Ecstatic Lashes and Sweet Surrender
The Fine art of whip cracking
Reading time 38 Minutes
The Whip, in its Essence, is a simple thing
The whip, in its essence, is a simple thing. The standard bullwhip consists of a handle, a thong (the whip’s braided body) a fall (a strip of leather attached to the thong to give it balance) and a cracker (the piece that gives the whip its sound).
The act of whipping itself is something quite different; it generates a delicious shiver of magic or a frisson of horror, sometimes in the same movement. In order to make the cracking sound, the whip must break the sound barrier. The sound of a proper whip crack can inspire a multitude of feelings: it incites horses and bulls to snort and snap into submission. It can inspire a vicarious thrill of power. It can be a slick object of menace that brings one closer to fear, exultation, to God, to sexual release. A whip can coerce, cajole, punish, but it can also expel deeply-buried pain. It’s made for tension: it’s made for release.
Fans (or haters) of the Da Vinci Code (2006) will remember the film’s antagonist Silas (Paul Bettany), an albino monk aligned with Opus Dei, who had a penchant for whipping himself and wrapping a spiked chain (or cilice) around his thighs, his face etched with ascetic agony. While the actual Opus Dei sect objected to this ghastly portrayal (along with many other historical inaccuracies in the film) the actual practice comes across in historical accounts as something more complex, uncanny, and – occasionally – glorious.
In his history In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, scholar Niklaus Largier writes about the 19th century Italian monk Dominic Loricatus, who died in 1060. Loricatus (also known as “The Armored” for the hair shirt he wore on his naked body for many years) was an enthusiastic practitioner of self-mortification: “By his calculation…an entire psalter (150 psalms) with fifteen thousand blows came to a total of five years of canonical penance,” writes a 19th century hagiographer quoted by Largier. And truly, Loricatus loved his psalters, praying 12 times through the psalm cycle in his final years and lashing himself with an enthusiasm that makes Silas the albino appear a bit of a lightweight.
Nuns, too, participated in ritualized self-flagellation. In 1877, the Reverend William B. Cooper published Flagellants and Flagellation, a text that outlined the history of flagellation from ancient Egypt and onward. In a chapter on the practices of the Cistercian nuns and monks in the 15th century, he describes the practices of “notable flagellator” Mother Passidea, who eventually abandoned the whip because it was too “common” and not extreme enough for her purposes. “In early years she would scourge herself with iron disciplines until she was bathed in her own blood. In winter she would lie among the thorns...After an energetic whipping she had salt or vinegar dripped upon her wounds.” In Cooper’s dry and dead-serious prose, Passidea’s unrepentant devotion towards extreme pain feels as grim, gory and unrelenting as any horror movie.
Largier quotes a medieval manuscript from the fourteenth century documenting the rituals of the nuns of Unterlinden in Colmar, France, which describes their mortification practices with an equally descriptive flair: “They abused their bodies in the most acute fashion with all manner of scourging instruments until their blood flowed, so that the sound of the blows of the whip rang through the entire convent and rose more sweetly than any melody to the ears of the Lord.”
In this context, where pain emulates the suffering of Jesus Christ, the lash of the whip creates the impression of an exalted connection that is nearly indescribable. “The boundary of what is utterable becomes the basis for a deed that consists of actualizing through performance something that words cannot reach – something on which words run aground,” Largier says.
Laypeople were not immune to the compelling powers of the whip, either – the flagellation of monks and nuns went on to inspire an entire Christian sect devoted to the practice. The Flagellants took root in northern Italy and rose as a widespread group by the late 13th century, marching through villages and whipping themselves in public squares before moving into churches to prostrate themselves as part of a process of atonement for past sins. The rise of the Flagellants coincided with the spread of the Black Death, and sect members believed their activities also served as a form of protection. By the mid-1400s, Pope Clement VI excommunicated the group and declared them heretics. In Flagellants and Flagellation, Cooper outlined a shortlist of the sect’s fanatical beliefs: “That the blood they shed was mixed with that of Jesus Christ...that baptism by water was of no use, as every true Christian must be baptized in his own blood; that flagellation could atone for all past and future offenses.”
