This essay will explore post-fetishistic desire in Italian horror cinema as elicited by British actress Barbara Steele in Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday/The Revenge of the Vampire, 1960). The film concerns the heretic witch Asa (Steele) burned at the stake and tortured with a spiked mask, before being reincarnated years later to haunt her young ancestor Katja (also Steele) whom she resembles. Key to my argument is thinking desire for cinematic images independent of sexual orientation, oriented purely toward the imagetic. I will not be discussing what happens in Steele’s films but how her image affects her fans. This desire for the strange, impossible and corporeal within the texture of celluloid I have termed cinesexuality – sexuality of and for the cinema.
One image haunts the history of Italian horror cinema more than any other – the face of Barbara Steele in La Maschera del Demonio. Barbara Steele’s image, particularly as the reanimated Asa, replete with holes in her face from the hammering of a spiked mask into the witch, is, in the words of Phil Hardy “more than any other, the emblem and fetish of the genre”. (1) Hardy’s devotional statement resonates with three major problems that persistently haunt women in film. The first is the way in which bodies in cinema, and specifically women’s faces, have been subsumed by their capacity to signify, not ‘real’ women per se, but a palpable incarnation of male fantasy, specifically male fetishism. The second problem is the need for any form of delirious cinematic pleasure – cinesexuality – to be transcribed into an established sexual neurosis at all. The third problem is that, as a woman who herself is, among many, enthralled by Steele’s face, I do not visually relate to the signifier Barbara Steele per se, so much as to the particular quality and intensity with which her image, like many other images, whether of bodies, landscapes or even sound-images, affects me as viewer. Barbara Steele is less important than, for example a) the things that seem to continually happen around her (gothic landscapes, baroque tales of sexual depravity and death) or b) the ways in which she is filmed, such as Bava’s chiaroscuro and misty close-ups, Freda’s framing of the terrorised face (L’Orribile Segreto dei Dr Hichcock/The Terrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock, 1962) and Corman’s sharp angles and lurid colour (The Pit and the Pendulum, 1961). I do not wish to retain the signifier woman in order to vindicate the genre because these films include Barbara Steele as at least a strong heroine in a stereotypically male genre. If I were to follow this line I would suggest that Lucio Fulci’s films, especially …E tu Vivrai nel Terrore. L’Aldila, (The Beyond, 1981) Paura nel Citta dei Morti Vivanti (The City of the Living Dead, 1980) and Quella Villa Acantro al Cimetrio (The House by the Cemetery, 1981) were ‘feminist’ horror films because women are not sexualised victims and the protagonist of all three films is Irish actress Catriona MacColl (aka Katrina MacColl). Even Argento’s feminine/feminist Suspiria (1977, written by a woman, Daria Nicolodi) would do. But gender exchange is not enough to rethink the philosophies of gender and sexuality in film. This essay will address the feminist implications of these three issues and attempt to sketch, through Jean Françoise Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, different ways of thinking Steele’s appeal, our relationship with her image and cinematic pleasure.
The Problem with Fetishism
E. Ann Kaplan states:
Women in film thus do not function as signifiers for a signified (a real woman) as sociological critics have assumed, but signifier and signified have elided into a sign that represents something in the male unconscious. (2)
Kaplan’s demarcation of the signifier (the emblem, the fetish of Steele’s face) from any sense of a signified makes sense of Steele’s remark “It’s not me they’re seeing. They’re casting some projection of themselves, some aspect that I somehow symbolise. It can’t possibly be me.” (3) Only if Steele’s image stands in for disavowed castration, either of mother for men or self for women, does the psychoanalytic model fit. Put simply, fetishism is when some body part or inorganic object (here an image) is either needed to achieve the sexual aim or replaces it altogether. When Steele’s face is taken as the face of a woman that can be taken as an object of desire (objet a or fetish) her cinematic appeal traverses into the actual where the signifier is all about the male gaze, male unconscious and male-aligned heterosexual desire. The actual for traditional cinematic desire is woman as signifier, not of woman, but of male unconscious projection, as Slavoj Zizek claims: “[in film] woman merely materialises a male fantasy.” (4) Steele as “the dark goddess who can dole out pleasure and pain in equal measure” (5) reduces the gaze to masochistic, sadistic or both. In La Maschera this is aggravated by the characters Steele plays – a young victim and an evil witch. Read through traditional cinematic theory male viewers can have their cake (the male gaze as a form of masochism, hence temporarily ‘feminised’) and eat it (sadism which re-establishes male dominance). At best this cinematic sado-masochism shows cinema to shake up gender roles altogether by merging two sexual pathologies that belong to entirely phylic orders. Sadism and masochism, like fetishism, annex pleasure to established systems of desire. Embracing the peculiarly cinematic desire for images as images, not as virtual representations of an actual, opens the body to the attraction of the possible only in the world of images rather than attraction for the body as subject in the world. Ironically fetishism was theorised most elaborately by Freud simultaneous with the advent of cinema. Pure desire for cinema as something to be added to Freud’s perversions was not evident enough to achieve its own pathologisation (remembering Freud’s treatise on perversions was descriptive not judgmental).
