(Re)Awakening the British Spirit in the Star Wars Mythology

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By Shawn Stjean

No more basic example of cultural criticism exists than to recognize that the original Star Wars offered a subtextual retelling (in production during our nation’s Bicentennial,) of the American Revolution.  And even though it enjoyed success worldwide, US citizens, whether they thought consciously about it or not, had an extra layer of identification with Luke Skywalker and his outgunned band of rebels, battling the evil Imperials.

As the teaser trailer for the next iteration in the mythology has appeared, I’m reminded that there’s an even deeper subtext that runs through both trilogies, running counter to American mythology, that apparently will move forward.  I refer to the films’ far-less discussed British-ness.

The screenshot above from the The Force Awakens teaser invokes nothing so much as a knight, straight out of Arthurian legend, leaving the shelter and protection of court, to enter the wilderness with medieval broadsword, and fulfill his quest.  The hilted sword itself, while functional in its ability to turn an opponent’s blade from the wielder’s wrist, also in its time functioned as a readily identified icon for the cross, as carried by the Crusaders.  Do not underestimate the connotative power of this image, especially when featured in a 88-second text that reintroduces us to a whole new phase of George Lucas’ canon.

The 1977 original mixed in but downplayed, as much as it could, such elements.  Filmed substantially at Elstree Studios outside London, and employing many Brits among crew and cast, including a real knight (Sir Alec Guiness) as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Hammer films veteran Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin, the story recounted not a civil war (as the opening crawl claims) but an open rebellion against a corrupt empire.  In finally defeating its ultimate weapon, the Death Star, everyman Luke employs a Force for humanism bequeathed to him by his father.  This is key.  Because I doubt there was an 11-year old boy sitting in those theater seats in 1977 who didn’t feel the strength of the thematic message of that climactic space battle.  When Luke puts away his computer, and freely chooses to use the Force to guide his hand, we not only witnessed the superiority of the human spirit over technology (expressed in cheers and standing ovations by the crowds as the orgasmic explosion of the space station filled the screen). No gimmick or special effect could have achieved such a response.  The film spoke to us at a much deeper level, told us that great feats of courage are possible by anyone, no matter how low their birth or background, no matter how small or weak their physical body, no matter how powerful the tech and resources arrayed against them.

Years later, as the second trilogy premiered with The Phantom Menace, commercial success welcomed it in arms of inevitability.  But die-hard fans made no secret of their discomfort and dissatisfaction–these are a matter of public record.  But the reasons cited were often unarticulated (“something’s missing”) or silly.  Jar-Jar Binks could not have sabotaged that film, any more than British-butler droid C-3P0 could.  I propose an alternate explanation: while catering intermittantly to an American sensibility, the Star Wars films progressively adopt disturbing (to us) trends from other cultures.  Here I’ll ignore the oriental, and direct my focus right across the pond.  PM‘s plot hinges on a search for The Chosen One–unnamed by prophecy–and we discover that he was fathered by the Force itself (immaculate conception.)  He’s a born noble, like Oedipus, hidden in obscurity.  Already this sounds much less North-American to me.  We proceed to learn that this universal cosmic force which “surrounds us and binds us, all living things,” as Obi-Wan had explained to Luke years earlier (or later, chronologically,) is in fact very elitist in its function: only certain special people have the gift, so much so that they are identified at birth and whisked away to be trained in the Jedi temple.  It undoubtedly served Lucas’ larger canvas to introduce slow compromises to the Jedi Order (beginning with Kenobi’s initial lie to Luke about Vader murdering his father.)  However, the audience’s sympathies shift more and more away from the unconscious/mythological level to the conscious, intellectual level.  Eventually the second trilogy pares down to a few moral characters with whom to sympathize, fighting on the side of internally degraded forces in a vain attempt to restore the principles of the Republic.  This may all be much more “grown-up,” and therefore more satisfying in a certain cerebral way.  But Americans, especially, would much rather look away and point the finger at corrupt forms of foreign democracy (see Jon Stewart’s 2014 Rosewater) than accept an allegory of the decline of their own.  Here, the Republic works!

