The article below contains adult content.
Images courtesy the artist
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” So goes the old adage—but what if that woman was already a creature dragged out from the depths of hell? In ancient folklore, a succubus was a female demon thought to inhabit the strikingly beautiful bodies of human girls and women. In stories, men described their sexual encounters with these hypnotically seductive hags as night ‘visits’ or ‘visitations’—prime time for an active succubus—characterization in films and books, from Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn to the Japanese media franchise Digimon, where one of the main antagonists Lilithmon is based on Lilith, the first wife of Adam according to the Zohar. The myth of succubi has also inspired British-based photographer Alva Bernadine to explore the evolution of male fantasy through his especially disturbing photographic and film series Succubus - A Female Demon.
The images are not actually accurate (or what is presumed to be accurate) depictions of succubi, who are said to mask themselves as normal women, but reflect the artistic gaze of the artist. “My work is largely surrealist and I have always gone for a sense of unease in my images,” he says.“ I like the thought of attracting someone into a picture with something unusual or erotic but at the same time repelling them with the oddness of what is happening.” In some images, the two sets of legs indicate a double set of female genitalia, and the females are shot nude or scantily clad, in direct opposition to the usually clothed imposter women of succubi legend.
The series also includes a film which shows these women moving sinuously, creepily. Bernadine developed these over the years in several ways. He began creating his succubi in 1993, pre-Photoshop, so in fact many of the illusions in his images were created manually. “I achieved this by simply by using double exposure and black card in front of the lens of a 35mm camera,” he says. The seamless mergings of front and back, torso and genitalia were so coincidentally perfect, he mentions, that very little digital manipulation was needed anyway. Later on, he began to use Photoshop for efficiency’s sake. This led to the second main development in his study of the female figure and the distortions he puppeteers in his images. Intense focus is placed on the legs and the buttocks—areas framing the vulva, which in ancient folklore is said to be the deathly reveal of a visitation as it spews succubus spawn or viscous, alien liquids.
The succubus series is part of Bernadine’s overall oeuvre which blurs the lines between exploitation of the female form and a critique of society’s exploitation through surrealist narratives. “If I did an explicit picture of a man having sex with one, would it be pornography or would it be art or could it uneasily bestride both camps? Pornography as art, if you will,” he says, mentioning his next project which takes this conflict even further: a film documenting him invading public art spaces—institutions such as the Royal Academy of Art in London—with these creepily sexual, or sexually creepy photographs.
See more of Alva Bernadine's work on his website.