This article would not exist if it wasn’t for my brothers at the now defunct podcast, The Body | The Blood, where we took on V/H/S on two separate occasions and unraveled a thread that runs through this film, one that may not have even been noticed by its makers. My thanks go out for the terrific discussion on those recordings that led me to write this piece.
It does not take much work to do a quick search for statistics detailing all of the awful ways people–largely men–sexually abuse other people–largely women. Hopping onto Google as of 5:26 PM CST on November 20, some of the links that show up report that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime. The same organization states that 8 out of 10 reported cases of sexual assault are committed by those who the victim knows. Only 20% of female college students reported sexual abuse to law enforcement, mostly due to the belief that the matter is too personal or they had a fear of reprisal. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reports also that out of every 1,000 cases, 995 perpetrators will walk free. Forgiving the normal discrepancies inherent in statistical data, these distortions will not ultimately change the force of the level of violent sexual abuse that takes place in America. Chances are good that someone you know has dealt with sexual assault in some form in their life.
It may seem odd then that the argument being made in this paper is from a film that is largely written, directed and edited by men. 2012’s anthology horror film, V/H/S, consists of 5 independent short vignettes that are unified by what is called a “framing” story or a “wraparound” story. As someone who appreciates the form of the anthology film, V/H/S has one of the more creative and effective framing stories which carries through its sequels for better or worse. Each of these vignettes–including the framing story–has some form of sexual abuse or harassment within its narrative. While I do believe that most of these are intentional inclusions by the directors to paint these behaviors in a negative light, I cannot say that the flow of this argument was intentional within the editing and flow of the film. Matter of fact, it would be surprising if these filmmakers were, in fact, this intentional. So this argument lives and dies on how well you think the argument holds up in your own viewing of the film. I do, personally, think this reading has teeth. We’ll start with the framing story and then work our way through each vignette in the order they appear in the film, breaking down elements of each as we go.
“Tape 56/Frame Narrative,” written by Simon Barrett, directed by Adam Wingard
The main thrust of this framing story revolves around a gang of punks who destroy private property and sexually assault women in parking lots while taping all of their exploits. An anonymous source lures them with a significant amount of money to break into a house in order to retrieve a VHS tape that this person desires. The gang takes the person up on their offer and enters the house to find it largely abandoned except for an old man who is either asleep or dead in a chair in front of a TV. Tapes are strewn about the room and they begin picking up all of the tapes so they know they have gotten the specific one. During their time in the house, members of the gang end up viewing the tapes which consist of the 5 short narratives that make up the film. With each completed film, another member of the gang disappears and the old man’s body disappears and reappears and various weird happenings go on in the background.
While the conceit of the framing narrative is actually quite interesting in its own right, the main element that needs to be taken from “Tape 56” is the character of the guys drawn to these tapes which have the imprint of violence and sexual assault on their tape ribbon. It almost seems as if the anonymous person is drawing them to this place to see this footage and in a weird, violent incarnation of karma, making them pay for the crimes they have committed. These are sexual predators drawn to footage of other sexual predators and at the climax of each narrative of violence are–we find out later–dispatched. The full moral judgment laid upon them. An eye for an eye, a predator for a predator.
“Amateur Night,” written by David Bruckner & Nicholas Tecosky, directed by David Bruckner
Three college guys rent a motel room with the intent of bring women back to the room for sex later in the evening. One of the guys is equipped with a pair of glasses that contain a camera in the frame so that it can be turned on during sex so that an amateur porn could essentially be made of their sexual exploits. A night of bar-hopping and drinking ensues and two women–one who acts rather strange and only says “I like you” to one of the guys–end up coming back to the room with the guys. One of the women (Lisa) passes out from alcohol and drugs and the leader of the group is dissuaded by his friends to go any farther with the girl who has passed out so he turns his attention onto the other, strange, girl (Lily). As the guys end up becoming more forceful with their sexual advances, we see the girl become some combination of a succubus and a siren, both mythological creatures that take on feminine forms to lure men to their deaths. Two of the guys are exsanguinated and one has his genitals ripped off by the succubus. The remaining guy–the one her focus had been on all night–tries to escape but ends up being carried off and dropped by the the succubus–who has fully transformed into a bird-like creature–because he is unaroused (ultimately rejecting) by her attempt at fellatio on him.