The initial resistance to The Empire Strikes Back is telling in this connection, for it stands as a film with a much less romantic, more “grey,” European aesthetic: life as a series of disillusionments, defeats, and loss, sometimes compensated by survival.  Many throughout the world welcome this sort of philosophical realism–but it is far from the “Everything will be alright” handholding that define 90 percent of American films (including Return of the Jedi, with its childish proposal that Vader could find redemption).  Living Americans never have had to live under sustained aerial bombardment and blockade such as the English did during the mid-twentieth century, or occupation such as the French endured, or the sacrifice of many millions to outlast invasion, as the Russians, or had weapons of mass destruction unleashed upon them, as the Japanese.  We have the luxury of our illusions, observing the world in exclusive terms of “the dark side, [or] the light.”

So the six films increasingly reveal that the Force, like the truth itself, really resides in the custody of the few elites, to be employed against non-sensitives in such forms as mind tricks, telekinesis, and dueling/acrobatic skills.  Anakin finds the Jedi order itself to be very hierarchical, in which padawans answer to knights who answer to masters who ultimately answer to the Council (or just Yoda, or even the Chancellor.)  I’m not claiming that the United States is without its elitism or its class system–but we are very fond of telling ourselves that, and films defy that collective ego-image at their peril.

It isn’t authentic British-ness (if there is such a thing), then, that undergirds the films, so much as the American vision of that entity: unquestioned authority and hierarchy by birth, elitism, exclusionism, expansionism, and a sense of racial/moral superiority, versus American democracy, inclusiveness, and tolerance.  Obviously, to claim this “Yank vs. Brit” dichotomy is real would be absurd–but it certainly is what young people learn from Hollywood film and television.  These dubious truisms may be more visible in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribbean franchise, though no more palpable than in Star Wars.

Even though Lucas’ films are truly postmodern, mixing languages, racial and cultural traditions, and visual iconography (Mark Hamill, for example, trained in Kendo for his lightsaber duels, and Lucas has acknowledged his debt to Japanese director Kurosawa), it’s useful to unpack the various elements, to separate the less- from the more-meaningful.  Will U.S. audiences embrace an even further push east as the Empire rises again, or will they insist on a return to their own cultural values?

link to the teaser trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erLk59H86ww

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Wicked Witch Versus the Wonderful Wizard

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He looks the part–but can you trust him?

By Shawn Stjean

We return to this series, as we often do in October, to devote a little analysis to the better understanding of commonly seen (and often misinterpreted) figures and events in storytelling.  Or, as I prefer to call it, our cultural mythology.

Entire blogs and books are devoted to the subject of witches, so I’m treating them here in a special circumstance: when appearing as half of two lesser-known figures that function together as a pair.  Other examples, beyond the familiar Oz universe,  of this pairing include:

-the Oracle and the Architect from The Matrix films

-Morgan Le Fey and Merlin of Arthurian legend

-Eve and Adam

-Pandora and Prometheus

Sometimes the witch-figure is masculinized, though the specific male-witch character will often exhibit feminine traits of nurturing and guidance:

-Gilliam and Wilford from Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer

-Gandalf and Saruman from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth

-Arioch and Donblas from Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga

-Even Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader  function this way.

The fact that these two figures often covertly conspire together, or at least operate with a tacit understanding of the need for the other’s existence, signals their true nature at the archetypal level.  On the surface, the two might be bitter enemies–“Bring me the broomstick of the Witch of the West,” commands Oz–but perhaps “rivals” might be more accurate.

Beneath the local storytelling level, the couple are really two parts of a whole: the “witch” is an agent of the primal, universal force of Chaos, and the Wizard a custodian and operative of Order.  This fundamental addiction to dualism in storytelling results from the inability of mortal human beings to reconcile existence into its transcendent reality as One, as Joseph Campbell once told Bill Moyers.  However, this working together for balance, a yang-and-yin harmony, is the storyteller’s acknowledgement  of the need for both. One without the other?  You may as well ask for an ebb without a tideflow, a moon without a sun, female without male.

For westerners, this primal level can be hard to penetrate because of our cultural bias against Chaotic forces, identifying them as “wicked” or “evil.”  The original inhabitants of our American continent held no such biases.  Whatever was useful was good; otherwise, try to avoid it.  For example, in Lakota  mythology, Iya (the Eater) and Iktomi (the Spider) are siblings.  The Native Americans instead prefer a “Trickster” figure (a la Hermes among the ancient Greeks, as opposed to brother Apollo,) who sows disorder in a Boethian way–through ignorance, selfishness,stupidity, and accident, but without intent to harm.

