By Alex Bledsoe

Someone clever once said, apropos of the Justice League, that the only thing sillier than an adult dressing up in colorful tights to fight crime, was a whole roomful of such folk. That’s a good analogy for films, TV shows and books that posit elaborate secret societies of vampires, werewolves and other supernatural creatures that operate just below the radar of human awareness. One vampire or werewolf is powerful as both a character and a symbol; a roomful of them is just goofy.

There are two reasons I don’t like these tropes; one is practical, the other thematic.

The practical reason has to do with the actual natures of these monsters, what they need to survive and how they manage to do it. First, consider the physical side of vampires: they are the reanimated corpses of the dead who subsist on the blood of the living. In the original folklore, this blood was exclusively from other family members (a masterful example of this can be found in the Mario Bava film Black Sabbath); later the concept was broadened to encompass the blood of anyone. Initially, only small amounts of blood were taken, which made the victim seem to die from a gradual wasting disease (this was, of course, the real-world malady that vampiric legends helped explain). Later, when vampire stories began to move away from any connection to reality, vampiric feeding became more ravenous, to the point that people were bled dry in moments, sometimes more than one person at a time.

And this is where it falls apart. Since it sprang into being as one way to explain disease, the vampire functions much like a virus or bacterium: it may wreak untold havoc, but it needs a very specific habitat to survive. Change an element of that—for example, add the simple practice of washing hands, or wearing a crucifix—and you ravage the ravager. Similarly, if you alter the vampire’s basic nature so that s/he must drain an entire human being with each feeding, you create a whole host of problems. Most obviously, you have a dead body on your hands that bears some pretty tell-tale clues as to its demise. It must be disposed of, or at least altered so that the cause of death isn’t apparent. And if your vampire must feed this way every night, then at the end of the year you’ve got 365 corpses with the same cause of death. That’s something very difficult to keep hidden.

Now add to this multiple vampires operating within the same general area, say a major city. If you have one thousand vampires, that’s well over a quarter of a million dead bodies per year. And even if they don’t kill their victims outright, and only do so gradually, thousands of citizens dead of some strange wasting disease would attract unwanted attention.

So just the presence of that many vampires is, for all practical purposes, impossible. (Bear with me; I’ll get to the part where you alter the nature of vampires to allow this to work). But now we must take these vampires and arrange them in a hierarchy, based usually on age. The oldest have absolute feudal authority over those younger, to the point of meting out punishments that can include execution. Often the reasoning behind these organizations is presented as a way to impose order on the chaos that inevitably accompanies the supernatural, with the ostensible goal of keeping them off humanity’s radar. After all, if your food supply gets spooked, you’re screwed.

Except that a vampire is like an anti-government survivalist: he has no need of this organization. A vampire functions best on his own, as a solitary creature. As Christopher Walken says in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, “The trick is to blend in, not stand out.” The best vampires don’t seem like vampires to their intended victims. They may be odd or distinctive, but not obviously dangerous. Dracula is a foreign nobleman, Louis, a New Orleans landowner, Carmilla, the traumatized victim of a coach accident, even Edward Cullen is a moody high school student. In each of these guises these vampires are able to locate, isolate and take down their victims much like solitary animal predators do. An organization that monitors, evaluates and judges these characters would be superfluous, unwieldy and unwanted.

Then we get to werewolves. These monsters spring from the same folkloric roots as vampires, and somewhat overlap them, but have many entirely unique aspects. Most obviously, they’re not dead; they are human beings with a special ability. Another is the idea that the change from man to wolf is unwanted and involuntary (not always, but certainly in the popular imagination). Like alcoholics, werewolves often do terrible things that they don’t remember when they “sober up.” They represent the unrepressed, universal natural urges that lurk below the veneer of civilization, and not, it must be stressed, the behavior of actual wolves.

Often in modern fiction werewolves are depicted as operating with a pack mentality, which is a complete contradiction of what the werewolf represents. Wolf packs exist to provide structure and insure the survival of the pack as a whole; werewolves, like vampires, are solitary monsters that are as likely to attack another werewolf as a human being. And werewolves are even less discreet than vampires, rending and destroying with no thought to consequences. So the idea that a whole pack of such creatures could exist, especially within a well-populated setting, is even less likely. Given that the effect of the full moon lasts from two to three days, and assuming each werewolf kills only one victim per night, that’s a body count of around thirty mangled, dismembered corpses per year per werewolf. Add to this the fact that the werewolf is completely uninterested in concealing his activities, then it’s impossible that such a rampage would go unnoticed.

And that takes us up to the single most ridiculous concept: that these beings, vampires and werewolves and whatever else, co-exist with us and yet remain unnoticed and unknown to the modern world. Not only one secret society of supernatural creatures that need human beings to survive, but also multiple ones. Just how ludicrous is that? Add the 365 vampire victims a year to the 30+ werewolf ones, multiply by the number of beings that make up these societies, and imagine how long that would stay “under the radar.” No matter that the causes are supernatural and would be difficult to believe at first; the sheer numbers make it impossible to ignore. Neither packs nor secret societies would be enough to protect them, since their vulnerabilities are simple to exploit, once they’re known. Silver bullets? Check. Pointy sticks? Bagful.

