Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture–Vampires, Final Part–Three Mythologies

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After discussing seven classical rules of vampirism, and then how they cohere into a integral system in part I and part II of this article, I’d like to conclude by applying my theory to three different re-imaginings of the vampire mythos.  Two, I think, are not sound at the archetypal level, so I’ll treat those early, before moving on to an exemplar.

After over a century since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was inevitable that the genre would attempt to evolve to another level.  If contemporary vampire stories have a common thread, I’d say they depend on the notion that not only are some vampires not evil, but a few are positively moral and “good.”  Dramatically, this opens up some intriguing possibilities, such as vampires fighting each other, and even working alongside humans to battle greater threats.

Archetypally, however, this is shaky ground, and will not ultimately stick.  It doesn’t make deep psychological sense, and frankly, de-powers a very compelling monster-figure that derives its strength from defying morality and the “rules” we must all live by.   In HBO’s True Blood, for example, vampires are organized into governmental/feudal units, each overseen by a sheriff, ultimately answerable to a king and queen and other sartorially-advantaged and outwardly respectable functionaries called the “Authority.”  The series premise is that, for the collective good of their species, law-abiding Vampires substitute synthetic blood—sold in bottles—for the blood of human beings.

Speaking of sheriffs, our willing suspension-of-disbelief is taxed to the limit here, for two primary reasons:

1)    If I’m right that a vamp is a manifestation of the human id, there is no ability, let alone reason, to organize for the greater good (or even for a greater bad.)  The id focuses exclusively on immediate self-gratification.  You may as well try to persuade your dog to conduct himself according to demands of the “bigger picture.”

2)    Even very liberal-minded people are prejudiced by nature—it’s part of being human to fear and hate the unknown.  Although there are undoubtedly individuals who would trust the Devil himself in his own shape, the kind of widespread cultural tolerance of uncloseted vampires True Blood relies on is, perhaps unfortunately, not tenable from a human perspective, either.  When, in the course of human history, has a minority group enjoyed freedom when a few of its members indulged in demonstrably criminal behavior?

Probably the more intriguing premise of the show, that if vampires could organize, it must be into monarchical hierarchies rather than democracies, has as yet not exploited its possibilities.

The Twilight books and films (I’ll confess I gave up on these, as the series quality seemed to suffer steady decline) avoids the pitfall of the HBO series by substituting a discreet family unit of “good” vamps for an entire societal organization (or at least individuals within one).  This smaller number supports the illusion that the premise is more plausible, and, when coupled with the plot distraction of antagonism toward werewolf clans, makes the protagonists seem more motivated by survival instinct than some do-gooder impulse.  Further, we all know that dysfunctional families exist in real life, even to the point that every member is self-involved and even solipsistic, so this shift to family does not violate the “id” theory.

Where Twilight goes horribly off the rails, I think, is in the protective instinct that Edward repeatedly shows toward Bella, and which Bella shows toward her child.  Not only is this “love” the absolute antithesis of vampiric lust, it is internally inconsistent: if Edward really loved Bella (further than his own desires, that is) he would never entertain, let alone consent, to her wish to become undead like him; similarly, Bella would not bear a child, knowing the kind of existence it is destined for.  So are they selfless, or selfish?  A human being can be both, of course, but not so a vampire—and I think this series is simply giving us people, with costume dress and super-powers.  But we already have X-Men.

To do better, we need to look back a ways, to Joss Whedon’s companion series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and spin-off Angel.  Both are populated with run-of-the-mill vamps that behave exactly as Stoker designed them to, but there are two notable exceptions: Spike and Angel.

