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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Lure of the Night: Transgressive Horror

I've focused mostly on the actual horrific aspect of horror over these past two weeks, delving into different media and how they can express emotions of terror, anguish, and uncanniness. But that's not all that this wonderful Autumnal season of ours is about. Else, why would the song Monster Mash get so much airplay around this time?

To be honest, as much as horror as an emotion has been the topic around here, I am not a big fan of it myself. In particular, you'll note the lack of slasher films and Stephen King from the descriptions here. What can I say? I tend to be a bit of a wimp, and violence isn't something I particularly enjoy. No, it's usually the psychological stuff that I most enjoy, the stuff that fascinates as much as it alarms. Even just the trappings of horror fascinate me in a way that more hard core horror does not. So, how to reconcile this seeming contradiction? Why do I enjoy the aesthetics of horror but not necessarily horror itself?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the realm of two linked concepts: Transgression, and Monstrosity. One is about pushing beyond the boundaries of the warm, comforting sphere of the normal; the other is about never being allowed within that sphere of normalcy to begin with.

Today, I'm going to explore the first of these topics. I'll leave the second one for another article, where I can really sink my teeth into it a bit more (heh). To understand this idea of Transgression and how it relates to the season, let's swing way back to arguably the first examples of modern horror: Frankenstein and Dracula. Both offer very interesting, albeit very different, takes on the concept of transgression.

Take Frankenstein, for instance. It is, at its core, a tale of the "modern Prometheus" who steals the fire of life from the Gods. That transgressive act is what causes the spiral of destruction that haunts the main character for the rest of the novel. There are a lot of compelling elements to this story--the sympathetic nature of the Monster that Victor Frankenstein creates, the philosophy of the work, Shelley's way of constructing the narrative and her bleakly beautiful set pieces--but it is this act that truly makes the story so powerful.

After all, haven't we all, at one point or another, felt the desire to defy Death itself? Haven't we craved the fire of the gods, this spark of life that animates us?

...What do you mean "no"?

No, you're just being a poor sport now. I'm going to ignore that.

Yes, of course everyone that has faced mortality has wanted to defy it. Frankenstein's gravity and fascination comes not just from this desire, but from the simple fact that he dares to act upon the desire. What's more, he does so knowing full well the madness of his desire. Frankenstein never moves out of the realm of absolutely tangible human experience. This is what separates his story from fantasy or science fiction or mythology--he does not enter into this task with any true reason to suspect that he will be able to defy the very laws of nature, and yet he does it anyway. There is not magic at work here, or surety of the miracleworkers of most science fiction, or the serenity and power that comes from religious authority. There is only one man, one madman, locking himself in his room and accumulating all the deepest inner secrets of the human body that he might challenge nature. He is just as much in the dark as any of us poor schmucks would be, and the fact that he succeeds is horrible in part because it flies so much in the face of our own understanding of personal, human limitations.

And this transgression is, for all its horribleness, delicious. We don't want the horror that comes after Frankenstein's success, but I strongly suspect that few would urge him to lower the surgeon's table, mop up the scraps, turn off the generators and leave the experiment incomplete. We want him to pull the lever, because we want to experience, just once, through someone that will suffer in our stead, the thrill of challenging mortality.

So, what of Dracula? What makes his tale so compelling? Why do we keep coming back to the Vampire, as we do to Frankenstein's Monster, again and again?

The answer to this question is so simple it seems almost trite. It is, of course, the dark sexuality embodied within Dracula, powerful in the Victorian days, and still powerful today. It is Dracula's way of feeding upon beautiful young women--seducing them, taking hold of their spirits, and ultimately corrupting them. Dracula is seductive, again, because he dares to transgress against the borders of accepted sexuality. It is horrific, but also deeply compelling for both men and women... particularly women, if more recent vampire story demographics are any indication.

But is that really all there is to Dracula? Is there no other facet of the story to reveal? What other transgressions lie within the pages?

I would argue that one of the least reflected upon aspects of the story, overshadowed by Dracula's own dark sexuality, is Renfield's obsessive quest for immortality within the consumption of other life. We find, in his narrative arc, the slow building of a mythology of consumption, one where "the blood is the life" and each creature consumed confers power equal to its own ability to consume others. So, Renfield slowly moves up the food chain from flies, to spiders, and, finally, to birds, raising them, killing them, drinking their blood. Then, of course, Dracula arrives with a new proposition: perhaps the ultimate source of power is, in fact, the blood of humans.

What makes Renfield truly compelling, however, is the suggestion that Dracula was ultimately unnecessary. If you plot the way Renfield's theories progress, it becomes clear that his ultimate conclusion was inevitable.

Eventually he would have recognized the power and allure of human blood.

This cannibalistic transgression is fascinating because of its metaphorical power. It is a dark mirror to the simple food chains that we all learn about in elementary school, the ordered logic of the consumer and consumed taken to its horrible conclusion. And within it lurks a dark suggestion: would we be willing, for power, for youth, for the attainment of our deepest desires, to consume everything before us? How many resources will we burn through, how many people will we use up and suck dry, to sate ourselves?

Renfield ultimately represents the transgression of sociopathy. He represents the limiters all snapped off--a man allowed, by his madness, to use and abuse and ultimately devour whatever is within his grasp. Once the secret is uncovered, Stoker suggests, the temptation becomes too great--a being that has tasted the power that comes from living without limits, without sympathy, will crave ever more.

Related to this is one more vision of Dracula, one that comes from a modern book: Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian. Here, the sexuality of Dracula is severely downplayed. Instead, we get a completely new metaphor: the idea of the ancient vampire as a shadow out of history itself, a being that wades slowly down the centuries, spinning empires behind him. It is difficult to delve into this metaphor without giving away too much of the plot, and of Dracula's own plotting within the story, but the essence of the idea is that the dark prince of Transylvania--Vlad Tepes, The Impaler--has outlived his apparent historical death and lurks still within his homeland, slowly sending out messages to the overly curious, drawing countless hapless individuals into a web of intrigue.

The second most alarming suggestion in the book is that Tepes is doing all of this simply because he finds it to be an amusing way to pass the time. Kostova paints for us an image of a man blessed with immortality, a man that, like Renfield above, is willing to go beyond any boundaries set by society in order to amuse himself. And, what's more, he has the power to manipulate and torment people in his own petty, sadistic way. This is not, perhaps, as foreign an urge as we would like to think. I suspect that each one of us has indulged in one or two fantasies of protracted revenge against our enemies, considering torments in loving detail. Tepes dares to act out these monstrous fantasies, letting the fate of whole empires hang in the balance as an almost incidental secondary result of his games.

The most alarming suggestion of the book, then, is that perhaps Tepes is just an immortal manifestation of the type of men we have already seen in history, our Hitlers, our Stalins, our Pol Pots. Perhaps understanding the fascination with this immortal Tepes is a key to understanding the fascination with the real life monsters that have walked among us.

This, then, is one of the key reasons why horror--and Gothic horror, in particular--is so compelling. The transgressions of its hapless heroes and dastardly villains strikes a chord with us. To challenge the laws of nature and of man--this is the dark promise held within such tales. The night in these stories calls to us, and we cannot help but respond in the darkness of our hearts.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that good horror needs to be recognizable. You have to understand the motivation of the characters, or at least some of them, and for monsters this is generally the darker aspects of human psychology.


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