Turns out there's more than one way to sexualize a corpse.
Hayden (not his real name, for reasons that will become obvious) is 18 years old and he will never forget the moment when he first realized he was a necrophile. He was 14 years old at the funeral of a girl who had been a close friend—it was the first time he had come in contact with a corpse.
"I could feel the chill of her skin on my hand for hours [after] and I thought about what it would be like to hold onto her forever. She was so cold, and her eyes were so open and blank and lifeless," Hayden told me, recalling the experience.
"I remember the way the light glinted off her face and made her look like she was asleep, but her eyes were so wide and so dead," he continued. "I thought I could drown in them. I wanted to brush my hand through her hair and curl my fingers around hers and just let my skin linger and mold to hers so I could feel her forever. It felt like it was over too soon."
When he would recall the experience, Hayden said, it was often accompanied with intense feelings of anger and guilt. And when he tried to tell others about what he had felt, he added, they were far from accepting.
For as long as humans have attempted to codify appropriate social behavior there have been either explicit prohibitions against necrophilia, or at the very least strong taboos against the practice. Yet despite the taboo, necrophilia also played a very important role in the imaginations of these same societies. Take, for instance, the case of Achilles, who allegedly engaged in necrophilic acts with the Amazonian Queen Penthesilea after killing her. Or Herod the Great, who allegedly preserved the second of his ten wives in honey and proceeded to have intercourse with her for seven years after her death. Some scholars believe Charlemagne frequently committed acts of necrophilia. And if you want to get slightly more modern, Sleeping Beauty has some pretty heavy necrophilic overtones.
It may have been the very prevalence of these necrophilic tendencies—whether fantasized or realized—that justified codifying explicit laws against necrophilia in the first place. Perhaps necrophilia is more common than we are comfortable acknowledging. After all, sex and death have always been connected, even in language (in French, la petite mort, or "the little death," has become synonymous with sexual orgasm).
The first use of "necrophilia" in its modern sense can be traced to the Belgian psychologist Joseph Guislain, who coined the term in a lecture in 1850. He used it in reference to the French necrophile François Bertrand, who had recently been convicted of exhuming and mutilating corpses in Parisian graveyards. But it wasn't until the term became canonized in Richard von Krafft-Ebing's groundbreaking psychiatric work Psychopathia Sexualis that it really gained widespread usage.
Still, in the psychiatric community, necrophilia has remained a fringe area of study, in part because it's too rare and taboo to research in any rigorous sense. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative text for psychiatric diagnosis, didn't have its own listing for necrophilia until the fifth and most recent edition came out in 2013. (In previous editions, necrophilia was listed under "Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified").
In 2009, Anil Aggrawal, a professor of forensic medicine at the Maulana Azad Medical College in New Delhi, proposed a new system of classification for necrophilia, which he described as "one of the most weird, bizarre, and revolting practices of abnormal and perverse sensuality." His ten-tier system is far and away the most nuanced approach to necrophilia to date and is extensively outlined in his book Necrophilia: Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects, the most in-depth study on the subject ever published.
"The primary difficulty [in studying necrophilia] is lack of literature and lack of sufficient number of cases," Aggrawal told me. "I cannot say I could completely overcome these difficulties, although I tried to."
Unlike previous attempts at classifying necrophilia, such as the 1989 study by Jonathan Rosman and Phillip Resnick, which classified necrophilia into two groups—"genuine necrophilia" and "pseudonecrophilia"—Aggrawal found that there was in fact a wide spectrum of necrophiliac tendencies. Drawing from dozens of case studies from around the world, Aggrawal's tiered system ranged from tame sexual fantasies to the extreme acts of necrosadism.
At the tame end of the spectrum is Class I, which includes role players, "romantic necrophiles," and necrophilic fantasizers whose sexual deviance usually doesn't involve any of the legal infractions we generally associate with necrophilia. These people are sexually aroused by a living partner pretending to be dead or engaging in sexual role plays involving anything from resurrecting a partner through sex to pretending to be a vampire. Class II includes romantic necrophiles who are unable to accept the fact that they have lost a loved one, such as the widow who was recently found to be sleeping next to her decomposing husband for a year after he had died.
Moving across the spectrum, necrophilic fantasizers, or Class III, get off by actually fantasizing about the dead, which may involve anything from visiting funerals or cemeteries to having sex in the presence of a coffin, or getting erotic sensations after seeing images of dead bodies.
Beyond this is the realm of necrophilia in its classic sense, involving people who actually engage in sex acts with the dead. As Aggrawal's classification scheme makes clear, there are a staggering variety of ways to accomplish this, ranging from those who achieve sexual stimulation from simply touching a dead body (Class IV), to those who mutilate dead bodies while masturbating (Class VI), to homicidal necrophiles (Class IX), who are so desperate to have sex with a body that they will kill the living to achieve this.
"Chat about a violent murder at the dinner table and people join the conversation; mention necrophilia and the whole table goes silent." — Carla Valentine
According to Aggrawal's writings on the subject, it is not only possible, but relatively common for necrophiles to advance along this spectrum over time. In his book, he cites numerous case studies of those who previously experienced necrophilic fantasies taking up jobs that would regularly put them in contact with corpses in order to bring those fantasies to life.
