Mental illness and the monster

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As I left my last blog post, I discussed how women were ‘excused’ from monstrosity by assigning a mental illness to them, in particular with Aileen Wuornos, or Hannah McKay being dubbed ‘psychopathic’. But it goes much deeper than that. Before the advent of the DSM (the psychologist’s bible), acts of ‘monstrosity’ weren’t often excused. They were just seen as evil. Killers were driven by the devil, and narcissists were evil people out for their own ends (like Othello’s Iago).

Anyway, the tables have turned. Now, we’ve gone so far the other way that it’s detrimental to those with mental illness who don’t happen to partake in a spot of light murder or raping. Whenever a serial killer, mass-murderer or particularly contemptible human being does something vile, we search their life-history like wannabe-Sherlock Holmes, desperate to piece together the solution as to why they did what they did. But sometimes, there isn’t always a simple solution. Often, any signs of mental struggle are pounced upon and a nod of understanding is given as if to say that solves the mystery. This absolves both the monster and the society that raised it. Take, for example, the recent vile human (that I’m not going to name) who killed women. Once a history of Asperger’s was found, there was less of a focus on his actions, and more a look at how his asperger’s had taken root.**

The same has happened over and over again, particularly as mental illness has been more specifically categorised and used in narratives onscreen. Interestingly, many monster narratives now position their monsters as suffering from illness in the form of compulsions or addictions (vampires). Toby Whithouse, the writer for the BBC series, Being Human, stated that his original idea for the main cast was to portray different mental illnesses – agoraphobia (the ghost), anger issues (werewolf) and addiction (vampire). Monsters can embody these because they are not human, but as we’ve seen with the vampire, the closer they do get to humanity, the stronger the need to classify their mistakes as a form of mental illness.

Although understanding our monsters may be interesting, and helps reassure us of our own ‘normality’, it’s a double-edged sword. By giving every criminal a diagnosis, it fuels a perception of mentally ill people as violent, when in reality, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than anyone else. There are different types of illness, and a minority of them can trigger violent outbursts. Unfortunately, absolving our monsters of blame has become screen-worthy.

In a slight tangent, the artist Toby Allen created a series of images anxietymonstersthat imagined various mental illnesses as monsters themselves – which helped separate the person from their illness. They are beautiful, and can be found here.

 

**This is not to say that Asperger’s is a mental ‘illness’, rather that it is often seen as one, and anything ‘out of the ordinary’ is seen as a reason – and simultaneously assures others that they are in the remit of ‘normal’.

Revisiting gender: the monstrous feminine

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After last month’s trip to Chicago for the annual PCA/ACA conference, several ideas have jumped into my head that I want to explore in this blog.

The first, and the subject of this blog, is the idea of the monstrous feminine and how gender divisions are prominent across monster fiction and the reception of it. There was a lot of discussion about the portrayals of women in franchises such as The Walking Dead but that looked at the living, non-monstrous characters.

Instead, I’m talking about the female monsters of these series and their ability to be seen as equally violent and monstrous – does their femininity detract or enhance the effect of monstrosity? This came up in a talk about female serial killers. There just aren’t that many onscreen, and when they make an appearance, they’re often softened or ‘fixed’ by traditional feminine aspects such as motherhood (think Hannah McKay for example in Dexter – the series ended with her taking care of Dexter’s son and we’re lead to believe she renounces her ways). Obviously loves flowers

Why is it so hard to conceive of a female monster that enacts violence, rather than just functioning as a sexual deviant and morality tale? The primary focus of many monster narratives these days are the male leads, and they often act as ‘saviours’ or protectors for a female human.

At the centre of monstrosity is the need to control, destroy and enact primitive behaviours. Yet when it comes to women, they are seen as creators due to the maternal side and often are the nurturers of the stories, taking care of the wounded or often, helping the monster renounce his ways and redeem himself through a connection to his opposite (destruction/creation). Again, Hannah McKay enacts this despite her apparent monstrosity, growing flowers and creating new life.

In vampire films where there are female monsters, such as vampires, they are often given a tragic backstory that involves abuse, so as to temper their monstrosity, or give a ‘motive’ for it. Yet, monstrosity isn’t always created, it’s just there. Giving a reason for it absolves the perpetrator, and this is primarily the case with the female monsters, who for some reason, we struggle with. It is probably known by anyone reading this that female vampires are usually seen as sexually deviant or as lesbians. For some reason, monstrosity in women also subverts their sexuality – perhaps because it goes against their ‘supposed roles’ (my tongue is very firmly in my cheek).