I would venture into female or lesbian fetish theory, as seen in the work of Teresa DeLauretis and Elizabeth Grosz among others but it seems it is male critics who persistently describe the allure of Steele’s face as fetishistic. An interesting example can be found in seminal horror magazine Deep Red. Chas Balun’s reviews of Ricardo Freda’s L’Orrible Segreto del Dr. Hichcock and its sequel Lo Spettro (The Ghost, 1962) are premised with “Let’s talk Barbara Steele…That face. Those eyes. Those lips. That body”. (6) Interesting that the same issue of Deep Red has an article on the equally appealing and far more tormented and tortured Italian horror actor Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen) by John Martin, but the focus shifts entirely to a heterosexual, traditional gender paradigm. Radice is said to “head-butt drills, splitting his guts in sewers and donating brains to hungry natives” (7). Grammatically Martin describes Radice’s body as volitional rather than passive and any sense of the actor in a victimised or masochistic sense (and any seduction this could insinuate) is avoided. Even though Martin enjoys the images he cannot confess their seductive value. Although these semantics alter during the ’90s, Radice is yet to receive the attention (and confession of attraction) of Steele or any of a number of other Italian and French female horror film stars. That Radice’s torment is seen as sensational and Steele’s sexualised (“that body”?!) affirms that any subversive potential in desiring a horror actress over a traditional Hollywood face does not necessarily indicate that the systems of desire are equivalently subverted.
When fetish objects stand in for the sexual object the fetish replaces the genitals within the sexual narrative. However within the sexual narrative the outcome (satisfaction/orgasm through the function of the fetish standing in for the normal sexual aim) is known before the activity of desire is launched. If we love Steele’s face because it is somehow strange, surely we cannot be looking for repetitious patterns of pleasure and satisfaction but a strange sensation of desire that dislocates us? The pleasure in watching Steele fulfils the very function Freud states transforms scopophilia and even fetishism into the realm of the purely perverse. He states: “this pleasure in looking becomes a perversion…if instead of being prepatory to the normal sexual aim, it supplants it. [Original emphasis]” (8) True cinephiles would never claim cinema prepares them for sex, sex is cinema. Similarly Steele’s face could not prepare us for desiring her. Ignoring for a moment the fact she is an actress in a film and not really in front of us, even if we establish her attractiveness for a male viewer (I will use this model tactically here, the implications of a lesbian libidinal dynamic would require a whole new neurosis be addressed) Steele’s face is only this face by virtue of the special generic way it is presented to us. Hardy is closer to the specifically filmic nature of desire for Steele when he precedes his fetish comment by claiming “her mere presence suffices to trigger the perverse but fundamental and pleasurable fantasies that form the raw material of the horror genre itself” (9). Without the shadows, the frightening characters and the divided/dual nature of her appearances (discussed below) Steele is, well, not Steele. Perhaps Steele’s perverse filmed beauty as a cinematic horror image rather than a fetishised woman is where we find pleasure in her. She is a pleasure of horror not of heterosexuality.
