Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Persistence of Vampires

In my taxonomy of monsters, I have listed a number of supernatural monsters. Some of the most popular are ghost, vampire, werewolf, and assorted evil spirits or demons. Fritz Leiber, Jr., called his story "Smoke Ghost," to evoke an ancient fear, but his eponymous monster is no ghost at all. Rather, it's a creature for the twentieth century, made to fit its own time and place. Whether the Smoke Ghost is supernatural or not is an open question. It may be purely psychological, in which case it is ostensibly a monster of science. The point is that a purely supernatural monster is not suited for Leiber's age or ours. We have given up on the supernatural, but because we must believe something, we have replaced it with a powerful faith in a new god, Science. The religions of science are manifold, as are all the forms of Christianity it hopes to displace. They can be gathered together under one word, Scientism.

So where does that leave the supernatural monster? If it is to survive in an age of science, the supernatural monster must be scientified. (1) And so people go looking for ghosts using scientific instruments, they explain the werewolves and vampires of Medieval times as psychopaths, and they depict fictional vampires as being infected with a disease rather than possessed by evil spirits. Or at least that was the explanation of Richard Matheson in I Am Legend (1954) and Sam Hall and Gordon Russell in their screenplay for House of Dark Shadows (1970).

So if a scientific explanation is required for all things, including monsters, why do supernatural monsters persist? If we're all materialists--if Steven Hawking, an admitted atheist, is the smartest guy on Earth and we should all follow his lead--why does anybody believe in ghosts or demons or spirits of any kind? The answer is, I think, that Science and the religion of Scientism are inadequate, and people return to the purely supernatural to help them understand the world. This question--Is science fiction dying?--is floating around on the Internet. It seems that a lot of people believe that the answer is in the affirmative. If science fiction is in fact dying, could the explanation be that, like science, science fiction has proved inadequate, and that people are turning to fantasy, a genre of the supernatural, for escape, entertainment, and perhaps also comfort? Maybe you can sum it all up this way:

If science is the ultimate arbiter of all things, and
science is purely materialist or atheist, and
science says that there is no pattern, direction, purpose, or meaning in the universe, 
in other words, that our lives are meaningless, that love is purely a bunch of electrochemical reactions, that the universe cares absolutely nothing for us, then
no one should be surprised that people reject science, scientists, the god Science, the religion Scientism, or even science fiction in favor of something that refutes all that.

And so belief in the supernatural, a taste for supernatural monsters, and a voracious appetite for fantasy persist.

***

One of the most persistent of supernatural monsters is the vampire. That shouldn't come as any surprise, I guess. After all, vampires are the eternal undead. Not very long ago, vampires were wildly popular in the same way science fiction monsters were popular in the 1950s, devils and demons in the 1960s and '70s, cryptozoological monsters in the same period, and psychotic killers in the 1970s and '80s. I couldn't quite figure that out. With all the monsters of the past, you wanted to avoid being killed by them or made one of them. With vampires it was--or is--different. There are people who are sexually attracted to vampires. In other words, they want an evil, undead spirit to kill them and turn them into an evil, undead (and I guess eternal) spirit for some sexual gratification, or perhaps more accurately, for some kind of affirmation of their worth or attractiveness, like the little green aliens in Toy Story whose every desire is to be chosen--and thereby saved--by "The Claw." I interpret that as a kind of self-loathing that is diagnostic of a decadent society. Alternatively, you can look at the desire to become a vampire as a desire to give up the burdens of freedom, self, and life, to become the monster and outsider you already see yourself to be. Again, a sign of decadence. Another way to interpret the supposed sexuality of vampires is to see them as being symbolic of a fatal, blood-borne illness, specifically AIDS--in other words, a contagion that can pass from one person to another, infecting one person after another, killing one person after another. And so we get back to the dichotomy of the supernatural vampire vs. the scientific vampire. It's probably no coincidence that sexual vampires were so popular in the age of AIDS. 

The vampire makes a good candidate for the monster of the twenty-first century. First, although he is from the outside, he is now on the inside. From the lonely and desolate Carpathian Mountains, he arrived in London in the seminal novel Dracula (1897). In the movie The Night Stalker (1972), he terrorized Las Vegas. (2) The vampire can also pass as a human being. He is not noticeably different in his appearance except for those long canine teeth. Never mind that he doesn't come out during the day. There are hoards of disaffected, alienated, and outcast people (his admirers and potential victims) who don't come out during the day either. (I knew a guy once who boasted of his "vampiric lifestyle.") Unlike ghosts, vampires can also recruit more vampires, and far more efficiently than werewolves can recruit more werewolves. Together, those three characteristics--living inside the city gates, passing as human, and efficiently recruiting more of their kind--leaves ghosts, werewolves, demons, and other evil spirits out of the running for the monster of the twenty-first century.

If you were around in the 1980s and '90s, you remember that vampires were popular beyond reason. It seemed like there would be no end to them (of course not--they're eternal). Maybe we can call them the monster of their age. Vampires are still popular, but their popularity has been eclipsed by another kind of monster, one that began as both an undead supernatural monster (like a ghost or vampire) and a programmed slave (like the machine-monster) but by a materialist explanation put forth in I Am Legend became a full-fledged monster of science.

Notes
(1) My word or not, scientification is the act of turning something that is not scientific into something that ostensibly is scientific. For example, by their faith in Science, some people believe that genes or a part of a person's brain make him more likely to be religious or to believe in God. Because they lack any sense of irony, those who worship in the church of Scientism have stopped short of this question: If an identifiable part of a person's brain makes him believe in God, what identifiable part of a person's brain makes him believe that identifiable parts of a person's brain make him believe in things?
(2) The vampire in The Night Stalker is named Janos Skorzany. In an age in which all things existed in the shadow of World War II, that name in 1972 would have echoed the name of Otto Skorzeny, the hardened and unreformed Nazi commando who rescued Mussolini and carried out other missions during the war. One of the last schemes in which he was involved was the plan called Werwolf, whereby Nazis would resist the Allies after the surrender. Vampire, werewolf, Nazi--monsters all.

Postscript (Sept. 28, 2014): I just read that Stephen King, like Stephen Hawking, has had a coming out of sorts. Unlike Dr. Hawking, however, Mr. King has come out as a believer in intelligent design and in a generic way, God. Or at least that's how I read his remarks. So, Scientist into Atheist and a future without hope. Artist into Believer and a future with hope.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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