From Salò to Cult: Sadism, Terror, and Fascism in Fiction

The Four Libertines and their associates.

Alban Bargain-Villéger


It was this laconic, almost interjective title that first caught my eye. In the stifling Parisian heat of July 2002, somewhere in the Halles neighbourhood, the poster appeared in a surreal haze. A bridal party of dejected youths, the bride and groom dressed for the occasion, the rest stark-naked, advanced, seemingly resigned to their doom. Then the subtitle appeared: “or the 120 Days of Sodom.” While Salò obviously referred to the resort town where Benito Mussolini had established the capital of his short-lived Italian Social Republic, the rest of the title did not ring a bell. I had not yet become acquainted with Sade’s masterpiece, nor was I familiar with the director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. The cost of entry was cheap, as the showing was part of a Pasolini festival, on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of his birth. Clearly, I had no clue what I had gotten myself into, as Salò proved to be an aesthetically unpleasant experience featuring stomach-turning torture scenes and ritualistic rape. To cut a long story short, I almost threw up in the movie theatre. But I am the stubborn type, so I decided to stay until the end.

What prompted this post was not a sudden, random flashback to my first encounter with Pasolini. Rather, it sprang from a slow-evolving reflection on the seventh season of American Horror Story, entitled Cult, which aired in late 2017. Evidently, the two works differ in several ways. Conceptually speaking, one is a full-length film, and the other an 11-episode series; while Salò is a 1975 Italian production, Cult is part of an ongoing American – self-explanatorily US-centric – show. However, these works address the theme of fascism in comparable ways. First of all, both emerged in climates of political violence and instability, the Anni di piombo (Years of Lead) in Salò’s case, and of the Trump presidency in that of Cult. While one cannot easily compare the two contexts, the similar questions that they sparked in 1970s Italy and 2010s America deserve more attention on the part of historians. Secondly, the frequent, and often inappropriate bandying about of the word “fascism” in the media, popular culture, and politics, should not deter academics from studying such approximations. Just because Salò and Cult provide partial, mostly aesthetic takes on fascism, it does not mean scholars should throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss these works as flawed and not worthy of attention.


In other posts, I have criticized the hackneyed argument that the “1930s” were back. Michael Moore’s latest film, Fahrenheit 11/9, provides yet another example of that trite thesis. In addition to raising the question, “what 1930s are we talking about?” (one that would deserve another post altogether), the intellectually lazy Trump-Hitler, or, alternatively, Putin-Hitler equation sounds like “crying wolf”, as the spectre of the “brown” 1930s has never really disappeared. Pasolini’s movie highlights, albeit in a subtler way, the unoriginality of such views. Released in 1976, Salò did not limit itself to waving the scarecrow of fascism, but attempted to give contemporary audiences his own definition of fascism, long before that exercise had become banal, when Italy’s reactionary circles deemed it “too soon” to settle thirty-year old scores. As a matter of fact, the far-right might have had a hand in Pasolini’s assassination shortly before his film was released.

Before he rose to prominence as a filmmaker, Pasolini was known as a poet. Although he hailed from Bologna, he always maintained an emotional connection to the Friuli area, in the northwest of the country. In the late 1930s, he began writing in Friulan, and published his first collection, entitled Versi a Casarsa (Verses to Casarsa) in 1942. A year later, Pasolini was arrested by the Wehrmacht but managed to escape soon afterwards. While he prudently supported the resistance to the Social Republic (established in the wake of Mussolini’s liberation by a German commando), the poet resumed his work as an activist for the officialization of the Friulan language. Alongside his interest for the preservation of regional languages and cultures, Pasolini drew closer to the then popular Communist Party (PCI), which he joined in 1947. The honeymoon period was short-lived, as he opposed the PCI’s centralist programme, which rejected devolution. Too anti-conformist, too “debauched” for a party dominated by conservative, homophobic apparatchiki, Pasolini was expelled by the local section after being indicted for “corrupting the youth.” Although he was eventually acquitted, he decided to leave Udine for Rome in 1950. After publishing several works, most famously Ragazzi di vita (“street kids”), acting, and serving as consultant and writer for Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), Pasolini began a successful career as a director with Accattone (“beggar”) in 1961, and released eleven more films between 1962 and 1975.