Steele’s appearances are often characterised by division and duality. In four films – La Maschera, I Lunghi Capelli della Morte (The Long Hair of Death, Antonio Margheriti, 1964), Amanti d’Oltretomba (Nightmare Castle, Mario Caiano, 1965), and Un Angelo per Satana (An Angel for Satan, Camillo Mastrocinque, 1966) – Steele plays two characters. In black and white the camera exploits her cheekbones, deep eye sockets and protruding lower lip hanging from a seemingly always parted mouth. This effect suggests an incomplete face, disappearing into the background and bulging out of the screen at once, belonging neither to the positive proprioceptive realm nor negative empty space. Punctured with holes in La Maschera Steele’s face recedes within the surface rather than at the edges, like something nasty floating up out of water or a closet monster from the dark but nonetheless starkly beautiful. Steele is also alive and dead: in La Maschera she is reanimated witch and innocent ancestor; in Lunghi Capelli she rises from the grave; in Amanti she haunts herself as a ghost; in Cinque Tombe per un Medium (Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave Massimo Pupillo, 1966) she is surrounded by zombies; in Curse of the Crimson Alter (Vernon Sewell, 1968) she is a strange occult priestess neither alive nor dead (and coloured blue)! Steele’s image and characters are always too much and not enough – supernatural or not quite human, not all present or present as more than one. She splits and shifts both visually and narratively and this is what we have come to expect from viewing her. If we are hypnotised by her we are also required to split and shift. Our eyes must adjust to watching extreme chiaroscuro and angular facial lines, our ears to whispers and screams, and our sense to living corpses, ghosts, evil looking innocents and delicious demons. But it is vital to emphasise this is not an adjustment to something that fits into a normal narrative of desire. The pupil’s adjustment to making sense of a face through a particular quality of light and seratonic trails thrilling to a celerity – speed or slowness – particularly evident in Steele’s films have nothing to do with our ‘everyday’ sexuality and everything to do with a specific love for the qualities of film (especially Italian gothic horror film) itself.
Let me drag Steele out of the psychoanalytic ghetto in which Italian horror film criticism is stuck, and venture that viewing cinema does not symbolise a thing or stand in for a sign transferred from a different meaning. Visual images can, and in the case of Steele have a particular propensity to, simply affect the viewer through non-transcribable qualities.
Cinesexuality is the launch upon a line of desire where the outcome cannot be known – desire for a shadow, an inflection of light, quality of frame or contrast. The layers of expectation, pleasure and satisfaction are redistributed in the act of watching and so our desire must also redistribute. Steele’s face, eliciting a turbulence of visceral reaction, a rhythmic refrain between viewing flesh and the speed of the film, may be an intersection at where our attraction and corporeal dispersion connect with the viewed. Steele’s face forges a strange connexion (10) with our bodies watching. It is, after all, not a real face in the domestic, material sense of the word. It is a plateau of image. The fold of flesh and film mean that all on-screen signifieds represent nothing of their own essence. Neither do they represent something of the essence of our own desire, conscious or unconscious but they are constituted and constitute a particular affect, a qualitative interface of viewer and image making and remembering meaning. These sensations may or may not be repeatable, while psychoanalysis relies on repeatability for its diagnoses. How can we think the cinesexual plane of the visual as not representative of anything to be perceived but itself a material force that creates a single membrane between viewer and viewed? In what ways can we experience Steele’s torments and tortures, deaths and reincarnations beyond psychoanalysis and male drives for fetishism and potentially suspect misogynist aggression or aestheticisation of dead women? Further still, in what sense do these moments propel material desire and becomings without representing actual situations or objects of desire? After all, it’s not every day we find ourselves attracted to reanimated witch vampires who exist only in black and white worlds.
