Mystery Meat: the Death Erection

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

Tell me where is fancy bred?
In the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourishéd?

    —William Shakespeare: Merchant of Venice

Sexual arousal is a complicated physiological process. It has neurological, psychological, endocrinological, sensual, and other components. It can occur due to visual or physical stimuli, and it can happen at the most inopportune times.

Like while you’re dying.

Commonly referred to as a “death erection,” the phenomenon is recorded in both people with penises and people with clitorises, though one is typically more easily observed than the other. Though erection and arousal are thought to be the direct result of stimuli, it’s actually controlled by lower spinal nerves.

Folks who go through a spinal injury, particularly in the lumbar spine, often experience a loss of sexual function. This is because through the labyrinthine connections of the human nervous system, the impulses that govern erection and orgasm originate there, even though the genitals get to have most of the fun.  This connection can also help explain the death erection.

Death erections are commonly associated with death by hanging (which is under the best of circumstances a spinal injury beyond compare) but have been observed in the final moments of the lives of many. This has led to depictions in art, inspired by our eternal fascination with the polar drives of our lives: sex and death, Eros and Thanatos.

Art historian Leo Steinberg describes depictions of the crucified Christ with ostentatio genitalium, openly displayed genitals and often with a death erection of his own. Anyone familiar with the works displayed in Catholic Churches can predict what became of Christ’s erect member. Even the flaccid must cover their nakedness before the prudish eye of the Holy See; an erection was never going to make the cut of the fig leaf.

The lifelike statue of nineteenth century French journalist Victor Noir is polished and oiled regularly in two important spots: his face and his crotch. The face appears to be from kisses (who would grope a dead man without at least kissing him first?) and the crotch is rubbed by the hands (and folks, let’s lay guesses on what else!) of living folks who believe the man depicted was well-endowed in life and turgid in death. Rumored to have to power to bless one’s fertility, Noir’s death erection livens up an already very famous city of the dead.

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    James Joyce’s Ulysses uses the death erection as one of the possible ways in which arousal can embarrass a person, particularly in the Calypso and Cyclops sections. I’d quote it for you, but it wouldn’t help. William S. Burroughs, a great fan of the grotesqueries of genitalia, wrote that Oscar Wilde admired a friend’s collection of hanged men’s engorged genitals, and connected the image of the death erection to his writing on sexual experiences many times in his novels:

    “There was this citizen with a circus act, hang himself with a special elastic rope. A dangerous act they tell me, you gotta check the rope for elasticity before every performance. In St. Louis he didn’t check the rope and his neck snapped, he was carried off by leering cops with a paralyzed hard-on.”

    Thomas Harris’ Hannibal, grand follow-up to The Silence of the Lambs, concerns itself with hanging throughout the narrative, taking the time to deliver a lecture on the death of Judas Iscariot and the connection in the medieval mind between hanging and avarice. Hannibal “the cannibal” Lecter poses as an art historian and describes the depictions of Judas hanged and sometimes hung. He is alluding to the death erection he himself will create when he later kills Rinaldo Pazzi, the cop who is trying to catch him:

    “Pazzi jerked, head-up, his neck broke and his bowels fell out. Pazzi and his appendage swinging and spinning before the rough wall of the floodlit palace, jerking in posthumous spasms but not choking, dead, his shadow thrown huge on the wall by the floodlights, swinging with his bowels swinging below him in a shorter, quicker arc, his manhood pointing out of his rent trousers in a death erection.”

    Only in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot do people seem to like the idea of showing off their mysterious arousal at the moment of death. Vladimir and Estragon, like a lot of people who are excited about the idea of something with a hard on involved, end up neither dead nor meeting the person for whom they wait.

    “Vladimir: What do we do now?
    Estragon: Wait.
    Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting.
    Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
    Vladimir: Hmm. It’d give us an erection.
    Estragon: (highly excited). An erection!
    Vladimir: With all that follows.
    Where it falls mandrakes grow.
    That’s why they shriek when you pull them up.
    Did you not know that?
    Estragon: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!”

    These two might be the only ones who truly understand the death erection. It’s a titillating idea, neither good nor bad, merely something that happens. It’s a consequence of both life and death, a little bridge made of meat between those two poles of our experience. It is no more notable in a corpse than in a living body, and it’s ok to admit that either or both or neither make you excited or uncomfortable or just leave you cold. It is ok to admit that you’d like to leave this life swinging that thing, or simply leave it all behind.

    How begot, how nourishéd?
    Hard as a rock, even when you’re dead.