Just a heads up that this piece will be exploring themes of sexualised violence and rape.
The first time my emboldened knight activated the Archstone of the Tower Queen, I did not know what to expect. I had defeated my very first demon and euphoric in victory, I could not wait to go out and explore the other worlds that had suddenly become available. So I set foot in Latria, land of the learned, and the bottom fell out of the pit of my stomach. I swiftly withdrew, no longer feeling so brave.
The Tower of Latria is unlike anything else in Demon’s Souls. It is a slice of horror which makes its intentions clear from the get go. This is a place of pain and suffering, and you will not make your way through unscarred. It is in Latria that the lack of a soundtrack makes itself noticeable. Music in Demon’s Souls is reserved only for battles against boss demons. This makes the desperate screaming and sinister tinkling of the gaoler’s bells all the more apparent. The Latria level is one of the most atmospheric areas in the game, and one of the best horror locations in any game on the Playstation. However the more time you spend there, the more you realise the horror runs deeper than the dark cells and iron maidens.
This essay aims to explore the argument that the Tower of Latria is a sustained assault on player’s sexuality. This will be done by examining the level itself, the information surrounding it and interpretations of its enemies and imagery. There is an underlying theme of sexual violence and perversion that elevates the world’s horror aesthetic above tired tropes of the genre, and ensures it makes a lasting, and ghastly impression.
You step away from the archstone that brought you to Latria and the corpse that is wrapped around it, out onto the walkway before you. From here it becomes clear that you are standing a large, multi-levelled prison complex. It is deathly silent, save for a soft ringing that accompanies a light that is making its way past the cells. This would be one of the jails Mindflayers, and the first enemy a player is going to meet in Latria.
It is the mindflayer that offers the first glimpse of the sexual anxiety that permeates Latria. These enemies dispose of the player using methods unseen in the rest of the game. There is a sequence of events that plays out when you are caught by one. First a blast of magic will paralyse the player, holding them in place. During this event the monster will approach, wrap its tentacles around the immobile character and stab them in the face.
It is clear that this entire process is rape. An instant of savage sexual violence that ends with the death of the victim. There is a procession of meticulous steps that are taken that result in the players death. This isn’t a frenzied attack. The mindflayer wants you powerless while it has its way with the player. The magic blast is important, as it removes all agency from the character. You can only sit and stare in horror as you meet your end to this tentacled monstrosity.
The tentacles are worthy of note. These are parts of the creatures body, extensions of itself. It carries no other weapon. It is the forced penetration and fusion of biological material that does the damage. The tentacles themselves present an aggressive phallic image. The similarities to the xenomorph in Alien are hard to miss. In Haggstrom’s essay exploring sexuality and the anxiety’s of men in Alien he states,
The Alien’s process for killing its prey is a horrific display of phallic power: a giant erection—complete with teeth and dripping with semen-like ooze—shoots out of the Alien’s mouth to penetrate the flesh and destroy the brains of its victims.
The similarities are striking, not only between the thrusting motions of the attacks, but the way both these creatures prefer to immobilise their prey, lingering over the body before they strike. It does not matter whether you are a man or a woman, the implicit message being conveyed is deeply disturbing.
While the mindflayers present the most overt sexual imagery, they are not the tower’s only inhabitants that exhibit these features. If the player ventures down to the base of the prison block, they will encounter a unique enemy known only as the prisoner horde. It is one of the most frighteningly twisted monsters that dwell within the game’s bestiary.
A result of the Old Monk’s experiments (the demonic ruler of Latria), the prisoner horde is nothing more than a giant ball formed by a mass of bodies. Just bodies smashed together in a writhing, condensed heap. Venture near and multiple arms will start madly slashing swords, while keeping it at a distance means it will attack with ranged magic.
There is a certain symbolism you can draw from this creature in light of the Old Monk’s efforts to create life. The prisoner horde could very well represent the image of an egg. The magical blast it shoots is the sperm. Through the action of attacking the player, it shows the fundamental rejection of life. It expels life in order to end yours. The player could fire the exact same magic back, in a way forcing life back into the monstrosity until it was dead. This interestingly enough would make the player complicit in the violence. Of course in a way the player already is. The thrusting of a sword or spear into enemies has its own sexual connotations.