This form of college frat behavior is nothing new within the halls of cinema and, unfortunately, within the halls of reality as college campuses seem to be a breeding ground for toxic masculinity. Boys like the three guys in the story have a built-in entitlement to conquering the bodies of women and storing each trophy on their wall like a hunter does with their prey. If they cannot get the girl to consent to sex, then they use different forms of social lubrication to force the response they want out of the girl. In the mind of a sexual predator, “yes” means “go,” no matter how many times they might have said “no” during their varying levels of sobriety prior.
The fact that these three guys were going to film these acts without the knowledge of the women speaks to the male need to relive those conquests. This act not only turns the women into arbitrary video vixens trapped in celluloid to become a merely arbitrary body–no longer given full humanity–for men to masturbate to and forget once they have arrived at their own pleasure. The men don’t actually want relationship, they want gratification without the hassle of intimacy and attachment.
When Lily reveals her true self to the men, she is not a being with which to be trifled. She is a self-possessed and empowered being that knows what she wants and what she wants is the one guy she had in her sights the whole night. She dispatches the other two who are the most outwardly predatory in their actions and aims to draw the other to herself. Religious tradition says that repeated sexual intercourse with succubi will decay the man’s mental and physical state. If Lily is a succubus/siren then its likely that she is turning the tables on this guy without his consent and destroying him with the very thing that he thinks he wants. So when he lays there unaroused by her sexual advances, she turns on him and resorts to violence against him, ultimately enacting the very thing that men are noted to do when they are denied what they want. In a sense Lily becomes the harbinger of the predator’s libido enacted upon himself.
“Second Honeymoon,” written and directed by Ti West
A married couple go to Arizona for their second honeymoon. They spend their time hiking, going to theme parks and driving around the desert roads of the state. They spend their evenings in motel rooms. They receive a visit from a strange girl one night who asks for a ride which they deny her. As the honeymoon goes on, the husband notices missing money which inflames what we perceive to be low-lying trust issues which couple has already. At night, while they sleep, the audience sees via video camera that the strange girl is breaking into their room each night, stealing money and running a switchblade across the wife’s butt cheek sensually. When they go to bed one night, the girl comes in again and proceeds to stab the husband in the neck several times until he is dead. It turns out that the intruder was the wife’s lover the whole time.
There was a time in recent–too recent–history when rape could not be defined as such within the bounds of marriage. There was either a spoken or unspoken understanding that within marriage the wife belongs to the man, by most standards considered property of some form. There is still potential for unhealthy dynamics within marriage to this day with sexual and domestic abuse of all sorts. While the husband in this vignette is not physically violent towards his wife, there is a disconnect for him in respecting her will. One scene shows the two of them getting ready for bed and he has the video camera on and is filming her getting ready. He attempts to get her to basically make a sex tape with him. She repeatedly says no and clearly denotes that she isn’t comfortable doing it with the camera on. He keeps pushing and attempts to “get her in the mood” with his hands on her body and she continues to shut him down. He ends up becoming annoyed by her unwillingness.
Now there is not any physical violence going on here, but his entitlement and the control he desires over his wife is of the same piece as the three college guys in the prior vignette. He clearly does not respect her boundaries and doesn’t take her “no” to mean “no,” moving so far as running his hand over her body and drawing her into him while he holds the camera in the other hand. They are husband and wife, for sure, but once boundaries and consent are not observed, even within marriage, the other person becomes nonhuman and just a means to a one-sided happy ending. In this way, the end result is no different whether promiscuous college guy or 20- or 30-something married man.
It is fitting then that the retribution enacted upon him is done by a woman and, not just a woman, but someone whom his wife is having an affair. Not only is a woman actively retaliating against an entitled male who doesn’t respect his wife, but she is doing it for a woman who has found respite from her disrespectful husband through another woman because of the toxicity of masculinity that pervades the male population.
As we descend further into V/H/S in the next part, we will find similar themes reflected in the final three vignettes of the film. Yet some of the structures we have set up thus far will be complicated by some of the remaining narratives. Two of the final three stories do not perfectly fall into line with the reasoning that has been presented so far in this article. However, it is how those stories diverge from the rest that might lead us to seeing in relief the actual cost of toxic masculinity on our society as a whole.