“Queerly Examining Classic Horror Film Posters” Essay by Shannon Kralovic

Publisher’s note:

The views and opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of its author. Publication here does not necessarily imply endorsement of or disagreement with these views by The Chamber. This essay is published here to promote healthy intellectual discourse on one of the many aspects of dark literature. Other views on this or any other topic relating to dark fiction and poetry are welcome.

Ever since its inception, the cinematic horror genre has functioned to address the fear of those deemed different or incomprehensible by socially ideological standards. The genre has time and again underscored this matter due in no small part to its flawless marriage of aesthetics, tone, atmosphere, and directorial style and method. However, it is the fundamental heart and soul of the films, the assorted creatures, psychopaths, and outcasts themselves, who most aptly convey just how so many have view those who exist outside of stereotypically normal or acceptable categories. Iconic mainstays like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Gill-Man stalk and slash their way into the very depths of the normative subconscious, conjunctively revealing and forcing the viewer to confront every one of the prejudiced attitudes that society exercises to systematically marginalize individuals who do not faultlessly adhere to white patriarchal ideals.

With their penchant for ingesting blood, composite reanimated flesh, and scale-laden bodies, these legends incontestably symbolize everything queer. They do so across a range of realistic themes, including race, nationality, class, religion, age, and dis/ability. It is undeniable, however, that one of their most prevalent purposes is to dually reflect and subvert archaic views concerning queer gender and sexual identities. Due to their unsettling yet captivating traits, these characters speak to enduring perspectives held by the “normal” social collective: that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, intersex, asexual+ (LGBTQIA+) individuals are deviant and immoral; the malevolent Other whose sole objective is to corrupt innocent souls and tear asunder the moral fabric of society itself.

Considering the responsibility of depicting the varying treatment and notions of queer individuals prominently rests with these horror icons, it stands to reason that the archival representation of this dynamic would be structured around them as well. Because the characters’ queer functioning presented in a decidedly connotative manner when exercised during the height of their initial popularity, it also makes sense that the visual documentation of their role be in as equally implicit a fashion. This certainly holds true with the Academy Film Archive-associated Margaret Herrick Library.

Established in 1991, the Academy Film Archive’s primary mission is focused within preserving, documenting, restoring, studying, and exhibiting motion pictures.[i] It contains more than 190,000 records, encompassing every one of the Academy Award-winning Best Picture and documentary films as well as numerous nominated works.[ii] The Archive further holds director-specific collections, including legends Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, and Sam Peckinpah.[iii]

Although the Academy Film Archive possesses an enviable collection in conjunction with an admirable objective, the related Margaret Herrick Library inarguably surpasses the Archive in its preservationist intentions. Founded in 1928, the Library is a “non-circulating reference and research collection devoted to the history and development of the motion picture as an art form and as an industry.”[iv] It takes its name from Margaret Herrick (d. 1976), who served as the Academy librarian from 1936 to 1943, and as the institution’s executive director from 1945-1971.[v] As a result of her tireless contributions, Herrick not only diversified Academy activities and initiated the televised presentation of the Awards ceremonies, but acted to render the Library the illustrious establishment it is today.[vi]

Undoubtedly, it is because of Margaret Herrick’s unwavering dedication that the Library currently possesses such a versatile collection. A vast array of cinematic materials comprise the archival inventory, including posters, published and unpublished scripts, papers, drawings, periodicals, and books. However, only (most) of the posters are available for online viewing. It should also be noted that although this discourse entails strictly classic horror films, not every one of the posters discussed are the originals employed at the time of the films’ initial releases. Some are Mondo posters—highly stylized, striking works created in the celebration of important and influential films that often touch upon aspects of a film that were dismissed in the original promotional materials. Therefore, they are perfect for inclusion in a conversation about the implication of queer themes in classic horror characters.

