Eigen League of Monsters, Part One: The Vampire

Posted: October 17, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, Horror, monsters, October Horror
Tags: , , , , , ,

It has been nearly TWO YEARS since I first published the Hierarchy of Monsters, and in the subsequent time no one has published any modified hierarchy that is more accurate, complete, or awesome.  This means that, by default, I am the internet’s leading Monsterologist.  Suck it up, kids, you lost this round.

In my role as the Internet’s the World’s the Universe’s leading Monsterologist, I have come to discuss something that I’ve been thinking of as the monster Eigen League.

The Eigen League

So, here’s how it works.  On TV Tropes they mention a thing called the Eigen Plot, which is a plot that is designed to use all of the specific skills that a team of heroes has available to it:  like in the end of Mystery Men, all of the bad guy’s traps or what have you have a specific weakness that, by good luck or good management, one of the heroes has a power which can exploit it (invisibility, fart powers, shovel, &c.).

An Eigen League rests on my notion that, consciously or subconsciously, we’ve got a series of roles that we imagine recur in groups; in such a group there are clear and distinct “spaces” for characters to fill.  An Eigen League is when the number and speciation of characters and groups is both necessary and sufficient to satisfy our subconscious urges.

(I’m avoiding calling these roles “archetypes” for several reasons.  The short versions are 1. I hate archetypes, and also people who use the word “archetype.”  2.  I don’t think these are necessarily deeply-coded subconscious principles; they may be as much a product of acculturation as anything else.  3.  They can be either broader [i.e., we need a Flying Guy, a Strong Guy, a Smart Guy] or more specific [i.e., we need a Sniper, a Heavy Weapons Specialist, a Medic, &c.] than is typically seen in the Archetype Spread.)

Long introduction, here’s my point:  when creating the Hierarchy of Monsters, I assembled it from what is essentially common and basic knowledge that any sensible human being ought to have about “classic” monsters — and it made me wonder.  Why THESE monsters?  What makes these monsters classic or enduring?

They are the best...OF THE BEST

And, importantly, why don’t they replace each other?  If we’ve got a monster that fulfills a particular role, and then another monster comes around and fulfills that same role, then you’d expect one of two things to happen:  1. the second monster will be better, in which case it will supplant the first; 2. the second monster will be worse, in which case it will just wither away.  This means that the classic monsters on the list must all offer something, in terms of their roles in human horror that the other monsters do not and lo, I, Braak!, History’s Leading Monsterologist, shall investigate!

What the Hell Are Vampires For?

If you grew up in the 20th century, as I’m assuming all of you readers with your inferior human lifespans did, you could be forgiven for not exactly realizing that the Vampire is a bad guy first and an antihero second.  In fact, the phenomenon of the anti-hero has kind of undone a lot of the history of Monsterology, lending a dimension of morality to monsters that were otherwise just bad dudes, and causing us to reconsider just how evil cats like Mr. Hyde, Dracula, and the Wolf-Man are.  Madness, obviously, because what happens if you have to fight Dracula?  Don’t try to appeal to his better nature, he is a MONSTER, just fucking kill him already.  They are all evil.  (Except Wolf-Man, obviously, who is a victim of tragic circumstance.)

The Vamipre has been a folkloric monster for a very, very long time, but prior to about the 18th century it existed in an era without strong monster differentiation.  Superstitious peasants tended to kind of just lump all of their monsters together, and if you want to trace the history of the vampire you’ve got to make a lot of hard decisions about what “counts” and what doesn’t:  this dude came back from the dead, but he doesn’t drink blood. This is a witch who drinks blood and can turn into an owl, but isn’t undead.  Does “vrykolakas” refer to vampires, because they drink blood?  Or wolf-men, because they dress up like wolves?  When you look at someone like Dracula, you can clearly see the folkloric history-by-consensus process at work:

Also he likes to drink tomato juice. What the...what? I said DRAC...oh never mind.

“What is Dracula like?”

“Oh, he’s a vampire.”

“What’s a vampire do?”

“Oh, uh, well.  He’s undead, obviously.  And he can turn into a bat!  Or a mist!”

“I heard he’s afraid of crosses!”

“My mum said vampires don’t like garlic!”

“Right, right, crosses, garlic.  You can only kill him by cutting his head off and stuffing his mouth with the eucharist.”

“Or with fire!”

“Or fire, obviously.”

“Or Peter Cushing.”

“YES, obviously.”

“My sister once saw a vampire, but she threw a shoe at him and he had to stop and try to untie the laces and so she got away.”

“Shut up, Janos.”

The life of a monsterologist is not easy.

We don’t really see the speciated vampire — with his specific powers, motivations, and distinct “separateness” from whatever other horrible monsters lurk around in the dark, and whatever crazy things people thought about them — until starting around the 18th century, concomitant with the rise of Romanticism.  The first major vampire story written in English is John Polidori’s “The Vampyre“, and I think that this, at long last, starts to get us to the driving element of the horror implicit in vampires.

