The Neon Demon: Understanding The Link Between Horror and Fashion

The Neon Demon: Understanding The Link Between Horror and Fashion

V editor Natasha Stagg expounds on the psychological and cinematic connection between glamour and gore, explored in our new issue featuring the cast of The Neon Demon—in theaters today

V editor Natasha Stagg expounds on the psychological and cinematic connection between glamour and gore, explored in our new issue featuring the cast of The Neon Demon—in theaters today

Text: Natasha Stagg

The philosopher René Girard argued that desire, as seen in fiction, is triangular: it does not only go in a straight line, from subject to object, it is also “mediated” by a force connected to each. The desire to be stylish is, for example, mediated by that abstract force: the fashion world. Fashion’s standards both instill the desire in the subject to be considered beautiful and invent the most contemporary beauty. This is one reason why movies about fashion are often of the psychological thriller genre. To explain the idea of fashion is to define a psychology. And much in the same way sci-fi stories must create their own worlds in order to describe a mentality, a film about fashion must depict extremes in order to illustrate desire.

Jenna Malone and Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Our V102 cover story is on the surreal horror film The Neon Demon, which, according to director Nicolas Winding Refn, takes cues from the camp classics Suspiria, Valley of the Dolls, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, stories that revolve around an impossible ideal of beauty. In the first, a Dario Argento-directed slasher, a coven of witches curses a ballet academy. In the last, a Russ Meyer-directed softcore romp, psychedelic sleaze interrupts any kind of Hollywood success the main characters seek.

Faye Dunaway in Eyes of Laura Mars (1978, Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection)

In The Neon Demon, as well, one can easily see the influences of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, each about a striking woman who mourns the loss of a fashionable life. But it is from films like Berry Gordy’s Mahogany—a rags-to-high fashion story in which a wannabe designer becomes an in-demand model (with tragic consequences)—or Irvin Kershner’s Eyes of Laura Mars—in which a fashion photographer specializes in staged violence (with tragic consequences)—that we can trace the tradition of truly killer fashion-themed films. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s German film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, too, the popular designer Petra fixates on brutality, noting that she is surrounded by tragödie.

Diana Ross in Mahogany (1975, Everett Collection)

The impossible ideal—that hovering silhouette, the mediator of the desire to be en vogue—is, in these films, as frightening a villain as the fiends, murderers, and drug addictions that also haunt our fair heroines. Fashion is necessarily a world of extremes. Why are so many fictional films about it, like Refn’s take on the modeling world (set in relentless Los Angeles, of all places), tragedies and thrillers? Perhaps because, like with dystopian future landscapes, only when the stakes are raised this high can the full effect of change—in other words, fashion—be felt.

Margit Carstensen in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972, Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

This story is taken from V102, on newsstands July 14. Click here to pre-order the issue.

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