The name prisoner horde brings with it its own threads to the topic at hand. The very fact they are twisted together in an orgy of bodies and limbs shows how they are sexual slaves bound by the will of others. The creature also brings up uneasy connections to the real life abuse of prisoners, such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal which cast a shadow over the US mission in Iraq. You’ll remember this from 2008 where it was revealed that at the hands of US soldiers, prisoners were
beaten, forced to strip and masturbate, threatened by unmuzzled dogs, smeared in faeces and made to simulate sex or form naked piles.
All of the enemies within the tower (itself a phallic symbol) are twisted perversions of the Old Monk.
One thing Demon’s Souls makes clear is that women held great power in Latria. The archstone is that of the Tower Queen and the history is of the queen banishing her husband from the land. Before it fell to the demons Latria was a matriarchy. That is, a kingdom with a ruling elite of women rather than men.
The story goes that Latria was a land of learning and the gifted, and the queen banished her husband from the land after it was revealed he was involved in a depraved affair that is never specified within the game. However he later returned as the Old Monk, wearing a golden garb and with demons in tow.
Here we see the complete overthrow of the leading female figure, and instead we have a violent establishment of a patriarchal leader. It is interesting that he is referred to as a monk, rather than a prince, king or traitor. This religious title could very well point to the patriarchal and outdated notions on the position of women within religion, notably within Christianity (the churches and imagery surrounding the monk support a critique of the Christian faith). After all as St Paul said,
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35
The demons he had in tow in his return may be representations of regressive gender politics. The fact that many of the monsters in Latria are the results of the monks experiments in creating life, points to a certainty of his right to rule. Works like Frankenstein show nothing good can come from playing God, and yet man continually tries to do so. Shelley concludes that, “moral and spiritual development can best be attained through the shedding of dogmatic belief structures, resulting in the elimination of God towards the attainment of self-realization.” The Old Monk is a demon and a god unto himself. He may only rule the dead and the insane, but it is the conviction that it is his inalienable right to do so that is the danger.
On a note about the queen, the tower’s first boss is the Fool’s Idol, said to be a representation of the old ruler. A symbol of serenity in a church, the idol promises redemption to those who seek her out. This is a play on the trope that women are the “purer” gender. Any chance of salvation is a sham. The Idol also carries a loaf of bread. Bread breaking is a symbol of peace and community. Of course the bread is never actually broken, showing a disconnect between what is presented and what is meant.
This idea that women are more pure than men crops up a number of times throughout Demon’s Souls and while the other women embody this trait, the Idol rejects this notion. Perhaps because it is a puppet under the Monk’s control. It attacks using ranged magic much like the prisoner horde, signifying it as a conduit for the demon’s (or the man’s) will.
After defeating the Idol the player is brought to the upper reaches of the tower, where stone roads criss cross in the sky. While you are outside at this point, it is exceedingly dark. What is noticeable is the abundance of chains and gibbets (a gibbet or act of gibbeting was hanging prisoners from those cosy one man cages often suspended in public spaces). This continues the theme of enslavement, but because we are no longer dealing with wide cells, rather separate, personal cages, it conveys the idea of bondage and sexual servitude. Bondage and masochism are centred around the themes of submission to a greater power. Latria wants the player to submit. To give up and be consumed. It does everything in its power to assert its control over you. Then you meet the Maneaters.
Once again these are twisted results of the Old Monk’s foray into biological engineering. One third man. Two thirds beast. They are a patchwork of constituent parts. The most interesting piece of the maneater puzzle is the tail, which happens to be a snake. This is ferociously aggressive, acting independently from the hosts body. During the fight the snake may even attack its own body, causing the maneater to writhe in pain. Another signifier of violent sexual tendencies which serve to carry out the assault on the player. It is also because of the snake the the maneater can fire magic. Again we have things ejaculating at the player. Cut the snake off, and it becomes impotent, losing this advantage.
