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BOOK REVIEW: “The Forbidden Body: Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination” By Douglas E. Cowan | 2022 | Paperback, $30 | Non-fiction, religion | Available by interlibrary loan
It is a misleading book. First up, the cover art is “The Lamia in the Penthouse” by Virgil Finlay – a quintessential example of pulp illustration. Second, according to the back cover, “The Forbidden Body: Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination” by Douglas E. Cowan belongs to the religion section of the bookstore. So a book about sex and horror with a sexy witch and a frame of demons on the cover is kind of religious. Am I missing something?
The answer, according to Cowan, is an emphatic “no”. The intertwining of sex, horror and religion is persistent and inescapable. Religion here isn’t spelled out, but there’s plenty of Christian horror, with 1973’s “The Exorcist” being one of the first texts to be thoroughly explored.
An important first step Cowan takes is to distinguish between religion and the religious imagination. Religion is a set of beliefs and practices; The religious imagination, in short and in part, is the world of worry that opens up as a result of these beliefs and the carrying out of these practices – or the consequences if you don’t. Being possessed by a demon, the source of horror in “The Exorcist”, is horrifying specifically through a lens of Christian religious imagination.
Another point Cowan makes is that many religious taboos are based on “moving bodies.” This is where the “sex” part of the title comes in. Continuing with Cowan’s first example, “The Exorcist,” a scene that secured this film’s place in cinematic history involved a crucifix going somewhere it wouldn’t normally be. I will not expand here. Nonconforming sexuality or sexual practices, in a religious imagination, are invitations to retribution and cause horrifying concerns.
This is a very basic summary of the work done in Cowan’s book. It’s actually a lot more interesting than that, but it takes a while to really get to the heart of what Cowan wants to make.
The introduction and the first chapter serve as a model for Cowan’s analysis and set out very specifically what I have summarized above. Those 50 or so pages could make or break your experience. Unless you really take the time to understand Cowan’s setting, the rest of the work reads like a true fan caring about his favorite stuff.
Let’s be clear though: Cowan is a horror fan. Like, a huge fan. And there are times when it feels like some of the tangents being followed are just excuses to really show off all he knows about horror. There are parts of the third chapter, provocatively titled, with a deliberate misnomer, “Altared Bodies: Sexuality, Sacrifice, and the Horrific Aesthetic”, where Cowan explores pulp fiction illustrators and seems to stray too far from the final point. However, it does provide a reason to include salacious illustrations.
It should be noted that these sexy images are not included in this book to be sexy images; they must demonstrate the long-standing sexualization of horror. Their inclusion in the original books was in the form of sexy imagery – and this slight shift in understanding is what’s ultimately vindicated and about. Cowan wants to make a strong case for the connection between horror and sexuality in human existence.
These two modes – sexy image stuff and philosophical exploration of sexy image stuff – are what sometimes make this book misleading. Specifically, Cowan begins each chapter with a brilliantly recreated scene from a horror movie, book, or show. He opens the fourth chapter thus:
“A secret room, hidden for centuries in the lowest level of an isolated Spanish convent. Its massive wooden plank door, ringed with steel bars and secured with intricate locks, does not appear on any building plans. in the church archives. An architectural metaphor for all that we struggle to keep hidden. What could go wrong?”
In these moments, Cowan’s joy surrounding the genre shines through. In a way, it sounds like he would really like to write horror fiction. At the same time, the analytical work is deep and thoughtful. Also, Cowan states that he has had to deal with a lot of prying eyes from those who don’t share his interest. The attempt to intellectualize the horror field could be his attempt to find more people to talk to about his favorite stuff.
I don’t particularly enjoy horror movies or many of the stories that Cowan talks about throughout his work. I was in many ways one of the acquaintances who would roll my eyes listening to someone talk endlessly about their hobby. However, in the end, I found myself questioning my position. Yes, there is no little gratuitous description in this work. There are times when the scenes portrayed are too misogynistic, racist and what have you, where the genre really doesn’t need anyone to champion it; Cowan specifically addresses this aspect of horror in relation to HP Lovecraft.
But, as the final chapter reveals, horror exists as a genre outside of religion specifically, and is the product of social fears. These social fears exist in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities and are a source of gender evolution. The spaces that horror focuses on are often the spaces that require the most social adjustment.
Cowan has managed to write a philosophical take on what is clearly his favorite genre, inviting readers to understand why and how they, religion and sex fit into these dirty, silly and scary stories. Although I’m still not the biggest horror fan, I at least know what to look for now.
Chris LaCroix lives in Seattle. He loves all the stairs in town.