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W(h)ither Monsters?

The first season finale of the American version of Being Human aired Monday night. The finale had all the angsty supernatural character stuff a fan of the show could want and it wrapped up all of the season’s storylines nicely, while leaving it open for a new season. While I found myself getting involved in the plight of these all-too-human non-humans over the course of the thirteen episodes, the horror fan in me couldn’t help but lament that we’ve gotten to a point where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts can be so unimaginably unscary. I became further despondent when I realized that there are no longer any scary monsters for people to be afraid of and are instead forced to fear real life.

Fear is a powerful and important emotion. It sends adrenaline through our bodies and keeps our senses functioning at a high level. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I like being scared, I will say that there is enjoyment to be had from feeling those nervous feelings in the safe environment of a movie theater. Horror movies play on very simple and primal instincts and phobias and are at their best when they represent the struggle between good and evil. The easiest way to represent this struggle is by using monsters, fictional creatures that can stand in for the deep, dark, primal fears we all have. It’s one of the earliest emotions humans exhibit. From the moment we’re born, we’re afraid of the darkness and the unknown things that may be lurking within it. As children, we give that fear a name which is “monsters.” Horror movies take that fear and manifest into something relatively safe, containing it within the 90 minutes between credits. But now, the monsters are being turned into sympathetic, non-threatening wimps, and it’s bumming me out.

Vampires’ downward spiral goes back quite a while, but I can attribute their largest drop to Anne Rice romanticizing and sexualizing the blood-suckers for horny goth kids and unfulfilled housewives. Post-Rice, vampires were more about pathos and longing than about viciously slaughtering innocent people. This has culminated in the Twilight series and the like, where vampires are friendly, chaste, and sparkly. There’s nothing scary about sad-eyed puppy dog people with pale skin. All the way back to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, while the eponymous Count is indeed a pitiful and wretched, if not tragic, character, he is throughout depicted as a disgusting and despicable creature who brings a plague of rats with him to London. The original Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau portrays Count Orlock (a name used when the rights to Stoker’s novel could not be secured) as a disfigured, nigh-rodential individual who is thoroughly monstrous. Even though they’re based on the same basic folk legend, there’s almost no similarity between Orlock and Edward. Vampires are now nothing more than easily pissed-off preppy-boys.

Werewolves, too, have suffered a sad cinematic fate. While they tend to be more difficult to sexualize given their more bestial appearance, more time is spent with them in their human form than in their snarling lycanthrope guise. This humanizes the monster and makes them sympathetic. The only film I can name offhand that succeeds in making you sympathize and fear the werewolf simultaneously is An American Werewolf in London, which also happens to be the best werewolf movie ever made. You feel bad for the guy, sure, but you wouldn’t wanna be stuck in a dark alley with him on a full moon night. Werewolves are incredibly hard to pull off properly, and the bulk of movies featuring them are stupid, which notable exceptions, of course.

Ghosts are still kicking around, too, I guess. The downfall of the modern haunting movie is that they either become about why the ghosts are there or who the ghosts are haunting. While I’m absolutely terrified of the idea that I’m surrounded by angry spirits who want to attack me with flying toasters and stuff, in films, it’s more than a little passe. They also often fall into the surrealist cinema trope where you see disturbing images or situations supposedly caused by the ghost, but are really a result of the filmmaker thinking he’s more clever than everybody else. These are arguably the most famous and time-tested monsters in the history of the world and are just not scary anymore. In fact, they’re so not scary that I almost can’t watch older movies where they actually ARE scary.

