Thursday, November 4

Halloween Psych 101: Lesson IV - Sparkling Vampires: A Fate Sexier Than Death?

       I'll admit there's something to be said for movies that feature full out Godzilla-type monsters, savage animals like Cujo and Jaws, or whatever combination of giant/mutant/hybrid creatures that Syfy Channel dreams up for their movie of the week.

Man, I wish.

        And that something was said like two articles back.

      Sure, wild dogs eating small children are entertaining and mutated creatures stepping on overpopulated Japanese cities are fun every once in a while, but humans are so much more fascinating than animals are as the story focal point. Humans have the potential for both extreme evil (as we also saw in Blog numero uno) and superhuman heroics which makes them more compelling and dynamic to watch on screen.

       That’s why I don’t think comic books superhero franchises are ever going to fall out of favor. We need these figures to look up to for hope and inspiration. While murderers and psychopaths help us deal with the potential of evil in our natures, superheroes show us the potential for greatness within us. We can relate to Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Bruce Banner because they are humans that fell into extraordinary circumstances and rose to the occasion (sometimes with the help of a little radioactive mutation but hey, who’s judging?).  

          It’s why we cling to news stories that trumpet human bravery such as when a mother summons some sort of gorilla strength reserve and lifts a car off of her child, or when people like Wesley Autrey jump on the subway tracks to save a fallen seizure victim as the train’s about to arrive. We’d like to think we would have that kind of courage, strength, or quick-wittedness (is that a word?) about us when the going gets tough. But this particular article is not about the hero within us. It’s about how we’re all a bunch of superstitious, sniveling pansies.

In what is probably my favorite movie of all time, Clue, the 1985 spoof on the Parker Brothers board game, the degrees of human fear are put on display for the amusement of the 80s viewing audience.
Which probably looked something like this.
While writing this article, a specific exchange of dialogue came to mind from a short scene between Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock when the bunch decides to split and search the house for the murderer. You’ll find the specific exchange at 5:50 in the clip below, although I’d recommend watching the whole clip and then maybe watching another and then proceeding to purchase this movie because it’s brilliant and Madeline Kahn will judge you from Heaven if you don’t. And you don’t want that.

          So what does it really mean to meet the proverbial “fate worse than death?” According to a random site I found online, because I’m all for reliable sources, the phrase had appeared throughout literature for years but was most popularized in this specific wording by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs in his 1914 novel, Tarzan of the Apes.

“The ape threw her roughly across his broad, hairy shoulders, and leaped back into the trees, bearing Jane Porter away toward a fate a thousand times worse than death”
I think Jane fared pretty well in the fate department actually.
       To understand what fate could possibly be considered worse than death, we need to first understand what the public at large is most afraid of. In a Gallup poll taken in 2001, Americans listed their top 10 worst fears as follows:
          Although some of these fears are lame and have to do with basic anxieties, many of them are things that could potentially result in death. People don’t necessarily fear heights as much as they fear falling from heights. That’s sound logic. 

And let me just represent for the fellow claustrophobics: it’s not necessarily the fear of being in an enclosed space; it’s the fear of running out of air and not being able to get out of said enclosed space if I were to have a panic attack or emergency. It’s not unreasonable. Throughout history people have been terrified of being locked in creepy basements during Halloween party shenanigans (see: Blog #2) or trapped in other enclosed spaces like a coffin with absolutely no way out. 

In an old-timey Australian pamphlet lauding the advantages of cremation, point #10 astutely pointed out: “Cremation leaves no possibility of being buried alive.” It’s why some people today have intercoms installed to alert the public from six-feet-under, “I’m not dead yet!”   Being buried alive is timeless enough of a fear that back in the day Poe milked it for all it was worth in stories like “The Casque of Amontillado” and we even see the same claustrophobic motif employed in modern movies like Tarantino's Kill Bill vol. II. That’s right E-Pizzle and QT just got shout outs in the same sentence. Deal with it.

What’s really interesting about this fear is that alleged instances of premature burial are believed to have actually spawned many vampire and zombie rumors. In Haiti, zombies are believed to have been created when villagers observed the victim in a deep paralysis that mimicked death (caused by the tetrodotoxin of the puffer fish). Corpses of the presumed dead would be buried alive and eventually wake up and wander home somewhat disgruntled. There is no documentation of getting the munchies for brains though. Yet.