In 1936, a film was released that was purported to contain documentary footage of modern-day flagellants from Los Penitentes religious sect in New Mexico. Co-directed by Harry Revier, whose exploitation picture Child Bride would raise the ire of censors a few years later, Lash of the Penitentes is loosely based upon the case of American reporter Carl Taylor, who was murdered by his houseboy while researching the sect. The movie’s plot follows the reporter George Mack as he travels to New Mexico to cover the sect. There he meets some of the townspeople, include the daughter of one of the Penitentes, Raquel, and her suitor, Manuel, as well as their houseboy, Chico. The story follows a complex “stranger in a strange land” trajectory where Mack goes deeper than he should into the sect. Meanwhile, the plot treads into sexploitation territory when Raquel is accused of witchcraft, strung up and whipped by the sect members.
The film itself appears to be a bewildering mash-up of actual footage of the Penitentes enacting Jesus Christ’s climb to Calvary, crosses slung across their backs, and whipping each other, explained with a dour voice-over and edited through with the primary narrative of Mack’s investigation and murder. (In fact, the grainy footage looks a bit like a student production of a Penitente sect, bringing to mind the cult marching scenes in E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten.) The film was rejected by the Hays Code due to “excessive brutality,” but reviewers noted that the so-called footage didn’t look native to the region and questioned its authenticity.
In horror films like The House that Screamed (1970) or Ken Russell’s infamous The Devils (1971) the extremity of religious flagellation becomes all the more terrifying when its devotees cross the line from penance or punishment into blind compulsion. In the 1977 Mexican horror film Alucarda, two young girls become possessed by Satan in a convent and wreak diabolical (and occasionally Sapphic) havoc on their surroundings.
However, upon repeated viewings, the most disturbing figures in the film are the convent’s nuns. Swaddled in stained yellow cloth, with bloodstains soaking their bodies from the chest down, the nuns’ faces are twisted with the agony of a tested faith. In one scene, the nuns discuss the girls’ crisis while whipping themselves and each other, and it soon becomes clear that they’re desperately seeking the obliterating comfort of a divine love that is eluding them. Many critics have speculated that director Juan López Moctezuma intended Alucarda to serve as an indictment of the Catholic faith. Through this interpretation, the nuns’ devotion can indeed be interpreted as an oblivious and dangerous fanaticism.
Whips in Print
Whips have a storied history in print media and comics, particularly in cover artwork and underground magazines. The 1940s saw an explosion of men’s “adventure” magazines that published stories of men facing off against all brands of danger in far-flung lands, featuring pulpy covers in lurid full color of women in peril. Many of these covers in their earlier years featured women being whipped, bound and otherwise terrorized by Nazis. Around the same time, people like Charles Guyette were experimenting with fetish costumes and the distribution of photography featuring models posing in his fetish wear. Fetish historians claim that Guyette is the first person in the U.S. who produced and distributed clandestine fetish art to underground markets.
Guyette’s catalog of photography ranged from demure women raising their skirts to reveal delicate garters to more capital “F” fetish photos of women in his elaborate corsets, wielding whips, elbow-high gloves and black eye masks. He eventually even arranged photos staging “pony play” scenes. Guyette’s empire (which also included corset, g-string and fetish boot design) soon expanded to distributing work by French fetish art producers and other books and magazines. In 1935, he was arrested for illegal use of the U.S. mail system. In his book Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art, historian Richard Perez Seves quotes a news report from that period charging Guyette of “offering to supply photographs of boxers, strong women and other ‘interesting subjects.’”
