What do the glitz and glamour of burlesque have to do with the blood-spattered world of horror movies, or the seductive appeal of the occult? The intermingling of these disparate elements might seem surprising, but a growing number of performers are bringing them together in delightful unison.

Since the beginnings of the neo-burlesque movement in the 1990s-early 2000s, it has always been a style of performance that has heavily borrowed from the iconography of popular culture. It has also been heavily influenced by various subcultures surrounding it, including goth, punk, and rockabilly. Though there are ample examples of neo-burlesque which aims to conjure old Hollywood glamour there is an ever-growing number of burlesque performers who are taking their stylistic cues from elsewhere. Nowhere is the overlap and cross-pollination between neo-burlesque and dark culture more evident than in the subgenre of gorelesque (sometimes also referred to as ghoulesque).

This emerging niche of neo-burlesque performance is taking many of its cues from the adjacent, or maybe even overarching subgenre of nerdlesque. Nerdlesque parodies pop culture and media considered to be stereotypically nerdy (both literary and screen-based genre fiction, comics, and video games).

Gorelesque refines this even further and uses horror films, occasionally true crime, and all things dark culture as its point of departure for creating artistic striptease. In essence, it is a macabre corner of neo-burlesque world which draws inspiration from the spooky, blood-drenched, occult, and esoteric.

Sometimes gorelesque acts are loving homage to a specific character or source text, such as a specific horror film. Other times, gorelesque is more so a pastiche of dark archetypes. A good example of the latter would be Toronto-based boylesque performer Percy Katt’s zombie Boy Scout act. In this number Katt (thanks to the magic of special effects makeup) appears to pull off and devour pieces of his own flesh, covering himself in blood in the process. He continues stripping off layer after layer of clothing and flesh until he gets down to this underwear, and with nothing less to strip off, he violently pulls off his character’s penis and takes a big bite out of that too. Acts like this one walk a fine line between the hideous and hilarious, often simultaneously being both.

Detroit’s annual Theatre Bizzare, which is co-produced by neo-burlesque superstar Roxi D’Lite, also boasts a strong gorelesque presence with its Dirty Devil’s Peepshow. Last year’s event boasted acts by such luminaries as Lola Frost, Mr Gorgeous, Julie Atlas Muz, as well as hosting by actor, sideshow and boylesque performer Mat Fraser (of American Horror Story: Freak Show fame). Though not all the burlesque acts featured at the event neatly fit into the gorelesque subgenre, the carnivalesque atmosphere of the event creates a space wherein they can be transformed into ghoulish iterations of the original acts, which that span between a spectrum between gorgeously grotesque and glamorous.

Chicago’s Red Rum is arguably the high priestess of gorelesque. Everything she does is high concept, with amazing costuming and makeup, and brilliantly executed. Red Rum does acts inspired by both specific media and characters, like the thought controlling aliens of John Carpenter’s They Live, as well as conceptual acts like her reanimated ancient Egyptian mummy dancing to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”. This mummy act became a point of infamy, after she performed it on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. (The music is changed from the usual Queen track in the audition video.) Unsurprisingly, the majority of the judges on the show didn’t appreciate her offering, with mummy dust flying everywhere as she strips – but it isn’t meant for a mainstream audience. What Red Rum does truly blurs the line between neo-burlesque and performance art.

Never one to shy away from the weird or ghastly, Red Rum has created many acts which are decidedly unsexy but are often hypnotic to watch and thought provoking. In March 2017, she also produced an immersive event at Chicago’s historic MacLean Ballroom, called Satanic Panic. This event is the culmination of her artistic practice and obsession with macabre pop culture. As the name of the show suggests, it was themed around the rampant fear of all that was labelled by the Christian right in the 1980s and 90s as being a satanic influence, regardless of whether any of this was genuinely inspired by Satanic tenets or not: rock music, Dungeons and Dragons, divinatory arts, horror films etc. (D&D was the inspiration for my own troupe’s offering for the evening.) The moral panic surrounding this period of history and the cultural fear of Satanism was also consolidated with tabloid and talk show stories about ritual abuse, cults, and serial killers.

In another act performed at Satanic Panic (which I had also previously seen performed at The Toronto Burlesque Festival in July 2016) Red Rum appears in full drag as Charles Manson, with three other performers as backup dancers: Dahlia Fatale, Lilly Rascal, and Slightly Spitfire, who appear to be members of the Manson Family. The three other performers are compelled to strip via Red Rum’s direction, while they dance in controlled frenzy to The Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter”. They also remove wigs to reveal bald caps (mimicking the infamous shaving of heads) and Red Rum draws Xs on their foreheads on stage blood, suggesting the mark many Manson Family members carved into their faces. While on the surface it might seem celebratory of the Manson Family’s heinous acts, the act reads as meaning to be both unsettling and uncanny. It seems that Red Rum wants to draw attention to the manipulation and abuse these women endured. Her Manson doesn’t strip, he leaves the down and dirty work to the other characters. It is a symbolic nod and poignant nod to the fact that real Manson himself did not carry out most of the crimes carried out by his disciples, but suggested to them what they should do.

Satanic Panic’s hosting was done in the style of a sleazy, late 1980s or early 1990s talk show, a clever send-up of Geraldo Rivera style tabloid TV. Red Rum is obsessed with popular culture – in much in the same way as my troupe is. Though the things she geeks out about are admittedly different (true crime stories of historical serial killers, for one), artistic endeavours it seems to be much more in line with what we do, than say some of the more glamorous neo-burlesque that is under the same large umbrella of this performance genre.

While there dozens of notable performers creating eerie gorelesque performances, one that I would be remiss to not mention one of the most powerful group numbers I have ever seen. The Peek-a-boo Revue’s Silent Hill inspired nurses act straddles the line between unsettling and sexy. This Philadelphia based troupe mixes tightly choreographed but pounding and high energy dancing that is then punctuated with moments of stillness, followed by jerky, uneven pack-like movement. The performer’s bodies invoke a clear idea of how the nurses move in some of the video game franchise, but also seems particularly informed by the film adaptation of Silent Hill. Moments of violent convulsion are mirrored in the music by thumping bass alternating with distonal drones. This act is a perfect example of gorelesque at its best: it draws upon a familiar source text and confounds the audience’s expectations about what they are going to be seeing on a burlesque stage. It is creepy, at moments baffling, and executed with complete precision.

In short, gorlesque inverts traditional notions of sexiness and makes the audience question their own desire to watch these undead or otherwise otherworldly creatures strip. Gorelesque is a mix of disparate elements that seem like they shouldn’t naturally going together, particularly in the celebration of a monstrous beauty and sexuality. Rather than being something entirely new though, I would suggest it is perhaps just the most recent iteration of something that was been happening in burlesque, since its very origins. Burlesque has always been parodying popular culture and turning it up to 11. In 1869, theatrical critic William Dean Howells referred to The British Blondes, who are often credited as being the first burlesque troupe to bring the art form to North America from London, as embodying as “horrible prettiness”. Though Howells was specifically referring to the troupe’s hyperbolic gender presentation, it seems relevant to note here as well. Gorelesque certainly shares a grotesque ethos with these earlier iterations, even if it covers it in a veneer of blood spatters and sparkles.

Header image by Chris Hutcheson

Loretta Jean

Loretta Jean

Loretta Jean is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto's Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies. She is also a founding member and producer of Nerd Girl Burlesque. She has written for Floral Manifesto, Dr. Nerdlove, and is a contributor to Dark Horse Comics' Secret Loves of Geek Girls anthology.