Social distancing measures brought about by COVID-19 are reframing the act of kissing; shifting the gaping mouth from an image of unquenchable desire to respiratory collapse, as this oral orifice becomes a portal for the pathogen. The mental picture of a wet tongue slowly emerging from a foreign body—like Satan transfiguring into a serpent to pervert Eden—is an eerie trespass of safe distance. This erotic scene of bodily caress becomes momentarily forbidden as the government regulates closeness and assigns a police force to patrol human interaction. Within this restrictive environment, seduction assumes repulsion, the sluggish tongue locked in a slimy hole of narcissism. The lips stand like guards involved in pathetic masturbation, moving grotesquely with earthworm locomotion. Meanwhile, teeth gain the appearance of stale bricks collecting moss, completing a depressing scene for the end of the world. In the framework of COVID-19, the kiss is lethally corrupted, as the connotations of love, familiarity and kinship it carries begin to decompose hideously.
This transformation is monstrous, an aberration that threatens normalcy by turning an instrument of affection into a mode of transmission; an entry point and a vulnerability. Since saliva spreads COVID-19, the kiss becomes an engagement malformed with terror, impure and unsafe. What makes it truly monstrous is the speed of contamination – rather than the fear of a single transmission – numbers explode with a warlike intensity. Like zombies who multiply through wounding, the virus duplicates swiftly by contaminating others and endlessly replicating itself. In the discourse of monster theory, Noel Carrol understands this process of reduplication as fission, explaining that monsters owe their ontology to a state of division, doubling and multiplication. Jekyll and Hyde is a double split into good and evil, while Dracula is a subject caught in eternal self-replication. Carrol also notes how a being becomes monstrous when it proliferates to form a mass, such as the titular menace of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963): one aggressive bird may pose no threat but a flock of them certainly do. The pandemic is the massification of an epidemic, where a widespread disease is affecting an extraordinarily large territory. It is unpredictable and voracious, like a flock of birds waving with rage.
Within this setting, the kiss is also creepy, becoming a shadow or an inversion of itself, an instrument of care turned into ideological negligence. While a renewed consciousness of bodily fluids accounts for discomforting feelings during this pandemia—our awareness of the virus brings attention to the reality of the mouth as an unclean orifice—there is also a semantic collapse taking place, as the idealised notions of love, friendship and kinship that are conveyed by the uninous act of kissing are violently devalued. Indeed, social distancing measures and contamination flip the kiss into a semiotic shadow, like the kiss of Judas, actively signifying and reinforcing its antithesis: separation. To kiss during social isolation is an anti-community gesture that defeats collective efforts to stop the spread of the virus, exposing kissers to risk of infection and thus, quarantine. The kiss as an act of humanity (an affirmative gesture of shared existence) becomes an abrupt assertion of anti-humanity (negation of our collective wellbeing). The kiss no longer unites, it divides.
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, 1602.
The maligned kiss of Judas Iscariot in the Gospels exemplifies this nihilistic engine, as Judas betrays Jesus Christ with a kiss that reveals him to the Romans, a phantasmal event that dawns the crucifixion. This episode monsterises Judas by exiling him from Christ’s circle of apostles, violently pushing him outside the boundaries of social acceptability and community. The creepiness of Judas, however, is in the desecration of the kiss. The word creep originally refers to the crawl of snakes and animals with short legs, such as spiders. The term evolved to denote a form of fear; the unsettling nature of this movement becoming a physiological reaction. Eventually it becomes a cypher for an uncomfortable subject, as the human creep manifests with the uneasiness of a slimy creature. Judas is creepy because he repels, and he repels because he defiles. Judas embodies the semiotic shadow of the kiss, turning his lips into the penumbra at the edge of the umbra, where unity is engulfed by total darkness; voiding wholeness into hollowness.
The kiss of Judas, like COVID-19, is also sick with the devil, as “Satan entered Judas” to make him betray Christ. The notion that the devil can penetrate the body and hijack human consciousness resonates with the functions of a virus. The limitation to this morbid comparison is that demonic possession is not commonly understood as a transmittable state – one does not catch the devil from a possessed. However, there is a societal predisposition – an atmosphere of decadence – that welcomes Satan, a state of collective corruption that makes humanity more susceptible to possession. When reading the gospels and the myriad of demons that Jesus cast out, it appears that an epidemic of satanic possession is taking place in the New Testament. The masses are inscribed with a state of spiritual vulnerability, in desperate need of religious inoculation. While there is no community transmission, there is a high rate of infection. Behavioural changes are a common motif in pathogenic narratives, such as Blade II (2002), where vampirism is conceived as a virus that radically transforms its host. Like demoniacs, the vampires in Blade are humans endowed with supernatural abilities. Returning to Judas Iscariot, the kiss is a manifestation of his disease or uncleanliness because of its central role within the Church, where it bonds, includes and excludes.
