acquires bruises that threaten to decay her entire body in 2012's Thanatomorphose, no characters in the micro-genre of STD horror puts themselves at risk by choice. Among these films, the scene closest to depicting consent is in It Follows, when new sweeties Jay and Hugh go to the movies, hit up a late night diner, and kiss tenderly on the beach before going "all the way" in the back of Hugh's car. Still in her pink lingerie, playing with wildflowers outside the open car door, Jay seems perfectly happy with the sex she's just had—until Hugh gags her with chloroform and she wakes up strapped in a wheelchair under a bridge. Hugh proceeds to tell her about the curse following them both; if she dies from "it," death comes for him next. With their fates intertwined, she has little choice but to work with him to survive. What began as mutually pleasurable sex becomes violative due to Hugh's dramatic method for delivering Jay the bad news and his knowingly and maliciously preventing Jay from making an informed decision about her body.
From a cinematic perspective, this makes sense. After all, where would the horror be if these characters saw what was coming? But the problem with these depictions is that they perpetuate the notion that people who spread STDs are deceitful, ill-intentioned, and necessarily aware of their capacity to transmit. In reality, STDs are often passed on by people who don't know they're infected, as many of these conditions can be asymptomatic. And while it's true that some people fail to disclose their infections to sexual partners, many folks who know their positive status do inform partners, communicate about boundaries, take precautions to reduce the risk of transmission, and lead fulfilling lives. Stereotypes that paint people with STDs as irresponsible bolster a stigma that makes people reluctant to get tested, seek treatment, and disclose their infections—which hurts everyone.
But these movies not only depend on violation—they eroticize it. And the monster isn't just a virus or parasite that passes between characters' bodies, it's also transmission of the very sexual perversion that first sets the plot in motion. In Night of Something Strange, the opening scene shows a janitor penetrating a dead woman in a morgue. Cause of death: "Radiation exposure/STD? Some cells still active." Back at home, the janitor appears to die, then re-awakens as a sex-crazed zombie and assaults his girlfriend. He spends the rest of the movie attacking spring break-bound high school students, some more "innocent" than others. Each new victim goes on to rape others. You could call this a rule of STD horror: Characters are either infected because of their sexual immorality, or they turn evil because of their infection.
STD horror films exploit and dramatize the worst misconceptions about illness and sexuality. But the consolation, and perhaps the potential, of these films is that they are, well, horror. The genre makes no promise to resemble reality, instead magnifying and embellishing truth enough to cross the line into impossible. With so much misinformation, or lack of it, about STDs in media and even our classrooms, perhaps horror is a rare safe place to let our fears truly run wild.