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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Reading and Writing “Unsafe” Fiction

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These days, grown men wear bicycle helmets. No one old enough to leave the house goes without a cell phone, and “insurance” can come with every item you purchase.  When someone wants to criticize you, they most often do it through two firewalls, three levels of encryption, and under a pseudonym. And whether it’s within the walls of a school where “bully” is a more feared word than “gun,” or 9,000 miles outside our borders, where our government spends billions to protect us from threats that may or may not even exist, things in 2012 have gotten pretty safe. It’s the inevitable cultural backlash from September 11, 2001 anxiety.

For creators and consumers of fiction, at least, things may be a little too safe. There was a time, only 200 years ago, when this was not at all the case–you wouldn’t dare admit, in decent company, to reading novels. They were’t good for you, because they weren’t true. But in 2012, all true, all plausible, nothing harmful. Like organic vegetables. Watch TV tonight: if someone is murdered, don’t worry. A dozen geniuses in bulletproof labcoats will expend every last resource of technology to ensure the killer spontaneously reveals himself before that 9th commercial break. So don’t worry–go buy something, tomorrow–and meanwhile, eat something.

There’s a lot of advice, in the new era of self-publishing, about writing what’s marketable (talk about fearsome words.) In sifting through the dozens and dozens of articles, one often encounters the encouragement to “create a backlist”–the idea being that, once readers trust you, know what they’re getting, they’ll likely return to draw from the well of your other works. As if the writing of several books could–or should– be done on a production-line basis. And yet, seminars even exist about how to author and self-publish an e-book in a month, a week, even a weekend.

Obviously, the kind of work produced under such severe time- and motive-constraints will have several quantifiable features: gimmicky (at best,) formulaic, cliche-ridden, dialogue as padding rather than in support of a tenable plot or serious character development. In a word, SAFE. Like the latest adolescent horror movie: no real surprises, but enough tricks (the “boo” shot, the flip-ending) and treats (naked breasts, or gratuitous gore, whichever you like) to keep you from asking for a refund.

Sure, literary history is full of examples of legitimate authors resorting to hack writing to keep body and soul together. Louisa May Alcott is a favorite example of mine, churning out much “sensational” fiction to support a large family, because her father couldn’t or wouldn’t, and in the end working herself literally to death. So I won’t go so far as to say there’s anything fundamentally wrong with mainstream fiction, television, and movies. They make money, and we all enjoy them at the odd time.

However, for those of us seeking to consume something better–moreover, seeking to create something better–can any of us be spared to write unsafely? What do I even mean by that?

Here are a few criteria. The unsafe fiction:

–attempts to use a vocabulary of more than 8,000 discrete words, including strong verbs and less-familiar synonyms

–employs sentence variety, and departs from the standard subject-verb-object (who did what to whom?) construction regularly, which requires more reader concentration

–does not overly rely on dialogue when narrative is called for

–invents a premise that is neither post-apocalyptic nor involves vampires (or similarly outworn devices)
–eschews the exploitation of human fears and perversity that defines 90% of American television programs (the culture of cop shows and freak shows)

–bothers to develop plausible backstories and motivations for its characters

–pays attention to relevant details while resisting the inclusion of irrelevant ones

–does not overtly or covertly support the culture’s dominant ideologies (consumer capitalism, cuthroat competition, uncritical jingoism, and adolescent individualism)–in addition to practicing casual and active sexism, which is very popular, or paying mere lip service against racism and homophobia–also very trendy right now

–occasionally experiments with its prose or concepts (to the extent that nothing is really new, what I mean here is that the author tries something unfamiliar to them, and which actually could fail)

–does not attempt to be all things to all people–that is, some readers might actually hate it. Ah, commercial volatility. Now we’re getting somewhere!

But don’t take my word for it. Come up with your own criteria.

C’mon, writers, teachers, bloggers–it’s October. What’s really scary? (If you think the answer is “wasting your time,” don’t forget what’s also looming, and that’s reading season). Try something that is not a sure thing. Knock on the old, crazy lady’s door. It’s not as if there’s a very fine line between what’s sensible and what’s utterly reckless, though our cultural parents would love us to believe that. There’s a whole, long limb on that tree outside your window. The wind may have picked up, and the clouds threaten rain. But winter is not here, yet.

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Quiz: Top Ten Incarnations of the Devil in Film and Literature

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Probably should be Top 100, because a lot of great portrayals (like the ones in my photos) didn’t make the list.

