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Monsters - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
I'm reading Fighting the Forces: What's At Stake In Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A collection of academic essays. (And man alive, am I jonesing for a good book of academic Harry Potter essays, and Star Wars essays... I'm such a Lit geek.)

What I've noticed repeatedly in these essays, as well as general interpretations of monsters online, is something that I don't think quite fits--the notion of the monster as nothing more than "other." This is true in BtVS scholarship, HP essays, etc. Vampires are the ultimate other, several writers declare. Lupin's lycanthropy is about him being different. And so on.

In general, what all of this ignores is that monsters are, well, monstrous. Unlike a neutral outsider who is unfairly persecuted, monsters are inherently dangerous, do pose a genuine threat.

It's true that over the years, various monsters have been grafted with the traits of outsider groups, or various groups have been treated as monsters. But the defining point of the monster isn't its cosmetic appearance (Eastern European vampires, for instance, bringing chaos and death to the west--I'm happy to concede that this has strong xenophobic content). The defining point of a vampire is that it is a vampire--it's stalks and kills its victims, draining their blood and oftent ultimately turning them into its own kind.

Now, the argument usually goes that "this is what people saw outsiders as doing," and that's fine--that's how the characteristics of alienated groups were assigned to vampires over the years. But in literary terms, to suggest that the vampire represents "the other" is to look only at what's been grafted on to it, not to its nature as a creature or a character. The vampire is, first and foremost, a killer. It kills by draining blood. At its very highest morality, it's an amoral predator. At its lowest, of course, it's allied with the forces of Hell. Iconically, the vampire represents outer evil, coming in to destroy the world.

Now, if the literary argument used were that outsider groups were symbolically doing this, it would hateful in the extreme, but at least a real comparison to the archetype. Unfortunately, the interpretation usually goes with the notion that we're "too quick to judge" or whatnot, that vampire stories are somehow cautionary tales about how not to treat outsiders, how to avoid xenophobia.

The werewolf is more complicated, as he is a regular guy most of the time (though Stephen King does a good breakdown in Danse Macabre about our fear that the "regular guy" really is a wolf all the time). The werewolf is the iconic symbol of inner evil. The old tendency was to attach the wolf to very nasty men who were deliberately choosing to do evil; the modern interpretation tends to juxtapose a very nice, sensitive man (Lupin or Oz) with the raging beast he's forced to become. I would argue that Anakin Skywalker is also, in very large measure, a werewolf character, even going so far as to have his appearance change when the beast finally emerges fully. (Note, though, that since he was first introduced in his transformed shape, his kind, normal side is mistrusted by vast numbers of fans, who assume that his sometimes awkward devotion to Padmé--a perfectly normal behavior pattern for a severe crush--is radicially re-interpreted as "stalking" or "scary," and some fans go so far as to assume he must abuse her... why? Because we knew the wolf first.)

We have sympathy for the werewolf not because he's the other, but because he's us... but that doesn't change the monstrousness of what his instincts are under the full moon. The transformed werewolf is not just another animal; it's the murderous instinct of the human race given bestial form.

The stories under discussion, though in every case they offer sympathy to the monster, do not suggest that monstrousness is morally neutral.

Rowling's Lupin is a very good example of this. In an earlier post, I talked about lycanthropy as a metaphor for mental illness, but it's mental illness of an especially violent variety. He's a good, kind man--but she makes it clear in his final scene that he understands the danger of the wolf, even when he thinks the transformation can be controlled. One misstep (and an easy one to make), and he could kill or transform anyone, even people he loves. This is not an "otherness." This is a monstrosity.

Now, the werewolf, being decidedly "us" in a literary sense, does need to be reintegrated into society in his modern form. Oz is a vital part of the Scooby team. Lupin belongs back in the classroom. Anakin must be redeemed. But, while there is a question of social prejudice, the real issue with the werewolf is controlling the beast within. There may be unfair laws passed against werewolves, but Lupin isn't off the hook--he has to make sure that he takes his Potion and at the very least locks himself in his office during full moons. He has to keep track of when it will happen, and he is responsible for not hurting anyone. That's how he can rejoin the community. Oz may want to stomp out of a fight with his friends, but if it's right before the full moon, he must go into the library's book cage and stay there.

