This is an occasional series on popular culture tropes and narratives. Previously I looked at doomsday narratives.
It could be that vampire popular culture is on the wane, and if so, I for one am good with it. I’ve had it with evil-possessed, remnants of humanity’s whimpering stories, or the good-girl-meets-renegade-vampire paranormal romance. There are loads more creatures, myths, and epic battles to create and explore. But underneath the cult favorites of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and True Blood, what do these monsters say about our fears? Our culture? I’ll try to come up with some possibilities.
So in the spirit of the Halloween season, here is a non-exhaustive list (I’ve left out aliens, androids, and machines for another post) of the beings that go bump in the night, and why they haunt us. Of course there are more ways to interpret these creatures, so if you’ve got another take on it, please let us know in the comments—I’d love to hear people’s thoughts!
Vampires (old world)—An article I read in Yankee Magazine’s Mysterious New England suggested that any number of medical conditions, like porphyria or xeroderma pigmentosum—that make people hallucinate, fear or avoid sunlight, or make skin tone pale or gray—inspired the vampire myth. Hemophilia, as it runs in families and requires blood transfusions, which physicians didn’t perform with precision until only very recently, also could be part of where the idea about vampiric families and legacies come from. That said, much of vampire lore—until the latest swath of YA stories, or so—has a class split, with the vampires being rich, evil royalty, or otherwise wealthy. They don’t bring anyone into their clan wily nilly, but instead are selective about who is good enough to be turned into a new vampire. This smacks of justifying why it’s okay not to be in the commanding class, to my mind. We commoners are good people who have to protect ourselves against the onslaught of malevolent opportunism from the likes of vampires. Luxuries are begotten of secret societies, old family ties, and a broken system of nobility, so not having much is a signifier that one is pure of heart and soul.
Vampires (new world)—Recent vampire narratives have included inner turmoil for vampires who are battling the glimmers of their former humanity against their demonic immortality. In the United States, which persists with its own myth that anyone can become anything, sans inherited noble rank or peasant status, this conflict plays into the idea that we are all beyond fate. For vampires who relish their immortality, we often see a bit of a morality tale—people who live forever are haunted by their own evil, or reduced to a pile of dust, or doomed to a shadow of an existence in an attic/basement/dusty corner somewhere in New Orleans. Isn’t humanity great? We’re going to die, and oddly, that is its own gift.
Zombies—Another example of how immortality actually sucks, zombies are alive but mindless, staggering around (or zooming, in some recent narratives) on collapsing bodies. If vampires have glamor, zombies have fungi. Moreover, while vampires take center stage as flawed protagonists, zombies are almost always simple antagonists, never central characters, because the mythos around zombification is the loss of self. So here the message is that we should love our world and live the best lives possible, because it could all come crashing down in an undead apocalypse next week.
Werewolves—All About Choice. Werewolves (and lycanthropes more generally, I guess) ask us to reflect on our decisions to be better people, to retain a principled approach to our lives. If power comes too easily, or one caves into thick temptation, the result is pain and death. There’s no personal growth for the werewolf, certainly. They are entrapped to living out their internal conflict, stunted as sentient beings, because they are victims of imbalance. Werewolves are either stumbling toward their own virtue by caging themselves up against the full moon, to prevent future bad deeds, or they’re lost to humanity by reveling in their wolf powers and bloodlust. People are not supposed to murder, for sure, but if they do, they ought to regret the act painfully. The werewolf who refuses his own bondage is the true monster. And so we are reminded of our own responsibility to be just and compassionate toward others. Terrific moral lesson, no?
Ghosts (Haunting)—Nothing says unresolved regret like a good ghost story. How many hauntings are about victims of crime? Bonus points if said victims were innocent or vulnerable, like the spirits of an old orphanage or mental ward for children. I will say I often find that narratives are about grief and loss, and nowhere is that more true than in a story about a ghost. I’m not just thinking about The Tell-Tale Heart here, either. As the myth goes, ghosts are about souls that get stuck upon death, and hauntings are about their attachment to the place of their death or greatest pain. So to me, the metaphor is about letting go of regret. Also staying off of ghost ships and out of abandoned prisons.
Ghosts (Poltergeists)—These aren’t just moaning, unhappy souls. These past-death spirits are out to wreak havoc on the living. Ever since Poltergeist (okay, probably before too) story lines involving poltergeists, or the ghosts who manifest their anger deserve an intervention. The logic often goes something like this: this ghost is angry and confused. We need to push back to show it that it wants to move on. In this way poltergeists and mischievous ghosts are more about sticking with especially difficult situations, and looking past the surface to investigate where the problem really lies. Are these narratives about compassion for challenging people and circumstances? Maybe. Or maybe it’s about dismissing the worst moments and pretending we can overcome anything.
Demons, Devils, and Bogeymen—Lots of times these are billed as “real” or “pure” evil. They may have a trace of former humanity in them, like for lessor demons who long ago were once human, or they may be fallen angels, creations of powerful baddies, and so on. They love to hide in the shadows, in plumbing, in our nightmares, anywhere people are most vulnerable. So in that light [sic] the message is for us to stand up to our greatest fears, vis a vis the American ideal of underdogs triumphing against all odds. Because if we can beat our “final destination” or own embodied, darkest fantasies, we can do anything. Even if in reality we can’t. Don’t think about what you can’t do, people. Take your slingshot and slay that giant of a Beelzebub. Speaking of which,
Big, Shambling Monsters—It really sucks when hikers are just trying to commune with nature and then nature picks them apart like stupid rag dolls. Shambling mounds, yetis, enormous sea monsters, and the like seem to be about the perils of traveling too far, exploring too much, going to places reserved for others than the human species. The history of some of these stories justifies an earlier sense of colonialism, that rough wilderness should be confronted and conquered by civilized men. Now that we’re all post-colonial, supposedly, these stories in part confirm our previous battles over land and country, and in part serve to reinforce an adventurous spirit that doesn’t do a lot of adventuring anymore, at least not for the average American, who never leaves the country in her lifetime. Besides, is there any bigger troublesome monster than the TSA? Why go anywhere if some monster is just going to attack you and you can see nature on Animal Planet?
Mists, Fogs, & Blobs—You won’t see it coming. Danger may lurk anywhere, especially if you’re on vacation near a foggy lake. Stephen King ruined me for middle-of-the-lake diving platforms, and this summer’s deaths from a brain-eating amoeba scared me from swimming in fresh water, period. The problem with amorphous monsters, well, one of the problems, is their omnipresence. They are uncontrollable or containable. And that is their metaphorical fuel—they’re our fears around having a lack of control in our chaotic, modern world. Maybe the safest place to ride out these attacks is next to a wind farm. Maybe that’s the real message here. Alternative energy sources or bust.