Necrophilia (with Dr. Victoria Sullivan & Dr. Jens Foell)

Where does necrophilia come from? What makes people desecrate corpses? And do you have to be a serial killer to have a death fetish?

Today’s guests are Dr. Victoria Hartmann, a clinical psychology researcher and executive director of the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, and neuroscientist and science communicator Dr. Jens Foell.

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Taboo Science is written and produced by Ashley Hamer. Theme music by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music.


Ashley: Quick note up top, this episode contains some disturbing imagery and discussion of death and sexual violence. If that’s not for you, no worries, go ahead and sit this one out. Otherwise, on with the show. Necrophilia. Even the word is enough to make you shudder. It brings to mind images of grey corpses and creepy old morticians and psychopathic serial killers wearing suits of human skin. What it probably doesn’t bring to mind… is Disney movies. But make no mistake, Disney movies and the fairy tales they come from have their fair share of necrophilia. I mean, look no further than Sleeping Beauty. In the Disney version, an evil sorceress puts a curse on a princess saying that before her 16th birthday she’ll die by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle. A fairy softens the curse to make it so she’ll just fall asleep instead of die. This is a family movie, after all. The only way to wake her up is with true love’s kiss. Eventually, she does prick her finger, falls asleep, and then a handsome prince fights the evil sorceress to get to her and give her that fated kiss. The prince knows about the curse, so it’s not like he just happened upon a sleeping lady and decided to practice his make out skills.

Ashley: But in the original fairy tale, the princess isn’t so lucky. In that tale, the curse actually does make the princess die, or so it seems. After she passes, her father has her dressed in a beautiful gown and leaves her in an abandoned palace in the woods. king stumbles into the palace while he’s out hunting one day, sees the dead girl, and tries to wake her up. When he can’t, he decides to just perform a quick act of necrophilia. And then he leaves and forgets all about it. She ends up pregnant, some fairies show up to take care of the babies, one of the babies sucks the spindle out of her finger, she wakes up, and then there’s some drama with the king’s wife.

Ashley: Understandably. But there it is. Necrophilia. The king was enchanted by the princess’s beauty. She wasn’t gray or decomposing. She was dressed in fine garments and basically looked like she was sleeping. The same thing happens in Snow White. An evil queen makes Snow White eat a poisoned apple, she’s presumed dead, and then she’s put in a glass coffin.

Ashley: You know, so everyone can see her. Because she’s not just any dead body. She’s a hot dead body. And when a charming prince gives that hot dead body a kiss, she comes back to life. This is all to remind you that you are familiar with necrophilia, even if you don’t realize it. The big thing I learned making this episode is this.

Ashley: Necrophilia isn’t all shocking crimes in horror movies. Sometimes it’s as simple as someone finding a recently deceased princess kinda hot. Today, we’re going to explore that wide range of persuasions. We’re putting the nuance into necrophilia. I’m Ashley Hamer and this is Taboo Science, the podcast that answers the questions you’re not allowed to ask. I’ll admit it, when I set out to make this episode, I thought that necrophilia meant having sex with a dead body. It turns out that that’s just one teeny tiny sliver on the extreme end of a very wide spectrum.

Victoria Hartmann: My definition of necrophilia is any sexually arousing activity that involves death or dying. A death fetish.

Ashley: Yeah, so it doesn’t necessarily mean sex with dead people.

Victoria Hartmann: No, no, no, no. My name is Dr. Victoria Hartmann and right now I have been the executive director of the Erotic Heritage Museum for seven years.

Victoria Hartmann: I’ve been there either interning or as the director since 09, so 11 years now. And, um… I got two doctorate degrees. One was in clinical sexology, one was in human sexuality, and my area of expertise was studying people in online groups who fetishize necrophilia, death and dying, and so forth.