So what’s left to be afraid of? Zombies? I like zombies a lot and, like Jonah Ray, I like to think of them in the way George Romero and Max Brooks depict them, and I think most people would agree. However, zombie movies have been explored to every possible end in the last ten years and there’s really nothing more anyone can say. And now that The Walking Dead is on the air, any attempt to do a zombie movie will seem trite and repetitive, like how The Sopranos all but spelled the end of mob movies. Also, zombies are not the same type of monsters as werewolves and vampires. They aren’t under-the-bed-type monsters. Zombies, generally, are the result of a plague or virus and speak more about our fears of both nuclear and social annihilation and our inherent mistrust of our fellow man. Zombies are more a force of nature that people have to deal with while the real conflict comes in people trying to get along with each other despite coming from different backgrounds.

The new (or again) go-to monster these days seems to be aliens. It feels like a new alien invasion movie comes out every month or so and they all seem to fall into the “global pandemic” mold, not unlike the zombies. John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien both used the idea of a the outer space intruder to tell very simple haunted-house stories. Today, the alien movies are much more about patriotism. They’re less about being afraid of the invaders than they are the world rising up against a common foe. Since we live in a world where no one is banded against a common foe, even within a country, filmmakers attempt to restore some of that brotherhood through the alien, an outside force that will attack and conquer everyone, regardless of race, creed, or political affiliation. These allegories for real-world issues lack the personal fear of the “monsters” of our childhood.

Horror movies are too real now. They all seem to be about crazy individuals gruesomely torturing people over a number of minutes of screen time or are “clever” psychological movies where 9 times out of 10, the trouble is all a manifest of the main character. Living in Los Angeles, I know that crazy people are all too real. Slasher movies in the 80s introduced the idea of the insane, knife-wielding murderer, but they almost all of them reverted to the supernatural to explain them, ala Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger. Things like Saw and Hostel are just sick people doing sick, awful things. These people really exist and could actually get you, and so a movie about them doesn’t make you confront your fears and forget them, but instead just reminds you of how dead you’re going to be.

Maybe, sadly, the time of monsters is over. Folklore about mythical beasts were the early explanations for unexplained events and were the product of people telling the story to each other and having the legend grow. Today, with the internet and technology, everybody sees what the first person saw. There’s no room for it to grow and become it’s own legend. The most we can hope for is that someone will auto-tune a remix that we’ll all find hilarious for twenty minutes. Things like Twilight and Being Human are just our post-postmodern way of rationalizing things that we can no longer explain as unexplained and our desire to be in control of what scares us. After all, if the scariest thing in the world are the people, it might take a nice vampire to make us feel okay.

Kanderson bids you adieu

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Images: Space/Syfy, 20th Century Fox, Prana Film, Universal, MGM, United Film Distribution Company

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  1. Quan says:

    Read the David Wellington vampire novels (13 Bullets, 99 Coffins, Vampire Zero and,23 Hours.) His vampires are not at all sexualized and are really a pretty good new take on vampires. I loved the zombie novels even more and I am gonna read Frostbite (werewolves) soon.

  2. Jon says:

    almost every Stephen Moffett written episode was a terrifying creature: gas mask people, clockwork man, weeping angels, spacesuit zombies, invisble shadow killers… the water zombies were also quite good, though not by Moffett.

    as a grown adult, i don’t think anything has ever terrified me as much as the weeping angels, save for maybe the snow monster (wampa) in Empire Strikes Back when I was 5 or the Gremlins…

  3. adrianne says:

    I was talking to my husband the other day and the following words came out of my mouth..”I’m really questioning the paternity of Josh’s werebaby…oh my god they tricked me into watching a soap opera.”

    I have to say I like Being Human and it will probably be the only time I’ll say I like the American version of something better than the British one. At least the concept of this show is that they are dangerous monsters and not cuddly sparkley douche bags that want to force you into marriage. Some of Sally’s murder attempts have been pretty suspenseful and if they follow more of the British stories the train scene is pretty creepy.

    The show is pretty well rounded with drama, quirkiness, a good sense of humor and a bit of violence. I like monsters as much as anyone else, but I think there is room for something different if it’s put together well.

    Meanwhile Doctor Who is making great new monsters. the Angels, the family of blood, and who knows what next!