This quality is most definitely evinced by the Library’s collection regarding Dracula (1931). As it utilizes a scene straight from the film for its image, one of the featured posters aptly speaks to the connotative queer nature of the eponymous blood drinker. The scene in question consists of Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) three Wives timidly retreating from an unconscious Renfield (Dwight Frye) as their master casts them away so that he may be alone with the man. For anyone who possesses even remote knowledge of the Dracula mythology, they know that Renfield is the character who becomes Dracula’s psychotic, unfalteringly-devoted, zoophagus lickspittle upon being hypnotized by the former. Consequently, this scene both foreshadows and initiates the same-sex relationship between the two men. Having banished his wives from the situation, Dracula has effectively removed the feminine element and opened up a homosocial and homoerotic space to engage Renfield. Per stereotypically social and cinematic notions of gay men, this homosexual quality is subsequently conveyed with aplomb—in a veiled manner, naturally—once Renfield has fully surrendered himself to his superior. Due to the dominant/submissive dynamic that characterizes their interactions, the vampire and his servant contribute to the trope of the sadomasochistic gay relationship.[vii] Moreover, because of Dracula’s undead status, his attraction for Renfield goes a step further to conflate homosexuality with necrophilia.[viii] Enhancing the interpretive value of the artwork, the varying aesthetic of the poster (it is the same image, but displayed on two posters of differing schemes) compliments the dichotomy of horrifically queer desire. Whereas a wash of deep, feral crimson on the Wives’ gowns in the first underscores an obviously violent aspect, its absence in the other—the color having been relocated in a simultaneously brighter and contained fashion to Dracula’s cape and the film’s title presented in Old English Text—allows for a frosty silvery-gray color that speaks to an undeniable sensuous passion.

While Dracula’s Wives prove an inconsequential foil to his desires, a more prominent complication presents in the form of Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). As Harry M. Benshoff astutely declares in Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film, the classic horror genre employed the obligatory heroine figure as the villain’s object of lust; nevertheless, the antagonist’s true desires are always revealed through a sadomasochistic relationship with a submissive counterpart of the same sex.[ix] Such an ineffective deflection of homosexuality is conveyed via the Library’s posters showcasing Dracula with Mina.

One of the works, another variation in a cadet blue and vermillion scheme, respectively, attempts to maintain an air of heterosexual attraction. It shows Dracula casting a sinister gaze off in the distance, a slight smirk playing across his lips, as he sensually places his hand over Mina’s throat while she swoons in his embrace. Conversely, the other poster shatters the illusion of the whole disingenuous affair. While Dracula cradles Mina in his arms, a look of utter wide-eyed, hypnotized petrifaction plagues her countenance. Hers is the expression affected by someone confronted with whom they do not understand. It is the frightened stare exercised by the normal individual being subjected to the disgusting, deviant monstrous queer, and it sublimely exposes an empty heterosexuality.

Nonetheless, the work that most aptly emphasizes the vampire’s queer nature, in a variety of respects, is a portrait solely showcasing Dracula. With the majority of the image steeped in shadow a band of light accentuates Dracula’s penetrating gaze, evincing his aptitude for bending others to his will via hypnosis. Blazing red comprising the highlights in his raven, widow-peaked hair adds an enraged edge to the already sinister sensibility afforded by his dark features. All of these qualities, combined with his affinity for drinking blood as indicated by the subtle red splattering on his white bow tie, serve to metaphorically underscore and constitute Dracula’s queer sexuality.

Another collection in the Margaret Herrick Library that provides a wealth of interpretive information pertaining to both the unique facets and archaic concepts of queer identities in classic horror films is that of Frankenstein (1931). This dynamic is alluded to in a poster depicting Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) looming over and inspecting the shrouded body of his Monster (Boris Karloff), laid out on a slab in his laboratory.[x] On one level, the scene works to establish yet another horror character trope: the queer mad scientist, for Dr. Frankenstein conducts his experiments in a privileged space with the assistance of a hunchbacked man named Fritz (Dwight Frye).[xi] It further posits the specific nature of their queer relationship courtesy of the exhibition of the Monster’s body. Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz strive to achieve homosexual procreation, an objective addressed as well between the titular scientist and Dr. Septimus Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).[xii] As Benshoff notes, the very condition of queer theoretically favors “death over life by focusing on non-procreative sexual behaviors,” thus rendering it apropos of a genre so heavily concentrated within themes of sex and death.[xiii] Frankenstein queerly subverts this concept by harnessing the theme of procreation, so replete with life, in the service of de-heterosexualizing it via the assemblage of necrotic, composite anatomical parts at the hands of a power-hungry male duo.

