Monstrous Mammaries: The Relationship Between Breasts and Horror
“What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.” – Sidney Prescott, Scream (1996).
The first time I ever saw breasts belonging to someone that wasn’t related to me was Sandy Johnson as Judith Myers in the opening scene of Halloween. Before the age of the internet, horror movies were likely responsible for most of society’s introduction to the naked form—specifically, the naked form of a cisgender woman. So the sight of a nude or topless woman makes complete thematic sense in the world of a horror movie.
Nudity has existed in movies since the silent film era, but western society has sexualized the female breast to the point where it serves as a form of currency. Horror as a genre is so much more than breasts and blood, yet it would be dishonest and insincere to act as if the role of breasts has not been pivotal to the success of the genre. So why are we so afraid to talk about it?
Nudity and Slashers
At the height of the slasher craze, Roger Ebert famously scorned horror’s use of bare bodies. “The nudity is always gratuitous,“ he complained, adding that nudity “is put in to titillate the audience, and women who dress this way or merely uncover their bodies are somehow asking for trouble and somehow deserve the trouble they get. That’s a sick idea.” For the most part, Ebert was right. Whereas the lesbian vampire and exploitation craze of the 1970s embraced and praised nudity, slasher films of the Reagan era punished them for expressing it.
The slasher boom was profitable, and it set up a formula for success that many filmmakers are still using today either by leaning into the conventions or subverting them. Hell, the requirement of exposing breasts is a plot point in The Cabin in the Woods; multiple websites exist as a database of all instances of nude scenes in horror movies.
Even “elevated” horror—a newer categorization that elicits a 14-tweet Twitter thread whenever it’s mentioned—is just a way for studios to purge this “tits and torture” reputation from the minds of casual moviegoers who still view the genre through the lens of the slasher boom of the 1980s. But breasts are such a staple in the genre that whole scenes—and in one instance, an entire film—exist specifically to buck the expectations of what it means to see bare breasts in a horror movie.
Nudity and Subversive Horror
One of the most notable examples comes to us from Night of the Demons, in which Linnea Quigley’s possessed Suzanne draws all over her face and chest with lipstick only to insert the makeup directly through her nipple and into her body. One of the first shots of the movie is on Suzanne using her “womanly wiles” to get what she wants at a convenience store, knowingly flashing her panties from underneath her costume. She spends the entire movie pre-possession trying to titillate the audience—but her sexual prowess is manipulated into something horrific after her demonic possession.
The sequel Night of the Demons 2: Angela’s Revenge would take it a step further, as an unsuspecting horn dog tries to cop a feel on Shirley’s bare breasts, only for each breast to magically turn into hands that grab him right back, like a chesty version of the threat of vagina dentata in Teeth.
While we’re on the subject of sex organs having teeth where they don’t belong, the independent 2015 film Killer Rack tells the story of a Lovecraftian plastic surgeon who performs breast enhancement surgery on an unsuspecting patient. Unfortunately, one victim soon discovers that her new chest is hellbent on world domination. Try to go to second base? Your hand is likely getting bitten off. Stare a little bit too long? You’re lunchmeat, pal. But whereas something like Teeth is considered genuinely scary despite its tongue-in-cheek humor, Killer Rack is a screwball comedy based on premise alone.
Breasts are sexualized, but they’re also a frequent source of physical comedy. (I’m looking at you, Fembots in Austin Powers or rock-hard implants in Mean Girls.) Parody films like Scary Movie include stabbing Carmen Electra in the breast and removing silicone implants, or there’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, where a woman has her implants removed and presented to her. These women continue to be punished for others’ objectification of their bodies, but this time it’s done for laughs.
The Future of Breasts (in Horror)
As a woman with a requires-custom-made-bras cup size, I have an innate relationship with the way breasts have been presented in horror because it has genuinely impacted how I feel about my own body. I spent many years feeling a lot of shame about something I had no control over. Many people have learned “big boobs = dumb” or “big boobs = immoral and deserving of death” from movies. These people then let that incorrect assumption influence how they treat people in real life. I always feel an extra layer of sadness when Tatum dies in Scream, knowing that I too would die in a doggy door hoisted by my own titty petard.
Regardless of horror’s history with breasts, sex and nudity are disappearing from cinema, horror included. Many assume this change is an act of progress and a lack of exploitation, but perhaps this is merely a sign of the return of Puritanism. Horror no longer needs to rely on a cheap “pop of the top” to garner attention, which has luckily led to fascinating explorations of horror and sexuality in films like Titane or Possessor. No matter your personal feelings on the validity or necessity of bare breasts in horror, it’s undeniable that the genre’s longevity is at least partly due to freeing the nipple.