Victoria Hartmann: Dr. Hartmann became interested in this area of research because of a traumatic experience as a teenager. And fair warning, this might be disturbing to some listeners. That’s

Victoria Hartmann: It started with a trauma. Uh, when I was 17, uh, I survived a gang rape and I spent 10 years sort of in this very dark place because at the end of the day, when you are violated in that way. You wonder why. What did you do to invite that? How, how do these things happen? How could people be so destructive to someone they don’t even know?

Victoria Hartmann: Right? And I was actually fortunate. I survived. There was one other young woman that, uh, went through the same thing and she later died. So it was just an intense experience that for 10 years I tried to run away from. And eventually, you know, you can’t, um, because then you become destructive yourself and For me, part of the healing process was going into education.

Victoria Hartmann: I always loved education. So I was in my first year of undergraduate work and I took a psychology class. And when we got to the point where we cracked the book open for abnormal psychology, it was like lightning flashes and I was immediately hooked. And. I immersed myself in that world of abnormal psychology and eventually I stumbled on, I’m not too big of a fan of this term, but what they called deviant sexual behavior, at least in the psychological world.

Victoria Hartmann: And that it just was like, yep, this is what I want to study. I want to study this. And so I spent the next 15 years studying quote unquote, deviant sexual behavior. What I wanted to do is I wanted to create a tool. I wanted to create a tool for law enforcement, psychologists, and so forth to see if maybe, maybe there was a way to determine if someone was inclined to these kinds of crimes and hopefully save someone else. Hopefully save a life before this happened to them, right?

Victoria Hartmann: And when you’re in undergraduate and graduate work, you know, especially when you’re on this kind of a mission, sometimes you can lose sight of your own humility, I suppose, and I thought as I was going through this that I had found something and that I was going to be on the cover of Time magazine as the person who discovered what I coined, uh, progressive paraphilias, right?

Victoria Hartmann: So in other words, I could be able to, I was going to be that person that was going to find that thing where you could determine that someone is going to commit a violent act against someone else. And As a wonderful academic friend of mine says, the great thing about science is you’re usually wrong. And as I was finishing up my second doctorate, my hypothesis was wrong. Everything that I had based that doctoral thesis on was completely wrong. What I found was people with paraphilias or unusual sexual interests were separate and apart from those who commit violent crimes.

Ashley: right. There’s nothing about a person’s sexual interests that leads them to commit a crime. In fact, a lot of times, those who commit crimes involving necrophilic acts don’t do it because of a sexual interest.

Jens Foell: When they catch a serial killer who engaged in necrophilic acts, they usually ask them, you know, did you kill that person in order to have sex with the dead body? And out of that study where I, uh, that I saw, none of them said that was the reason. My name is Jens Foell I’m a brain researcher and neuroscientist from Germany, but, uh, I’ve worked a lot and in Florida on psychopathy.

Jens Foell: I’ve done a lot of work on pain and phantom limb pain. And now I’m a full time science communicator. So basically they all, you know, they had their urges to kill somebody. And after that, they committed that act. They sort of seemed to more or less spontaneously come up with the idea of, of committing necrophilia on top of it.

Ashley: There are a few theories as to why killers commit necrophilic acts, and very few of them are about some deep attraction to dead bodies.

Victoria Hartmann: my time working at a rape crisis center, The conversation of power. came up when you talk about sexual assault, right? And if we’re considering the defiling of a dead body and assault, well, why would someone be doing that to a dead body? Okay. And what’s been reported is some do do it out of power.

Victoria Hartmann: I have power over this dead body. Some do it out of anger. I’m angry at this dead body. I’m angry at this person that I just murdered. And it’s a continuation of that anger and rage and some for possession. I want to possess this body. This is mine. I’m entitled to it that I’m going to possess it in whatever form I’d like to.

Victoria Hartmann: And it, and it, you know, at least in actual violent crime, it, some of the motivators are just as similar, they’re as similar as you would find in say, sexual assault or even domestic violence. Yeah.