Guyette retreated into obscurity, focusing his efforts on shoe and boot design. Unknown in his time, Guyette would become hugely influential and develop important connections to Irving Klaw, the fetish art merchant and director who introduced pin-up legends Bettie Page and Tempest Storm to the world through art and movies like Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955).
In Britain, the passage of the Obscene Publications Act in 1959 led to a brief explosion of mimeographed S & M-themed material circulated “under the counter” in bookshops. These “Soho Bibles” were named as such because they were largely circulated amongst sex shops and bookstores in the Soho neighbourhood in London’s west end. Most of these titles were quarter-page sized (around same size as a modern-day photocopied zine) and perfect bound, often with tape. They featured original fiction and/or black and white illustrations and grainy photographs, and ran somewhere between 60-100 pages. The Soho Bibles are notable because they contained (and advertised) unapologetically frank S & M content with a particular focus on whipping, caning and other types of flagellation. A typical sampling of colourful titles include: A Little Discipline, Devine Torture, The Degradation of Sue, The Five-Tailed Lash, Whacked!, Orgasm Thrills and Whip Effort Pains, Swinge: The Story of a Painful Place and Bloody and Beautiful.
The quality of writing in these little pain pamphlets varied: in Swinge, which promises to detail the unsavory goings-on at a girl’s private school, the opening lines say it all: “Without, the sun still shone hotly down on Linden Academy for Young Ladies, whilst within, many young feminine bottoms still glowed even more hotly.”
Bloody and Beautiful, meanwhile, contains a pointed warning: “In all sincerity, we advise no one to read this book unless they are really interested in the bestial killing of young women!” Its first line details the violent whipping of a young girl, and the raising of the flesh: “…the whip working upwards to leave an ever-widening band of bloody pulp beginning just above her knees and due to end up on her shoulders.” These intensely lurid tracts and their underground distribution are rarely mentioned, even in histories of censored literature in Britain. While critics and historians often discuss the trials surrounding the publication of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Last Exit to Brooklyn, the Soho Bibles, with their uncompromising focus on lurid sex and violence, seem unworthy of even a mention and have seemingly fallen through the cracks of history.
More “mainstream” fetish art distributors and publishers managed to get away with circulating their work because it avoided nudity and maintained a somewhat lighter, more sophisticated tone. Fetish artist (and high heel enthusiast) John Willie was inspired by the work of Charles Guyette and is also a contemporary of Irving Klaw, who commissioned both Willie’s art and the work of the legendary fetish artist Eric Stanton. He’s perhaps best known for The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline comic serial, which he produced in the 1950s for the cheesecake magazine Wink. Although the comics never featured nudity, they did feature the sexy blonde Gwendoline captured and tied up by a dark-haired villainess and later escaping.
Willie’s precise-yet-alluring art found homes at a variety of girlie mags like Wink, and in 1945, he began his own magazine, Bizarre, featuring fetish photos and drawings depicting women in leatherwear, corsets, and engaging in a host of bondage/S & M activities, including a healthy amount of whip play. Willie’s elegant drawings feel like they could double as classic New Yorker comics – if the characters delivered punchlines wearing cinched leather corsets, long black medical gloves and gravity-defying stilettos. Willie’s skill made fetish culture beautiful and classy, and almost normal. In a 2000 Salon tribute to the artist, a New York publisher put it best: “His characters have dignity, which is very rare in pornography.”
David Morgan: The Indiana Jones Whipmaker
One of the most iconic whips in cinema – Indiana Jones’ bullwhip – has inspired its own distinct fetish culture. In the Indiana Jones films, the whip is more often than not attached to Indy’s hip – a kinetic extension of this rakish, fearless hero. It also serves as a multi-purpose tool: Indy uses it as a rope, a swing, and a lasso – knocking weapons from the hands of Nazis, leaping over pits of snakes and of course, roping a woman or two.