The Vampire:  Electric Sex Maniac

In Polidori's defense, Byron was one handsome motherfucker

The main character of Polidori’s “The Vampyre” –Lord Ruthven — is commonly thought to be modeled on Lord Byron, and, in fact, the whole story is understood to be a product of Polidori’s huge man-crush on old George.  Ruthven is, like the actual Lord Byron an unrepentant seducer of ladies and also drains them of their blood (UNLIKE the actual Lord Byron.  Probably).  He serves as a pretty good point on our through-line here:  the Vampire as an effete aristocrat, going around seducing people and then sucking the life out of them has, broadly, survived pretty much intact to today.

There are precursors that are similar — the gypsies believed in a kind of revenant, a husband that had died before consummating his marriage might come back from the dead to put it proper to his wife every night until she died from exhaustion.  And there were other notions of the vampire that came after Polidori — Varney the Vampire was very popular, but was also a jumbled up and confusing mess, and it’s no surprise that the idea didn’t crystallize until Bram Stoker’s Dracula, about er….seventy?  Eighty years after Polidori.

Why?  Well, the Romantic era was all full of Bad Romance — lovers who were toxic in their behaviors, whose sexual demands were exhausting, who slithered through society like a prurient but titillating disease.  Keats couldn’t shut up about that shit, for instance, despite a history of NEVER GETTING LAID EVEN ONCE.  Anyway, the point is that it didn’t really take hold as a horror trope until the Victorian Era, and why not?

There are two driving forces of Victorian Society:  Reason and Piety, and I think you can see where this is going.  Unlike the Age of Reason, which sought to naturalize even spiritual and moral behaviors, the Victorians were right back to an almost puritanical notion of upright and moral and sex-less behavior.  Publicly, obviously, which is the key — the sexuality was repressed and turned up again in all manner of embarrassing places, like in their horror stories.

Sex has a long history of impairing both reason and leading good men from the moral path, and that is what makes a vampire a vampire.  The vampire is like a drug, an addiction that undermines rationality, that makes good women into sluts, that fills men with strange feelings that God Did Not Intend, that is above all seductive in a dangerous, poisonous way.  Dracula isn’t just seducing women in England; he’s literally undermining Victorian society by turning Lucy Westenra into another vampire:  now she is, like him, a sex-crazed maniac, leading men to their doom, sapping their virility, and in turn transforming them into the sort of libertine monsters that the Victorians liked to pretend they were so frightened of.

People will abandon righteous behavior and just start wearing HUGE hats all around town

Ultimately, what the vampire has going for it is that hypnosis:  that fear that it’s going to make you do something you wouldn’t otherwise do.  Open a window, remove the cross, let him touch your neck — it’s not coincidental that his mode of attack is so intimate.  He isn’t a predator like a wolf or a bear, or even a flitting-around-in-the-dark street-rapist.  The worst part of the vampire is that he wants to put his teeth into your neck or your inner thigh and you are going to want him to do it. You’ll feel gross and ashamed the next day, weakened and hurt, but he’ll come again tonight and you’ll say “No, no, no,” but you’ll still let him in, and you’ll let him do it to you again, because you won’t be able to help yourself.

Even though you know you shouldn’t — your reason can’t save you.  And even though you’re a good person, and you love your mother and give money to the poor, that won’t save you — you’ll participate in wickedness anyway, and you’ll love it.

The Modern Monster:  Where Did We Go Wrong?

Well, you can’t really “go wrong” in a genre like this, but it is easy to fail to notice what it is that makes Dracula, as an antagonist, so unique and interesting, and to then replace him with monsters that are completely generic.  The vampires in I Am Legend are basically just zombie or cannibals — in the sense that, even in the Vincent Price version, if you’d replaced them with cannibals that had a weird allergy to french fries, you could have made the same movie and never even thought about “vampire.”

Even Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula devotes a lot of time to Dracula-as-a-dangerous-animal, which isn’t wrong so much as it is a kind of a dead end.

The person I got this picture from was all flipped out about this movie, I don't know why, some people just have to flip out I guess

Of course the vampire is strong, and he’s got all kind of means to get into places he shouldn’t be able to, and to escape from traps that ought to hold him, but that’s just because “relentless” is a universal trope of horror — whatever the monster is, it has to be stronger than you, and there has to be a sense that nothing you can do is going to stop it.  But “universal” is another way to say “generic”, and in the sense of strength and relentlessness, Dracula isn’t any different from Jason Vorhees or those weird shadow-things in They.

