April 25, 2011

Vampires and sorcerers in culture: Supernatural or mundane?

Because cultures become more rational and less mystical during periods of falling violence rates, it comes as something of a surprise that the past 15 to 20 years, when crime has been falling, have seen such a huge demand for popular culture with vampires and witchcraft. On closer inspection, though, these books and movies are not the exceptions they appear to be, specifically because they do not involve the supernatural but the merely unexplained.

We already believe that human beings don't know or understand every last little thing about the universe that humans beings could, in principle, know or understand. The makers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer highlight some unknown thing for their audience. Still, how is this extraordinary thing portrayed -- as something that cannot be explained by natural laws in principle, and so seems to come from some other dimension or plane of existence, or as something that can be explained in naturalistic terms but that we haven't gotten around to noticing, studying, and explaining just yet?

This gives us three classes of phenomena: the supernatural (unexplainable), the explained natural, and the unexplained natural. My focus in the falling-crime vs. rising-crime comparisons has been on the popularity of cultural works that buy into the natural vs. the supernatural. So let's have a look at the apparent exceptions and see if they invoke the supernatural or merely the unexplained natural.

Before that, though, just to make clear what I mean, consider a movie that everyone's seen that contains both supernatural as well as unexplained natural elements -- Star Wars. Since it takes place in a galaxy far, far away, we expect to see pieces of the naturalistic and explainable universe that we haven't seen before. Those include artifacts like the hyperdrive engines and the laser guns, but also living species such as the motley lot of aliens we see in Mos Eisley. Still, these are things that, if they came to Earth in the present day, we would regard as part of the natural world. The only change in our worldview upon seeing them is, "Huh, I guess the natural world has a lot more stuff in it than I thought before."

In contrast, the lightsabers, the ghosts of Yoda, Anakin, and Obi-Wan, and The Force all appear as supernatural things. Maybe some person from the natural world built those lightsabers, but only under the guidance of some supernatural force. The ghosts are not things that, if we had grown up in that time and place, we would regard as perfectly naturalistic phenomena. And what The Force is or how it works is just not something that we could know, even in principle. Of course, during falling-crime times, lunkhead Lucas changed this and gave a naturalistic explanation that was just as dorky as those science education reels that they used to show schoolchildren in the 1950s --

"Today Timmy, we're going to learn about Midichlorian concentration and Force power."

"Gee Mr. Beagley, that sure sounds neat!"

With that distinction in mind, a quick look at the blockbuster vampire movies and TV shows tells us that we've seen a surge in popularity of the unexplained natural, not the supernatural. The two big ones here are the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show and the Twilight movie series and books. These vampires are entirely of-this-world -- they're just part of the natural world that we hadn't noticed yet. And they're shown in the most anthropomorphic way possible, from their appearance to their daily behavior (like going to school, whining about the pretty girls ignoring you, etc.). So, they're like all other human beings except that they have an unusual talent, one that makes them extraordinary but not other-worldly.

The same is true for the two most popular series based on witchcraft and sorcery, the TV show Charmed and the Harry Potter franchise in books and movies. Sure, these witches and sorcerers are a bit eccentric -- they would definitely be part of the weird crowd in high school -- but otherwise they are entirely human and part of the larger natural world. Again, the only change in our perception is, "Huh, I guess the logical and rational world has more things in it than I was familiar with."

So, what these newly popular works show is not the realm of the supernatural but rather the entirely naturalistic goings-on of more-or-less human characters. Their creators dress them in ghostly garb only as a heavy-handed way of emphasizing their out-there behavior and weirdo status. Hence the greatest popularity among teenage girls, who feel like no one else gets their quirks, and who fear being ostracized as weird -- not who feel like their nature is not of this world.

There is a good historical precedent for this, namely the late Victorian period when vampires first burst onto the cultural scene (earlier works were ignored). I haven't read them in a very long time, but I recall Dracula and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde being this way too. Certainly The Picture of Dorian Gray was like this. In all, the presentation is of human characters whose entirely human quirks and flaws are symbolized in the extraordinary events involving them. The unexplained in these works are more metaphorical and moralizing than to be taken seriously with dread.

Since the Victorian era was one of falling homicide rates, the social background and broader zeitgeist of those earlier books and of the current crop are more similar than most people appreciate.

In fact, Dracula did not become a scary, supernatural being at least until the later 1920s when Bram Stoker's novel was adapted to the stage. (Search the NYT for "Dracula" before the 1920s, and you'll find only a single passing mention of Stoker's novel. Articles with "Dracula" do not start rising until the stage adaptation.) Not long after that, the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi cemented Dracula's image as a supernatural being.

As for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, there were a series of silent film adaptations, but the first to attract wide attention was the 1931 talkie that managed to get made before the Hays Code prudified Hollywood movies for most of the mid-20th C. All of those early versions of the movie, though, do not come across as a moralizing Victorian story that lays it on too thick with symbolism, but rather as real portrayals of demonic possession. It's true that there is some naturalistic basis for Jekyll's transformation into Hyde in these early movies, i.e. the chemical concoction that he takes in order to change. Still, it looks like more of a magical potion that opens a portal between the natural and the supernatural, rather than a pharmaceutical whose changes work completely within the naturalistic world.

The American homicide rate went soaring at least from 1900 (when the earliest data are available) through a peak in 1933, so again we see a perfect coincidence between periods of rising violence rates and a greater belief in the supernatural. (See also the 1931 Frankenstein movie below.)