Of equal interest is the story of the man behind this iconic bullwhip: a quiet Canadian named David Morgan. Born in 1925 and raised in Vancouver, Morgan received a doctorate in chemistry and spent the first part of his life taking engineering jobs across the world and traveling with his wife, Dorothy. While in Dorothy’s native Australia, Morgan met several expert whipmakers and developed an interest in their practice of braiding whips out of kangaroo leather. He began importing whips for sale to the U.S. and started a family business selling the whips out of his basement in Seattle.
Morgan continued traveling back and forth to Australia throughout the ‘60s, meeting with various Aussie whipmakers and practicing the trade. In 1973, the U.S. placed an embargo on kangaroo skins and products. The ever-resourceful Morgan began making his own bullwhips out of calfskin.
The first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), used a number of bullwhips from the collection of stunt coordinator Glenn Randall Jr. (his father, Glenn Randall Sr., was the horse trainer for Ben Hur). One of these was a Morgan whip. After the trailer for Raiders dropped, David was approached by the wardrobe company Bermans and Nathans to create bullwhips for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). It’s estimated he made 30-35 bullwhips for Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and, many years later, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Widely known as the 450 Series whips, they’re still available, made-to-order, by the family business David Morgan Ltd. along with leather fedoras and a host of other handmade leather crafted items.
Morgan passed away in 2015. His son Will recalls numerous visits to the Morgan home by circus performers and stuntmen, including the Canadian stunt artist and legendary whip expert Alex Green. “They’d come over and show me how to do a new style of cracking,” he recalls. Will even had his own child-sized whip to play with: “They’re safer than motorcycles,” he maintains. People in Indiana Jones online fan communities – and they are legion – have provided exhaustive breakdowns of how Morgan’s whip differs from film to film. For example, according to IndyGear.com, the Last Crusade whips feature a less tapered, thicker handle, and the ring knot at the end of the handle (or spike) is lower. The changes in the Morgan whips over the past 20 years are a source of great controversy in the Indy fan communities and border on the fetishistic: in 2008, site staffer Walt “Sergei” Rybinsky wrote a blog post about the time in 2001 when he got to photograph and hold a rare Morgan-made Raiders whip, with close-ups lovingly documenting the changes in handle length.
Will Morgan laughs when asked about the average 450 series whip customer: “We fondly refer to them as the Indiana Jones nuts,” he says. “They’ll argue about placement of the handle, the length of the handle, give or take an inch or two, and use slingshots and calipers for measurements. They want an exact replica, and well – my dad was not particularly fond of creating the same whip twice. Things have changed.”
As interest in the Indiana Jones films skyrocketed, the family business flourished – and sometimes other celebrities came calling. “I remember once my mom took a call and said to my dad, ‘There’s a Michelle Piper on the phone for you,’” Morgan recalls. The younger Morgan realized it was Michelle Pfeiffer, who had questions about the whip she was using as Catwoman in Batman Returns.
However, Morgan’s primary interest always remained with the craft of whipmaking and the practice of knowledge-sharing – encouraging others to make whips, use whips and learn more about them. He even published three books about whips and whipmaking – Whips and Whipmaking, Braiding Fine Leather and Whips of the West. It also led to more unexpected connections – some kids saw the Indiana Jones movies and fancied themselves whipmakers or whip-crackers. They’d take Morgan’s books out of the library and then call him with questions – a charming example of pre-Internet ingenuity.
“They’d talk to dad for an hour, two hours – it would drive my mom crazy,” Morgan remembers. Among these young callers: Adam “Crack” Winrich, who grew up to be a Guinness World Record-breaking whip cracker and performer, and Adam Savage of Mythbusters. Savage is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a die-hard Raiders fan who first spoke to Morgan for 45 minutes about whipmaking on the phone in 1994. Over two decades later, he produced a segment on his website Tested where he explained how he made his own Raiders-style bullwhip.