Ashley: There’s a concept in social psychology known as excitation transfer theory, and that basically says that when you’re all riled up from one thing, that feeling can transfer to or amplify the feelings created by another thing. Even if you’ve labeled the same feeling as different emotions. So a classic example is the famous wobbly bridge study, where men had to cross either a dangerous wobbly bridge or a safe, sturdy bridge, then had an attractive female researcher give them her number for any follow up questions they might have.

Ashley: The men who crossed the wobbly bridge were much more likely to call her afterward, apparently because they took their racing hearts and sweaty palms as a sign that they were attracted to her, not that they were scared from the bridge. Some think this same thing applies to necrophilic acts.

Jens Foell: There was this one case where somebody committed apparently entirely spontaneous necrophilia after the accidental death of his girlfriend. So they were in a fight and she died accidentally. And he sort of had the idea in the moment of engaging necrophilia with a dead body. So this whole shaming the victim or kind of adding insult to injury aspect, you know, doesn’t really fit there.

Jens Foell: So that might be a case where the guy was sort of full of adrenaline from like the whole situation. And that sort of spilled over into an interest in engaging sexual acts with a dead body. It’s sort of hard to imagine for a person who doesn’t have these leanings. And in fact, he did say that he had heard of the concept of necrophilia and kind of read up on it beforehand in like internet forums and stuff.

Jens Foell: So I guess the idea must have already been there to some degree. But other than that, it was like a spontaneous act that, that might be explained by excitation transfer in this situation.

Ashley: This phenomenon of a person engaging in sexual acts with a dead body just because it’s there, looking at you, Sleeping Beauty, that’s called opportunistic necrophilia.

Jens Foell: Basically a situation where you have the opportunity to commit necrophilia. And a lot of people wouldn’t use that opportunity, but you know, some people might, and that might be something that has to do with a lack of behavioral inhibition. It might also be something that has to do with a lack of empathy because other people would have, you know, would feel more empathy towards that body.

Jens Foell: And it might also have to do with like a certain amount of fearlessness because other people might be fearing consequences of doing something that’s at least very highly stigmatized, if not illegal.

Ashley: The empathy question is a tricky one. I mean, is doing something to a dead body actually hurting the person? I mean, on the one hand, they’re already dead. On the other hand, that’s a person’s body you’re doing that to.

Jens Foell: That’s something where necrophilia is. is unique in a way because you have a lot of sexual behaviors that are illegal and stigmatized because, you know, there’s suffering and there’s a victim. Uh, you do have, you know, any type of like sexual harassment or assault, you have pedophilia, you have all that kind of stuff.

Jens Foell: Even zoophilia has a very clearly defined problem, right? Because you’re, you’re injuring or hurting a live being. None of that is the case for necrophilia. You could argue that it’s the same as having sex with a dead object, or at least whether or not you say that depends on your perception of like death and dead bodies, which is a very individual and complex thing.

Victoria Hartmann: We get into this debate about consent. Well, can a dead body consent and. Really, irrespective of whether or not a dead body can consent, people loved that person that inhabited that body, and to have empathy for them to not desecrate that body, I think is what should keep us from, you know, defiling a body or someone after they’ve passed.

Victoria Hartmann: The empathy for that family and the people that love them, right?

Ashley: Here’s the really weird thing. There are many places in the U. S. where necrophilia isn’t technically a crime. Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Wisconsin all have zero laws that address necrophilia. So the legal definition of whether necrophilia is a crime depends on where you are.

Ashley: Even still, the act is generally frowned upon. And it takes a certain kind of person to commit that act.

Jens Foell: I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows where Necrophilic interests and fantasies come from. So at least I can’t answer that. So, you know, they might come from somewhere, but once you have them, I think the question becomes, what do you need to have, or what kind of person do you need to be to act on them?

