The term necrophilia is mostly used as a psychiatric expression for a pathological sexual attraction to corpses. It is a very rare and poorly understood phenomenon. In his seminal 1894 work, Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, one of the first psychiatric writers, called it a horrible manifestation of sadism. Abraham A. Brill, who published the first comprehensive examination of the subject in 1941, characterized necrophiles as many other authors had—mentally deficient, psychotic, and incapable of obtaining a consenting partner. Necrophilia has been associated with cannibalism and vampirism as all are considered perversions.
In 1978 Neville Lancaster reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry the case of a twenty-three-year-old student of music at a teacher's training college in England. He was convicted of the murder of a young woman, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. The defendant admitted that he had broken into a mortuary on two occasions prior to the murder and had sexual intercourse with female corpses. The prosecution saw him as a necrophile who desired a dead body and therefore decided to kill the victim. The student was tested with an IQ of 153, and no evidence of psychiatric illness was found. The defendant had a normal romantic relationship with a music teacher. The three necrophilic incidents occurred after the student was drinking extensively and taking other chemical agents, so the previous incidents of sexual intercourse with corpses completely disquieted him the following morning. Necrophilia seemed to upset him as much as the murder itself.
This report demonstrates how difficult it is to draw any generalizations from a single case history. In 1989 Jonathan Rosman and Phillip Resnick reviewed 122 cases manifesting necrophilic acts or fantasies. They distinguish genuine necrophilia from pseudonecrophilia and classify true necrophilia into three types: necrophilic homicide (murder to obtain a corpse for sexual purposes); "regular" necrophilia (the use of already dead bodies for sexual pleasure); and necrophilic fantasy (fantasizing about sexual activity with a corpse, without carrying out any necrophilic acts). The pseudonecrophile has a transient attraction to a corpse, but a corpse is not the object of his sexual fantasies. According to Rosman and Resnick, neither psychosis, mental retardation, nor sadism appears to be inherent in necrophilia. The most common motive for necrophilia is possession of an unresisting and unrejecting partner. Necrophiles often choose occupations that put them in contact with corpses.
Based on single case histories, many researchers offer psychoanalytic explanations for necrophilia. Rosman and Resnick developed an empirical model to get a deeper understanding of how psychodynamic events could lead to necrophilia: "(1) The necrophile develops poor self-esteem, perhaps due in part to a significant loss; (a) He (usually male) is very fearful of rejection by women and he desires a sexual object who is incapable of rejecting him; and/or (b) He is fearful of the dead, and transforms his fear of the dead—by means of reaction formation—into a desire for the dead; (2) He develops an exciting fantasy of sex with a corpse, sometimes after exposure to a corpse" (Rosman and Resnick 1989, p. 161). Because no therapist has treated a sufficient number of necrophiles, research literature on effective treatments does not exist.
Brill, Abraham A. "Necrophilia." Journal of Criminal Psychopathology 2 (1941):433–443.
Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia Sexualis: With Especial Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study, Burbank, CA: Bloat, 1999.
Lancaster, Neville P. "Necrophilia, Murder and High Intelligence: A Case Report." British Journal of Psychiatry 132 (1978):605–608.
Rosman, Jonathan P., and Phillip J. Resnick. "Sexual Attraction to Corpses: A Psychiatric Review of Necrophilia." Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 17 (1989):153–163.