or, “The Demonsterization of Vampires”
A story’s antagonist is often an underrated character, but crucial to the story. A poorly written antagonist leaves the protagonist with nothing to do. The antagonist must give the protagonist enough of a challenge that the reader (or viewer depending on the media) actually cheers for the antagonist. Some antagonists are people who have made poor choices in their lives. But some antagonists are complete monsters. The reader (or viewer) is not supposed to have any sympathy for them and it makes it easy to cheer for the protagonist. When this situation is reversed and the reader (or viewer) is cheering for the monster, then that’s a horror book (or film).
Monsters first appear in folklore and fairy tales and are firmly entrenched in popular culture. Traits of monsters vary with society and evolve over time. This particular discussion concerns the phenomena of changing a complete monster into a sympathetic antagonist, or even a protagonist if the process goes far enough. Generally speaking, I don’t like this phenomena. Monsters serve a purpose and changing their attributes to illicit sympathy changes the that purpose. Monsters are supposed to frame the conflict with the protagonist in very stark terms of good and evil. If the conflict isn’t supposed to be stark, then why use a complete monster to begin with?
The most popular monster to be demonsterized, or perhaps de-fanged is a better word, is vampires. Currently male vampires have been de-fanged to the point they are little more than emo bad boys with a mild blood fetish. Female vampires are still pretty much seductive blood-sucking fiends and still monsters. Why vampires and not, say, werewolves? I’m not sure, but here are my thoughts.
I am moderately familiar with vampires as portrayed in literature and visual media. The stories of vampires in folklore were eventually more formalized in novel format. I have read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. To say that it’s much different from the movie is an understatement, to say the least. It’s my understanding that Stoker added a lot of magic powers to the vampire mythos although it’s important to note that Dracula could walk in the sunlight without bursting into flames. He was weakened in sunlight, but not turned to dust. Eventually this weakness was added later. And later still taken away, but I’ll get to that. Dracula was described as having strong features with some deformities, not as, say, Brad Pitt. However, he still looked mostly human and had a very strong personality. Dracula was a monster. He called in Jonathan Harker to help him move to London where there were more victims. When he got there, he preyed upon and eventually destroyed Lucy, who was so innocent and sweet and pure she had three men competing for her hand in marriage. Then Dracula preyed upon Mina, who was written as a paragon of virtue for married women. There was never meant to be anything redeemable about Dracula. A later famous depiction of vampires comes from Anne Rice. However, her take on vampires didn’t make them any more redeemable. It did, however, make them really hot. Or at least pave the way for a movie starring Brad Pitt, thus strengthening the link between vampires and sexiness. Not that there’s inherently anything wrong with that. Vampires are meant to be a corrupting influence, and given the Western culture’s various hang-ups with sexuality, it’s not surprising a corrupting monster is also a sexy one (for example, not that I understand all the nuances of Victorian literature, it’s my understanding that as Lucy’s condition degraded, so did her moral purity [if you think asking for a kiss from her fiance before she died is symptomatic of a shameless slut]).
The idea of the vampire, that is, eternal youth and prettiness and forbidden sexual encounters and murder, is very appealing for a writer (or film-maker). But like any good monster, there must be some way to defeat it. Commonly, vampires are portrayed as being faster than normal humans, stronger than normal humans, tougher than normal humans, and sometimes have hypnotic powers. Sometimes they can shapeshift into rats or bats or even wolves. That’s a pretty high challenge rating for a normal human. Common vampire weaknesses are silver (commonly depicted in Western folklore as symbolizing purity and thus anathema to many types of unholy creatures), garlic (as famously depicted by Bram Stoker as also symbolizing purity), holy symbols (especially when wielded by people of faith), sunlight, stakes through the heart, and being set on fire. To be fair, normal people also have weaknesses to having stakes through the heart and being set on fire. Vampires may or may not have to sleep in a coffin lined in dirt from their homeland and may or may not have difficulty crossing running water. I don’t fault different writers for picking and choosing the weaknesses their vampires have. If a vampire had all of them, it makes a for a logistical nightmare. Still, a monster must have some weakness, unless the writer is working in the horror genre and the monster is meant to win. Quite frankly, unless the main character is the Slayer, a vampire without weaknesses is nearly impossible to defeat. As a side note, a vampire that can be staked by a high school girl wielding a pencil needs to have the challenge rating re-adjusted. In general, I don’t object to the idea of a vampire – as a monster. All that forbidden lust usually ended in a horrific death by savage and sudden blood loss.