BtVS actually provided a look at the werewolf who sees herself merely as "other"--the werewolf Veruca looked at her lycanthropy as little more than being in an exclusive club, a kind of violent one where the rules were different than they were for other people. At the end of the episode, she locks herself in a room with Willow before a transformation with the explicit purpose of killing her as a wolf. This is your medieval werewolf--an evil person who uses the inner wolf to gain desired things. This is strongly juxtaposed against Oz, who goes so far as to leave Sunnydale and seek isolation to avoid hurting people. That this was kind of awkward in regard to the BtVS community ethos is a given--that's life with actors who have real life careers; sometimes you just have to do an awkward exit--but the point of his departure is the same as the point of his voluntary physical restraint, something he starts doing without prompting during his first transformative cycle. He is putting shackles on the monster--and the show looks at this with explicit approval, and deliberately contrasts it with Veruca's carelessness and cruelty. It is not all right to let the monster out.

The vampires in BtVS have some more traditionally werewolf-like charactistics (looking normal most of the time but bestial when feeding), but I think they still represent outer evil--their souls are kicked out and their bodies inhabited by demons. When Buffy goes through and "dusts" a lot of vampiric extras, we're not meant to see it as a negative action, trying to eradicate outsiders. They aren't fluffy bunnies, and they are dangerous--they're out for an all-you-can-eat-buffet (as Spike puts it, they think of humans as happy meals on legs). The act of vampirism is not a morally neutral one, and the show does not suggest it is. (The final Angel... maybe. But I won't go there, as I don't have time before work.)

Harry Potter hasn't yet shown us a traditional vampire, but I'd argue that it would be almost redundant. We do, after all, have a graveyard scene of a man rising from the dead and consuming Harry's blood to replenish himself. Voldemort is a vampire, in the same way Anakin is a werewolf. And there is nothing at all morally neutral about it.

Star Wars, pretending to be science fiction (yeah, uh-huh), gives us a vampire as symbolic as its werewolf. Palpatine, with his increasing pallor and increasingly monstrous appearance, ends the series sitting in his spider's web (love that window), using the traditional vampiric "thrall" to entice Luke, sucking up hate and anger with glee. Again, this is not presented as a morally neutral act. He is outer evil--possibly engendered by inner demons, as Voldemort was--establishing himself inside as a bit of chaos that will ultimately consume the galaxy.

But we love Lupin, and he's unfairly discriminated against! And what about Spike and Angel and redemption? And am I not the one who's always on people's case about giving Anakin a bit of compassion?

This is where the new gothic is, to me, much more interesting than the old form (though don't mess with evil!Dracula, Mr. Coppola... sympathetic Lucy and Mina are quite enough in one story...) While the morality is very much absolute--calling the morality in any of these stories "relative" strikes me as missing the point--the characters themselves are not "programmed" to go one way or the other. In BtVS, every single major character goes back and forth between dark and light choices, and the monsters provide a really good canvas on which to paint the struggle. Can Oz restrain himself? Can Spike resist the powerful urges of his demon? (Inner and outer evil, respectively.) There is a strong notion of self and responsibility--Oz has had something happen to him and Spike made the world's worst choice many years ago, but both of them are ultimately able to assert their humanity (Spike literally being given back his soul from the ether in order to accomplish this)--their self-control--over their respective monstrosities, and that is what makes them admirable characters.

Lupin is in a struggle with his monster, and it never ends, but most of the time, he beats it. Most of the time, he is able to live as a man instead of a beast. But he can never totally win, because human beings can't be perfect. That doesn't mean that, Veruca-like, he should just accept and embrace the wolf. The essence of humanity is fighting the monstrous, and in his struggle, he is made more deeply human. (Everyone has some kind of lycanthropic battle going on, so it's not just limited to literal lycanthropes.) Peter has been "vamped" by Voldemort in a way... can he, Spike-like, begin to fight against the urges?

We know the end of Anakin's story--although he succumbs to his monster for many years, he ultimately re-establishes his humanity. And Luke is able to withstand Palpatine's mental vampirism and reject that path... but we aren't kidded into imagining it's impossible that he would take it.