To find truly supernatural horror stories, forget the Victorians. You have to go back to the previous period of soaring violence rates, roughly 1780 to 1830 -- that is, the Romantic-Gothic period. Now those were not naturalistic monsters at all! The most enduring one created in that period is Frankenstein's, and he is not a human being who's just a bit weird and has a somewhat unusual set of abilities. And his creation is not explainable in natural terms, but is more magical or miraculous. However hammed up it may have been, Boris Karloff's performance of the monster in the 1931 movie was certainly not of a more-or-less human character begotten in a more-or-less natural way.

During the most recent wave of violence that lasted from the 1960s through the '80s, we see the same thing. To be clearer, it looks like the obsession with the supernatural catches fire particularly once the society has gone about halfway through the rise in violence rates (which we also see during the 1900-1933 wave and the 1780-1830 wave -- and the 1580 to 1630 wave that I won't get around to discussing in this post, but that Early Modern fans will recognize). We've already looked at the original Star Wars trilogy. The Indiana Jones trilogy also puts heavy emphasis on the supernatural. I haven't seen The Lost Boys in a long time, but I remember it being halfway between supernatural and unexplained natural.

Ghostbusters is an interesting case. As with Frankenstein, we shouldn't confuse the natural-vs.-supernatural question with the material-vs.-immaterial question. There's a material basis for the way that the Ghostbusters rope in the monsters, and it even seems somewhat scientific at the beginning. They speak about the composition of the ghosts and the mechanisms of their proton packs as though it were all part of where our naturalistic understanding of the world will be in the future, when we've looked harder and longer. They're like the hyperdrive engines and Mos Eisley aliens of Star Wars.

However, by the end when they face the interdimensional demon-babe Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man, they -- and we in the audience -- feel like they're suddenly out of their league, and that putting on their scientific thinking cap ain't gonna help anymore. This is clear from the climax scene on top of the apartment building, where a portal between two planes of reality has been opened up. Clearly there is typically a closed barrier between our world and theirs. And when they decide to cross the streams, it's clear that they have no rational or scientific basis for doing so -- it's a leap-of-faith, Hail Mary pass that just so happens to work. This shift in tone from "Gee, maybe this stuff is natural after all" to "Holy shit, it's a miracle that worked!" beautifully highlights the shift in perception that some of the characters and even audience members have gone through by the end of their rite of passage from skeptic to believer in the supernatural.

To wrap things up, we see that what underlies the recurring "crises of faith" that are generations-long -- not historical hiccups -- is a plummeting of the violence rate. When all is going well, the natural world seems to be running so orderly that supernatural causes need not be invoked to explain things. When the world falls down, we are forced into humility and begin to admit that there's more to reality than what can be explained in naturalistic terms.

Remember that these increases and decreases in the violence rate must be society-wide and last for years and even decades. Otherwise we take them to be flukes or to not apply to us over here. World War II, for example, did nothing to stop the growing atheistic and Existentialist tide in the West. (Nor did September 11th reverse the secularizing trend of the '90s in America.) It took something as widespread and ever-worsening as the wave of violence of the '60s through the '80s to reinvigorate modern people's belief in the supernatural, otherworldly, mystical, etc.

Of course, now that violence rates have been dropping for nearly 20 years, more recent cultural and behavioral trends have rolled back most of that spiritual revival. But just give the world some more time, and the cycle of all these things will enter its ascending phase once more.


  1. I think if you looked at fantasy fiction or science fiction more broadly, I'd be really unsurprised if you found a trend of more detailed "worldbuilding" in which rational fantasy worlds are built which adhere to consistent principles and laws (touching on your "naturalistic explanation") and have detailed histories, in the falling crime periods.

    Tolkein's publishing of the Lord Of The Rings, credited with beginning this "worldbuilding" trend, was in the 1950s. Earlier works like Robert E Howards late 1920s-1933 fantasy stuff are renowned for being thrown together without any attempts at building a consistent world but only with feel for plot and action. Similarly, Asimov's Foundation series (with its key "psychohistory" concept and theme of understanding and outsmarting civilizational decline) is rooted in the early 1950s.

    My superficial impression is that although half hearted attempts at this kind of thing continue (nerdy audiences are probably relatively prone to this kind of thing), it's not until the mid to late 90s that extreme geekery about worldbuilding and histories of fantasy worlds, or fantasy worlds with "rich and detailed histories" (A Song of Fire and Ice - 1996) start becoming popular. For example, the Star Wars "expanded universe" (which you probably can tell what it is from the name) is described by wikipedia as having its origins in the early to mid 1990s.

    Consider Philip K Dick's weird, shifting, tricksy and inexplicable plastic worlds as the antithesis of this kind of "worldbuilding" and they really hit their stream, when his writing becomes most archtypically like this and he becomes relatively popular and acclaimed, from the 1960s to 1970s (by the 80s, he's writing stuff that's considered too mystical and strange to get the kind of acclaim he was previously receiving).

  2. I remember in 1979 being really attracted to the mythopoic double-entry book keeping side of D&D. Zeus- 440 hp.

    Vancian magic: mundane, limited by conscious rules, unemotional.
    Shamanism: supernatural, direct link to unconscious, archetypically emotional.

    Mundane isn't always bad. Jung always said that when the archetype directly contacts reality you get psychosis.

  3. The huge number of both vampire and zombie movies is getting to be quite repetitive. Film-makers ought to move on to other themes.

  4. "The most enduring one created in that period is Frankenstein's, and he is not a human being who's just a bit weird and has a somewhat unusual set of abilities. And his creation is not explainable in natural terms, but is more magical or miraculous."

    How not? He (It?) is the result of a scientific experience, not of any supernatural enchantment, or something like that.


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