Within the epic scope of a combined twelve complete seasons, Whedon, Espenson, and their minions were able, rather than relentlessly insist on the arbitrary existence of mutant/good vampires, to explore a much fuller understanding of the unconscious.  Specifically, why some good people commit bad acts (Faith,) while some bad people commit good acts.  The simpler of the two main vamps, Spike, is exactly as I have described an archetypal Nosferatu: a walking id.  Hard-drinking, lustful, devious, an expert fighter, emotional when not covering up with bravado, the nemesis of Sunnydale’s heroine often manages to do good, in spite of himself.  He even “saves the world” more than once (long before his acquisition of a soul, as I’ll discuss shortly.)  Why?  Isn’t this un-vampiric?  Not for Spike.  His very goodness is selfishness.  To him, good and evil are all the same—he simply does what he wants, what makes him feel better.  His personal morality is random, or a function of plot.  For a substantial run of episodes, a government-implanted chip in his skull causes him unbearable pain whenever he attempts to hurt anyone.  Later, the chip removed, he embarks on a quest to become “a real boy” (one of Whedon’s countless allusions to other literary myths,)—that is, obtain a soul of his own.  It’s finally unclear whether this is done more to impress Buffy (with whom Spike is smitten,) or to deflate Angel, whom Spike feels is too high-and-mighty because he’s “special.”  The third possibility, that Spike’s journey to become fully human again is sincere, also makes sense, since it is a desire that would merely not occur to most vampires (not even the vaunted Angel)—because it would deprive them of their power.

Angleus—Angel.  Spike’s grandsire begins the series lurking in the shadows, and passively dispensing advice to Buffy as to how to fight evil.  His motives unclear, she challenges him as to why he does not take action himself.  His terse answer—“I’m afraid”—brilliantly opens the whole Whedonverse up to new realms of character development.  As an incarnated id, a vampire is logically not only predator in the service of desire, but prey to every manner of fear.  Traditionally left completely untouched by writers, because scaredy-cat vamps would appear to make less-than-compelling antagonists, this original archetype (Angel-as-coward) is gradually reconciled into a respectable entity: his greatest fears are the atrocities of which he himself is capable.  Sired as a worse-than-average bloodsucker, scourge of Ireland and England, murderer of innocent maidens, Angelus was cursed by gypsies.  Rather than destroying him, they cleverly re-invested him with his human “soul.”  This is a constant torture, and transforms him into the being “Angel.”

The premise is an intriguing one.  Thematically, I suppose, it tells us that we as human beings can ultimately control, possibly override, our baser instincts—the soul being nearly the only thing (besides opposable thumbs) that distinguishes us from the lower animals.

I would interpret Angel’s curse this way: as Angelus (the incarnate id,) he was not made a whole human psyche by his enemies, but 2/3 of one: he was joined with a superego (call it a conscience, or a soul).  The tug-of-war between what Freud called the pleasure principle and the morality principle, unmediated by an ego, threatens moment-by-moment to tear Angel apart.   He is like a family minus a mother.  If he had an ego, he could accept his past misdeeds as part of his growth over time, or justify them, or deny them—all human self-protecting processes.  However, locked in an eternal adolescent-versus-father internal struggle, he must perennially rehearse the role of detached observer, spectator, and occasional oracle/helper when convenient—unable to do either real good, or evil, of his own volition, without human companions who accept him.  A curious condition of the curse is that a single moment of true happiness brings about forfeiture of the soul.  This seems unexepected, as it reverts him to Angelus, ending his internal conflict.  Not given to Grace, but rather revenge, the gypsy culture must have something else in mind here.  It appears that the gypsies must believe that, when enough penance is paid, Angel can eventually earn his way back to full personhood (born ‘Liam), as he was before he became a vampire—in short, acquire an ego dependent on good works, or “making up for it,” and complete his circle.

Which brings us to another evolutionary genre-possibility: Can vampirism be cured?  Not a challenge for the average writer. The humorous Spike and the one-off Angelus-Angel-Liam evolution aside, it usually makes poor storytelling sense.  The idea of redeeming a monster who has personally murdered thousands (see Darth Vader) has been tried with commercial success (if critical failure).  But even the dollars that were made on Return of the Jedi were a cash-in, not on the silly sentimentalism of Vader’s redemption, but on the original deliciousness of an unadulterated, evil character.

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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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