Good and evil are as simple as ever in horror stories, but the complexity of modern stories is in the characters, who constantly have to choose, and who have the free will to do so. Where the sin of xenophobia does come in is with people who deny them this will--people who pigeonhole Lupin as "a werewolf" and therefore refuse to give him a chance to prove himself as a man; people who look at Spike only as "Hostile 17" and won't consider the possibility of change.

But in all cases, this is dependent not on the person or the society accepting monstrousness--it's dependent on the person putting up a fight against the monster, and society allowing him the chance to be human... and this humanity is not portrayed as negative assimilation, but as positive heroism. If one identifies the monster as simply "other," then this is unconscionable--demanding that the other conform to majority norms in order to be accepted. But if the monster is seen as the two frailties of human society (inner and outer evil), then the celebratory attitude when they defeat those frailties makes sense.

Anyway, that's my thought for the day on monsters.
21 comments or Leave a comment
From: ireact Date: August 11th, 2004 08:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I think Anakin is a big whiny jerk. I always assumed that he'd been a good, well-meaning kid with a hot temper which eventually consumed him when a few loved ones were lost. Probably a good guy who became so desperate to see everything done right by him that he went insane over it. But then EPISODE II came out and -- no, Anakin was pretty much always a jerk. And a loser. And a whiny brat. And a homicidal git. And he had a bizarre Natalie Portman fixation and she was so charmed by his stalkerishly obsessive behaviour that she married him.

I suppose the moral of the story is that people who've been divorced for years and years and remain largely alone and unloved should probably not write screenplays with romance in them.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2004 08:58 am (UTC) (Link)
I disagree with your assessment of Anakin in AotC from the word go.
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: August 11th, 2004 09:45 am (UTC) (Link)
man alive, am I jonesing for a good book of academic Harry Potter essays
MBLN does have a book of academic essays on Harry Potter. I remember checking it out (though I really only had the chance to skim it). Hold on, let me look it up.

Reading Harry Potter: critical essays. BPL's copy is on hold, but Malden's available.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2004 10:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I've seen that one... alas, I always tend to think of it when I haven't got my card handy to hold Malden's copy. :)
swatkat24 From: swatkat24 Date: August 11th, 2004 11:21 am (UTC) (Link)


They have a Harry Potter critical essays book? *add name to must check out list*

persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: August 11th, 2004 10:47 am (UTC) (Link)
You have given me a rather odd idea for a -- I want to say "Subreality fic," but that doesn't mean anything to people outside its original fandom, I think. I mean the sort of meta-ish story where characters are in a position to acknowledge they're imaginary and comment on the way people (the real or fanfic authors) write them without this giving them serious issues with reality. ;) Anyway, the point is, now I'm tempted to write Anakin and Ginny having a chat about the fans (or anti-fans) who can't tell the difference between stalking and a crush.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2004 10:53 am (UTC) (Link)
Oo, post a link if you do write it. Those two could really have a world class bull session on the subject. Though I think Harry and Padmé might be even more qualified to comment. (Points to icon.)
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: August 11th, 2004 11:07 am (UTC) (Link)
"They think I'm going to go evil. Or already am."

"Er... well, they know I'm going to go evil, but that doesn't mean I am yet."

Ginny gave her companion a slightly wary look.

"I'm not! It's not my fault Lucas decided to start in the middle of the story."


And hmm, good point. I'm trying to figure out what exactly Harry would say on the subject now. "No, Ginny isn't creepy. You are. Go away and leave my friends alone." ;)

I love that icon, by the way. (Also the Anakin one. The last frame slays me. *g*)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2004 12:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
I may beat you to it. I'm thinking about what Harry would say as well.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: August 11th, 2004 12:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm certainly not going to complain. :)
isiscolo From: isiscolo Date: August 11th, 2004 11:41 am (UTC) (Link)
Have you not read The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter yet? Some of the essays are terrific. (Some are either too academic for me to understand, or seem like total bullshit to me, though.)

