Grave Desire by Steve Finbow — Thom Cuell

Almost any perversion, however sickening, is good for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, or a weekend in Rio. Nevertheless, there is something uniquely disturbing about the figure of the necrophiliac. ‘The necrophile embodies our worst fears and our most base desires,’ states Steve Finbow, introducing his subject. Allied with ‘shady religions, shamanism, vampires, and werewolves,’ necrophiles are ‘banished to the margins of the real’. But is this process of mythologisation simply a means of ‘distracting ourselves from something we do not understand or fear either as an urge within ourselves or as a danger to community and society’? Is necrophilia a revolt, a sickness or a manifestation of an extreme normality?

Like the poor, necrophiliacs have always been with us. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells us that in Ancient Egypt the corpses of beautiful women were held back by their families for three or four days before being prepared for burial, after one embalmer was caught in the act with a fresh specimen[1] . Artefacts of the Moche civilization of Northern Peru (100 – 800AD) include some particularly minging-sounding depictions of ‘anal wormholes of desire and death, procreation and annihilation in which disgust is eradicated, made sacred, and masturbating corpses are used as a means of transferring bodily fluids’.

Other ancient cultures also believed that death was no barrier to sexuality. In The Vampire (1965), Ornella Volta tells the story of Injurieux, a senator from Clermond in 390 AD, and his wife Scholastica, who died less than a year after their marriage. At the funeral, Injurieux thanked god for having given him ‘such a treasure of purity,’ which he was now returning ‘intact as he had received her’. At these words, Scholastica rose from her coffin with an enigmatic smile, and asked ‘Why, husband mine, raise matters in public that only concern ourselves?’ The senator died a short time later, and was buried in a separate tomb. The following morning, a certain disorder was noted in the cemetery; investigators discovered Injurieux’s grave empty, and both corpses entwined in Scholastica’s coffin: ‘It would seem that death, the resolver of many problems, had enabled them to compensate for the omission in their conjugal life’.

Although examples of necrophilia in history in the Early Modern world are less common, the Industrial Revolution and the age of sex crime allow Finbow to pick up the thread once more. The Victorians were enthusiastic collectors of sexual pathologies, and Krafft-Ebbing documented the exploits of several necrophiliacs. Case study 23, in particular, is of interest to Finbow. Sergeant Bertrand ensured his place within the pages of the Psychopathia Sexualis with a career that began with animal mutilation, before moving on to breaking into cemeteries to dig up bodies (an act which Finbow likens to Laertes leaping into Ophelia’s grave, though Hamlet would have been a very different play if he had gone on to mutilate his sister’s corpse).

Bertrand’s exploit took place in 1844, a year in which revolutions and counter-revolutions swept across Europe. Other notable necrophiles also emerged during periods of social upheaval. Peter Kurten, the ‘Vampire of Dusseldorf’, for example, operated during the chaos of the Weimar Republic, whilst American necrophile Ed Gein committed his crimes during the Great Depression, leading Finbow to conclude that necrophiles ‘represent their particular culture in crisis. He is not the first to suggest a link between culture and sex crime; Jane Caputi, in her book The Age of Sex Crime (1998), posited a link between sexual murder and the psychology of late capitalist patriarchy, a theme developed by Colin Wilson in The Serial Killers: A Study in the Psychology of Violence (1990). For Finbow, the necrophile’s ‘means of production is death, a perverse anti-capitalism, an eroticism of entropy and annihilation’. Erich Fromm, likewise, positioned the necrophile as a frustrated capitalist: ‘the necrophile, lacking the necessary qualities to create, in his impotence finds it easy to destroy because for him it serves only one quality: force’. As capitalism becomes the all-pervasive driving force of culture, examples become easier to find: Bundy, Nilsen, Dahmer, Christie…

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Incidentally, a friend of mine realised recently that he’d been getting necrophilia and nepotism confused. ‘That’s the trouble with local government,’ he’d say, ‘full of bloody necrophiles’.

Moving on from the cultural roots and causes of necrophilia, Finbow attempts a psychological Examining the motives of killers like Leatherface, Norman Bates, Bertrand and Kurter, he identifies a profound misogyny – an ‘attempt to annihilate women from their twisted all-male families’. This misogyny is made explicit in the text of a necrophile website quoted by Finbow. The author ‘Theoderich’ advises budding necrophiles to go equipped with a box of condoms as ‘you never know which STDs your partner had during his/her lifetime, and believe me, it doesn’t get any better after the person dies’. You’d think that slut-shaming would end at the grave, but apparently not.