But somewhere the irredeemable monster got turned into Edward Cullen. I don’t mean to pick on Stephanie Meyer…okay, I do, but is there another character that so clearly embodies everything that has gone wrong with vampires in modern media? Edward Cullen has essentially no weaknesses (except his inexplicable attraction to Bella). His skin is super-tough, which means the stake through the heart and setting on fire weaknesses are essentially countered. There’s no sign that silver, garlic, or holy symbols have any affect Edward or any other vampire in the Meyer-verse. They clearly don’t have to sleep in coffins filled with dirt from their homeland. They have no trouble crossing running water and they don’t even have the decency to burst into flames in the sunlight. They just sparkle. They don’t even drink human blood and they have superpowers. How did this happen?
Vampires not needing living human blood to survive is certainly not confined to Meyer. That’s what made the vampires true monsters – they had to drink blood from living people and usually killed them. They were murderers. But once that need for human blood is removed, either by drinking animal blood, or blood from dead humans, or being able to control their blood lust and just not drink blood for a long time, a crucial component of the monster is removed. Again, this trend started before the Cullen clan. I think it’s the first component of the monster that has to be removed before vampires can be anything but monsters. It’s really hard to generate sympathy for a character that savagely attacks people and drinks their blood and usually kills them. But once vampires are no longer murderers, that opens up the door to sympathy and remorse. The next step of defanging a vampire is to give it a conscience, or a soul. Such a vampire would naturally regret every single murder it committed and therefore be a sympathetic character. That leads to a logical fallacy that is almost necessary for the vampire to no longer be a monster – that if the vampire is really sorry for all the murders it committed that’s reason enough for sympathy. That doesn’t pass muster in any justice system and I don’t know why vampires get a pass for it. Remorse and regret is only the first step to sympathy, in my opinion. There had better be some action to try to right the horrible wrongs. Or, failing that, and the not infrequent lack of control even sympathetic vampires exhibit, they should remove themselves as a menace to the world. Clearly I am not sympathetic.
Television has very good examples of these kinds of remorseful vampires. Actually, the first was based off of a terrible movie titled Nick Knight and starring the singer Rick Springfield (of the song “Jesse’s Girl”) in his break-out role (not). The premise of the movie was an 800 year old vampire working in the NYPD (night shift, naturally) trying to figure out how to become human again. Complications included getting blood to drink (remedied by knowing the coroner), hiding his condition from his human partner, and hiding from his master LaCroix. This movie was the basis of a TV show called “Forever Knight” that featured the same characters (even the same actor as his partner) and the same general plot although the coroner was this time his love interest (the specific plot was used as a two-part episode that was better than the movie). Nick was supposed to be the tortured soul who would never have become a killing machine except for that jerk LaCroix and was trying to put some things right by working as a cop. LaCroix, on the other hand, was pretty much evil (until you met his daughter, and then realized, no, she’s evil and he’s not that bad). It was supposed to be a contrast. But at least Nick still had weaknesses. He had to spend an entire episode in the trunk of his own car because he couldn’t get indoors before the sun came up. The other famous example of a remorseful vampire is Angel from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In the Whedon-verse, vampires don’t have souls. Angel was cursed to get his soul back and became very depressed about all the people he killed. Fast forward a century or so later and he’s hitting on a fifteen-year old girl. Perhaps this is blasphemy, but I did not like Angel. I know when he became a vampire, a fifteen-year old girl was marriage material, but it was clear Buffy was dealing with other issues and not ready to deal with his. I liked Spike better, even when he got his soul, because he wasn’t all brooding about it. Actually, I also liked LaCroix better because again, he wasn’t all brooding about his condition. And yes, LeStat was a terrible person, but unlike Louis at least he wasn’t all whiny about it.
So once a vampire isn’t a murderer, and has a conscience, well, now they fit very well into the cliched role of Bad Boy. Oh, and how it seems society loves a Bad Boy, especially one with a dark past (as vampires must) and barely controlled rage issues. This then makes it so easy to get rid of some of those weaknesses, especially the really inconvenient ones and finish the transformation from complete monster (awesome) to emo brooding hottie (lame). Clearly I am not a fan of the total transformation, or vampires with a soul in general, or frankly the Bad Boy trope. Perhaps a trope like the remorseful vampire has a place in modern media, but I think it’s safe to say this one is seriously overdone.