Vampire hysteria spread throughout the Balkans in the 18th century with people wounding each other with fatal bites, restless noises coming from grave sites, and fatal outbreaks of unexplained illnesses featuring blood dripping from the sufferer’s lips. Researchers assume instances of biting can be contributed to rabies while epidemics of tuberculosis and bubonic plague in small villages caused victims to constantly cough up and reek of blood. According to Jean Marigny, author of Vampires: Restless Creatures of the Night, scratch marks found on the inside of exhumed coffins indicated cases of people that had awaken from faux deaths and had attempted to claw their way out. Blood found covering the corpse’s mouths and nose was very likely caused by the victim banging their heads against the lid of the coffin in frenzied escape attempts. 
Geez, I skeeved myself out with that premature burial bit.

Here’s a little palate cleanser: 

That was kind of a digression from my main point, I just got carried away clarifying why claustrophobics aren’t loonies. I’ll admit that the fact that I can’t breathe if I keep my shoes on for too long is probably something I need to work on, but it’s more sound than some of the other fears on this list.
Thunder storms? Really? Grow a pair, princess.

And as Indy will gladly tell you, snakes suck. Genesis, the very first book of the bible addresses the eternal beef between humans and our side-winding friends, and even the Big Guy calls them out as legless jerks. Snakes, spiders, and wild animals could do you in with just one bite. Yet if some of our most intrinsic fears are things that could bite us and potentially kill us, why on earth would we be so obsessed with vampires?

      I know this particular post is rather cumbersome so why don't you take a little intermission before we dive into some heavy thinking, stretch your legs, and enjoy this rendition of Twilight: The Untold Story courtesy of my friend Ann:

     I hate to burst the bubbles of Twi-hards everywhere but vampires did not traditionally sparkle and look like Robert Pattinson. Vampire archetypes have taken on various forms and titles in many ancient mythologies, such as the Mesopotamian succubus, Lilitu, or the fanged Hindu goddess of death, Kali, who drinks blood and wears a necklace of skulls.
"Hey, don't hate. Hot Topic was having a sale."
In Eastern Europe, people saw vampires as directly relating to death, decay, and disease so they were not well-chiseled or charming but had a ruddy, bloated complexion from all that blood drinking. It wasn’t until they started making their appearances in popular literature that vampires started to bring sexy back.

      In 19th century novels and short stories, the vampire began being depicted as sympathetic creatures who were charming yet tragic anti-heroes. And thus we jump forward a century or two from the age of Stoker’s Dracula and arrive at the age where vampires are objectified by millions of screaming tweens and their moms from here to Singapore.

     In theory, vampires should be super terrifying. They are basically undead, over-sized mosquitoes that have inhuman strength and live forever. So why do they hurt so good?

Methinks it probably has something to do with a combination of the classic bad boy complex and Dolf Zillmann's "Excitation Transfer Theory." When we are afraid our hearts beat faster, our pupils dilate, and our breathing quickens, things that also happen when we are aroused or attracted to someone. I've read of several studies where they found that people who were in a state of fear or apprehension were also more easily turned on when approached by the tester. 

     One of the studies had to do with people who had just dismounted a roller coaster and were asked to rate the attractiveness of a photographed face. The other study had women approaching men on a rickety, unstable bridge, and some on a non-threatening bridge to ask male subjects a question. In both studies, the apprehensive subjects' level of attraction was dramatically increased from that of the control group. Now you no longer have to wonder why taking your date to a scary movie is such a time-honored tradition. Her brain can subconsciously associate her pounding heart with your oh so sexy presence. So there you have it, something that should frighten us, in this case vampires, can simultaneously attract us.

     For years movie-goers have had a love affair with “The Bad Boy.” The James Dean type who’s too wild to be tamed, lives by his own rules, and has an air of danger about him, yet we are drawn to him despite our better judgment. There is something to be said about the thrill of the chase and taking on an impossible challenge. We want to be the one person who can capture his unattainable heart. If we can succeed where others have failed, it will validate that there’s something special and extremely valuable about us. This is unfortunately why some women stay with callous, selfish or unfaithful husbands. 