When the viewer desires an image, the opposition of viewer and object of desire is exchanged for durational folding of material image and viewing body. In La Maschera when we see Asa’s skin creeping back onto her skull, and our fingers tingle at the depth of the eye sockets, our viscera twist at the breathtaking beauty of the kinaesthetics of the crawling flesh, the movement of our body folds with the seduction of the image. This image doesn’t mean anything, it just looks amazing and the look, not the meaning, affects us. When Steele finally faces us with her reanimated face, the face is iconic, a Madonna of the apertures. She comes to be all that is strange, inexplicable and viscerally seductive about these films. Yet to attempt to describe this ecstasy would render language poverty-stricken, because this pleasure of viewing is not about language. This is why to describe Steele as a fetish, placing her within languages of desire, pathology and psychoanalysis, also fails. Why do we love this horrifying image of this face covered in holes? Because of the way it makes us feel. Film is traditionally thought as a system where our perception of an image results in our making meaning of that image rather than simply being affected by it. To feel, to be affected, is a first order signification phenomenon, before and beyond language. Second and third order signification ask what does this image/feeling mean? How does it fit into language and the world? Horror films often resonate around first order signification – pure affect and corporeal pleasures such as shock, revulsion and fascination. These moments of film in particular break up film language and exceed all pleasure in technique, meaning and construction. Of course horror films have a language but the particularly visual nature of these films (hence the cry that their stories and characterisations are often poor) is their power.
In Libidinal Economy (11) Jean-François Lyotard claims art and philosophy are about conduction, not communication. The effect of Steele’s films comes not from what they mean, but what intensities they conduct to the viewer. When affected by art Lyotard claims we “Open the so-called body and spread out all its surfaces” (12). What is this body? Lyotard includes the skin, the viscera, the folds, the revealed, the concealed, the occasional (mucus), the organic, the organs as physiological, the aesthetic, the multiplied, the reduced, the useful, the heard, the seen, the confused, the desiring, the body as non-stratified plateaus of intensities. Opening out the body refers to opening out the idea of viewing as an inflecting band of conduction of intensities between viewing body and image. Lyotard’s expression for this plane of intensity is ‘the great ephemeral skin’; ephemeral because it is immanent, skin because, although not referring to ‘a’ body, the plane describes corporeally embodied sense that invests everything with libidinality. The significance of the word ‘great’ suggests the area of skin in which Lyotard includes the flesh. This skin also includes (but does not oppose) image, the viewed, phantasmatic investment and the opened body flattened out toward infinity. Great is enormous in size, in shape, in possibility, in time, in matter, in dimensions, infinitely. The skin is not ‘one’s’ skin, or ‘my’ skin, it does not enclose or integrate, it continually extends and opens. If all is skin nothing is enclosed, but skin is always material not conceptual, hence Iain Hamilton’s point that Lyotard means ‘material’ by ‘skin’. (13) This emphasises the materiality of images (their capacity to materially affect) so important to my argument. Steele’s flesh is not material in that we can reach out and take her body as real, but it is material in that we enter into an affected and actual intensification and libidinal ‘turning’ with and inextricable from the images. Configuring our relation with images as a great ephemeral skin challenges the film viewer as a fixed subject opposite a screen transmitting meaning to be deciphered. The body is all libidinality with no demarcation (between screen/subject, male viewer/female image). To form a celluloid skin we
spread out the immense membrane of the libidinal ‘body’ which is quite different to a frame [skin in its traditional sense]. It is made from the most heterogeneous textures, bone, epithelium, sheets to write on, charged atmospheres, swords, glass cases, people, grasses, canvasses to paint. All these zones are joined end to end in a band which has no back to it, a Möebius band which interests us not because it is closed but because it is one-sided, a Möebian skin which, rather than being smooth, is on the contrary (is this topologically possible?) covered with roughness, corners, creases, cavities which, when it passes on the ‘first’ turn will be cavities, on the ‘second’, lumps. But as for what turn the band is on no-one knows nor will know in the eternal turn. (14)
Because desire, especially psychoanalytic desire, sets itself within a system of opposition, (male/female, hetero/homo, fetishism/kleptomania) Lyotard uses the word ‘libidinal’ to express the folding, working through or theatrical ‘band’ that twists the “inevitable confusion” (15) of oppositions such as figural/conceptual, discursive/sensory and the material/imagistic. Although Lyotard works within a stricter psychoanalytic canon than other philosophers (16), he is important in pointing out that even within Freud, many binaries fail to address the impossibility of their opposition. His model of the libidinal band and his philosophy of the great ephemeral skin reduce the fissure suggested between bodies and images to a space-time event plateau, a desiring band rather than an experience of desire by a subject. We enter into the force of the pull of Steele’s gelatinous, shifting features making our features shift. As her characters and face break up our concept of what we desire and what effect the image is having on us breaks up, proliferating rather than being destroyed. Steele’s eyes roll ecstatically as Asa and, in demonic rage, she makes the rushes of breath and cries belonging to the order of desire, inviting us to enter the highly corporeally receptive, harrowing and libidinal intensity of the situation. The situation’s infinite possibility can encompass both expectation being met (when we want to watch a Steele film and expect something of it) and not being met so that we can acknowledge questions of desire will always fail to predict the form the result could take. The shadows on Steele’s face are an affective plane with no meaning – she has dark and light not on but as her face. This seduces our dread and yet is delicious running into our eyes. The surfaces of Steele’s skin, inseparable from the dark mist enveloping and holes punctuating her face inflects us into a new configuration of being all incomprehensibly too much but not enough to mean anything – not a sign but a force. We cannot comprehend it and so outward it reaches until the scene becomes all about affecting us.
