Death and Provocation

Sex Doesn’t Sell (So Shock Them Instead): Death, Gore and Other Forms of Provocation

Contrary to what we are often led to believe, sex doesn’t necessarily sell. In fact, a study by John Wiritz, an advertising professor, revealed that the addition of “sex appeal” in an ad not only failed to make the brand name more memorable for the participants, but often had adverse effects.

When it comes to the role sex plays in igniting the appeal of a film, from the perspective of the psychology of aesthtics, the results aren’t as easily deduced. It’s likely that sex does lubricate the box office figures to some extent, but because the effect is so wholly dependent on a host of other factors, such as the presence of famous movie stars, it’s almost impossible to measure the true degree of its implication.

But before we delve into the mischievous ways in which filmmakers bewilder and provoke their audiences, we should first try to decipher the reason why sex presents such unsure foundations for many hopefuls. The answer, it seems, rests between the hands that clutch to our humanity, particularly when it’s probed and stimulated by the mere mention of death.

Thoughts of death

Mortality salience, otherwise known as our awareness of our inevitable end, has been shown to cause men, but not necessarily women, to become more negative toward sexual depictions of women. When thoughts of death, easily stirred by any form of media, are added to the current of female sexuality, “sex appeal” becomes redundant. In this way, female sexuality becomes contradictory, representing both the origin of human life and,

“a lens through which we are disgusted with our own animal nature”.

This view stems from terror management theory (TMT), which illustrates the psychological conflict between wanting to live and knowing that life will ultimately end. The way we shield ourselves from depressive thoughts on the matter is by protecting both our worldview and self-esteem, which merge to shape our conception of reality and strengthen the belief that life is meaningful.

How we achieve this state of reassured endurance is by separating ourselves from the animal kingdom, mainly by remodeling ourselves psychologically into “symbolic, non-mortal beings”. What that means, of course, is that in our haste to elevate ourselves above the ground that serves as a physical reminder of our eventual end, we try to shed the animalistic aspects of our nature. This brings to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the basic level of physiological needs that we share so begrudgingly with other animals.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

One’s sexuality and the body, unless adorned in cultural symbols that separate it from its obvious carnality, pose a psychological problem whenever thoughts of death sail by. What’s interesting is that death lowers our interest in the physical aspects of sex, meaning genital pleasure, but no the uniquely human ones, which envelop the notions of love and romance.


It’s easy to see how sex can, therefore, be used as a means of provocation and social commentary. This unveiling of a tempting medium of creative expression also allows us to plunge into the minds of John Waters and Glenn Harris Milstead, who created the drag queen persona Divine. Her artificial construction of femininity later inspired Judith Butler, gender theorist and philosopher, to point a finger at the way societies erect the frame of gender roles.

That’s because Divine’s parodic performance, complete with a grotesquely emphasized body, outlandish makeup, hairdos and clothes, ridicules the “dictatorial norms of aesthetics” that concern maintream representations of Western women. And seeing how provocation stimulates discussion and serves as an effective publicity device, it’s no wonder that exploitation cinema proved so alluring. It’s defined as a form trying to,

“grab an audience by offering something unavailable elsewhere – films that pander to our basic instinct, pique our curiosity, salaciously sell us the seamier side of life, but do so unknowingly and for one basic reason – to make money”

– Jonathan Ross, The Incredibly Strange Film Book (1993)

Part of the appeal of exploitation cinema, as Waters quickly discovered, is the ability to unsettle audiences by toying with obscenities that can be displayed on the screen. Hershell Gordon also dipped his fingertips into the inknwell when, in the early 1960s, he invented the gore film, a horror subgenre, with his Blood Feast (1963). Turning away from sex, he coupled “violent primal instincts with the exploitation of the human body as mere meat”, as Nunes points out.


This brings us to the Danish film director and screenwriter Lars von Trier, who is known for his controversial career in film and shocking statements which, as he maintains, do not reflect his own beliefs. To illustrate the point, Lars von Trier’s drama Manderlay (2005) shows Willem Dafoe’s character voicing unsettling comments that link sex and desire to barbaric and undemocratic situations. And, as Mette Hjort notices, these bind civilization to sexual repression.

In the film, von Trier also raises controversial points regarding racism and slavery, which warrant a separate and exhaustive study of their own. Regardless, his cunning approach to provocation successfully keeps him on the tips of people’s tongues.

Final thoughts

In this way, we can see that sex, seen as a means of titillating viewers and rousing interest, embraces the multilayered decadence of human beings. Much like gore and subverted political correctness, it operates as a device that consecrates the accepted norms and order that make up the framework of our world.

While they can be interpreted as artistic weapons against an unchallenged hegemony of thought, these devices also serve as bold ways of surprising audiences that have, seemingly, seen it all. And as Waters once said, “bad taste is what entertainment is all about”.

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