As Michael Philip Penn posits in Kissing Christians, early Christians used the kiss to distinguish themselves from others throughout the first five centuries of Judeo-Christianity. While the author makes it clear that kissing is common in Greco-Roman societies, he isolates the Christian kiss as a ritual, and therefore an action distinct from everyday gestures. The threshold that divides early Christians and other communities, such as Jews, is incredibly porous indeed. For Christ and his apostles were Jewish themselves. The threshold that divides early Christians and other communities is incredibly porous indeed, thus increasing the necessity for rituals that reinforce the separation and delineations between groups, an endless reminder of the limits of 'us', 'them', 'ours' and 'theirs'. Thus, the kiss is instrumentalised as a unifying gesture that binds Christians across countries and separates them from other denominations. The shadow cast by this practice, however, is the creation of monstrous Others, who roam in the umbra, penumbra and antumbra of the kiss. The spectres of anti-semitism are exemplary in this regard, as they are often distorted hallucinations created by viscious Christians. Judas is in fact a victim of racial phantasmagoria, as he is misconstrued to represent anti-semitic caricatures of greed and betrayal. This is how Othering creates semiotic shadows, whose anatomies are a menace to normalcy, and their behaviour an assault on social order. Due to its role in the Church, the kiss is both the subject and object of this inversion.
Penn offers several theories to explain the adoption of kissing by Christians as a tool to define themselves, one of the most convincing being that kissing symbolises family in late antiquity. Since Judeo-Christianity adopts the visage of a family—wherein Christians refer to each other in familial terms: ‘brother’, ‘sister’, with God as the ‘Father’—it is plausible for kissing to be an extension of this tendency to invoke the familial. This notion makes Judas’ kiss more cursing, as he profanates the foundations of the Church; violating a ritual that belongs to the “closing of prayers, the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, martyrdom, the cult of martyrs, greetings, monastic vows, home devotions, saluting the altar, epistolary conventions and death rituals”. It is an assault on the totality of belief; an attack on its leading figure and family structure, as well as the ritualistic apparatus underpinning it. In sum, Judas’ betrayal is a radical decimation of the kiss’s highest symbolism, a nightmarish perversion of its capacity to greet, recognise, unify, and honour kin.
Andy Warhol, The Kiss (Bela Lugosi), 1963
The vampire embodies this nightly inversion of the kiss, where the kisser befouls and assassinates, instead of birthing and honouring. Andy Warhol recognises this phantasmagoria in his painting The Kiss (Bela Lugosi) (1963), wherein he reproduces a still from Dracula (1931) in which Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula ravenously bites into a victim’s neck. The implication of Warhol’s title is that Dracula’s bite is a romantic kiss turned foul, the rupture of consent this implies rendering the kiss horrible. The vampire as lover invokes the warped image of a malignant narcissist, employing manipulation to deceive others. Dracula’s sinister hunger for blood can easily become a metaphor for ‘narcissistic supplies’, where the perpetrator devours their victim’s adoration to fill their pathological void. Elsewhere I have discussed how the design of Lugosi’s vampire borrows from the Latin Lover figure, common in the early 20th century, to stylise a cinematic rendition of Dracula; sharing a distinct semblance with the Latin Lover types (thick accent and slicked back hair) portrayed by Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro in film. This codependency between undead and Latin Lover further emphasise the signage of the vampire bite as a gothified kiss, an abusive romance unfolding in the darkest night.
Dracula’s phantasmagorical kiss also holds a similitude with Judas, as their cunning lips sinisterly betray those they touch. Within pop culture, Dracula 2000 (2000) exploits this comparison, with Dracula revealing himself as Judas Iscariot, rendered undead after a failed suicide. The more contemporary ‘Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Judas Kiss’ of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-) further mobilises this correlation by portraying Vlad The Impaler as the son of Judas, and the guardian of the original thirty pieces of silver. This conflation shows how both figures trade closely in the popular imagination, signifying a deadly kiss of betrayal. The kiss of Judas swallows the life of Christ with the same voracity that a vampire drains its victim. More broadly, this creature’s aversion to silver is also reminiscent of the silver coins of Judas, which circulate as haunted tokens of heresy. There’s an internet legend that exploits this connotative echo by claiming the vampire descends from Judas, who passed on a pathological fear for silver.