(By the way, this shift in emphasis is not be taken as a philosophical argument that evil never exists.  Clearly, Hitler stood for fascistic order, and the Allied forces opposing him stood for a more tolerant, democratic order.)

How, then, to spot these figures in a story, and recognize that the story of “good vs. evil” is often really our cultural shorthand for a tension that exists in each human being, even at the biological level–every pump of the bellows of the heart, inhalation/exhalation of the lungs, every emotion and countering bit of logic?

Science and Technology are manifestations of Order as a force; Magic/”Powers” are manifestations of Chaos as a force–wherein the laws of physics, biology, mathematics, are voided.  Characters with command of magic don’t “play by the rules.”  A spell or enchantment violates space, or gravity, or free will; a prophecy violates Time.  But when a machine is built to accomplish these same feats?  Everybody wants one.  As old as the antagonism between reason and mysticism, is this divide.

There’s a complicating factor in the West: gender.  Cries of “Witch” at first glance signal acknowledgement of the presence of a powerful woman, but really mean a woman beyond control–and the use of the slur is a final desperate attempt to regain that power, to call in the force of the collective against the relatively vulnerable individual.  The parallel gender slur “Bitch” is a variant, defining the woman as merely a female, at the animal level.

Women have been villainized because they are unconsciously identified with Chaos–lack of control, emotion, a lure to sexuality, even insanity.   “She” embodies the human inability to understand (“Weird,” we say–as in Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters–as a placeholder for that which we have yet to comprehend.)  Recall that Circe–the most powerful female antagonist of Homer’s Odyssey–was denigrated from her proper status of goddess to a mere “witch.”

Often, agents of Chaos appear as Oracles–a brilliant trick, as it appears to sort things out–reveal the future.  But prophecies are riddles that are subject to, and often are, misinterpreted, a storyteller’s way of warning us against too-slavish devotion to Order.

And the Wizard?–well, let us not forget one thing: he’s a fraud.  Oz hides behind a bombastic projection of technology, Vader is half a robot, the Architect retreats to his room of computer screens.  Order is at least as artificial a construct as Chaos, and as tenuous–as anyone who has ever experienced the danger of over-reliance upon technology–a flat tire, a dead cell phone battery, a corrupted hard drive–can attest.  We crave order, routine, solidity beneath our feet, and we resist change, dynamism, and unpredictability–and yet these are catalysts of growth.  The struggle of losing control, regaining it, and losing again are the very rhythms of life.

Agents of Order often appear as policemen and soldiers (the Sheriff of Nottingham or Sherriff Will Teasle or Javert) versus the intrusive elements and undesirables (Robin Hood or Rambo or Valjean) that threaten the community’s authoritarian stability.  Thus we arrive at another of the tacit recognitions that Chaos is not inherently evil: the Western tradition of the rebel-hero (beginning with Prometheus versus Zeus).  Only relatively recently have women been gaining access to these non-stygmatized roles, appropriately enough as adolescents (Bella Swan of Twilight, Beatrice Prior of Divergent.)  Here, age prejudice intersects with gender prejudice in a kind of double-double standard.  It remains largely to be seen if adult and mature women of Chaos can gain heroic acceptance as anarchistic rebels, and cease being dismissed as crazy old crones.

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Scary, yes. But wicked?

September 11 Reflection, for Kids: Do the Twin Towers Still Stand in 2014?

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By Shawn StJean

On this date, the anniversary of our great national tragedy, we often invite ourselves and others to “reflect.”  That is the purpose of this short primer.  It is intended for younger children–those born since 2001, perhaps, but we can all use reminders, sometimes.

“. . .life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . .”  –Declaration of Independence

“. . .secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .” –U.S. Constitution

“. . .with liberty and justice for all.”–Pledge of Allegiance

“. . .give me liberty or give me death”–Patrick Henry

We often speak carelessly of FREEDOM today, and the word has become a replacement somehow for a more complex concept that forms the first symbolic pillar or tower of our republic, as its founders conceived it: LIBERTY.  Rarely will you find the word “freedom” as you study the early documents of our country, but the word liberty is abundant.

What is the difference between freedom and liberty?

The second contains the first.  Freedom is the right and ability to do whatever you want.  LIBERTY is the right and ability to do whatever you want, as long as it does not interfere with the rights and abilities of others.