     It's why Team Edward fans lose their marbles when Robert Pattinson gives them a hug or takes a picture with them. For that moment in time, the actor who portrays the brooding vampire singled them out as more special than anyone else in the crowd. The allure of the bad boy and the promise of maybe one day holding a special place in his heart above all other women is too much for some to overcome.  I wonder if this desire to be considered unique enough to touch the heart of an untamable beast could be the reason why certain women write love letters and marriage proposals to imprisoned serial killers. Well, that and latent cases of severe mental illness.

But why don’t we feel the same sexual attraction for zombies, ghosts, or werewolves (unless they’re shirtless and tan)? My theory is that vampires are mostly similar enough to us in appearance and personality, they just happen to have distinctive eating habits and live a long time – kind of like vegetarians except for the whole craving blood thing. 

Werewolves come in a close second because they are human 99% of the time. It’s only when it’s their “time of the month” that they suddenly become hairy, slobbering animals that might rip your throat out, and you start to wonder just what happened to the man you married?

The attraction flat-out does not work with zombies or ghosts because ghosts are kinda mean and have no corporeal form to ogle or write fan fics about. Zombies, on the other hand, are simply notoriously sloppy kissers.
"Yo, Shorty, can I get yo number?"
This transfer of excitement from fear to lust is exactly why I think vampire movies are the least scary of the horror genre and, judging by the rise in erotic depictions of the adorable blood-suckers, movie producers have probably realized this as well. In popular movies like Underworld, Interview with a Vampire, Twilight and TV shows like True Blood, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer the fear element is present but is vastly overrun by the bow-chick-a-wow-wow factor. That’s a scientific theory. Look it up. But don’t really.

     The tendency is to cast vampires as desperately attractive individuals who manage to always be suave, and look good in both battle and various stages of undress (Stephen Moyer, Brad Pitt, R-Pats, Kate Beckinsale, need I go on?) The focus now is that you be drawn to them, not repulsed by them. The vampire story format has slowly evolved into a breed of vampcore porn and the masses are eating it up. Werewolf stories tend to fall into a similar pattern although they still retain some of the gritty nature of being part animal so they aren’t always stereotypically hunky (Taylor Lautners of the world excluded). 

In reality, our biggest fear is ultimately death, but that doesn’t make for a very good story structure for a movie, does it? If the main character steps out into the road and gets pulverized by a city bus, what’s going to happen for the next hour and 30 minutes if he’s just dead? Well, in Hollywood, said road-kill has a plethora of options available to him other than just staying dead. He can come back as a ghost and haunt Jeff, his roommate who never returned his Xbox controller, his body can reanimate itself with a predilection for slurping brains, he can get saved at the last minute by drinking the blood of a vampire, thereby becoming one and can now get lucky with human girls with loose morals and daddy issues. When you’re undead, the sky is the limit.

So class, what have we learned in our time together?

In slasher movies and torture porn flicks like Hostel, we face not only the fear of being killed but we get a chance to role play and nurture our inner sociopath in a socially acceptable manner. Watching the violent fates met by the characters based on their sins let us cling to a sense of karmic justice and fairness in a world that can often seem chaotic and arbitrary. Supernatural thrillers show us that life doesn’t necessarily stop being scary or unfair after you die, but depending on what creature you were bit by or what post-apocalyptic disease you’re currently harboring in your brain, you may actually get a smidge hotter.

And that’s plumb all right.


Annik Miller said...

And I thought Jeff was Satan's name (or was it his dog's?) And waht'sup with the fear of needles. Not sure how that can fear can keep you alive!

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on vampires using Zillmann's "Excitation Transfer Theory." The thing is in those studies you mention the object of fear and the object of attraction are separate things whereas in the case of vampires they are one and the same. I suppose there are instances of objects that are both a source of fear and longing. Like chocolate cake. ;) It tastes so good but in excess its effects are terrifying; which makes it taste even better. :P But then then they simply become a metaphor for temptation.

I'm beginning to think vampires became a charismatic symbol of temptation only since the 19th century primarily as a way of giving life to all the sin, vice, and sexiness, which Victorian-era morality tried to repress, in a manner more acceptable (making the character non-human)by the standards of the time. They're just projections of characteristics the culture refused to acknowledge in themselves. What it means when our generation now counts vampires among its heroes opens a whole other can of worms...