The vampire’s abhorrence of the cross is another haunting of the crucifixion, strengthening the lineage between Dracula’s bite and Judas’ kiss. In this way, the undead functions as a travesty of the gospels, becoming a warping zone for its teachings and beliefs. The vampire is Christ and Judas split into an uncanny double – holy becomes unholy, hope becomes despair, redeemer becomes tempter. Even the vampiric lore of immortality, which curses the vampire to eternally rise and slumber in their coffin, stands as mockery to the doctrine of resurrection. Once again, we are seeing a devaluation and nightmarisation of high ideals, as the undead rises like Jesus, to roam in torment rather than bliss. This doubling of Christ is furthered through the motif of sanguineous consumption, as red wine is ingested by believers in symbolic recognition of Christ’s shedding. The vampire performs the same ritual albeit animalistically, in a purgatorial compulsion. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) strengthens this nexus paraphrasing Leviticus 17:11, “for the life of the flesh is in the blood”, in Dracula’s exclamation of, “The blood is the life!”. This is a common thread amongst works that derive from Dracula’s imaginarium, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) where Spike says, “Blood is life, lack-brain”. In the cinematic adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994), this is rendered visible by Lestat drinking rat’s blood in a cup of wine, parodying the Eucharist.
Let us return to Judas and position him within this gory semantic, tracing the linguistic connection to blood that manifests in his utterance of “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”, following his deliverance of Jesus to the Romans. This is also true of Akeldama (Field of Blood), a burial ground for foreigners that is said to have been acquired with the thirty pieces of silver that Judas forsook after betraying Christ. The Field of Blood is a graveyard for aliens, imprinted with gothic poetics of difference as a network of subterranean tombs for Others to lie. Like the theatre of shadows in racial relations, these cadavers are testament to the compulsive need to cast out difference by manufacturing linguistic distinctions – the fear that without separation, these (dead) bodies might penetrate the sameness of community and disrupt its harmony. This shows how difference is pathologised, hallucinated as a condition that can spread like a monstrous fissure if it’s not regulated, isolated and controlled. In racist parlance, one could describe the increased movement of peoples as an epidemic to discursively construct minorities as a disease.
The vampire’s kiss also brings forth familial disintegration, just as the kiss of Judas ruptured the 12 Apostles, the earliest kinsfolk of the church. This is true in Stoker’s Dracula, where the Count intervenes in the union of Jonathan and Mina Harker by kidnapping Jonathan and momentarily converting Mina into a vampire—while in Stoker’s novel they consummate their marriage, after curing Mina. Later adaptations show a different fate, such as Nosferatu (1922), where Mina dies by sacrificing herself for the death of the Draculean Count Orlok. In Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963), the disintegration of the family is more prominent, as we find a vampire that returns to infect his household. In this short film, a patriarch leaves on a mission to murder a Wurdulak, an undead creature from Slavic mythology. He returns late at night, five days later, to his home; suffering an injury to the heart and carrying the head of the Wurdulak to prove his inexplicable success, but also displaying uncanny symptoms, such as a hunger insatiable by food. The newly converted vampire soon begins to turn his family into Wurdulaks with a bite, a dynamic that resembles a greeting kiss – an affectionate gesture for kin now corrupted.
Philip Brophy, Vox, 2007
Philip Brophy notes how the horror film routinely liquidates the nuclear family in Horrality: The textuality of contemporary horror films. In this essay, Brophy finds a unique sensibility he terms ‘horrality’: a neologism for the humour, morality, and textuality of horror in the early 80s. Horrality discusses the destruction of the family by noting a shift in spectatorship with the release of Amityville 2: The Possession (1983) from “individual identification (the victim, the possessed, the pursued, etc)” to a spectacle of annihilation that destroys the family for optic pleasure. While this reading is specific to films produced in the late 70s to late 80s, such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the annihilation of the family is still a common motif in contemporary horror cinema. Hereditary (2018), for instance, tortures the family with spectacular devices that include decapitation, self-immolation, bone fracture, possession, and burning. A lengthier aspect of Horrality is body horror, which Brophy discusses in relation to Scanners (1981), The Fury (1978), American Werewolf in London (1981), The Thing(1982), and Alien (1979). This focus on abjection extends to Brophy’s practice as an artist and film director, a large focus of which has been the destruction of images of bodies, rather than families.