Maneater as a title does not just signify the creatures bloodlust and tendency to devour any fool searching for redemption in the sky-ways. It harkens back to masculine anxieties and fear of the sexually liberated woman in the 60s, which arguably still exists today as men struggle to define what masculinity is in the modern age. The cover of Ralph St. Clair’s hysterical The Man-Eaters from 1967 stated,
A female wave of bedroom brigadiers is enslaving the American Man, stripping him of his masculinity, devouring him with insatiable erotic demands!
The Maneater fight is actually one of the most gruelling battles in the game, as the player is dealing with two enemies at once. Needless to say that they will die multiple times before they overcome the threat. There is a certain significance here for male players. The long established view of masculinity is that men are strong, face up to and overcome challenges. With each death, this notion comes under threat and is chipped away. Failure in battle becomes a failure of manhood. A male player emasculating these beasts himself becomes a willing participant in this contract.
This all ties back into the bondage themes that are so overt in this section of the tower. Not only will they strip away your flesh, but your masculinity and sense of being will be flayed and torn to tatters.
So far the boss demons have offered up interpretations on both male and female sexuality. Wielded as a weapon by the Monk sitting at the very top of the tower. To get to the Arch-Demon the player must traverse a wide spiral staircase up the final tower. That’s right, the game forces you to travel up the Monk’s shaft in order to get to his seat of power.
Once the confrontation takes place, it is revealed that the Old Monk is dead. His rotting corpse is simply a corporeal vessel for the demonic spirit that dwells within the golden robes. And so takes place one of the games most interesting battles, in which another player is summoned by the demon to fight against you.
All this time the game has been using sex to attack and control you, the player. Now it has reached out and is having a tangible controlling effect on someone else. Not just another enemy. A real human being. They fight you because they are told to. The Catholic church especially uses sex as a weapon to control it’s members. Anything outside its strict guidelines is labelled as immoral. All of the themes identified coalesce into this one final confrontation.
Finally I would like to mention the gargoyles, who are the main guardians of the upper pathways. They again contribute to the violent sexual imagery by attacking with spiral rapiers. The weapon description reads,
A rare rapier with spiral grooves carved into the blade. It is the weapon of choice of the stone gargoyles in Latria. It is meant to inflict pain and cause bleeding rather than deal damage, which provides a glimpse into the insanity of the Old Monk.
The origins and the meanings of gargoyles is very much a hot topic among historians. Plenty of theories abound, but very little evidence to back up any particular argument. This is also true of the class of gargoyle known as the Sheela Na Gig. These have a history steeped with Druidic connotations. There is an argument that they served as the church’s reminder to pagan sections of the population to be wary of the temptations of lust. According to Simpson and Roud the purpose of the Sheela images would,
be to warn pilgrims against sexual sins by arousing disgust, by presenting the female body as both voracious and degraded.
It is a common held belief that gargoyles were supposed to ward off evil spirits, and again in keeping with the theme of women’s bodies being terrifying, this would repel demons, such as is portrayed in La Fontaine’s Nouveaux Contes.
Under the Old Monk’s control, the gargoyles have become the evil they were created to protect against, especially now that that the “pure” women have been decimated. It is the gargoyles that carry you into bondage after the battle with the Fools Idol, and they have become a tool to the disturbing perversions that have twisted Latria into a shadow of its former, beautiful self.
Every second the player spends in Latria they are bombarded with what can only be described as a deep hatred. The sexual imagery which accompanies the savagery of the attacks prove to be unlike anything else seen within the game. The tower’s dark atmosphere does much to heighten the tension, but it is the unrelenting sexual assault that dogs the player, which creates a true sense of foreboding.
However it is through all of this the game reveals its critique and damnation of regressive and dogmatic views held within society. Gender representation, power structures and religion all come under attack and ask us to question the nature of violence and where it stems from.
I hope you the reader have at least found this piece to be an interesting read. I would love to hear an feedback, thoughts or criticisms you may have. Demon’s Souls does not get enough attention these days.