Of course, it’s not just Indiana Jones freaks ordering Morgan whips. There is another type of client, one that requests Morgan company catalogues in plain brown paper bags. Will says the company treats S & M whip enthusiasts the same way they do any other. However, he says his father had little time for – or interest in – these communities.
“There’s plenty of people into that other aspect, so we just hold up the western arts aspect,” he says. “My dad elected to just – not go there. As much as possible. As a company, we’re just not interested in that. There’s already plenty of books on that kind of thing.”
The Lusting Hours: Roughies and Sub-Dom Relationships
There are also plenty of films devoted to “that kind of thing”- from Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body to Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga, based on Guido Crepax’ Valentina comics – but the whip found its most significant cinematic ally in the “roughie” films of the 1960s. Roughies sprouted from the so-called “educational” nudist colony films, which first proliferated in the 1930s but were revived in the 1950s after a Supreme Court ruling determined that nudity and obscenity were not synonymous. The fun-loving “nudie-cutie” films of the 1950s and early ‘60s followed, including early works by sexploitation pioneers Russ Meyer, Doris Wishman and producers Bob Cresse and David F. Friedman. The roughies, unlike the color-saturated nudie-cuties, were shot in black and white and featured bleak, seedier storylines for their heroines that often featured rough sex, violence, BDSM and drug use.
Some of the earliest known roughies include David F. Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Scum of the Earth, as well as Joseph P. Mawra’s Olga’s Girls (1964) and its numerous sequels (Olga’s House of Shame (1964), White Slaves of Chinatown (1964), Mme. Olga's Massage Parlor (1965), Olga's Dance Hall Girls (1969)). Produced by George Weiss (who also co-wrote Olga’s House of Shame and produced Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?) the Olga films featured a bevy of beautiful women forced into white slavery and punished: getting tied up, tied down, and lasso’ed, getting slapped, gagged, poked, pinched, spanked and sometimes paddled (with boards and exposed nails jutting out), verbally abused and, of course, whipped within an inch of their lives. This torture was most often wrought and overseen by the titular madam, played in the first three films with grinning eagerness by Audrey Campbell, who had previously appeared in Joe Sarno’s Lash of Lust (1962).
Other filmmakers jumped on the roughie bandwagon, including Michael Findlay and Wishman, the latter of whom deftly side-stepped from the world of nudie-cutie production into darker terrain. In keeping with the Olga tone, roughies like Findlay’s Body of a Female (1965), Arch Hudson’s Tortured Females (1965), Saul Resnick’s Maidens of Fetish Street (1966) and David R. Friedberg’s Torture Me, Kiss Me (1970) featured enthusiastic scenes of whipping. One of Friedman’s productions, The Lustful Turk (1968), features a particular memorable low-budget display of whip-based ardor. Over florid narration, the titular Turk proclaims he’ll strike the pale flesh of one of his white slaves with a “crimson blush” as he administers a leather whip with several broad lashes, replete with out of synch cracking noises and a cardboard-constructed “dungeon” wall visible behind them.
Despite their darker subject matter, many of the roughies have aged into curious and even charming time capsules, with the production values, hokey overdubbing and goofy all-or-nothing acting providing a fascinating viewing experience and a telling lens into the social mores of 1960s America. This is exemplified in movies like The Lusting Hours (1967), an Amero brothers roughie (with appearances by Michael and Roberta Findlay) that presents itself as a faux documentary expose of the down n’ dirty lives of prostitutes, strippers and pornography models. In one scene, a cheerful model poses with a whip and a bottle of champagne for a fetish shoot. She dances and tries to beguile the photographer with the whip with great enthusiasm, but seems to lack the prowess of an Audrey Campbell and ends up frequently hitting herself in the head and face instead.