In short, liberty is freedom with limits, just as a republic (what we really live in) is a democracy (what we say we live in,) with limits.

Think of a stoplight: it’s, to me, the perfect symbol for liberty.  Without it, two cars approach an intersection, each driver freely pursuing his happiness, and often this works fine.  But, by chance, it may not: BANG! Collision.  With a stoplight in place, each citizen agrees to surrender a small piece of his freedom (in this case, time) so that everyone can remain free.  Other examples can be substituted: the paying of taxes to support government programs, service in the military, even the trouble it takes to educate oneself to vote.  Young people contribute, too, by sharing, by standing in line and waiting their turn, by walking up public stairwells on the right side, by respecting another person’s right to speak, or be different.  All require a limitation on total freedom.  So when you hear the phrase “Freedom isn’t free!,” you are hearing about the sacrifice required for the greater standard of LIBERTY.

People say “It’s a free country,” as if that were a struggle that ended 200 years ago, or 70 years ago, with our grandparents.  But our country is only as free as each one of us can make it, today.  As the American abolitionist Henry Thoreau wrote, “We have used up all our inherited freedom.”  And songwriter Tom Petty continued his thought: “Everybody has to fight to be free.”  “Fighting” may not be as dramatic as it sounds, day-to-day.  It may only be not interrupting someone else, or cutting the lawn for Mom without having to be bribed, or apologizing when you hurt someone, or doing your homework (which means contributing your fair share,) or helping another kid who’s having trouble.

Liberty is, without question, the first pillar or tower of our society.  It can never be laid low by outsiders: We can only do it to ourselves, by forgetting a simple concept: if everybody isn’t free, then nobody is free.

As for the second tower, I think the existence of the first enables the freedom for every free person to build it for herself or himself.  In the coin pictured above, the Goddess of Liberty holds both a symbol of Peace (an olive branch) and a symbol of Vigilance and Defense (a shield).  Notice, no offensive weapons.  In fact, this original design reveals a mother’s bare breast, suggesting Health, Kindness, and Love.  The gate she strides through names God.  For others, a pillar of their lives might be Generosity, or Charity, or Strength, Courage, Fortitude, or Intelligence.

So what’s your second tower?  And, Never Forget (as they say on this important anniversary,) that everyone has the right to build her own.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Frankenstein and his Creature

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By Shawn Stjean

No modern myth could be so simple in its conception, and yet so rich in its varied cultural implications. Contemporary interpretations range from feminist (a Man usurps the one power he lacks, that of giving birth) to psychoanalytic (the mad doctor has a “God Complex,” (an id [fear] and superego [morality] overwhelmed by an inflated ego), while the creature manifests an Oedipal complex–that is, an irrational id-desire to kill the father.)

After a quick review of two film adaptations, I’d like rather to focus on the two ancient myths Mary Shelley herself drew primarily from, in order to explain the enduring popularity of Frankenstein at the level of Jungian archetypes. After all, the proto-science-fiction story of “Modern Prometheus” (Shelley’s subtitle for her novel) has been remade again and again, perhaps most famously in the recent forms of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Terminator franchise. Human technology run amok is the shorthand theme. Man’s ability to engineer machines that extend his own power, only to turn against and overpower him, make no less resonant a cautionary tale today than in the early 1800s.

In Scott’s Marxist-leaning narrative, barely-distinguishable-from-real replicants, “more human than human,” but crippled by an artificially short 4-year mortality, are used as offworld slave labor. They return to Earth to seek extended life from their designer, only to slay him at his refusal. “I want more life–fucker,” demands Roy Baty, as he gouges out the eyes (soul) of Dr. Tyrell. That last addition may seem gratuitously profane, but it well-epitomizes the deep-seated anger that abandonment causes. Cameron undertakes a less obvious adaptation, but the rebellious supercomputer Skynet incarnates itself in the familiar hulking physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger, complete with self-sewn artificial skin, to remind the audience of the roots of the myth. Several sequels and a TV series explored the possibility that the creature could transcend its initial programming/engineering, and evolve. An excellent, open-ended question: can any of us?

