Danger wanks! Masturbation in horror cinema

From Psycho to The Lighthouse, the horror genre is full of wankers. But the act of pole-stroking is far from just a punchline.

Robert Eggers’ maritime horror The Lighthouse is a film dripping with repressed sexuality, irrepressible guilt and unresolved tension. It also boasts more masturbation scenes than any film in recent memory. One especially frenzied example featuring Robert Pattinson, which walks the line between self-pleasure and self-harm, has received a lot of attention online – the actor himself has described it as ferocious”. But there’s so much more to this dark and disturbing film than the sensational gossip site headlines suggest. Masturbation isn’t just a titillating side-note in The Lighthouse; it’s at the film’s very core.

Think of masturbation in films and you’ll probably picture losers – loveable or otherwise. It’s an act of (literal) slapstick used to humiliate teen horndogs like Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) in American Pie, and to reveal the fantasies of pitiable characters such as the Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) in American Beauty, who makes a mess of his shower while thinking about his teenage daughter’s best friend.

The horror genre also has a thing for horny male characters with wandering hands. But in these films jerking off tends to serve a different function – less a punchline and more a sign of the terrors to, err, cum.

Take Deathwatch, MJ Bassett’s horror-war hybrid from 2002, in which a First World War company conquers a German trench before being attacked by otherworldly forces. As the rest of his unit secure the area, sniper Barry Starinski (Kris Marshall) goes scavenging and finds some saucy photos in an enemy soldier’s kit. When darkness falls and he should be keeping watch, he instead secludes himself and starts to masturbate over the photos. This leaves him exposed in more ways than one, and when he heads out alone to find the source of an unexplained sound, he’s confronted by three corpses tangled in barbed wire. Not long later, he’s dead.

For Bassett, masturbation showcases man at his most selfish and his most vulnerable. Starinski endangers the lives of his men when he chooses self-pleasure over duty, which duly leads to his death. But in some horror and horror-adjacent films, handjobs are used as weapons to disturb and demean, particularly women. Think of the scene in The Silence of the Lambs, in which asylum patient Miggs lobs ejaculate at Clarice Starling. Hannibal Lector, ever the gentleman, makes Miggs eat his own tongue as punishment.

Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake takes what Alfred Hitchcock suggested and makes it abundantly clear, painting Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) as a voyeur driven by murderous, masturbatory impulses. Master Bates (see what they did there?) masturbates while spying on Marion Crane (Anne Heche) through a hole in the wall. But he cuts himself off before finishing and for good reason: to provide his own orgasmic act of violence.

Before he’s even had time to lose his erection, Bates rushes into Crane’s room, disguised as his mother, and butchers her while she showers. For him, the climax comes not through sexual penetration but by plunging a knife into flesh. In Psycho, masturbation is tangled up in Freudian feelings of guilt and shame, and serves as an indictment of man’s insatiable hunger for sex, and the pain he can wreak as he looks to satisfy it. Bates’ inability to suppress his craving leaves a woman dead and lands him in prison.

At first glance, the inclusion of male masturbation in these movies could almost seem incidental. After all, while the scenes may signpost the masturbator’s fate, their collective runtime is hardly substantial. This is where Eggers’ The Lighthouse stands out. With multiple masturbation scenes featuring both of its lead characters, this film really delves into the intersection of self-pleasure and male emotion. Here the act serves as more than a mere omen or half-arsed observation. Eggers uses it not just to convey differences in character but to plumb the depths of the male psyche.

The film sees grizzled lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his brooding second-in-command, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), charged with tending the light on a far-flung island. Here, at the mercy of the elements and each other, they begin to unravel – all under the watchful eye of the lighthouse itself, a great beaming phallus stroked by the sea.

Shortly after their arrival, Winslow finds a small figurine left behind by Wake’s former partner. This crudely carved mermaid effigy becomes an erotic muse for Pattinson’s character. The actor has built quite a reputation recently thanks to masturbation scenes in Damsel, High Life and the upcoming The Devil All the Time. But before we see Pattinson at it in The Lighthouse, his character glimpses his rogue-father figure, Dafoe’s Wake, in the act.

There’s a strange sensuality to the older man’s actions. He’s the master of his domain, able to masturbate in the comfort of his bed, while Pattinson’s character is relegated to wanking in a sea-battered shack – like the dog Wake says he is.

Winslow’s frustrations mount as he is condemned to what he believes is women’s work. By now, he can only feel like a man again by literally seizing control of his manhood. One montage sequence features mid-shots of Pattinson’s gleaming torso and gurning face – a contrast to the calm long-shots that compose Dafoe’s self-gratification scenes – intercut with the images swimming around in Winslow’s subconscious: writhing tentacles, floating timber and a mysterious man from his past. Just as he seems to be climaxing, Winslow collapses and begins to cry. His sexual energy is bound up with anger and guilt about his past misdeeds.

This sequence is drenched in meaning and mythology: man’s contempt for women, man’s disrespect of nature and man’s quest for forbidden knowledge – all of which come back to haunt Winslow by the film’s gruesome conclusion. But throughout The Lighthouse, masturbation is used to illustrate the disparate mindsets of Wake and Winslow. Winslow’s biggest sin in Wake’s eyes is the killing of a seabird said to possess the souls of dead sailors. It’s no stretch to equate this flouting of maritime superstition to Winslow’s masturbation. Indeed, bashing the seagull’s brains out” is an apt analogy for self-pleasure, and it’s this barbaric action that seems to beckon the storm that traps the men on the island.

Later, a drunken Winslow confesses another, graver sin. It’s at this point that we hear the cornerstone of the movie’s marketing and its most shameless euphemism: Why’d y’spill yer beans?” Like the light from the lighthouse, this line is a warning: to avoid the stormy seas of our baser instincts and keep sex and violence apart. Winslow fails, so his punishment is absolute.

Men’s me-time” in horror movies is generally limited, but the consequences are often disastrous. The genre has long featured scenes of male masturbation to convey information and underscore man’s unruly libido. But few do it with quite as much salty panache as The Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is out now in selected UK cinemas.

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