But writers are creative, and they find ways around these objections. Vampires don’t need to kill their victims, or they can survive on non-human (and even artificial) blood. Werewolves can control their changes, and remain aware of themselves even as they roam the night. Vampires, being older than normal men, have amassed fortunes that allow them to buy the protection they need. And so forth. The problem is, these cut-arounds usually disembowel the monsters as surely as the monsters do their victims. They cease being the archetypal, fundamental terrors of the dark and become mere characters suffering from afflictions, a kind of Lifetime movie cliché crossed with a wardrobe from Hot Topic.

And that brings us to the thematic reason I find these stories goofy. A vampire that subsists on animal blood is not a supernatural creature of the night; it’s a tick. One who gets by on artificial blood is simply a different sort of diabetic. If he also bemoans his fate, he’s merely an addict. And if he’s part of a secret organizational structure that has authority to discipline him for conduct unbecoming a vampire, he’s not a monster, he’s a Mason. Or a member of AA.

Same thing with werewolves. A werewolf who controls his changes, and his behavior while in werewolf form, is merely someone role playing in a hair shirt, not an id run rampant. And if he is content to subsume his will to that of a pack for the common good, he’s less a monster than a member of the local werewolf union.

These are fundamental changes that separate the figure from the power of its archetype. So why do we like them? It’s clear that we do; the book sales, movie successes and TV ratings prove it. Is it because our point of identification has completely changed?

In classic genre fiction we were supposed to identify with the monster hunters, not the (solitary) monsters themselves. We might sympathize with Frankenstein’s monster, but we also knew there was no place for him in our world. Mina Harker may see unexpected peace on Dracula’s face just before he crumbles to dust, but she doesn’t second-guess the decision to kill him. Henry Jekyll may have worked for the benefit of all mankind, but Mr. Hyde has to die, and take Henry Jekyll with him.

This began to change with the advent of the monster-as-hero, which coincided with the 1960s social upheaval in which many of society’s norms were questioned and inverted. It was presaged by Larry Talbot, hero of Universal’s Wolf Man series, who worked to find a cure for his condition, usually by battling other Universal monsters. Its first overt appearance was Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows, also desperate to find a cure for his vampirism, and hating himself whenever he gave in to his bloodlust. Louis in Interview with a Vampire bemoaned his fate incessantly, the first vampiric mainstream literary figure to do so. And most recently, Edward Cullen resists the urge to bite his destined victim until he must do so to save her life. In all these stories, the monster is the hero and the ostensible monster hunters either absent or negligible, leaving the reader with no choice but to identify with the monster.

With each step away from the archetype, these figures diminish. Far from being used as a metaphor (vampirism = AIDS, for example), they become, at best, metonyms (things that stand for what they are), at worst, mere tropes. The vampires of True Blood are not scary; the werewolves of Twilight titillate but don’t terrify. They demand nothing of us beyond a certain pleasant frisson, usually of desire. And as such, they work on us in the same way pornography does, and for the exact same reasons. Sure, there were erotic elements to the original archetypes: the lure of the forbidden is always erotic. Both vampires and werewolves invoke images of brutal penetration and bloody deflowering. The difference is: we once feared these things as much as we desired them. There is no longer any fear, just a voyeuristic, tittering lust. Look at those sexy werewolves. I wish that sparkly vampire would bite me.

And once the fear is gone, it’s possible to see these monsters as mere characters (if not caricatures), so that the idea of secret societies and feudal organizations is able to operate. It’s the same thing that allows the Justice League to seem feasible. For example, on his own, Batman is a driven mortal who pursues vigilante crime-fighting to symbolically avenge the death of his parents; the last thing he’d do is emerge from the shadows to chat and bicker. But put him in a room with Superman and Wonder Woman, and he becomes just a bad-tempered guy in grey thermal underwear. He loses almost all his archetypal power and becomes just another part of the crowd.

Do these modern incarnations, then, with their secret societies and underground organizations, qualify as a new archetype? Only time will tell. But consider how we mock the superstitious peasants who gave rise to the original monsters; what will folks in a thousand years think of us, for accepting the idea that our scariest creations essentially hung out in a tree house with a sign reading, “No Mortals Allowed”?


More from Alex Bledsoe:

Alex Bledsoe has written two novels (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) that feature multiple vampires, but they’re not the least bit organized. He also writes the Eddie LaCrosse series, and his most recent book was the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver.

2 Comments

  1. All good points, but the most relevant aspect of the argument is that it has become massively cliched. MASSIVELY.

    At this point, a vampire tale with only one vampire is the exception.

  2. Thanks for the article, it was thoughtful and I enjoyed it.

    I agree that bending the rules on monster-making interferes with classic horror formulas. The stories are meant to inspire fear, but the more sympathetic a monster is, the scarier, since they’re that much easier to identify with. I get that these monsters are supposed to manifestations of our darker desires, but personally I would rather read a story about conflict and resolution more original than monster chase and a stake through the heart.

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your last paragraph: it’s an evolving genre. Do we really mock the “superstitious peasants” that planted the seeds for these stories? Will we really be similarly ridiculed by horror-fiction readers of the next millenium for a shift in genre rules?

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