Apropos of the “Casting Calls” for Villains lately here on the Clotho’s Loom site, and in honor of this month in Autumn, culminating in the celebration of All Hallows’ Evening (Hallowe’en) on the 31st, I thought we’d pay homage to some great manifestations of evil, from creative minds in the West.  Calling it the “Top Ten” may be a little ego-maniacal of me–but let the form fit the content!

Try first to guess who uttered the famous line quoted (full credit-10 points), and if you’re stuck, take hints from my brief analysis below–but be careful: examples can be misleading–heh, heh (half-credit-5 points).  The answers are in the menu to the bottom left (of course).  Score yourself–how naughty are you?

BONUS for naming the films or characters in the photos (5 points each)!  PRIZE: Roll your hands and cackle in the self-satisfaction of knowing how much you rule over the cretins surrounding you! BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Top Ten Incarnations of the Devil in Film and Literature

10. “Slugs! He created slugs. They can’t hear, they can’t speak, they can’t operate machinery. I mean, are we not in the hands of a lunatic? If I were creating a world, I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and dafodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, day one.”

Second-guessing God is always a good sop for the feeling of helplessness that exiles live with. The flaws of creation are readily apparent, but it’s frustrating not to be included in the divine plan. Of course, that frustration has rarely been expressed so comically.

9. “That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.”

Oh, the best don’t perform parlor tricks. They’re refined. You don’t run the show, they do. You don’t set the terms during bargaining. You don’t goad them into the silly spontaneous admissions of TV crime melodramas. A good trickster unrolls his hand, on his own terms. And then, it may have all the charm of projectile vomiting.

8. “It was between the brothers, Kay — I had nothing to do with it.”

Hanging on to a lost innocence that he traded away for power, lying to those who are still innocent to maintain appearances is the cold comfort this character takes.

7. “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

Beyond the obvious point that beauty is only skin deep, it’s amazing how vanity, ego, and pride make up a sizable percentage of all Western storytelling villainy. Thinking you’re better than everyone else around you–that’s a big step toward commiting heinous, ugly crimes. So ironically, beauty fades the more one values it. Also, the need for external validation–constant reassurance–of this villain, betrays a great deal of insecurity and fear.

6. “Closer, please. Closer.”

Like a coiled snake, all potential energy that can be unleashed in an instant, you’d better heed warnings not to approach him. Others have paid the price. He has about as much remorse about killing as a lethal carnivore, but his real pleasure is in the contemplation of the meal, going on behind his smiling, mesmerizing eyes.

5. “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”

The scariest part of being verbally aggressed in a public place, like a bar-room, is not the physical size or menace of the antagonist (who is often not particularly imposing)–it’s knowing you’re suddenly confronted with someone who doesn’t acknowledge the rules, and therefore could do anything. After all, you’re in a public place of comradeship and celebration, not an arena.
The villain who utters these lines is a threat to all order, embracing chaos–he values human life as randomly as he destroys it–practically a force of nature, himself.

4. “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.”

He’s seen the triviality of the whole grand scheme of war, and tried to rise above it on angel’s wings. Like every soldier, his attempts to do good have brought him into proximity of the worst horror. No one keeps his hands clean in Vietnam.

3. “Sayest thou so?” replied ——, smiling apart. “Let us walk on, nevertheless, reasoning as we go; and if I convince thee not thou shalt turn back. We are but a little way in the forest yet.”

The age-old rhetoric of the tempter–“we haven’t done anything wrong, yet, and you can always change your mind later” is specifically designed as a logic-trap, to ridicule the intuition and fear we have built in. He’ll obscure the boundaries until you’ve already crossed them–and then it’s too late.

2. “Don’t make me destroy you.”

Denying responsibility for one’s own actions is built even into the speech patterns of some villains. Holding a gun to a hostage’s head, and claiming the policeman will be responsible if she dies, is clear psychological projection: unable to face himself, the villain sees evil in the world around him, and wreaks havoc upon it.

1. “Evil, be thou my good.”

Not numbered among the classical seven deadly sins is the master sin of all Judeo-Christian mythology: Despair. It’s tantamount to rejecting life itself. This character renounces all conventional morality, because he can’t be best at it. Rather, he’ll embrace a whole new system of his own concocting, and without the hypocrisy of justifying it under another name. He simply gives up on goodness. And with his power, that means Hell for the rest of us.

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