Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some Thoughts on Vampire Hunters

Despite the current fad for all things zombie, you still can't swing a dismembered zombie arm without hitting some sort of vampire media.  Once the stuff of mere folklore and superstition vampires have been big media bucks for several decades now.  I can understand why.  Vampire films/shows/books are cheaper than a washed up barfly at last call.  If you want to make a werewolf picture, or zombie picture, or monster movie you are going to need special effects, make-up, probably some CGI.  If you want to make a vampire picture all you need is a complete lack of self-respect and some plastic fangs.  The fangs are optional, actually.  I'm not saying you can't go big budget; I am saying you don't need to go big budget.  Similarly if you want to write a moderately successful vampire novel take the nearest romance novel or porn, put a vampire in it and viola, vampire novel.  Sadly this trend has started to infect the werewolf market as well.

Almost as long as there have been vampire stories there have been vampire hunters.  If the vampire is the villain of the piece, as is appropriate, the hunter is the hero that will put paid to the fiend.  If the vampire is the hero of the piece the hunter gets to be the villain and in some works both are tragically heroic in their own way.  A trend I have observed is that of the supernatural vampire hunter.  It is by no means new.  Indeed folklore from certain regions (roughly Slavic culture) speaks of dhampir, which are the offspring of human women and vampires, that are uniquely suited for finding and destroying the undead.  Original sources describe these beings as anything from normal to boneless and concepts in between.  Much of their power to find and destroy the undead comes from their ability to either see the invisible vampires or a general special quality they have.  As with the vampire itself, the dhampir has changed to suit the modern audiences.

Dhampir aside, most vampires were, traditionally, easily killed by human beings.  The vast amount of vampire folklore attests to solutions for the prevention of, the curing of, and the destruction of vampires and most of it is painfully banal.  This is hardly the stuff of bestselling fiction.  Over time the power of the vampire has grown, mostly through film and fiction, such that the current vampire bears as much resemblance to its original source as a chicken bears to a Tyrannosaurus rex.  As the vampire's power has grown to suit the needs of a scientifically and special-effects jaded audience, so too has the vampire hunter changed to match it.  Where before the hunter needed no inherent supernatural powers to match the prey, now the hunter needs a lunchbox of supernatural abilities to even keep up with the prey.  This is, in my mind, regrettable as some great hunter archetypes existed before the massive vampire upgrade of the late 20th century.  In some sense this change is a result of the modern mindset.  It is nigh impossible for the modern person with their easily accessible information on the internet, their free time for exercise, martial arts training and hobbies, their Starbucks around every corner and access to weaponry to imagine the life of a medieval peasant who worked long hours to grow food or build barrels just to eat, who is afraid of weather, the dark, bandits, and their government, has no access to anything but local information, and does not have time for frivolous exercise.  The idea of a walking corpse is pretty frightening to those guys and the disease and death it brings even more so, lacking adequate medical facilities as they do.  The closest the modern person can come to it is to review their Zombie Apocalypse plan.  That's the closest you can come to conceiving the life of a medieval peasant.  Yet these people had the strength of mind and will to dig up a corpse, stake it into the ground, lop off its head and burn the heart to protect their villages.  No supernatural powers required.

Since the modern half-caff mocha latte sipping schmuck in an internet cafe is just so invulnerable to things (such as cold, heat, hunger, disease, the ravages of age accelerated by those other things and backbreaking labor) in the world around them it follows that vampires just weren't scary enough.  They weren't badass enough to impress the audience.  They had to be made into minor super-villains to keep our attention and in the process they became so badass that we, as a culture, began to worship them, idolize them, and ultimately hunger for them.  The vampire hunter, when it can be found at all, is played as either a heartless killer with more than an allegorical streak of racism, a bumbling idiot convinced of his own self-importance, or is a supernatural entity itself.  Given that modern audiences show an aversion to all things religious ( vampires?) the supernatural aspects of the vampire hunter are typically manifested in purely secular or science-fiction ways.

As so much of the current vampire trend media actually features protagonist vampires (vampires in love with humans, sexy vampire bitches, cuddly vampires, desperately "original" paradigm shift vampires, etc.) you are just as likely to have vampires hunting other vampires in a good v. evil storyline.  Since so much of this media casts a vampire or vampires in the heroic roles, the hunters with purely human abilities simply cannot compete at all.  The vampire power creep index is currently so far off the charts that we have to make a new chart and reset our baseline.  Compared to today's vampires Count Dracula is a geriatric with a missing leg and this is an ass-kicking contest.

In case I am not getting my point across here: I am lamenting the change in vampire hunters.  I am lamenting that it needed to change as well.  Professor Abraham Van Helsing would find his considerable knowledge of no use on the modern market and his tools ineffectual, depending upon the medium, of course.  Vampire lore is so fractured in the modern market that you cannot tell what rules will apply from film to film, show to show, book to book, or even from episode to episode.  Of all of the myriad vampire facts from ages and cultures past only a few are accepted today, and even those have changed much to suit our culture.  Consider the sunlight issue.  Modern vampires are interesting cases of rapid combustion when they are exposed to sunlight, and in some media, thanks to our scientific knowledge, UV light is all that is needed.  Hey, skin cancer is no joke and it affects everybody.  Of course in the olden days vampires didn't burn up in the sun any faster than normal people.  You can thank Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) for that little addition.  As a creature of evil the vampire was, like all spirits, demons and monsters, unable to abide the light of the life-giving sun.  I am not able to abide the taste of beets but I don't explode or burst into flames if I eat one.  Although I am not willing to take any chances on that.  We could do a checklist.  I know you love a checklist.
Sunlight-Crispy Critters (except Stoker's Dracula, traditional vampires from folklore, and those Twilight assholes)
Holy Symbols-Sometimes.  This actually falls into three categories: No Effect; Always; Matter of Faith
Garlic-Occasionally these days, but not often
Beheading-99% of the time
Running Water-Nope
Silver-Common now, not common originally
Churches-See Holy Symbols above
Roses/Thorns-Almost never
OCD/Counting: Almost never
Stake-Special (this one has seen the most change, even more than sunlight, and is perhaps the most enduring, originally the stake was to hold the vampire in its grave and needed to be quite long, now it has turned into some sort of Vampire Pause Button that just freezes them until removed, or in extreme cases a severe allergy to wood of any sort, including pencils...sometimes it makes them explode, which is very popular in the modern vampire media)
Must Sleep In Own Grave/Earth from Own Grave: Nope
Bad Breath: Nope

To contrast this we have the lunchbox of vampire powers, most of which did not exist in the historical folkloric antecedents.

Super Strength
Super Speed
Super Fortitude
Super Math Skills
Super Sexy
Great Skin
Fabulous Hair
Eidetic Memory
Outcast Girl Attraction Power
Shape Shifting-Not as common anymore
Animal Control-Rare
Mesmerism-All the damn time
Kung Fu-All neonate vampires are the equivalent of Green Belt and it just gets better with age
Wolverine Healing Factor
Enhanced Senses

Against such a super-powered foe the hunters had to evolve with them.  The audience would accept no less. Yet the hunters just aren't allowed to evolve enough.

This is not right.

Keep your pumpkins lit.

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