Why can’t there just be evil females without the need to explain, or excuse, or subvert? Whilst I can see for shows involving serial killers that women are rarely the perpetrators of such crimesTheron and Ricci (and if they are, their aspects of deviant sexuality and tragic backstory are played on, such as Aileen Wurnos in the 2003 Monster), with supernatural and sci-fi narratives, there are no rules. Can’t we imagine a woman acting on deadly impulse?

In my mind, it goes back to the need to uphold certain schemas, to maintain balance. By investing the female aggressors with a subversive sexuality or tragic backstory, they are acting out their anger at not fitting into the world, which, paradoxically, is their role. This is part of a bigger issue in narratives or explanations for monstrosity that occur across genders. Particularly the tragic backstory, or as I will discuss in the next post, mental illness. For now, try and imagine what the story would be if Hannibal were female…

Monstrous humans: or, why serial killers are in style

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This blog is mainly about monsters – and in its time, there has been the odd comment about the comparison  between humans and monsters. This, admittedly, has been primarily due to the fact that monsters are becoming increasingly humanised in order to appeal to a televisual and literary audience who want to experience and encounter emotions, situations and catastrophes they can identify with (which, in part, explains the over-saturation of the romantic monster – love – or rather, heartbreak – is the universal tragedy we will all encounter).

Regardless, a focus on the human hasn’t occurred here, simply because there has been little reason for it prior to now.

Angel of Death

Religious themes and a saviour complex

For those of you who are Dexter fans, you may have seen the show come to an end last year  (albeit, a disappointing one). Looked at logically, Dexter should be viewed as a monstrous figure. He drugs, ritualistically kills and butchers people, leaving behind no trace. Yet even the promotional materials place him as something like morally grey, as he is ‘avenging’ and targeting those who have done wrong. Does this make murder right? We are shown his neuroses, his need to kill (which, arguably, echoes that of the vampire) and his channeling of that need for ‘good’. David Schmid argues that “Dexter is the quintessential serial killer of the post-9/11 era in that he is provided with an abundance of characteristics that make him a sympathetic, even identificatory, figure to the audience.” This the case with the post-9/11 monster – embedded with sympathetic traits making them inherently watchable and identifiable.

But what now? With Dexter’s end, what happens? 2013/2014 has so far brought us a different class of serial killer. Firstly, the brilliant Hannibal. Despite the filmic and book versions being in circulation for decades, this TV series focuses instead on the character of Will Graham, the FBI agent who was formerly friends with Hannibal. It is deliciously twisted, and probes into the psyche of Will as he battles against the wits of Lecter. It also features the well-known cannibal preparing meal after meal of human flesh, and serving it to his unwitting guests.

Hannibal-Cast

Yet, Hannibal is not made out to be a sympathetic character. We are exposed to his manipulative behaviour, his murderous desires and his strangeness. He, like many monsters, ingests the human body – except it is far more disgusting and repellant to us. This could be because it is more visceral – monsters such as the vampire affix their mouths to a neck, a wrist, and drain blood. Hannibal butchers, prepares and even shows off his treatment of human organs before he eats them. It is a far grittier experience visually, more animalistic, and puts him in the category of monstrous.

The other notable show with a focus on a serial killer is the new HBO offering True Detective. Dark, brooding, and thoughtful, it mixes elements of Hannibal with the Southern-gothic feel of True Blood. Religious iconography in TD

The show marries the hunt for a serial killer with a religious fixation with a cynical commentary from its main protagonist, Rust. The first killing we are exposed to features ritualistic elements not unlike those featured in Hannibal where the victim is positioned, decorated and made the centre of a tableaux. In investigating, the detectives find the same outline of the victim on a church wall. The making of a human victim into an animal through horns also occurs in Hannibal and makes the killer seem even more monstrous by contrast. The stripping of humanity from a victim is the pinnacle of monstrosity.

But as to why these killers have moved from a sympathetic tone to a violent, visceral focus is something needing to be questioned. If Dexter was the quintessential post-9/11 killer, perhaps we have moved on to another epoch. With our monsters now sympathetic, perhaps the cycle has moved to the monstrous human once again being the target for our fear, terror and loathing. In the modern monster, we have seen our vices echoed and worked-through. The serial killer reflects elements we cannot, as a society, accept, and thus, they become scarier than the monsters that were once under the bed.

Ending the cycle: NBC’s Dracula and the final season of True Blood

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Vampires are dark and scary. Or they were. Some still are. Not many – most are now romantic fodder for young minds. There are a few who stick to their roots and indulge in a good ol’ bit of blasphemy and shocking behaviour. With this round of the vampire craze, we’ve seen a predominantly female-targeted version of the figure, allowing the fantasy of ‘taming the bad boy’ to use the ultimate sinner. However, it’s not just women that have changed these vampires; many appear to have developed one of those things called a conscience and feel bad about killing. So human morality is foisted on them, and therefore they’re human enough to be a romantic interest. Not at all necrophilia or bestiality. Hurrah.