You do sometimes see the vampire as an Avatar of the Unholy (John Carpenter’s Vampires, the Forsaken), and I don’t know if I’m just not impressed by it due to atheism, but I don’t think that’s a very strong way to go either.  If the case of Vampires, you’ve first of all got to explain what the shit a “reverse-exorcism” is, and I just don’t know if this sense of unholiness really has the same kind of power these days.  Partly this is due to a much less pious society than Victorian days — they had the advantage of universally connecting sexual lasciviousness, which is both a concrete thing and very powerful, to unholiness.  But we don’t really look at sex as being particularly unholy these days, so when you get an “I am the ANTI-pope!” vampire running around, he’s usually just stuck committing some lame priest-murdering and church-vandalizing and whatnot.

Get it? He's like Opposite Jesus. Crucified...FOR EVIL!

By the same token, you can see how the vampire has slid so easily into the anti-hero role.  As Victorian sexual mores started breaking down, the appeal of the Bad Romance becomes a little less taboo — and here I mean “taboo” in the real sense.  Real taboo is both fascination and horror; it’s inescapable and it’s terrifying.  But as the terror aspect of the taboo wears away — as the notion that sex leads to impiety which leads to Lucy becoming a murdering child-eating monster — all that’s left is the fascination.  And that’s where we get the vampires as brooding, sexy heroes so popular in modern literature.

I don’t think this is a necessary condition, incidentally.  I think it is, more than anything else, a feature of our culture’s weird, fractured notions about sex:  that on the one hand, we as a society are freer about it than we were a hundred years ago, but for whatever reason our popular culture tends to reflect a society with much more restrictive sexual mores.  That’s why you get what we see in something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer — because we don’t really want the “sexy” part of the sex involved, we get a secondary speciation with vampires.  Some of them are deprived of their sexuality, making them just evil brutes with ugly faces and big teeth; the others are deprived of their brutality, as the sex on TV, when it happens at all, is actually relatively chaste, clean, vanilla-flavored stuff.  Vampires-as-generic-monsters, and Vampires-as-brooding-romantics, but it’s the combination of the two that presents the real horror.

(Anyway, though, there’s a lot of character stuff happening in the later seasons of Buffy, I’m not saying they did a bad job of it, I’m just saying that by the time they got around to merging these two ideas back together — i.e., Buffy’s kind of grody relationship with Spike — their relationships and backstories were both too complicated to fully exploit the real horror of addiction and the sense of being compelled to do something that you know you really, really don’t want to do.)

All of this is why I’m typically not interested in modern vampire stories.  I think too many people chicken out on the real horror of it, letting it lapse into run-of-the-mill epidemic or just scary-monster siege stuff.

I mean, you know, think for a minute:  we’re talking about a living corpse with hypnotic powers, who can make you open the window and let it into bed with you, where it violates you in every conceivable way night after night, until you die of exhaustion while wallowing in utter shame and degradation.

That’s still some potent stuff, I think you could make that work, I just wish someone would take a crack at it.

For real, don't...don't sleep with that guy. Seriously. SERIOUSLY.

[UPDATE: I don’t want to make it seem like I made these posts just to sell a bunch of movies, so I’m just going to link to a couple essential-viewings at the bottom of each post here.

Nosferatu (the Werner Herzog one; I think the Murnau one is pretty boring)
Dracula (The 1931 one with Bela Lugosi)
Dracula (The 1979 one with Frank Langella)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (This is the one with Gary Oldman. It’s not perfect, but it does have Gary Oldman, so why are you complaining?)
The Horror of Dracula
(Because you might as well see all the Draculas, and Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are DEAD. SERIOUS.)]

  1. “Don’t try to appeal to his better nature, he is a MONSTER, just fucking kill him already. They are all evil. (Except Wolf-Man, obviously, who is a victim of tragic circumstance.)”

    And yet, the Wolf-Man can only be freed from his circumstances by death. So kill him too, but, y’know, have the decency to feel bad about it later.

    “… because we don’t really want the ‘sexy’ part of the sex involved, we get a secondary speciation with vampires.”

    Or we get vampires who are totally hot and shiny, but too nice to have sex with us, so chastity becomes the subversive element of vampirism in lieu of sex. *coughTwilightcough*


    Archetype archetype archetype.

  2. braak says:

    Yes, I am going to get to the part about why you have to kill Wolf-Man in my post about Wolf-Man.

  3. […] Threat Quality Press The truth is, you can electrify pretty much anything. « Eigen League of Monsters, Part One: The Vampire […]

  4. […] what distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” […]

  5. […] Eigen League of Monsters, Part One: The Vampire […]

  6. […] distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why […]

  7. […] distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why […]

  8. […] distinguishes the classic monsters in my WORLD FAMOUS Monster Hierarchy from each other.  The first part was about the Vampire, and it’s also got my thoughts about what an “Eigen League” is and why […]

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