Duration is always part of the texture of any scene but is not necessarily metonymic. We see things happening in the images we cannot see in real life (nails into a face, creeping flesh) but we libidinalise nonetheless. Opening the body to these images we see the texture of plastic flesh covering camera filmed skin close-up, weird sounds from behind and around our field of vision but belonging to this face nonetheless. We hear spikes and screams as one sound when Asa receives the mask, and the empty space of the spike holes scream silently through the effect of framing the face with no accompanying sound. There is a particular wave of affect in which we can experience the fissures beginning in Steele’s face with our teeth gritting against our tongue or the tension in our shoulders as readily as with our eyes widening or the pathways of trauma our synapses trace. We are durationally hurled backward when her flesh resubstantiates slurpingly up around her skull. Less a phenomenological experience than a redistribution of our corporeal intensities, the phylic libidinality of this experience is the cinema of this moment through this medium. To refer to Steele as a beautiful woman at this point fails abysmally to express what her precise filmic quality does to us. The significance of her name represents the actor and fails to represent the singularity of affect that overtakes our sense of the possibilities of bodies and desire in film as designative signs. Our relationship with Steele’s name, her flesh and her function short circuits the act of viewing within a psychoanalytic or filmic system of both aesthetics and sexuality. How we watch Steele drifts into an address of how and for what libidinal purposes we view and what transformations are effected. “And the hows we address are not whys” states Lyotard “The whys are always galling, nostalgic and treacherous.” (17) How we watch makes us account for our pleasures and open up to possibilities of watching differently at every turn. It prevents Italian film critics explaining why they desire Steele ‘because she is a woman and I am heterosexual’ and reducing Radice to non-libidinally spectacular for the same reasons.
The Great Ephemeral Celluloid
Viewing film creates a singular membrane of desire and affect. It repudiates the fixed alterity of gender, sexuality and even bodies and images. We become part of the great ephemeral skin the image inflects us within, flattening our flesh into intense and unthought textures. The violence of horror images is not colluded with the sexual. Libido simultaneously encompasses and fails to enclose each while exceeding both – sexual and violent and delirious and indescribable and…and… The horror of the suffering of Steele means nothing inherently unless we remain diligently within the signification of ‘a woman is suffering’ and enjoy the images purely for these reasons (a claim whose capacity for purity I would question). Cinephiles would hardly reduce cinematic pleasure to this rudimentary description. Her suffering occurs in the face of its power to open our own bodies into bands of surfaces, layers, cavities and nodules of force and potential to be affected inextricable from the skin of the film. Film expands the universe, representing impossible bodies in impossible situations of visceral extremity: “Imagine the universe in expansion,” says Lyotard, “Does it flee from terror or explode with joy? Undecidable.” (18)
“It is not the tragedy of destiny, nor the comedy of a character (it can be presented in this way of course); no longer the drama of totalisation; rather the strangeness of fictive spaces.” (19) Nowhere is space stranger than in horror film, except in the space of cinesexuality, where we leave everything to chance. A critical mind may rightly be tempted to point out that using Mario Bava’s strange world of La Maschera and the impossible corporeal situations found therein is a very literal transcription of Lyotard’s making strange the use of fictive space. ‘Strangeness’ is found in all cinematic worlds due to the specificity of the medium. But the strangeness we feel, especially in reference to sexuality and specifically cinesexuality as deconstructing notions of gender and sexuality themselves is enhanced when things that are even loosely conceivable as ‘sexy’ are exchanged for things that in most other possible worlds are rarely, if ever, sexy – holes in the face, creeping flesh, witches, necrophilia, ghosts. We want to flee in terror and explode with an albeit strange kind of joy.