Like those for Dracula, some of the promotional materials aim to assert the Monster himself as queer threat. A poster in a green scheme portrays him running towards the spectator in a ghoulish manner, accompanied by the sensational tagline, “The MONSTER that terrorized the world!”[xiv] The cliché is then made even more manifestly obvious in an insert for Frankenstein 1970. Three clean-cut normals flee as the Monster, depicted posteriorly, closes in on them. So as to effectively convey the theme of heterosexual aversion, the individual in closest proximity to him is a beautiful fair-skinned woman who, of course, has fallen in her attempted escape and is staring at the approaching threat in stereotypically swooning terror.

A portrait further affirms the Monster’s off-putting Otherness with a grand, vibrant detailing of his putrid lime green, scarred flesh and bolted neck. Yet, his heavy-lidded, downcast eyes, and mouth sorrowfully slumping at the corners, simultaneously connotes another trite heteronormative concept: that of the sad queer man. This trope is reinforced in images of the Monster sweetly watching a ripple in a lake whilst standing at its edge under a weeping willow, and forlornly gazing down at a daisy gently clasped in his hand. He is an innocent being, too hideous to ever be appreciated, too different and misunderstood to ever be truly loved by anyone, and therefore must relegate himself to the hinterlands of society.

A very distinct and legendary form of the classic horror film, the creature feature, is also represented in the Library’s archives. With their scales, fins, fangs, and perpetually seeping substances, the weird and wonderful characters of the genre are steadfastly cemented as more monstrously queer Other than the most monstrously queer Other conceivable. Such a notion is no more aptly expressed than in the unparalleled Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954).

In a three-quarter profile portrait, the eponymous Creature’s, or Gill-Man’s, unique type of Otherness is rendered in exquisite detail. Large, staggered plates of pebble-like scales; a triple layering of feathery gills; and a mask of rippled, undulating flesh comprise his lime green exterior, complicating the animal/human dichotomy. There is a human sense in his general form, but he is undisputedly more prehistorically amphibian than anything. Furthermore, the Gill- Man’s singular features exude a gender-bending quality—his exaggeratedly voluptuous vermillion lips and protruding, golden, almond-shaped eyes evoking the sensibility of a horror-themed drag queen.

Apart from the fantastical nature of the ostensible antagonists themselves, an aspect of creature features—especially those concerning sea creatures—that has always captivated me is the particular condition of their habitats. The thought of being drawn into a dark, watery abyss with no other recourse but to drown while being ravaged by a sinister beast instills one with the utmost dread. Certainly, such fear can be easily applied to the phobic cliché of queer as threat, this conceptual marriage inferred in a classically-designed poster that alternately displays in a striking Technicolor-like palette and a black-and-white scheme. While three scaled-down people swim and dive behind him, the fully submerged Gill-Man, taking prominence in the foreground, menacingly reaches his clawed, webbed hand out to the spectator. He is the queer monstrosity grasping for his vulnerable heterosexual prey. Once he has secured them, he will drag them to the very depths where only he can survive, and where he will obliterate the virtue, innocence, and purity embodied by the straight victim.

This generalized concept is quite obviously conveyed in the film via the extraordinarily gorgeous Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams). Kay is terrified of the Gill-Man, as any heteronormative symbol naturally should be. In what is unequivocally Creature From the Black Lagoon’s most famous promotional image, she screams in abject horror as her amphibious captor carries her underwater to his lair. Such disgust is also depicted in a more aggressive fashion in a poster wherein a woman (most likely not Kay, because the figure is in a bikini and not Adams’ iconic one-piece) donning scuba gear uses her hand to ward off the approaching Gill-Man, who peers up from below the water’s surface.