Victoria Hartmann: You know, we are evolutionarily designed to have empathy. It’s, it’s an evolutionary survival tactic. Once there were enough of our species, it made sense to have empathy for one another to propagate the species. That’s why you see people giving their lives for others. That’s an evolutionary response, at least as far as we can tell.

Victoria Hartmann: So those that would act out on that, you know, like my research found in others, that those elements of having no empathy or diminished empathy is what propels them over that edge. And it can be anything, whether or not they fetishize rape or. Death or maiming or you know, the list goes on and on that element of lacking empathy is It seems at the cornerstone of people being able to make that jump into offending

Ashley: That’s the Hollywood necrophilia, the nightly news necrophilia. Other types of necrophilic acts don’t even involve sex with the body, or even any dead body at all.

Victoria Hartmann: But if you notice you don’t ever hear someone saying oh well his wife died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 42 in their bed and he kept her for 10 days and bathed her and adorned her And made sure to keep her skin soft with, like, wax. You don’t hear that, but that happens. It happens. Is that in the realm of necrophilia, do you think?

Victoria Hartmann: Yeah, it is. And that was some, uh, there was a case, I’m pulling a blank on what that case was, but I believe there was a case where a scientist fell in love with one of his clients who was afflicted with either tuberculosis or plague or something.

Ashley: Yeah, this story is wild. Get ready. The year was 1931 and the scientist was actually a radiologic technician. You know, the guy in the hospital who does the x rays. His name was Karl Tanzler. As a young boy in Germany, he would have visions of a beautiful dark haired woman he believed was his one true love. So when a beautiful, dark haired Cuban American woman named Maria Elena Milagro de Hoyos walked into the hospital one day, he knew it was fate.

Ashley: She had tuberculosis, which was considered fatal back then. So even though he wasn’t a doctor, he tried everything he could to cure her disease. She eventually died, and Tanzler bought her an expensive mausoleum and hired a mortician to prepare her body before laying her to rest. Well, rest is probably the wrong word. Tanzler had the only key to the mausoleum, which he visited every night for nearly two years. He eventually lost his job, then actually took the body home with him. By then, she had been dead for two years, and he did everything he could to keep her body intact. We’re talking plaster, wires, coat hangers, cloth stuffing, mortician’s wax, and lots and lots of perfume. And yes, that craft project included her… Orifices. For seven years, he slept with the corpse in his own bed. A local boy reported seeing him dancing with what appeared to be a giant doll. When her sister finally discovered what Tanzler had been doing, she called the cops and Tanzler was arrested for grave robbing.

Ashley: But by then, the statute of limitations had expired, and he wasn’t convicted.

Victoria Hartmann: And it was one of those first documented cases of, I guess, what would you define as long term necrophilia, right? Wow. Long term romantic necrophilia. So yeah, that’s absolutely, that’s a subset too. Yeah, but you don’t hear that in the news because people, you know, it’s like, Oh, well, you know, he missed his wife and he was a little misguided and so forth.

Victoria Hartmann: You know, it’s not really reportable. The violent crime is much more reportable and gets the ratings.

Ashley: There are also plenty of perfectly normal people who have a death fetish and find ways to fulfill it that never involve an actual corpse. One of Dr. Hartmann’s doctoral dissertations involved interviewing members of online death fetish groups, many of whom are just everyday people who happen to have a sexual interest that’s outside of the norm.

Ashley: And that interest can take a whole lot of different forms.

Victoria Hartmann: The complexity of necrophilia is surprising. You know, in the folks that I studied, for some people it’s how someone’s eyes roll while they’re being strangled in their fantasy. Does it roll to the right or the left? Does the tongue hang out to the right or the left? Is there redness around their eye or not?

Victoria Hartmann: The variances and the details for at least those who, you know, are attracted to this kind of thing are countless. Well, in the research that I did, I found, I’d say probably 30 percent women and 70 percent men responded, but it manifested differently. A lot of the self reporting that I got with women, it was often, you know, let’s say, for example, when they played cowboy and Indian as children.

