Monsters & the aesthetic

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A while back I was thinking about what makes a monster, so to speak. Not in the Frankenstein sense, but in terms of categorization. After all, there are lots of things we deem ‘monstrous’ and not all of them look very scary. It’s coming to the fore again in the media with trials and such; the term is usually conflated with the essence of evil. Although, in the same breath, we also call what are arguably quite cute things (such as the monsters from Monsters Inc) ‘monsters’. Stephen King deals with his concept of the monstrous in his book Danse Macabre. And last week, the term was thoroughly examined at a conference entitled ‘Monsters: subject, object, abject’ run by Hic Dragones. The conference itself was good fun – it was nice to hear such a range of disciplines offer their perspectives on different monsters. Whilst I was there, various papers continually came back to the notion of aesthetic monstrousness, rather than the idea of it manifesting in emotional, psychological or behavioural ways.

I’d asked a few friends who like drawing to draw me their concept of the word ‘monster’, and the following pictures were what I received:

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Nichola Collins (@lefthookdesign)

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Adam Patten (who can be found on facebook here)

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Russ Hillier (http://dronedonline.wordpress.com/)

Each are different, and everyone’s concept of monster is different. What I’m interested in are the universal concepts of monstrous that we trot out in media and entertainment – because they’re often no longer used to scare, but as a scapegoat for what we don’t like about ourselves and a way to explore our most primitive instincts.

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And mythology means what?

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So, I gave in and started watching The Vampire Diaries. I had previously assumed that it would be like the OC, but with vampires. 

Granted, with posters like this, why wouldn’t I think that?:

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Before anybody gets all ‘it’s basically just Twilight‘, it was based on a series of books by L.J Smith published in 1991, so it was way ahead of its time. The entire premise of the show seemed to be about Elena Gilbert, a high-school girl, who was lusted after by two vampire brothers. However, after a few episodes it becomes clear that it’s about more than that. It’s about the dynamics and politics of the small town of Mystic Falls, about the basic concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (which is usually present in most vampire fiction to be fair) and guises of normality.

The Vampire Diaries messes with traditional mythological aspects of the vampire: the vampires can walk in sunlight due to a magic ring they wear, and blood is again played with the addiction narrative. Witches feature heavily in the series – far more than in any other vampire series, which in itself is interesting. Whilst Willow may well have been a witch in Buffy, the presence and emphasis of witchcraft in the Vampire Diaries seems a firm fixture of the show, rather than a case of ‘giving central characters supernatural aspects’. Mythology is always going to be messed around with – all these interpretations of the supernatural are just re-workings and re-imaginings of old tales. Interestingly, in the second series, it arises that the ‘original’ vampires left “evidence” of tales and folklore in order to protect themselves in future. This is essentially self-serving from the perspective of these vampires, but self-referential in terms of the writing. Again, it’s like the rewriting of history that has come up in the genre previously. 

I like the difference in mythology, and the change in the dynamic of a vampire show. There are werewolves, but their presence isn’t overpowering as in True Blood or Being Human. One of the risks with The Vampire Diaries is that it seems to relate itself to other vampire narratives a bit too much. The Buffy references are obvious, it’s been compared to Twilight several times (despite the series being far more violent, far sexier and far less sparkly) and in terms of marketing, it’s quite clearly referencing True Blood…

True Blood: 

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Vampire Diaries (admittedly, a bit more PG):

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Anyway…I think the point is that it would be a shame to overlook what makes the series individual, and the interesting changes in mythology. So, if like me you dismissed it because of the seemingly derivative nature of it, look past it and give it a go.