For all of her glaringly apparent revulsion, though, the film still insists on superficially positing Kay as the Gill-Man’s object of desire. As an original half-sheet proclaims, there are “centuries of passion pent up in his savage heart!”[xv] What makes the tagline particularly fascinating, however, is the potential of whose passion, and of the type so frustratingly harbored within them, it is actually alluding to. By the 1950s—the decade in which Creature From the Black Lagoon was released—there was an increasing realization that not all gay men and lesbians conformed to the respective effeminate and butch stereotypes that they were traditionally categorized as.[xvi] Instead, an even more painful ideological standard prevailed. In alignment with the Cold War paranoia that pervaded the era, it was understood that not only could homosexuals pass as “normal” individuals, but this ability coupled with their alliance with communism, situated them as an insidious threat to the values and virtues upheld by America.[xvii] 

This construct of the concealed homosexual is intimated in Creature From the Black Lagoon through its male characters. Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) are forthrightly presented as hyper-heterosexualized scientists, however, their actions and circumstances often betray their true desires. An inset image at the bottom right-hand corner of the aforementioned classic poster shows Kay desperately grasping Mark’s shoulder as the duo gaze bewilderingly into the distance, with Mark holding his rifle at an erect angle in preparation for the impending danger. The phallic motif is also carried out in the poster’s main body, wherein a pair of male divers pursue the Gill-Man with a knife and spear, and further still in the center inset image displaying a male diver clutching a knife in his raised fist while being attacked by the amphibious Creature. In fact, over the course of the trilogy (completed by Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)), the male protagonists hunt the Gill-Man with a myriad of phallic devices, including knives, spears, air tanks and hoses, hypodermic needles and, most blissfully obvious of them all, a squirt-gun that extrudes a cream-based sedative referred to as rotenone.[xviii] Even the Gill-Man himself is asserted as a phallic signifier, for he, too, possesses the desire that Mark and David do for Kay, who, in turn, acts to triangulate the men’s lust for one another.[xix] Ultimately, the film hits the trifecta of classic horror conventions: misogyny by way of a woman’s presence as a mere foil for the deflection of male homosexuality;[xx] barely contained homoeroticism in the form of overdetermined heteromasculine male protagonists; and a being so fantastically queer that he will never be accepted and loved by anyone.

Horror, especially in its classic form, has never really treated LGBTQIA+ individuals in the kindest of ways. By and large it acts to cement them as deviant, immoral, nefarious, vile creatures that desire nothing more than to pervert the moral superiority of the heteronormative hegemony. Though such a concept is pathetically archaic, examining its archival representation is nevertheless imperative because doing so affords us greater insight into how cinema pointedly reflects a variety of queerphobic ideologies that sadly persist to this day.


[i] “Academy Film Archive: About the Archive: General Info,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 5, 2018, http://www.oscars.org/academy-film-archive/about-archive.   

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.  

 [iv] “Margaret Herrick Library: About: Margaret Herrick,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 12, 2018, http://www.oscars.org/library/about.  

 [v] Ibid.  

[vi] Ibid.   

[vii] Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997), 61. 

 [viii] Ibid., 56.    

 [ix] Ibid., 61.

 [x] It, too, is a variant work, with that which is cast in deep, jewel-tone red smacking of Dr. Frankenstein’s all-consuming passion for his creation, and the other in a silvery-blue that underlines the apparent intimacy of the scene. Surely, his homoerotic affinity for the Monster is suggested by a split image of Karloff and Clive that rather forthrightly expresses the parties as dichotomous halves of a complimentary whole. 

[xi] Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet, 41; 49.

[xii] Ibid., 11; 49-50. 

[xiii] Ibid., 5.

 [xiv] Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931, screenprint; one-sheet poster, n.d., Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, accessed February 7, 2018, http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=74&bibId=98152.


[xv] Reynold Brown, Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954, offset lithograph; half-sheet poster, 1954, Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills, accessed February 10, 2018, http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=13&bibId=29554.

[xvi] Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet, 122.

[xvii] Ibid., 122; 127.

[xviii] Ibid., 133-134.

[xix] Ibid., 133; 135.

[xx] Ibid., 135.


“Academy Film Archive: About the Archive: General Info.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 5, 2018. http://www.oscars.org/academy-film- archive/about-archive.

Ansin, Martin. Dracula/[poster]; Tod Browning; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2011.  Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.             http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=68 &bibId=84226.            

Ansin, Martin. Dracula – Variant. Screenprint; American poster, 2011. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=67   &bibId=84225.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester      and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Brown, Reynold. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Offset   lithograph; half-sheet poster, 1954. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=13    &bibId=29554.

