A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
In our relentless campaign to Care Bear each and every unpleasantness out of our society, in the last few decades, we have literally kicked the hell out of Hallowe’en. We have turned witches into kindly grandmas, ghosts into benign (and oddly talkative) spirits, ghouls no longer eat the dead, and God only knows what happened to zombies. (The Apocalypse may be upon us, but, people, those aren’t zombies!) So, now, having glossed over all the best bits of October 31st, we’re left with nothing more than a gross-out Gorefest. All Hallow’s Eve has become a do-it-yourself Slasher Movie, complete with severed arteries, pulsing internal organs and body parts hacked off or hanging open. Unfortunately, these things aren’t scary. They’re disgusting — an adolescent attempt at grotesque. In our zeal to make sure everybody gets a rainbow, we missed the point, with disastrous results – again. Hallowe’en was never about monsters; it’s was about embodying evil so we could cope with it. So how did we go so wrong, so fast? Vampires! The minute we turned vampires into gentle, misunderstood creatures of the slightly cloudy afternoon, we were paving the road to hell with our good intentions.
Contrary to popular belief, Bram Stoker did not invent vampires in 1897; vampires have been around in folktales for centuries. Stoker invented Dracula, who was a vampire. He gave him all the bibs and bobs that we commonly associate with vampires — like bats and Transylvania — but Stoker got most of his ideas from another author and therein lies a tale.
A couple of centuries ago, in 1816 (the notorious Year Without Summer) a bunch of English somebodies were hanging out in a house in Geneva, bored out of their skulls. It was too cold and rainy to go outside and play, so they were spending their days getting wasted on claret (red wine) and laudanum (a very legal 19th century opium concoction.) They were, in no particular order, Lord Bryon; his personal physician, John Polidori; Percy Shelley; his fiancée, Mary Godwin; and a bunch of other revolving also-rans. Given the big brains on these folks, I imagine their slightly inebriated conversations were something to behold! Anyway, one afternoon/evening they got to talking about the nature of horror: what is evil and why are people both revolted and attracted to it? It was decided that rather than just sitting around jawing about it, they would all write a horror story, check and compare, and see what they’d come up with. The two big Kahunias, Bryon and Shelley, wrote perfectly acceptable, ultimately forgettable stories, but Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley) went all out and wrote Frankenstein. Not to be outdone — except by word count — John Polidori wrote a long short story called The Vampyre. Each tale was published soon after, and each was a huge popular success. It turns out people are, indeed, both revolted and attracted by horror.
Pretty much everybody knows the Frankenstein story — if only in its various misinterpretations. Actually, the horror of it was never simply the nameless monster, who, quite frankly, has a case against Victor Frankenstein, his creator. The horror was the complexity of the creation of life itself and the perversion of self awareness made hideous without a governing soul. Hard to translate into a 90 minute movie or a two-hour stage play, so most people just went with killer/monster and got it over with.
The Vampyre story, however, was a completely different beast. Lord Ruthven is a member of the British aristocracy — a gentleman who travels in the best London society. Yet he is not. He is a vampyre, a man undead, refused by heaven and hell. A soulless horror, he hunts from the shadows, preying on the innocent, drawing them to him and seducing them to satisfy his bloodlust. He exists undetected and unwatched — a nameless evil that walks among us, haunting the night and quietly waiting for his chance to strike.
A society without fear has let its ego run rampant. It has become so self absorbed that even its imagination has been confined to the boundaries of its own existence. Our greatest fear, as demonstrated by the scariest night of the year, is now bodily harm. It’s not the corruption of the soul, nor the torment of a life squandered, nor the dark loneliness of our isolated existence. It’s a cut, or a wound, or an injury (however serious) treatable by our science and technology. We are turning our individual bits of time, a mere blink of the eye of eternity, into the pinnacle of all creation. Unable to comprehend the vastness beyond our own lives, we have reduced its frightening power to a lunatic in a hockey mask.
From the beginning, Hallowe’en was the contemplation of the unrecognizable fear of what lay beyond the reach of our understanding. We shaped it into a child’s game to treat its terror with nervous laughter. But we need to keep its eerie foreboding to simply remind us that “there are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”