The Lusting Hours also features two queer men – one, a male prostitute and the other a transvestite – engaging in a whip play scene that ends on a surprisingly sweet and consensual note. Indeed, there are moments in certain roughies where the genre’s conventional narrative centering women victims gets switched: In Wishman’s Too Much, Too Often! (1968) for example, the film opens with the film’s lead – the hyper-slick hustler Mike – whipping a middle-aged male client while combing his own hair. Though it happens relatively infrequently (this is still the 60s, after all) and is handled about as clumsily as you might expect, there is an endearing quality to these moments of queer transgression. The S & M framework suggests the possibility of opening doors to other types of so-called “deviant” energy and behaviour, and it’s easy to see how these movies inspired the likes of John Waters, both in his taboo boundary-pushing and his creation of cinematic worlds where characters existing on society’s margins could reclaim power and be treated with empathy.
There’s a memorable scene featuring a surprisingly gentle moment of whip play in another Michael Findlay roughie, The Curse of Her Flesh (1968). The plot, as with many roughies, is perfunctory: a man murders his wife, a prostitute who cheated on him, and then exacts his revenge on other sex workers in his orbit until he’s caught. He also runs a theatre that presents live sex acts, including a lengthy whip play scene between two women. The submissive woman, tied with rope to two Roman-style pillars, is blonde, while the woman wielding the whip is brunette – seemingly typical of the Betty and Veronica-style duality that appears frequently in same-sex sadomasochism scenes on film.
As brassy music plays in the background, the brunette strides across the stage and lashes the blonde’s legs with a cruel savagery. With her teeth bared for the unseen theatre audience, the brunette pulls out a stiletto and releases the blade, running it tantalizingly along the underside of her victim’s breast and cuts off her bra. She then whips the blonde’s breasts as the blonde cringes and cries out. But then the vibe changes. The brunette crouches and begins tenderly kissing her victim’s wounds while the blonde throws her head back and sighs. The brunette kneels between her victim’s legs and its implied that she gives oral sex. Later, they kiss with a convincing amiability and trust.
While the scene was likely intended as a moment of lesbian titillation for the typically male roughie enthusiast, there’s something about the encounter that feels unexpectedly tender – as if the two actresses have gone beyond the requirements of the script and achieved an actual intimate connection through the performativity of pain. If you watch enough of these films, there are moments like these that shine through – straddling a delicate line between vulnerability and excess, with the possibility of genuine warmth and kinship shining through.
The longtime trust essential to any dom/sub relationship is evident in the rapport between these two women performing this subversive act. In the physicality of the movement they share, it becomes clear that this the whip is a sacred object in their private relationship. These rituals are meditative, important, a beautiful song: the way the Indiana Jones nuts run their eyes over the 450 series braiding and handles, or how the nuns of Unterlinden prostrate themselves, bent double, singing and inhabiting the burning, ecstatic sensation of their lacerated flesh. In the hands of the right person, the whip becomes an extension of trust, healing, and escape, opening the door into a heightened sense of consciousness and sensation, rending the flesh and transcending it. In the hands of the right person, it can even be an object of love.
Special thanks to Will Morgan, Robin Bougie and Greg Sonier.
Alison Lang is a writer, editor, zinemaker and occasional video store clerk based in Toronto, Ontario. She writes about horror movies, music, DIY culture and other weird things. For four years she was the editor of Broken Pencil Magazine, the world's only magazine about zine culture and the independent arts. in 2016 she contributed a chapter on Geraldo Rivera's Devil Worship TV special for the bestselling anthology Satanic Panic: Pop-Culture Paranoia in the 1980s and her first book, Women With Guts, a collection of essays and interviews with women working in horror, came out as part of the Rue Morgue Library in 2017. She has presented on religious cults in cinema, the intersections of body horror and gender, horror zines and the feminist implications of The Bride of Chucky for events such as the Ax Wound Film Festival (Vermont), the DePaul Pop Culture Conference (Chicago) the Black Museum lecture series (Toronto), Toronto's Queer Fear film series and the upcoming Final Girls Film Festival (Berlin). You can follow her on Twitter at womenandsong666 and her website is womenandsongs666.com.