And I happen to know that a new volume of essays on Harry Potter fandom will be coming out Real Soon Now.
mona1347 From: mona1347 Date: August 11th, 2004 12:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well done! *applause*

I think the "othering" of monsters is all about perspective. If you are "lit crit-ing" on monsters and see things from the non-monster position, then the monster is clearly the "other." But if you are talking about a mythos such as Joss Whedon's or Anne Rice's even, then you are more likely to see things from the "monster" perspective. Though, of course, there are those (often "us fans") who, regardless, identify with characters who are presented in canon as "monstrous." There are also those fans who will never be able to fully identify with the "monsters" even if they are presented as sympathetic, often because they are monsters or exhibit monstrous behavior (see some of the fan reaction to Hagrid's love of dangerous creatures for instance).

I personally believe that a lot of fangrrls (and fanbois) identify with such mythos' and characters like Angel or Remus Lupin because we see the monster in ourselves and must, like these characters, fight against those inner "demons" and be a good human being regardless of monstrous personal life experience.

Example: Tom Riddle and Harry Potter are both extremely powerful wizards who grew up parent-less in situations of neglect and, I would argue, outright abuse. Yet Riddle becomes a powerful Dark Lord and Potter (presumably) becomes his generation's Dumbledore - extraordinarily powerful and Good. I think that one of the themes of the books is that even though you may have evil "within" you (Remus' werewolf, Sirius' dark wizarding upbringing, James' arrogance, the part of Harry's power that came from Voldemort, etc) - you can choose.

Thought provoking essay! I hope I didn't ramble too long. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 11th, 2004 01:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
Not at all... interesting response!

Most of these essays, though lit-crit, are fan-written, but obviously written by fans who've educated themselves on the subject matter. The "monster-as-other" seems to me to be a common motif in critting gothic literature, but I think, just standing back and looking at it, that it requires putting the cart before the horse. What came first... the notion of a blood-sucking demon that feeds on people at night, or the idea that Carpathian noblemen were sucking the lifeblood out of England, with the figure of Count Dracula created to show that?

I find the former a more convincing scenario--the vampire exists as an icon (and has for a long time), to which various contemporary fears are attached (often sexual in nature, though xenophobia is pretty common as well). In 1980, Stephen King wrote in Danse Macabre that the sexual engine that had driven so much vampire fiction had finally run out, but in the early and mid-80s, the culture was hit by a sexual body-slam, not only with AIDS, but with the return of variants of other diseases. Sex became scary again, and the vampire became sexy again... but was definitly still a vampire. That was the particular cultural fear that was attached to the icon at that time, and still is. Vamps in Buffy very much are associated with sex, and not in a healthy way. They're the anxious and fearful part, right up to "Touched" and "Chosen," at which point Spike has largely overcome his vampiric appetites and is feeling as a normal human.

The vampiric Voldemort is a different kind of anxiety, not fear of the modern world, but fear of the past rising up. It's notable that he is not an outsider--he's the character most closely associated with Harry himself.

With that juxtaposition, it would look like Buffy is a reactive show fearing a modern innovation and HP is a modern book series afraid of being drawn back by anti-progress forces, but I don't think that's what's going on. BtVS is very much a progressive show, and HP is a very traditionalist fairy tale. In fact, the very reason Whedon and Rowling are able to navigate their worlds as well as they do is that their monsters are native to their worldview. Buffy is full-speed ahead, looking to the future, and its anxieties and shadows are the fears associated with that movement. HP seeks to reconnect to a stolen past, and its anxiety and shadow is someone who is doing just that. Neither creator is pointing the finger at another group of people and saying, "They're bad, we're good!" But are presenting a world in which the explore both the positive and negative aspects of a quest.
mona1347 From: mona1347 Date: August 11th, 2004 02:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
I understand just what you mean, it's a chicken/egg scenario. I tend to agree with you. The monsters, I also think, came first (I'm coming from an anthropological perspective so I think of predators during our early evolution) and the symbolism comes and goes as necessary to society.