Victoria Hartmann: And she was the, the Indian girl, right? For that particular person being quote unquote shot by the cowboy and falling down submissively and then being moved around was part of the erotic process. So submission. With men, it seemed to be, and I don’t recall that I had any self identified trans folks in the study, uh, or gender non conforming folks.

Victoria Hartmann: It was pretty binary. And with the men, it varied. It could be submissive or dominant. It really just depended on the individual. So there was a little bit more variation in, in men, but it was about a 30 70 split. Yeah. But for women, a lot, it was a lot more. Uh, being on the receiving end, but it wasn’t just, oh, I’m shot, I’m dead, and they’re gonna do something to my body.

Victoria Hartmann: It was, I’m shot, I’m dead, and now they gently move me around, or they wash my body, or they dress me in a certain way, or so forth. So it was, interestingly enough, there was aftercare after the quote unquote act, or the fantasy act, that they would role play, you know, when they were younger, or even as adults in consensual settings.

Victoria Hartmann: So that kind of makes it sound like. It’s like, it almost sounds like a subset of dominance and submission. Yeah, you know what was interesting is, at least in terms of the sexual variation, it’s very much an extent, at least it seems that it’s an extension of BDSM. What I was fascinated by and how I determined, at least in my research, the difference between someone who, say, had a cluster B disorder versus someone who has just had this variant.

Victoria Hartmann: Without prompting or having any kind of a question that would lead the respondent down any kind of a path, every single one of them said, I was really afraid that I was a monster. And when I found others online that shared this fetish and knew I could experience it consensually with others, not only did I feel better about myself, but I wanted to help others.

Victoria Hartmann: So they became altruistic. about helping others except the fact that this was simply a variant on a sexual interest that had its roots for many of them in BDSM pre negotiated role play. Even those storylines that were quote unquote consensually non consenting. So that was what’s fascinating to me is because a lot of these folks discovered this, you 8, 9, 10 years old, 10, 13, whatever, and were terrified of themselves.

Victoria Hartmann: and had been acting out in dysfunctional ways, either, you know, self harm, drinking, you know, substance abuse, whatever. And this was still when the internet was really early, you know, young, 1990s, late 1990s. That was one of the first things they searched when they got online, and they found this community, and it switched them from self destructive to altruistic, and they found that they could connect with people in their real life easier.

Victoria Hartmann: after they found this online community. So imagine living your life every day to have to hide a part of yourself and you might preoccupy yourself with too much work. Or, you know, drug and alcohol use, or I can think of a number of different ways in which you would try to fill that void with other kinds of activity.

Victoria Hartmann: And they wouldn’t be able to relate because they were too afraid to open themselves up to someone, so they were. Often alone, they didn’t date, um, even if they wanted children and a family. So it had a lot of, like, severe repercussions. And they found that once they found that online community where they could express that, being able to function more normally and in a more serene way in their other, in their real life, they intermingled and were advantageous to one another.

Victoria Hartmann: Self acceptance kind of way.

Ashley: Finding community can be a great thing. But these communities do more than support each other. They talk about necrophilic fantasies and exchange death fetish erotica. I mean, how can you make death erotica without any death? Well, that’s easy. Special effects.

Victoria Hartmann: With the advent of the internet, you know, it started with like BBS services where people were trading homemade movies and homemade, well, homemade pictures really, and then graduated to short films and, you know, home movies and so forth, and then you had a whole swath of sort of underground production companies that produced erotic horror material.

Victoria Hartmann: Their challenge mostly was what you’re seeing the same thing with Pornhub now is credit card companies, you know, don’t want to have anything to do with that. So is that material still being produced? Yep. That’s material still being produced. Is it mostly underground? Yep. And to my knowledge, the content that’s still being produced is You know, still all consensual performers that are being paid like any other performer and there are fantasy scenarios that are replicated on film and the actors at the end of the day get up, wash the blood off, take their paycheck and say, all right, see you next time.

