How we stopped worrying and learned to make friends with the predatory undead

I don’t think there is a fable in Aesop where the sheep decide to befriend the wolves, or where the cows cooperate with the butcher to work out a mutually acceptable system for how they will be slaughtered.  The tale of Jupiter and the Frogs, which has to do with the yearning of the frogs for the glory and sense of importance that a monarch would reflect on them, probably comes closest to accounting for the contemporary American fascination with vampires, in which the blood-suckers have become outright positive figures, exemplifying moral integrity and other virtues.  In the November 2010 issue of Harper’s, Téa Obreht gets it right:

“The Americanized vampire is the ultimate fantasy for a nation in decline: the person who has been able to take it all with him when he dies, who has outlived the vagaries of civilization itself.  Having abandoned the culture that forged him, moreover, he deceives us into thinking that he has moved beyond what he always has been – a disease.  Now the plague he spreads is a therapeutic fantasy in which an embarrassment of wealth and youth and hedonism is acceptable as long as its beneficiary is equipped with the right intentions.  We have forgotten to be afraid because, as long as he protects his loved ones, as long as he is conscious of his own dangerous nature, as long as he pits himself willingly against others who share his wrath but not his noble motivations, we are willing to believe that a weapon of evil, in the right hands, can be transformed into an instrument of good.”

This transformation does not stop at vampires – Hannibal Lecter underwent it as well, becoming in the sequel to Silence of the Lambs a cannibal who is a dashing romantic and whose victims are invariably annoying.  The murderer becomes the savior of the heroine and by extension, of the audience as well.  It is a most curious way of dealing with evil, by converting into good by imputing to the evil act good motives: a therapeutic inversion of the tragic consciousness, whereby evil brings about the happy ending desired by the audience.  The film Mystic River (2003) is one of the most significant narratives of recent years to subject this theme to critical scrutiny.  But the unyielding optimism, one might say the relentless Pelagianism, of American culture is quite resistant to the dictum of Bernard of Clairvaux that good intentions pave the road to hell.

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2 responses

  1. This is amazing insight into vampires and the American culture. I never really thought about it like this. I was disappointed the film version of Hannibal didn’t have the same ending as the book in which Clarice stays with Lector. I was curious as to why. He is a bad guy and yet I was happy he stayed with Clarice. I think I know why now.

  2. To me, the phrase “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a rather blunt instrument, used usually by my parents as the final piece of proof in any argument about political idealism (itself a problematic term) about changing the status quo. But I do think your larger point that these stories are a sort of balm for a nation of people who suspect they are a plague (resource-wise, Americans *are* the blood-suckers of the planet) is totally valid.

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