Human Monstrosities: Vampires and Villainism

The current iteration of vampire mythology has taken on an interesting twist by humanising the vampire. Rather than creating a purely monstrous entity of evil whom the humans in the story are supposed to fear because it is inhuman, creators have done something very different with the vampire. Some aspects of the legend are retained; vampires need blood to survive, for example, but almost everything else has changed. Instead of being a monster, the vampire has become more like a human with a problem, and this radically changes the way characters interact with vampires.

Most works of pop culture with vampires these days have good vampires and bad vampires, and it’s often surprisingly hard to differentiate the vampires from the humans. They have souls, they have the same motivations, they experience guilt and love and other human emotions. In short, they are basically enhanced humans, rather than their own separate entities. These narratives are not about monstrousity in the sense of the other, but rather about monstrous behaviours; because humans are just as likely to do horrible things, in this mythology, as the vampires.

Charlaine Harris’ series, for example, has good and bad vampires along with good and bad humans. The drainers, for instance, exploit vampires for their blood, and members of the Fellowship of the Sun are a particularly vicious incarnation of fundamentalist Christianity. Her vampires are treated more like human beings within the context of the story. They’re powerful, they’re different, but at the same time, they act very human in many ways. Leaving the reader wondering what the difference between vampires and humans is supposed to be, exactly, other than that one drinks blood and can’t go out in the sunlight.

This can be seen not just with vampires, but also with other monsters in mythology. The trend these days seems to be towards humanising them. Giving them human traits and human modes of communication, human motivations and attachment. The same goes for figures ostensibly considered ‘good,’ like angels and fairies; their identities have been twisted and made more complex, while at the same time, they are also made more human. Fairies are no longer purely innocent and sweet, but they’re also much closer to human than they were in previous mythologies.

What, exactly, is accomplished by blurring the lines of speciation between humans and mythical entities? In a sense, it erases their own complexity when storytellers can’t find a way to make them interesting, variable, and different without making them more like humans. The attempts at creating complex social and political structures for mythical entities look like replications of human society, as do the attempts at giving characters some kind of internal conflict. Furthermore, there seems to be a growing attachment to singling out ‘special humans’ who attract attention as love objects who are so compelling, they cross the normal divides between humans and supernatural entities.

These shifts in mythology also mean that the same things explored in literary fiction are being more directly probed in fantasy, even if no one wants to admit it. Fantasy as a genre is often maligned because it contains mythical creatures and unrealistic situations and is considered light, fluffy, and not of this world. Yet, the same things that show up in literary fiction are also appearing in fantasy1; conflict, struggle, and complex situations created by people who come from different backgrounds. It’s just that in fantasy, ‘background’ includes not just race, class, culture, but also supernatural identity.

Fantasy provides a certain amount of freedom of exploration for storytellers which isn’t always possible with literary fiction. Baroque plots are more acceptable and sometimes almost expected, and people sometimes overlook the subtlety behind those plots because they’re occupied with the ridiculousness. It’s easy to deride fantasy when you don’t actually examine it, and some of the most ardent opponents of giving fantasy its due as a genre are those who are least well-read in it; they don’t want to confront their assumptions.

At the same time humanisation erases some complexity, it also introduces a note of interest to these storylines because it takes creatures like vampires out of their traditional role as simplistic monsters. The story is no longer as straightforward as seeing a vampire, deciding it’s evil, and killing it. Suddenly, people in the narrative need to think about whether it is a good or bad vampire, whether it is seeking redemption. The story has become infinitely more complex than basic fantasy or horror where the goal is finding and eradicating monsters because there is no easy way to tell who is a monster.

Unfortunately, many creators seem to use humanisation primarily to create romances between vampires and humans, or other supernatural creatures and humans, as though this is the only way to make them interesting, or the only way to show that they’ve truly reformed. There are, of course, many other ways to illustrate the complexity of supernatural life, to create a world where supernaturals live out their lives in varied ways just like human beings do; falling back on romance feels like the cheap and easy way out and it is unfortunate to see so many creators falling into this trap of assuming a story will only grip readers if it’s got romance in it.

Some bemoan the loss of monster as villain, arguing that something has been lost when horror and fantasy no longer have simply evil creatures. I wonder, though, if it’s the loss of simplistic villains that’s the problem, or the simplistic humanisation of supernatural entities that’s the real issue. Perhaps if these stories were more complex than yet another iteration of the star-crossed romance, they’d be more interesting for consumers.

  1. And always have been.