Steele’s drama of totalisation as the fetish object for male fans of Italian horror is, worse than being burnt at the stake or donned with her mask, the real tragedy of her destiny. No fan would deny her visual texture opens us to excesses of signification, even rudimentarily to what ‘desirable’ means, but more to film’s dispersion of gender, sexuality and pleasure. In order to celebrate the intensity of film, new systems of thinking the images therein need to be included in film philosophy, especially in reference to theorising women beyond their resignation to an expression of male psyche and theory. Moving from sign to affective inflection makes images material and viewing transformative, something cinephiles celebrate as the palpable thrill of watching. Lyotard states:
We will never be sufficiently refined, the (libidinal) world will always be too beautiful, there will always be too great an excess of mute vibrations trembling in the most ordinary nonsense or depressions, we will never stop becoming disciples of its affects, the routs of its affects ceaselessly crossing and recrossing the signs of representation and tracing the most unheard of, the most audacious, the most disconcerting itineraries on them…because desire cannot be assumed, accepted, understood, locked up in names – nomenclatured because these intensities we desire horrify us. (20)
An Italian horror film may seem a nonsensical realm for rethinking women within sexual discursive regimes. But film’s, especially strange and beautiful horror film’s, propensity for making desire peculiar and pleasure surprising places it in a positive position through which to think gender and sexuality differently. There is something about Steele’s face that is too beautiful, too audacious, horrifying, but only as it is expressed through the medium of film. Hence our relationship with this face is incomparable to other discourses of sexuality. Our cinesexuality, not our ‘everyday’ sexuality (which I would argue exists tactically not ontologically) allows us to be seduced by Steele. In the world of horror film her face is hol(e)y and we are the disciples of its affects.
Thank you to Neal Curtis and Giovanni Lombardo Radice for invaluable assistance in this research and to Rolando Caputo for getting me into Lyotard.
- Phil Hardy, The Aurum Horror Encyclopaedia, London: Octopus, 1985, p. 149
- E. Ann Kaplan, “Is the Gaze Male?” In Snitow, Ann, Stansell, Christine & Thompson, Sharon, eds. Powers of Desire, New York: Monthly Review Press, 309-327, p.310
- Barbara Steele quoted in Bill Warren, “Prince of Darkness”, Fangoria 102, p.68
- Slavoj Zizek, “The Thing from Inner Space”, in Salecl, Renata, Sexuation Durham: Duke 216-262, p. 229. That it has taken Zizek so many books to come to this conclusion is staggering.
- David J. Hogan, Dark Romance, London: Equation, 1986, p.168
- Deep Red, 5 December 1988, p. 29
- Ibid, p.7, my emphasis.
- Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, The Penguin Freud Library: Vol. 7, London: Penguin, 1977, 33-170, p. 70
- Hardy, p. 149
- Connexion is used here rather than the English connection, because the French infers a particular celerity of two becoming a third rather than proximity of two hermeneutic terms.
- Jean Françoise Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993
- Ibid, p. 1
- Translator’s note Libidinal Economy
- Lyotard, pp. 2-3
- From Iain Hamilton Grant’s very useful glossary at the beginning of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy, p. xiv.
- I say this because Lyotard’s work refers more consistently to the system it is refuting (especially a Lacanian system) than the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, even though their first text is named Anti-Oedipus. Lyotard is constantly referring to metaphors of invagination and protrusion that suggest an adherence to the notion of penetrative sexuality. Lyotard also patently, although not confessionally, locates all his theories in heterosexual examples – the female masochist, the prostitute as subversive, the virgin as definitionally female and the speaking subject of desire male. This becomes a real problem for the feminist reader, not in terms of weakening the joyous argument but as a distraction to its post-gendered, post-sexuality possibilities.
- Lyotard, p. 19
- Ibid, p. 42
- Ibid, p. 42
- Ibid, p. 20