Tracking back, then. The Greek titan, Prometheus, gave fire and the arts to the lesser created beings of the gods: Us. The domestication of fire (energy harnessing) –along with writing and drawing (data storage and retrieval) are among our oldest technologies. But the power to create far outstrips the ethical imperative to responsibly control. It is embedded into our competitive human nature, apparently, to explore the morality of a technology last (“shoot first, ask questions later.”) Returning matters a bit closer to the present, when technology advances to the state in which it mimics actual people–created in “God’s” image–then these ethical questions take the guise of metaphorical abandonment. Frankenstein’s creature seeks out his creator to demand his purpose in living. Denied an explanation, he then demands the scientist create a mate for him—that is, love, from one source or other, is a requirement of his existence neglected by the engineer, and, in suffering a second refusal, he vows to wreak vengeance upon the turncoat father.

Philosophically, the application couldn’t be more universal. Each and every one of us occasionally entertains deep doubts about our purpose for being here, or the “meaning of life,” and what is fashionable today to call angst is really anger at the suspicion that there really are no answers for us, that the gods have callously turned their backs. So who is ultimately worse: Dr. Frankenstein, or his creature? The story is a fantasy about actually being able to lash out, affect, and punish the forces in the universe that lie beyond our frustrated comprehension. The climactic moving images of James Whale’s 1931 film adaptation, a iconic windmill engulfed in flames, symbolize the technology, in operation, both in sync with, AND simultaneously at war with, natural forces (the wind, and the fire.) Ambivalence: we love God, the gods, our parents, but we hate them too.

In Shelley’s book, the creature learns to read, and identifies with the biblical character of Adam, who, upon sinning and being cast from Eden, cries out that he didn’t ask to be born. Any parent of an adolescent will smile at the familiarity of that cry–and in fact, we’ve all been there ourselves: spawned into a world not of own making, ill-equipped physically, not even knowing the rules and relying upon other imperfect beings to guide us, often to our disappointment.

So most of the “evil” in this myth is purely Boethian: no one intends to do harm. The scientist intends to render harmless all disease, all submission to our frail physical forms. His revulsion at his own hideous work is involuntary. The creature never intends to drown the little girl in the well, or set fire to the building. But our wills are thwarted by our imperfect natures. Only then, when confronted with the absurdity of our well-meaning choices, do we, by our own free will, embrace despair. By this criteria, is Frankenstein’s “creature” distinguished from a “monster.” A monster has an evil nature, born to kill, morally bankrupt. A creature, neutral or even pure but fatally flawed, becomes perverted when left unguided and uncared-for. Vampires versus zombies.

Countless Frankenstein sequels are also readily enabled by the creature’s natural translation into an eternal wanderer, braving the ice-encrusted arctic, the inhospitable seas, fearsome forests, and potentially every other environment of our planet. This was Cain’s legacy from Adam’s sinful nature, and his doom from God, to journey endlessly, marked against harm yet still mortal, seeking a home and destined never to find it.
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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture–Vampires, Part II–“Monsters From the Id”

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In part I of this article, I discussed what I consider the seven classical “rules” that have historically constrained vampires in storytelling. I further suggested that, rather than being random genre conventions, these form a coherent system which provides insight into the base nature of this fearsome creature.  This means that writers who violate the rules, rather than creating something new and compelling, as often compromise the underlying archetype and offer a tale that, for reasons not always consciously articulated, does not make fundamental sense to readers/viewers.

So what is this underlying system?  A vampire is a manifestation or incarnation (we might almost say personification) of a human being’s psychological “id.”  Quick primer: “Id” is a Freudian term for 1/3 of the unconscious psyche (the other parts being the “ego” and “superego.”)  Put simply, the id is the repository of a human being’s basic will or “life force”—it gets you out of bed in the morning, and keeps you going through the day, because it houses all your desires (things you want) and fears (things you don’t want.)  The superego, acting as a warden, puts limits upon the id’s behavior (we can’t have everything, and we must face many fears,) while the ego keeps a balance: by providing a sense of who we uniquely are, it defines what kinds of limits are imposed, and when, and under what conditions they operate.

If the human “unconscious” were a family, we might say the id is the child (“I want/I hate”,) the superego the father (“No,”) and the ego the mother (“maybe/we’ll see”).  Example: the id wants not only a single cookie, but the entire box, while the superego responds, “That’s not good for you,” but the ego might add a qualifier: “Two are allowable, but only after a proper dinner.”  The id (which we’ll focus on here) is most primitive, selfish, and even animalistic because it has no sense of ethics, morality, or responsibility.  It only acknowledges its own needs.  “Evil” would not be quite accurate to describe the id, any more than children are inherently evil.  An added problem with this comparison is the common association of the id with sexuality (as in “libido”), which means we better clarify that the id is best thought of as an adolescent child.