Anyway, the point is…this cycle has come to an end. For all the many movies, TV shows, TV spin-off shows (I’m looking at you, Vampire Diaries) and books, this current sympathetic vampire is being put to bed. Hopefully in a coffin. And how do I know? There’s a very obvious answer: Dracula. NBC Dracula

With the advent of NBC’s stab at the vampire market comes the realisation that we are back to where we began. Dracula is the most remade vampiric figure, even if indirectly. He’s been parodied, altered, reversed, and modified so much that the number of Dracula-a-likes are mind-boggling. And also, unseen. Every vampire tale embodies elements of Dracula, taking bits that suit their storylines or would seem appealing to audiences. Because we want to embrace our inner demons and be more expressive, our onscreen demons now take a more human form, portraying the difficulties of the human struggle. The reality is that we don’t need another Dracula remake, even if it’s televisual. This time, he’s posing as an American entrepreneur. Oh good. Like none of the other current vampire series feature the Americanised vampire. The Americanisation of Dracula displays the entrenchment of the American vampire in our cultural moment.

True Blood was the closest we got to breaking away from the mould. Although the first series focused on the romantic storyline between Sookie and Bill – this was for a good reason. The first and second series stood by the book’s storyline fairly closely to draw in fans of the novels and introduce the True Blood world to the uninitiated.

Sookie Ben

The most ridiculous faerie sex ever.

Later seasons delved into the moral complications of vampirism, religion, and all with a delightfully HBO edge. But, with the announcement of next year’s season 7 being the last, I have to say I’m relieved. The storylines were become too convoluted and it hit the point of true disbelief after a particular sex scene with a glowing light. It was a good attempt at the vampire metaphor, and tackled some interesting perspectives and issues. Let’s stop it before it becomes another parody.

The Mask of the Monster

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Masks feature heavily in monster fiction; both literally and figuratively the idea of the mask is prevalent across narratives, and seeps into those without supernatural creatures too. In thinking about this recently, it seemed only sensible to explore it a bit more. Of course, once I started, then connections began to spring forth.

Why is the idea of the mask so important to monstrosity? Firstly, a way to illustrate this would be to remind you of one of the most famous masks in culture:

Phantom-Eric-alws-phantom-of-the-opera-movie-19743666-1943-2435

 

Yes, The Phantom of the Opera. His mask hides his monstrosity, or his deformity, and the crux of the story, like so many others, is whether he can be accepted by his true love for what he really is underneath the mask. It acts as a barrier between the public and the private self, an armour of sorts, a self-chosen identity. The same goes (to an extent) with the multiple serial killers in slash-flicks who obscure themselves behind masks, though their ultimate aim is to terrify with the fear of the unknown (without knowing who is under the mask, it could potentially be anyone, and the possibility is more frightening than its answer) rather than being accepted.

When it comes to figurative masks, it is the monsters of the present day screens that can be seen wearing these. The current fascination with assimilating with humanity requires masquerading as something else, something that is socially acceptable. The mask is behavioural, not cognitive, and allows the monster to pass undetected. It is reminiscent of gods who assume human form in order to avoid fear or alienation. It is particularly prevalent in shows such as The Vampire Diaries, Being Human and to an extent, True Blood.

True Blood is a very interesting case indeed. Because vampires are ‘out of the coffin’, there is little to no need for a mask, as their identity is known. However, they still need to maintain a respectable relationship with the humans, primarily to acquire political rights. For the most part, vampires pretend to be more human friendly than they are, simply as some kind of PR exercise. Rather than the vampire being the one who needs to hide in the shadows and wear a public mask, it is the other monsters in the series who are lurking behind the pretense of humanity – and not just the supernatural creatures…

Magic features heavily in the series, and we see Jesus, Lafayette’s boyfriend, channel a power/demon when he dons a mask. true-face-of-evil

It gives him powers, and in this case the mask is not a way of hiding or obscuring a truth, but contorting it and making the wearer a monster. The mask seems to have a power of its own, and the wearer cannot control their actions, rather, they are just the vehicle.

On the other hand, masks also feature in True Blood as a way to both make a political statement and protect a group of extremists from prosecution. This group, a bunch of vampire haters, brutally attack vampires and ride around taunting them in Obama masks. The mask here is used as an uncanny device – taking the familiar face of a politician and matching it up with extremist acts and violence.

true-blood-mask  It seems for the most part that the mask is synonymous with monstrous, whether literally or             figuratively. For the monster, the mask offers safe passage in a world where they are rejected. But for humans that don a mask, it turns them into a monster.