Indeed, Hayden told me that he one day intends to enter a field that would allow him to be around the dead on a regular basis. "I know enough that I really can't consummate on my desire—not without being caught or arrested, in all likelihood," he said. Yet he also says he's not too worried about his fantasies translating into a more nefarious reality—for him, "touching's enough."
"Most people don't like the idea of someone fondling their corpse, or especially, having intercourse with it. I find this hilarious—it's not like they'd need it anymore, anyway," he said. "Really, I feel like it shouldn't be as big of a problem as it is. The media and the courts blow it all up."
Stoya reads Supervert's 'Necrophilia Variations' until she achieves orgasm.
Carla Valentine is a mortuary technician, the founder of Dead Meet, an online dating and networking hub exclusively for death industry professionals and the curator of Bart's Pathology Museum. Naturally, she spends a good amount of her time talking to people about the finality of finalities. Valentine hopes that her outreach will at least make people more receptive to talking about death, rather than totally repulsed by the topic. Part of the way she does this is by "making necrophilia accessible."
"By 'making necrophilia accessible,' I mean I'm looking at it objectively and encouraging others to do the same," Valentine explained. "People are relatively less shocked by cases of torture and murder involving live humans than they are by the idea that someone may be attracted to or have some sort of sensual or intimate encounter with the dead. Chat about a violent murder at the dinner table and people join the conversation; mention necrophilia and the whole table goes silent."
While Valentine doesn't self-identify as a necrophile and makes no pretensions of lusting after the dead, her writings display a fascination with the intersection of sex and death, particularly as it manifests in popular culture. A significant part of Valentine's research involves examining how cultural attitudes toward death and dying originate and evolve, and as such, one of the most pressing questions she explores is why people profess to be so appalled by the concept of necrophilia, yet turn out in droves to see its various portrayals in popular culture—particularly in adaptations that she calls "neo-necrophilia," or relations with the living dead, such asTwilight.
"What is it about death and the dead that is so abhorrent that we—in the Western world, at least—cannot conceive of the notion of intimacy with human remains?" she asked. "I've questioned people on why it's such a taboo and genuinely had the answer, 'In all honesty, I can imagine myself torturing someone and keeping them as a sex slave, but I can't imagine myself having sex with a dead body.' What's that about?"
It's only on the cultural fringes that we find works such as Jörg Buttgereit's Nekromantik films or Supervert's Necrophilia Variations, both testaments to enduring attraction of portrayals of macabre sexual deviance. The latter is of particular note, as it is a collection of vignettes that appear to be drawn straight from Aggrawal's ten-tier classification of necrophilia, but reimagined by Bataille or the Marquis de Sade.
There are also fledgling industries romanticizing death, hocking items that range from "funeral home-themed" perfumes to vampire Fleshlights and flowers that look like dicks and smell like decaying flesh. Perhaps these are indicative of little more than a flair for goth kitsch, but for Hayden, such items definitely appeal to his fetish.
"There's a fetish industry catering to anything, if you know where to look," he said. "I'd say there's a decent market for items related to necrophilia. [But] it's definitely not one of the odder things that's out there."
Hayden said that up until this point, he has mainly satisfied his necrophilic urges in other ways, like writing poetry and fiction based on his fantasies. When that doesn't prove to be enough there's always the internet, particularly the Deep Web, which has troves of sites for people sharing his sexual interests.
"There's a site I found dedicated just to pictures of well-dressed corpses in coffins," he said. "It's been a major outlet when I've tried to get my thoughts together."
"People have different attractions. Mine just happens to be to corpses." — Haiden
The question, however, is whether this is a healthy way for a necrophile to blow off steam, or only aggravates and intensifies a desire to sexually interact with a real corpse.
"Necrophilia may progress from grade one to any further grade, so [industries catering to necrophilic urges] quite possibly are fanning the habit," Aggrawal said. "I think the best way [to deal with necrophilic urges] is to contact a psychiatrist or psychotherapist. There are a number of strategies that can be employed to help them."
Hayden's therapist initially suggested he attend a help group for various paraphilias, but Hayden said that only aggravated the anxiety and awkwardness he felt about his desires, so he soon stopped attending. The biggest source of support in coming to terms with his taboo desires, he added, has been his girlfriend.
"She reads all the poetry I write, my stories involving necrophilia, even sends me songs or writings she finds about the subject," he said. "She's always told me that it's not abnormal—people have different attractions, and mine just happens to be to corpses."
In the Psychopathia Sexualis entry for necrophilia, Krafft-Ebing writes that whether or not a healthy mind can demonstrate necrophilic tendencies is an open question, worthy of further inquiry. In the 150 some years since its publication, it seems as though the psychiatric community has declared this question answered, with a resounding "no."
It makes sense: History is rife with brutal tales of necrophilic acts, and the simple reality of fornicating with a corpse is enough to make most people nauseous. But as Valentine and others are keen to demonstrate, there may be another side to the story, where necrophilia is not something to be feared and ignored, but may very well open up fruitful discussions and provide valuable insight into the true nature of our cultural attitudes toward sex, love, life, and death.
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