Most adults are aware that this primitively lustful, desirous, greedy, insatiable, yet also fearful part of ourselves exists, deep down below our civilized self-identity (ego) and our moral sense or conscience (supergo).  But because psychology is often seen as an arcane and highbrow science, it makes sense that these three forces would manifest themselves in the pop culture, as a matrix of actual characters.  Mr. Hyde, the werewolf, the evil twin or doppelganger, the Hulk, Jason and his copies: all these could be said to be walking ids, split apart from the rest of their psyches, and taking a separate physical form.  But none more so than the average Vamp.  The plot device of werewolf-types turning into themselves from human beings, versus vampires being enemies of people full-time, is not a worthwhile distinction in the archetypal context of seeing the root nature of figures, events, and rituals.  And the recent plot cliché of pitting vampires against werewolves makes little sense except for the political mileage–which species has more power?—and, it makes good movie-action. However philosophically different werewolves and vampires may be (is the “evil” inside us, or outside?,) they are not psychologically or functionally different.

In short, there’s a vampire in every single one of us, locked in the crypt of our unconscious by day, and rising from temporary death, running rampant, sowing chaos, by night (luckily, mostly in dreams—unless you happen to be in a vampire story).

Now, to test this theory, recur to the rules we discussed last time:

2) and 5) A mirror (or even a full, illuminated look) would reveal the ugly part of ourselves we’d rather pretend doesn’t exist: all the so-called “weaknesses” and appetites that our physical forms make us prey to.  So vamps can’t see themselves or their shadows, and must remain hidden much of the time, skulking on the periphery of our public personas.

3) and 6) As much as we’d prefer it, this part of ourselves cannot be destroyed or annihilated completely—its energy only redirected.  A person on a crash diet, for example, may subdue the appetite for food, but will generally have to substitute some form of reward in recompense to the starved self, before the nearly inevitable backslide.  In order to break certain forms of addiction, others (supposedly less toxic) are commonly substituted.  Thus, vampires can change forms to evade harm, or relentlessly pursue us.  The stake to the heart or beheading (which reduces the average Nosferatu to dust,) is a fantasy of reduction back to basic elements of which mythology tells us we are all made, but notice there are always more to replace the defeated foe.  Thus, if generic and faceless, vamps never really “die.”  And if individuals, like Dracula, they never die for long.

4) The act of free will here is either the relaxing of the vigilance of the superego, or the allowance on the part of the ego, of the id to have its way.  The id cannot forcibly defeat the other powers, but it can be overindulged (“allowed to enter”).  Once it has a toehold, the myth tells us, it can disease the moral sense and erode the identity (which must be constantly guarded against infiltration).  Actions that may seem trivial at first can have unforeseen and significant consequences that cannot be undone.  So never invite a vampire in to your sanctum.

7) Since Christianity (call it morality-based, or patriarchal and prohibition-driven, from the Ten Commandments to the Sermon on the Mount, just as you prefer) is really a system that organizes into conscious form the dictates of the superego, it makes sense that it would be the arch-nemesis of the id (Jesus vs. Satan, generosity versus selfishness).  Guilt and repentance for sin is the absolute antithesis of the grasping of the id.

1) Sexual desire is, of course, the easiest way to conceive of the power of the id.  I saved it for last because of this summative convenience.  Everyone over the age of ten knows how much influence sex can exert over the human will, often overriding all our scruples and common sense.  A vampire is so voracious in its appetites that it will literally suck the blood (life-force) from its victim, killing it.  It has no notion of when to stop.

Given all this, we might say that a vampire is a psychological projection of everything human beings despise about themselves—a beast in anthropomorphic form, recognizable as human, yet indulging in the forbidden, violating taboos against incest, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and more common laws against treachery, revenge, and murder.  Paradoxically, this also explains the attraction the idea of vampirism holds for many people, since by definition our dark “kindred” are free to embrace behaviors we normal folks are daily forced to repress.