A perennial example of Brophy’s application of body horror is his 2-screen animation Vox (2007), in which he foregrounds, exaggerates and ultra-sexualises the corporeality of intimacy. This work consists of two vector headshots – facing each other in profile – set against an empty backdrop that resembles the void of a red stage. The icon on the left is a male while the one on the right is a female, both Caucasian-presenting. This framing evokes Jan Svankmajer’s ‘Passionate Discourse’ and his surreal stop motion animation Dimensions of Dialogue(1982), where a couple merge during a sexual frenzy until they turn into a violent blob. However, unlike Svankjmajer’s tactile aesthetic, the style of Vox is a digital tutti frutti of pop art, superflat, anime and Adobe graphics. These sensibilities become more complicated as elements of body horror set in with a post-humanist audio-visualisation of romantic osculation, where flesh becomes mutant and plastic.
In a public segment of the work made available online, we can see the female protruding abominable genital tentacles from her head, which she expands and contracts in a struggle to touch the male. Extended animation stills and installation photography show that the male corresponds to this ritual with a similarly abject transformation. Some elements of these mutations resemble the vampire bite in Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain(2014-17), where the strigoi’s cheeks split open to release a growth that blossoms like a penis worm. While it is unclear whether Brophy’s figures are courting, mating, or simply dialoguing, their non-penetrative touch conveys a kiss. Vox’s scene of morphological fantasy is intrinsically sonic; the shapes interact with a synthesiser, becoming sound organs as well as expressions of desire. In doing so, the sci-fi aesthetic points to the evolution of a new biology in which noise is central to bodily functions, like a mating call for Terminator. The title of the work, Vox, speaks to this speculative evolution by conveying an alien, hypersexual audio-visualisation of the vocal apparatus and its role as a linguistic instrument.
While the family is absent from this unearthly theatre, the reproductive logic of Vox codes its non-presence with trouble. For having seen this procreative ritual, one wonders what spawn emerges forth from this union. On the other hand, these creatures may also be sterile, capable of self-replication or simply unwilling to breed. It is worth considering the artist’s use of doubling during the pre-production of Vox. A monstrous fissure that first entailed recording a test video of a male performing facial expressions, which later became key frames for the animation. This same footage is also the basis for the female, as the artist simply adapted the masculine features to conform with the female form instead of shooting a new subject. By accessing the inner logic of the video, we can deduce these figures can duplicate. The Strain springs to mind again – where vampirism is imagined as a virus culpable of heinous mutations – to consider the role of sickness and its uncontrollable dissemination causal to extreme bodily transformations.
A proposition for Vox as a sickness fits well within a chain of Cronenberg-esque associations, where this bodily extravaganza could be a disease. This is not to force a zeitgeisty interpretation onto the work, rather it is a recognition of how the piece becomes recontextualised during the radical and rampant germophobia of COVID-19. It speaks to the heightened state of paranoia that colours sexual encounters with psychotronic anxieties during the peak of infection: Vox’s horrible tongal anatomy renders visible the romantic terror that presupposes closeness. The subtext of familial obliteration is also an insightful tomb in the abysmal passageways of connotative catacombs that is the horror genre. Showing the disruption of intimacy to be more than a postergated kiss, as it apprehensively holds the primal drive to procreate and the West's obsession with family formation. It threatens the institution of the family and the political ballast this unit brings to societal structures at large. Beneath the horniness and frustration, there is a tingle of panic regarding the preservation of the species. Indeed, when a kiss turns into a vector of disease, it triggers grand and neurotic preoccupations with the future.
Judas is sick with the devil, Dracula is infected with vampirism and Brophy’s osculation offers a morbid audiovisual glyph to further articulate oral aberrations of this kind. These kisses are corrupted, relegated to the shadows cast by dominant systems of meaning making, such as Christianity and the film industry. They separate wholesome from loathsome, clean from unclean and normal from abnormal. The mouth as a site of difference does not escape the implication that Otherness is constructed in speech, that parlance makes monsters. Judas, as the oft-target of anti-semitic sentiments, exemplifies how discourse constructs the enemy through villification. He also demonstrates how the kiss becomes creepy during a semiological inversion, where it flips into a shadow of itself: it repels, divides and terrifies. However, the true moment of monstrosity occurs during fission, when it doubles, multiplies or spreads. While a grotesque mirage, like that of Brophy’s Vox, is a true marker of monstrosity, the kiss becomes more threatening when it challenges normalcy by multiplication. It is the Draculean takeover, the potential for reduplication that renders the supernaturalised kiss monstrous: wherein difference becomes pathologised and the lips transfigured into vectors of hallucinogenic diseases. Returning to COVID-19, it is the rate of infection rather than the intensity of the disease that makes the kiss monstrous, for its mega capacity for rupture threatens ‘reality’ – and the structures that enable it – as we know it.