Brown, Reynold. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Offset   lithograph; one-sheet poster, 1954. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=39&recCount=50&recPointer=12  &bibId=54660.

Burton, Jonathan. Dracula. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=65   &bibId=109421.

Burton, Jonathan. Dracula (Variant). Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.    http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=64   &bibId=109420.

Burton, Jonathan. Frankenstein. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick  Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=71   &bibId=109212.     

Burton, Jonathan. Frankenstein (Variant). Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret Herrick  Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=70   &bibId=109211.

Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures, 1931. In Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures Home   Entertainment, 2017. BD.

Durieux, Laurent. Dracula/[poster]; Tod Browning; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2012.   Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=69            &bibId=88355.

Durieux, Laurent. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2012. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=78            &bibId=88347.  

Edmiston, Jason. Bela Lugosi. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=40&recCount=50&recPointer=66   &bibId=96344.

Edmiston, Jason. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=31&recCount=50&recPointer=5  &bibId=96339.

Edmiston, Jason. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint;         American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=73            &bibId=96340.

Francavilla, Francesco. Creature From the Black Lagoon/[poster]; Jack Arnold; 1954. Screenprint; American poster, 2012. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed  February 10, 2018.  http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=33&recCount=50&recPointer=7  &bibId=87295.      

Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; one-sheet poster, n.d. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.    http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=7 4&bibId=98152.

Frankenstein—1970/[poster]; Howard W. Koch; 1958. Offset lithograph; insert poster, 1958. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.             http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?SearchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=55            &bibId=102187.   

“Margaret Herrick Library: About: Margaret Herrick.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, accessed February 12, 2018. http://www.oscars.org/library/about.

Richard, J.C. Pretty Things Float. Screenprint; American poster, 2013. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018.      http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=72   &bibId=95440.

Stan & Vince. Creature From the Black Lagoon. Screenprint; American poster, 2015. Margaret   Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018.            http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=28&recCount=50&recPointer=3     &bibId=108856.   

Stan & Vince. Creature From the Black Lagoon – Variant. Screenprint; American poster, 2015.   Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 10, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=30&recCount=50&recPointer=4            &bibId=108862.

Struzan, Drew. Frankenstein/[poster]; James Whale; 1931. Screenprint; American poster, 2011. Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills. Accessed February 7, 2018. http://catalog.oscars.org/vwebv/holdingsInfo?searchId=69&recCount=50&recPointer=77 &bibId=81985.   

Shannon Kralovic holds both a BA and MA in the History of Western Art and Visual Culture, along with a Certificate in Public History, from Empire State University. She has curated various virtual exhibitions, and written several essays, focused on film and visual art, and serves as the Public Relations Officer for the Wells Historical Society. Her research lies in various fields, from the representation of LGBTQ+ identities in film and visual art to Scandinavian art. She is currently working on an exhibition concerning the dynamics of women and queerness in slasher films as an independent curator.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine

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Monday Night Miscellany: “Sensual vs. Sensuous-How to Remember the Difference” Essay by Phil Slattery

Sensual vs. Sensuous: How to Remember the Difference

No matter how many times I watched the supermarket scene from Animal House, I used to continually confuse the distinction between sensual  and sensuous.   Then one day I stumbled upon an article while double-checking their usage for a story I was writing. After reading it and doing a bit more research, I came upon these points:


  • “If one wants another only for some self-satisfaction, usually in the form of sensual pleasure, that wrong desire takes the form of lust rather than love.” (Mortimer Adler)
  •  Her first book of poems included several sensuous descriptions of flowers.