TV Vampires

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I’m attending a conference this weekend on TV Vampires, and it got me thinking about the use and development of the TV vampire. Especially given the explosion of several TV series featuring vampires and the upcoming shows that are to air as part of the ‘Fall Schedule’. 

It could be argued that Buffy was a turning point for televisual vampires, as is so often stated in articles about this topic. Following Buffy there were also a number of other vampire related series, and even before. Forever Knight was one, along with a number of lesser-known shows. The difference is that vampires are now big business and putting them on the small screen is sometimes more commercially viable than releasing a single film. Why exactly that is could be down to a number of reasons, but I speculate its something to do with the fan culture around TV series and the way we interact with televisual texts. 

TV is an extended narrative which allows for a broader development and better characterisation, multiple plot twists and bite-sized installments of a story. However, it is heavily reliant on advertising, particularly in the US, so some viewpoints and topics are deemed too contraversial to screen. Saying this, due to the metaphorical nature of the vampire, the figure can portray and explore a number of issues other series couldn’t. Magical realism (a genre which many of these series arguably inhabit) broaches a number of topics that are extremely relevant to today’s society (which is essentially what I’m arguing in my thesis). 

Shows like True Blood are doing this to greater effect. As it’s a HBO show, there is room for riskier viewpoints, scenes and visceral manifestations to be screened. TB comes under fire for the graphic content often shown in its episodes, but the fan base is incredibly strong, and it’s proved itself to be a series worth taking note of. 

However, there seems to be a trend for explanatory narratives now, Imagealong with remakes. I say this in reference primarily to the upcoming Dracula series starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers which explores Dracula’s life before the book. It follows a similar pattern to the recent series of Hannibal, which, whilst it is an excellent series (in my opinion) relies on the audience’s knowledge of the concepts and character of Hannibal to be of any true value. The same goes with Dracula. Conceptions of the figure are important in the consumption of the new show, and ratings at first will be probably heavily reliant on those well-acquainted with the story. 

Another popular US vampire TV show is Being Human which is a remake of the British version. With all this, it appears that many of the current TV vampires are an attempt to cash in on the unquenchable thirst for vampires and offer different takes on already established stories. Whether this means they’ll be limited in their contribution to the vampire genre is yet to be seen. Serialising the vampire has been popular since the penny-dreadful editions of Varney the Vampire, and the format attracts strong fandoms, commercial interest and opportunities for spin-offs. (Angel being one, and there’s an upcoming Vampire Diaries spin-off in the works)

If I were being cynical, I’d say the TV industry is sucking the last drops of life from every existing vampire narrative already in existence. But, I’m a sucker for a good story. Let’s just hope they show us a side of the vampire not already done to death.

 

Different kinds of monsters, or, Del Toro’s decline…

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Now, I’m a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro. Cronos was an excellent film, not least because it featured a vampiric protagonist and some awesome set-pieces (that watch!). Then there’s the classic Pan’s Labyrinth, which features some of the weirdest looking and imaginative monsters on screen I’ve seen for a while, and was rightfully met with the critical acclaim it deserved. Some hated Hellboy, but the first one at least wasn’t a bad film. And although the source material wasn’t his, there was still a healthy dose of monsters involved. 

I’d rekindled my love of him last year when I read The Strain trilogy, which links to my research perfectly (9/11 + vampires) and things were starting to go so well again.

But then, oh no. OH NO. Pacific Rim. 

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Before I get bashed in the face with some Del Toro – loving logic, let me explain why I think it’s going to be a disappointment.

1. The trailer. I know, thou shalt not judge a film by its trailer…but in this case. The sound effects, the panning shots, the overdramatic fight between humanity and the aliens….everything screams TRANSFORMERS. And not in a good way. I mean Michael Bay’s bastardised version of the franchise. 

2. The film is about pitting aliens against robots. It’s clearly aimed at 13 year old boys. So why do I care, considering I am neither of these things? Well, Del Toro has become a master of monsters, and he’s trying to position aliens and robots as monsters. Which they’re clearly not.

3. Del Toro has described the film as a “beautiful poem to giant monsters.” See the above point. Robots are mechanical and even those with AI cannot be imbued with the emotions of a monster or villain that are required – vengeance, anguish, psychopathy. They’re cold functioning circuits. And aliens…well, they’re closer to the line but still without the classic traits of the monster.

4. He’s written a story about the incredibly cliched ‘us versus them’ situation. Which, arguably, is a staple of monster fiction – as they are opposing, they are inhuman, and they define our humanity. But if you were going to make a film about robots versus aliens, why not make it more complex than just a glorified battle sequence? (with undoubtedly a brief romantic plotline thrown in there, a hero ‘stepping up’ and a bad guy dying…)

I’m only angry about this because I love you, Del Toro. Go back to what you’re good at. Put down the Transformers DVDs and come back to the light….