Are vampires real?  You bet—as real and close as anyone’s own dark half (or third).  Take away the other parts of the tripartite psyche, and you’re left with a person who does whatever he wants, kills those in his way, or steals their energy for himself, and fears nothing but loss of total freedom.  So everyone acts as his own slayer, to greater or lesser extent.  And yet, what Jung called our “shadow” selves can never really be slain.  Only kept at bay, while the sun shines, and if we survive until summer, the days grow longer and the nights shorter.

In the final part of this article, we’ll apply this theory to some of the popular reconfigurings of the vampire mythology, to explore why certain refinements make archetypal sense, others not.

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Vampires, Part I–The Seven Strictures

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Not exactly seasonal subject matter, I know, but here’s the third in our series analyzing the enduring popularity of certain types of ghastly figures and horror stories (Zombies and Human Sacrifice have been covered in parts 1 and 2.)

So many versions and modifications to the mythology have arisen even since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) that it would be counterproductive to survey their evolution here—and we are really interested in the archetypal fascination we all have with these figures of the night, anyway, and not their various historical guises.

Perhaps the best way to proceed would be to look beneath the common, classical “rules” about vamps, in order to uncover a theory that accounts for them. It is vital not to ignore the basic truth that even the most powerful vampires are extremely limited, or bound, by inviolable tenets. Writers who ignore these–in order to be “new”– are merely exhibiting a failure to comprehend why they became indispensable to the mythology to begin with. They are seven:

  1. “Vamps” are, almost by definition, sexual: we may as well begin on a compelling note. Animalistically sexual: nocturnal, sucking blood through canine teeth, and hypnotic if not actually attractive. The pop culture’s recent insistence on physical prettiness for both male and female nosferatu is not only redundant, but deceptive, and akin to confusing rape as a sexual crime versus its reality as a crime of violence. Remember that the victim is often killed, either immediately or over a succession of feedings.
  2. Vampires cannot withstand direct sunlight or mirrors, and cast no shadows or reflections. This would seem to suggest more than a hint of unreality about the creatures. But how can an illusion harm you?
  3. Certain vampires can morph into other forms: bats, mist, rats. Even in human form, they possess supernatural strength and are impervious to many kinds of harm.
  4. Vampires cannot enter a private dwelling unless invited in by the human inhabitant. The philosophical implication here is that only an act of free will can entangle one with a vampire, despite the seemingly contrary myth of hypnotic abilities or “glamoring” as a vampiric power (the two are not really mutually exclusive, and the paradox is resolved with the qualification that only individuals of weak will succumb to mesmerism.)
  5.  Vampires must rest during the day, often in contact with the Earth or in a coffin (superficially suggesting another connection to Death; however classical mythology contains many chthonic beings associated with life—the Greek gods of the harvest, Demeter and Dionysus, for example).
  6.  Vampires are immortal, or, alternatively, no longer alive—in either case, immune from further debilitating effects of aging, “frozen” at the age in which they perished from human form. Curiously, this also seems to manifest itself as an eternal adolescence, an inability to mature (in spite of many decades or centuries of experience and memories.) They can be destroyed, in certain ways: wooden stake to the heart, consumption by fire, and cutting off of the head are most commonly agreed upon.
  7.  Vampires have no power over sacred Christian objects: crosses and crucifixes, holy water, recitations from or direct contact with the Bible. This invokes the often-made claim that a vampire is a human being divested of a soul.

In part 2 of this article, I will argue that these rules, far from being excessively imaginative or arbitrary, can all be resolved into a consistent and logical system, by an interrogation into the true nature of a vampire: Do they exist, or not? And if so, what are they, really?

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NEW ARTICLE SERIES: Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture

 

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It was inevitable, after over forty years since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead revived (inapt metaphor) and morphed the voodoo-animated monsters of the early 20th century into our beloved, modern brain eaters, and countless “B” movie,”B+” movie, and parody entries into the genre, that Hollywood would throw some serious weight (a.k.a. money) into a blockbuster Zombie movie: World War Z.

TRAILER: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=HcwTxRuq-uk (thanks to Andrew at the great pop-culture blog http://sparklyprettybriiiight.com/ for the heads-up and link).

So I think the time ripe for me to debut a series of articles I’ve been planning for awhile, to dig deeper into our fascination with certain recurring figures from the collective unconscious. Why can’t we get enough of these creatures, monsters, plot-types, and villains?  I’ll begin my analysis with the two most popular at this cultural moment (you guessed it: zombies, and then vampires, in my second effort.)

Look for the debut article later in the week.

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