Pasolini’s works deal with socialism and how it can be reconciled with Christianity, anarchism, local and unofficial idioms, slang, the urban underworld, and sexuality. This interest in eroticism, power, and issues related to heteronormativity often caused indignant reactions on both the right and the left. Thus, several specialists have surmised that his brutal death – his body was found mangled on November 3, 1975, on a beach in Ostia – had to do with his lifestyle and allegedly subversive tendencies. Without dismissing the hate crime thesis, others have suggested that one or several rightwing groupuscules and/or the reactionary, then Masonic, P2 Lodge had commissioned the assassination, as Pasolini was working on Petrolio, his unfinished novel. Published in 1992, the latter features Carlo 1, an Eni engineer (Eni is the main Italian gas and oil company) and his lower-class double, Carlo 2. While Carlo 1 symbolizes the alliance between some elements of the Catholic Church, Italy’s various mafias, neo-fascist groups, and the Christian Democratic Party, Carlo 2 is his sexually liberated, androgynous, rebellious brother.

Some have also stated that Pasolini’s assassination had a direct connection with the soon-to-be-released Salò. Though allegorical, the movie is, indeed, rather straightforward when it comes to unmasking the aides and abetters of fascism. Based on Donatien de Sade’s 1785 posthumous manuscript, and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, the film follows four “libertines”, each with his own particular proclivities, during an epically horrific sojourn in an isolated villa. Most characters correspond more or less to those present in the original story. In Sade’s book, each of the four patriarchs represents a segment of the élite: the Duc de Blangis, a decadent aristocrat; the Bishop (l’Évêque); de Curval, a judge; and Durcet, a banker. Pasolini slightly amended the characters’ names and features in order to fit the original story into his antifascist allegory. While Sade’s 120 Days explored the limits of the Enlightenment and the appropriation of divine powers by human beings, Pasolini emphasized the political dimension of the story, through an analysis of sex as an instrument of authoritarian, totalitarian control beyond pleasure for its own sake. By taking twenty-two male and female teenagers down a Dantean spiral of torture and, eventually, murder, the four libertines use sex and violence as weapons of enslavement. Therefore, the journey through the three circles, namely “Manias,” “Shit”, and “Blood” is essentially of a panoptic nature. The various rituals, the Blackshirt-like militiamen, and the procuresses all play a symbolic part in this Volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”), whose principles are inherently opposed to those of Gesellschaft (“society”), with its emphasis on individual rights and self-definition.[1]

Although long estranged from the PCI, Pasolini remained loyal to the Marxist theory on the origins and nature of fascism, which he clearly portrays as the offspring and ally of a decadent upper class. His stance is nonetheless idiosyncratic, as Salò occludes other major features inherent to a Marxist reading of fascism, such as the latter’s ultra-nationalism and corporatism/anti-unionism, both conspicuously absent from the film. As a keen observer of his times, Pasolini realized that the fascist threat was not dead and buried. Long before the slowdown of the economy, in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, neofascist organisations had begun to rear their heads as early as 1946, most notably Giorgio Almirante’s Italian Social Movement. Far from a gratuitous pornographic display, Salò raised the alarm regarding the possibility of a return of fascism.

Forty-two years later, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk released the franchise’s most politically loaded season to date. Unlike its predecessors, American Horror Story’s seventh season is directly connected to America’s present. Set in the fictitious town of Brookfield Heights, Michigan, Cult follows Kai Anderson, a sociopathic, ambitious déclassé, in his quest for power. From the first episode onward, the similarities between Anderson and Donald Trump are incontrovertible. However, the young reactionary and the 45th President do not share the same amount of symbolic and socioeconomic capital. Anderson is the perfect type of the homo-fascistus, whose resentment against liberal traditions translates into an elastic, vague program aiming at restoring America’s alleged greatness. Perhaps unwittingly, the show mirrors Roger Griffin’s definition of fascism as a “a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.”[2] In plain language, palingenesis (a phenomenon borrowed from biology) refers to a process whereby allegedly atavistic (ancestral) features are recreated. Thus, like Mussolini and Hitler, Anderson dreams of retrieving the “authentic” essence of the people’s community, one that adheres to supposedly traditional, ultra-nationalistic values.

Evan Peters as Kai Anderson in American Horror Story: Cult.