Usage Notes:

  • “The controversial 1969 bestseller The Sensuous Woman would have been more accurately titled The Sensual Woman because its explicit subject matter concerns the unabashed gratification of sexual desire.”Here’s how you can keep the two words straight. If you mean lovely, pleasurable, or experienced through the senses, use sensuous; if you mean self-gratifying or pertaining to physical desires, use sensual. Sensuous thoughts have a pleasant effect on your senses as well as your mind. Sensual thoughts are erotic, sexually arousing, maybe even lewd.”
    (Charles Harrington Elster, Verbal Advantage: Ten Easy Steps to a Powerful Vocabulary. Random House, 2009)
  • The Origins of Sensuous
    Sensuous is an interesting word. The OED says it was apparently invented by [John] Milton, because he wanted to avoid the sexual connotations of the word sensual (1641).”The OED cannot find any evidence of the use of the word by any other writer for 173 years, not until [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge:Thus, to express in one word what belongs to the senses, or the recipient and more passive faculty of the soul, I have reintroduced the word sensuous, used, among many others of our elder writers, by Milton. (Coleridge, “Principles of General Criticism,” in Farley’s Bristol Journal, August 1814)“Coleridge put the word into ordinary circulation–and almost immediately it began to pick up those old sexual connotations that Milton and Coleridge wanted to avoid.”
    (Jim Quinn, American Tongue and Cheek, Pantheon Books, 1980)
  •  Overlapping Meanings “The consensus of the commentators, from Vizetelly 1906 to the present, is that sensuous emphasizes aesthetic pleasure while sensual emphasizes gratification or indulgence of the physical appetites.”The distinction is true enough within one range of meanings, and it is worth remembering. The difficulty is that both words have more than one sense, and they tend often to occur in contexts where the distinction between them is not as clear cut as the commentators would like it to be.” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

Therefore, the adjective sensual means affecting or gratifying the physical senses, especially in a sexual way. Sensuous means pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure, as of art or music. However, a mnemonic would be even better.

After studying a bit more it occurred to me that a good mnemonic for the difference would be to remember that sensual and sexual both end in -ual.  Boiling the meaning down a tad more, I realized that the only difference in pronunciation between the two is that one has a ks sound while the other has ns. Boil that down even more and you realize that the only difference is a  sound in the middle of one and an n sound in the middle of the other. After understanding that, it is easy to remember that sensual has a sexual connotation while sensuous means the senses in every way but a sexual one.

This is an updated version of an essay I published in The Chamber Magazine in December 2020.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.

“The Otherness of Poetry” Essay by Thomas White

AI-generated image of Edgar Allan Poe as illustration for Thomas White's essay "The Otherness of Poetry"

Depth and mystery of subject matter, not mere metrical craftsmanship, are the heart of poetry. Take Poe’s “The Raven”: what are we to make of this weird, feathered emissary whose “fiery eyes” and haunting refrain “nevermore” appear in the middle of the poet’s sorrow over his deceased beloved Lenore? Do we gain anything more from analyzing the metrics of this poem than the images suggest?

In my poetry, I want my full dose of mystery, not exact technical mastery. Everyday techno-speak is literal and explicit. Poetry rescues us from the robotic. There is a useful analogy with the visual arts. As one critic said of the unsettling paintings of Edward Hopper: “if he had been more the painter, he would have been less the artist.” Do we really care that his human figures — or a poet’s lines — are not crafted perfectly when they exude powerful mystery? Computers can be programmed to generate metrically precise strings of words; only humans can still dive beyond the digital surface to probe the twilight.

This could be why I firmly believe that science fiction and fantasy’s stock in trade, the Strange and Weird, have a home in poetry, not in mere genre storytelling. From the Homeric epics to Dante’s Inferno, from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the extraordinary verse of Charles Simic, John Ashbery and Sylvia Plath, poetry has always been comfortable with Otherness.

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines poetry somewhat cryptically, as “a form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.” What was really in his mind is unknown to me. But I will surmise this: poetry, belonging to the twilight and the strange, is a messenger from a land beyond the prosaic world recorded in “normal” magazines. Poetry, like the Raven, is that creepy tapping on our bedroom door that disturbs us from the slumber of our waking life.

Thomas White has a triple identity: speculative fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in online and print literary journals and magazines in Australia, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. He is also a Wiley-Blackwell Journal author who has contributed essays to various nonliterary journals on topics ranging from atheism, the meaning of Evil, Elon Musk, Plato, The Matrix, and reality as a computer simulation. In addition, he has presented three of his essays to the West Chester University Poetry Conference (West Chester, Pennsylvania), as well as read his poetry on Australian radio.

If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine. While you’re here, why not drop by The Chamber’s bookshop?