  4. Jadis says:

    This feels like an article I could have read on

    All right. Shameless plug, I admit it.

  5. redsonja1313 says:

    Vampires never scared me in fact I really just wanted to sleep with Jery Dandridge and Gray Oldmans Drac—I will say there have been a few of the Doctor’s foes that disturb me…R U MY MUMMY anyone ?? Try Not to Blink !! WATER is PATIENT, VASHTA NERADA and TOBY !!

  6. Sawyer says:

    Dare I say the real humanisation of monsters began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? I mean, the monster there was freak who just didn’t want to be seen as a freak, which seems to be the modern-day template, only with a romantic twist added.

  7. Anna says:

    Wait until you see The Silence in the new Doctor Who. I actually have been resisting the urge to spin around and check that nothing is behind me all morning. If the old monsters (both Daleks and Cybermen in Who and vampires, werewolves and ghosts in other media) have lost their ability to cause terror, at least the products of Steven Moffat’s brain are trying to take up the slack.

  8. I havent seen the American version of Being Human, I quit halfway through season 2 of the BBC one, although I hear it gets better so I need to get back into that.

    I loved the Southpark episode where all the kids are becoming vampires and the Goths are not happy. So good.

  9. Lee says:

    You see where you first went wrong was watching the american version of being human, couldn’t get through 2 episodes of that rubbish.

  10. Trassin says:

    Oops, sorry for double post (well now quad). Found the excerpt after my initial post and my comp messed up while trying to post it (didn’t think it went through).

  11. Trassin says:

    From Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake series) by Laurell K. Hamilton, “I remember his body pinning me to the ground. His teeth tearing at my arm while I tried to keep him off my throat. The clean sharp snap of bone where he bit through. My screams. His hand forcing my head back. Him rearing to strike. Helpless. He missed the neck; I never knew why. Teeth sank around my collarbone, snapped it. He lapped up my blood like a cat with cream. I lay under his weight listening to him lap up my blood. The broken bones didn’t hurt yet; shock. I was beginning not to hurt, not to be afraid. I was beginning to die.

    My right hand reached out in the grass and touched something smooth – glass. A vial of Holy Water that had been thrown out of my bag, scattered by the half-human servants. The vampire never looked at me. His face was pressed over the wound. His tongue was exploring the hole he’d made. HIs teeth grated along the naked bone, and I screamed.”

  12. Trassin says:

    From Guilty Pleasures (Anita Blake series) by Laurell K. Hamilton, “I remember his body pinning me to the ground. His teeth tearing at my arm while I tried to keep him off my throat. The clean sharp snap of bone where he bit through. My screams. His hand forcing my head back. Him rearing to strike. Helpless. He missed the neck; I never knew why. Teeth sank around my collarbone, snapped it. He lapped up my blood like a cat with cream. I lay under his weight listening to him lap up my blood. The broken bones didn’t hurt yet; shock. I was beginning not to hurt, not to be afraid. I was beginning to die.”

  13. Trassin says:

    You should check out the Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series of books. While it does have modern, humanized versions of the monsters, it also has some truly evil fucking monsters in it (some of the first books focus heavily on monsters being used to create snuff films). It is also a very adult series, and the only one that I know of which treats both the violence and the sexual sides of modern monster stories equally (and by equal I mean very graphic).

  14. I actually heard someone attribute the humanization of monsters to a far earlier source: Dark Shadows. I agree that it totally opened the door for a sympathetic series of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and such, but at least it kept the scare in them.

  15. Doc says:

    I agree. When I was a kid vampires were a big fear of mine. Nowadays, I think about Twilight and LAUGH. The only fear I have that has stuck with me is my Coulrophobia. All the things that scared me as a kid…have gone the fluffy route. It’s depressing. Kids these days see the Twilight movies and want to BE a vamp or a werewolf. When I was a kid, you wanted to RUN AWAY from vamps and werewolves.