Whereas Salò requires a simultaneously intellectual and emotional effort, Cult takes a more literal and less graphic approach to fascism. However, by emphasizing the politics of sadism inherent to fascism, Murphy and Falchuk’s show dovetails with Pasolini’s film. Given current production constraints, the directors could not go too far, lest the series risk a financially crippling high PG-rating or, worse, censorship. Thus, few scenes are sexually explicit, or even as cringeworthy as Salò’s most palatable moments. Aside from the occasional scene involving sexual abuse or murder, violence has more to do with phobias (claustrophobia, coulrophobia, xenophobia) and hatred of the Other. More than Salò, the series emphasizes the workings of the cult of personality on déclassé underlings from various backgrounds, as well as extreme conformism and gregariousness disguised as a general will for emancipation. However, despite the absence of references to Sade and his work, the connection between fascism and sadism as a means of political control is transparent throughout the show.


While almost half a century separates the two shows, they mirror similar fears of a possible return of a “brown” or “black” regime. In addition, both emphasize the Sadean violence inherent to that ideology. In that regard, Pasolini’s final film might have influenced Murphy and Falchuk, though the latter have never, to my knowledge, mentioned Salò as an inspiration. In addition, both works came out at times of political and socioeconomic uncertainty, and argued that fascism might be a cyclical phenomenon. The main difference between the two approaches stems from their focus on different phases typical of fascist development, rather than the chronological divide that separates them. Pasolini narrowed down his perspective to Robert Paxton’s fifth stage, “radicalisation or entropy”. In contrast, Cult covered stages 1, 2 (movement/party formation), and the beginning of stage 3 (the seizure of power).[3] In addition, while Pasolini was particularly interested in the oppressive, neofeudalistic nature of fascist politics, Murphy and Falchuk explored the question of reactionary indoctrination in a liberal-democratic context – hence the title. While Salò aimed to shake Italians (and Europeans) from their slumber by refreshing the recent, nightmarish memories of the war years, Cult warned against all movements and sets of idea that involve a charismatic leader. The final episode, entitled “Great Again,” thus turns the tables on the condemnation of the far right that dominated most of the season by launching into a critique of the professionalization of politics. Unfortunately, this twist undermined the antifascist pamphlet carefully woven by the writers in episodes 1 through 10, as it precipitates them into the all-too-common trap of horseshoe theory.

Fascism being an elastic ideology, a shallow analysis of its precepts and development can easily lead one to engage into logical fallacies and other conceptual shortcuts. Indeed, the far-right and far-left common hostility to liberalism does not mean that the two are one and the same. Their common opposition to capitalism (only initially in the case of fascism) does not originate from the same roots, one being of a nationalistic/racialist origin, the other of a socioeconomic nature. Nonetheless, Salò and Cult are, in their own way and in their respective contexts, telling of the recurrent fears of the return of fascism since 1945. The frequency of such fears has to do with the murkiness of that ideology, whose essence draws from both conservative-romantic ideals and the urge to subvert the power in place and revolutionize society in order to establish an allegedly true national community. This synthetic makeup has led to endless debates on the actual goals of fascism and, among other things, its philosophical roots.

Both works interrogate the development of mass politics and nation-building processes, both of which emerged from the Enlightenment tradition. Although Cult privileges the individual, psychological aspect of far-right reactionary behaviour over the question of origins, it does emphasize the weak spots in the sacrosanct concept of democracy. More explicit in that regard, Pasolini draws up a connection between the destructive, iconoclastic potential of modernity already outlined by Sade, and Mussolini’s regime. The Sade specialist Annie Lebrun’s remark that “reason … persists in refusing to acknowledge the monsters it spawned” thus seems to apply in Salò’s case.[4]

Although it would be unfair to blame the Enlightenment for the rise of fascism, the development of mass politics and the rise of nationalism (initially seen as progress) in the nineteenth century indirectly gave birth to corruptions and syntheses that turned against the very legacy of eighteenth-century rationalism – a situation elegantly summed up by Lebrun as an “abyssal slab in the midst of the Enlightenment.”[5] Each in their own way, Salò and Cult took part in a seemingly never-ending dialogue on the question of fascism, its relation to modernity and location on the political spectrum.

Alban Bargain-Villéger is a sessional faculty member at York University, where he specializes in modern European history. His current research project involves a comparative study of Arran, Borkum, and Groix, three small islands off the coasts of Scotland, France, and Germany, respectively.


[1] See Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft), trans. Charles P. Loomis (New York: Harper, 1963).

[2] Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993), 26.

[3] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 23.

[4] Annie Lebrun, Soudain, un bloc d’abîme, Sade (Paris: Gallimard, 2014), vi. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

[5] Ibid., 22.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.