Finbow portrays necrophilia as a compulsive behaviour driven by fantasy. Fantasy, though, is a mental image, not an act. To commit an act, the necrophile moves from habit to obsession to fantasy to fetishism. The corpse becomes ‘an object representing the body as a whole that has replaced the body-as-a-whole’. For killers like Nilsen and Dahmer, the reduction of humans to objects, which can be stored safely and taken out when needed, is key. Their victims were turned into simulacra: posed and photographed, they were turned into the objects which fascinated them (pornographic photos for Nilsen, sex toys for Dahmer). There was the added advantage that sex with corpses didn’t require complex or awkward conversations afterwards. This was key for Nilsen, who was famously so dull that killing people and burying them under the floorboards was the only was he could get his guests to stick around.

Ted Bundy went further, seeking to annihilate his victims. First, he would depersonalize his victims by knocking them unconscious, before removing them from their location – at first, he preferred taking his victims to wildernesses, liminal spaces where his fantasies could enjoy full reign. Driven by the rejection he felt he had suffered at the hands of his mother and an early girlfriend, he needed to reduce women into ‘ontic nullities’, which he could control. John Reginald Christie, a singularly unattractive character, was likely impotent with conscious women, using gas to render them helpless. Like the later Fred West, Christie kept mementos of his victims as fetishistic tokens.

The libido and the death-drive are inextricably linked in the id, so why is the necrophile so reviled today? Finbow argues that the repulsion we feel is hard-wired, a natural evolutionary disgust at the presence of injury and decay which the necrophile has to overcome before he acts. But does Herodotus’s story about the Egyptian embalmer suggest an additional economic explanation? The way the bodies of young women were jealously guarded by their families is an early sign of our possessive attitude towards bodies, as property of the family.

Grave Desire is naturally weighted towards necrophiles who kill, because of the availability of sources. However, that does mean that the book feels less like a ‘cultural history’ than a piece on unusually erudite true crime. While the work of Victorian sexologists are an invaluable source, further examples from the pre-Industrial age would have been illuminating: the well-documented cases of Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory, at least, could have added to the discussion. I would also argue that Finbow is heavier on the ‘history’ than the ‘culture’; looking at depictions in music (‘Code Blue’ by TSOL springs to mind) and art could have added depth to his analysis, while literature is used as a tool for illustrating the psychology of real-world figures, rather than being subjected to critical analysis in its own right: for example, Finbow quotes extensively from American Psycho to add colour to his analysis of Ted Bundy, but spends very little time probing Easton Ellis’s text for links between the fetishisation of money and corpses. Then there is his infuriating habit of quoting sources without referring to titles or authors in the body of the text: in one example, a sentence about Victorian sexologist Havelock Ellis is immediately followed by a lengthy quotation from The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, presented without context or introduction. Other thoughts feel unfinished: ‘sexual disgust guards us against incest and also assists in choosing a mate through body symmetry, etc’.

It is always illuminating to read investigations into the darker by-ways of sexuality and psychology, and Finbow provides a thought-provoking analysis of this most niche of topics. At times, the jumps between straightforward case study and Lacanian theory can be jarring, but Finbow has an excellent grasp of his material, and works hard to make his writing accessible. Confirming his belief that necrophilia generates a natural reaction of disgust, I did experience several dark nights of the soul whilst reading Grave Desire, and I’m also not sure how much my friends appreciated the messages about ‘ideal body envelopes’ and ontic nullities. From Buffy to Twilight, eroticised dead bodies continue to feature in our cultural life, while authors Stewart Home and Steven Wells have identified a necrophiliac tendency in our public reaction to the death of Princess Diana, so Finbow performs an important service by breaking the taboo and analysing the history and psychology of necrophilia in a non-academic context.

[1] This isn’t Herodotus’s only connection with necrophilia: the Hungarian spy Alma’sy, in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, is a keen reader of the Histories and an apparent necrophile.


Thom Cuell has to return some videotapes.

Image: kiss of death, Mathieu Jarry, Creative Commons