I'd never thought of Buffy as bringing the ancient and, what's often depicted as, outdated ways/ideas into the future and HP hearkening back to the past. Well, I did think of them separately in that way but not juxtaposed. Makes for an interesting way to view the fandoms.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: August 11th, 2004 02:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh my goodnes I just can't keep up anymore .adn yet agai ni'll haveto save this to read later.
I" macutal ySCARED to go itno yor uarchives for mbefore I friended youbecasue there msut be thousands of itnerestign theorising posts floating abotu and jsut as it is with my huge pile of books on anything and everything it's just...whoa .This lj thign has made me crazy for essays and long rambles on anything that tickles my itnerrest and eee! i need to read al lof it before the end of my life! help!! :)
ha-hem..which is jstuto say i'm goignto lvoe this topic but i'm goign t ogetthis waiting list que of links cleaned up onceadn for all now its' cooled won over here and m ybrain is back to work.
ouch .and fics. millions of fics. help!!
Heh .I mglad to know you. I like yoru fodo for thought.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: August 11th, 2004 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
*Grumbles* Good job, Fernwithy, you got me thinking again. :P

Now that I think more about it, I think the connotation of "the other" to monsters isn't really to monsters. (No, I'm not on drugs, thank you very much. :D) Like with werewolves in Harry Potter. I think that people often take one aspect of a werewolves existence, that sense of prejudice and hatred by the community at large, and isolate it from the fact that, once a month, Lupin and others actually are monsters. They don't realize it, but they think of the isolation as "the other", and then refer to one aspect of Lycanthropy as lycanthropy, instead of recognizing that it is only a part of what the disease really means.
lazypadawan From: lazypadawan Date: August 11th, 2004 10:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Great thoughts as always. I think with the advent of the antihero, postmodernism in fiction, and moral relativism, there's a tendency to see monsters as misunderstood, non-conformists, misfits, etc., ignoring the fact that they are predators and killers. I've always believed monsters have long represented manifestations of humanity's dark underbelly as well as symbols of what people fear: being eaten, brutally killed, turned into a monster, being lost, attacked in the safety of one's own home, and so forth.

BTW, your response to the Anakin-basher wins Most Diplomatic Yet Succinct Reply to an Obviously Provocative Post.

From: londonkds Date: August 12th, 2004 03:29 am (UTC) (Link)

Saw this on mutant_allies

Yeah, a lot of the essays in Fighting the Forces seem to completely lose track of the fact that the characters in question are habitually biting people's throats out. And it isn't just vampires it applies to - the Faith essay in that book comes perilously close to arguing that feeling guilt over killing people is a hypocritical bourgeois affectation.

But I'd be interested to know what you think about the portrayal of demons in AtS, because there are enough episodes in which demons are explicitly portrayed as metaphorical cultural minorities (Hero, That Old Gang of Mine, all the Caritas scenes, the equation of human-demon conflict with Deep South racial conflict in the Pylea arc) to make things like Lorne's infamous "slimy demon" line in Forgiveness and the universal evil of demons in S5 genuinely troubling to me.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: August 12th, 2004 08:22 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Saw this on mutant_allies

Well, I honestly haven't watched much of Angel (joined in the last season, having only seen a handful of episodes before it). I'm trying to catch up on TNT Tuesday nights, but haven't been watching long enough for an opinion. (What I've seen, I've found less emotionally compelling for some reason, though it seems to be handled well enough.)

the Faith essay in that book comes perilously close to arguing that feeling guilt over killing people is a hypocritical bourgeois affectation.

Yeah, that essay took awhile for me to get through--I kept scratching my head and going, "Heh? Were we watching the same show here?" By defining decent, moral behavior as a bourgeois affectation, the author really did a disservice to the racial and class groups she seemed to think she was championing.

Of course, not only is monster-as-outsider a commonly propounded theme, the outsider is also nearly fetishized. (In fact, that essay castigates Buffy, in essence, for being an insider on her own show... how dare she?) I think this goes into the Marauder-hate in HP as well. Heaven forbid, James and Sirius were popular insiders! It's the Mark of the Beast! ;)

Thanks for the mutant_allies mention... I couldn't find how it got you over here, but I definitely joined. Sounds like some good Buffyism there.
From: londonkds Date: August 12th, 2004 12:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, it all comes back to the very white, middle-class nature of the characters, and the fact that all these "outsiders" and "geeks" are played by people in the top 2% band of physical attractiveness. And it may not be the same thing, but some people I know dislike the very insular portrayal of the Scoobies in later seasons, and the virtual disappearance of the actual citizens of Sunnydale.
purplerebecca From: purplerebecca Date: August 12th, 2004 01:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Excellent essay! Cool stuff. (have nothing pertinent to add. :)
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