Victoria Hartmann: It’s really an underground horror movie genre that doesn’t keep the explicitness out. A lot of the content is like watching your late night Showtime horror movie or late night HBO horror movie. It’s just one step further.

Victoria Hartmann: Do we know where it comes from? Is it something that you’re born with? Is it something that you develop? Is it kind of all of the above? That is a great question. I am so glad you asked that. The respondents in my study, the participants in my study, I asked that very question. When did you first realize it?

Victoria Hartmann: And what was fascinating to me about their responses was it was mostly between the ages of 7 and 15. And it was something that was innocent. One respondent talked about him playing policeman with his aunt and using his finger guns. And when he went bang bang, she fell to the floor pretending to be dead and her skirt raised up just slightly above.

Victoria Hartmann: Her, uh, stalking, you know, uh, her thigh high stalking and he remembers having a physical reaction that he understands now is like his first sexual awakening and immediately ran upstairs to hide the impending erection that was happening because it was his first one. Same thing with the woman who I interviewed talking about the Cowboys and Indians experience and how she realized that she would get excited and she would have tingly’s as she put it.

Victoria Hartmann: And so she’d try to put herself in situations where she would play cowboys and Indians and she would be the Indian that would be quelled by the manly cowboy or whatever, you know, the powerful cowboy. All of these first experiences. Seem to happen preteen to teen, right? Which is even more terrifying, because imagine an eight year old who has a reaction they don’t understand to someone else or themselves playing.

Victoria Hartmann: Are you going to go tell your mom that? Having a sexual reaction in and of itself as a small per, as a young person. I was really lucky. I could go to my mom and go, something’s going on down there. What’s going on? And she was like, oh, it’s just you growing up. And she, it was the perfect parenting moment.

Victoria Hartmann: where she gave me permission for having these feelings and that it was okay. And it planted a seed that day that just grew into the career that I have now, right? And that will always be hers that she gave me. That was her gift to me. But most children, they can’t do that.

Ashley: Listen, necrophilia can be hard to think about. We’re wired to be disgusted by dead bodies, and when TV or movies show a character treating a dead body in a, let’s say, overly loving way, that character usually has a mental illness of some kind. But in the real world, people don’t really have control over what they find sexually appealing.

Ashley: And someone can have a death fetish and be a perfectly wonderful person at the same time.

Victoria Hartmann: I’m not here to give license to people that harm others, but there’s a big difference between those folks and people who just have, you know, a rather unique sexual interest. Let’s reserve judgment. Be mindful and be cautious, but let’s reserve judgment rather than jumping to conclusions, right? There are bad people out there.

Victoria Hartmann: But just because someone has a particular type of fetish or sexual drive, doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re one of those people. You know, I, I’m always going to want to do this kind of advocacy work because at the end of the day, I want to give people what my mom gave me when I was that little person.

Victoria Hartmann: It’s like, you are okay. And you deserve to be loved for exactly who you are, no matter what things you’re into. As long as the people that you’re engaging with are consenting and it’s safe for them to engage with you, right? And I hope we can achieve that someday.

Ashley: Thanks for listening. Taboo Science is written and produced by me, Ashley Hamer. The theme was by Danny Lopatka of DLC Music. Big thanks to Dr. Victoria Hartmann and Dr. Jens Foell for talking to me for this episode. Jens is the one who first suggested I look into this topic and I am eternally grateful for his help.

Ashley: Jens is on Twitter at fmriguy, that’s f m r i underscore g u y. He is a must follow, trust me. And Dr. Hartmann is at drvictoria. Dr. Hartmann also has a podcast you can check out at SexNerdPod. com and a book all about her research into online death fetish communities called I Love Dead People, Inside the Minds of Death Fetishists. You can find a link to pick that up in the show notes. As for me, I’ll be back in two weeks. See you then.