The monsters we make and the monsters who make us

Tag: Monsters

Blood Libel: The Anti-Semitic Roots of Vampirism

(This post contains imagery from anti-Semitic propaganda for the purposes of illustration and discussion, but the most vulgar and violent depictions are modern, c. 1990s onward, and are unfortunately not suitable for all viewers, so I’ve tried to avoid their addition. Please be advised that the imagery and subject matter are sensitive, and that the racist viewpoints present in the Blood Libel rumor will not be suffered or championed here.)

Historically, our monster myths are commonly shaped by the fears and prejudices that groups of people hold against ‘others’. Many of these prejudices are influenced by a series of differences that separate the primary group and opposing group from homogeneity. A group with a different skin colour, a different language, or a different religion would be considered to be one step away; if multiple differences were exemplified by a group, then the degrees of separation would increase accordingly. Intolerance additionally increases with regards to proximity. The closer two groups are in physical proximity to each other, the higher the tensions become. This became most apparent as post-Roman Empire Europe developed more close-knit relations throughout its fledgling kingdoms, from trade-routes to treaties; tensions heightened between these formerly hegemonic kingdoms and people-groups. Native Europeans became increasingly aware and uncomfortable of these other groups, and this led to redefinition of their monsters. Chief among these was the formulation of the Blood Libel myth, which, combined with Central and Eastern European folklore, became the basis of our modern understanding of vampires.

Before the vampire myth crossed over to the western shores of Europe in the early Middle Ages, another ‘plague’ swept across these tightly-controlled, hegemonious lands, polluting blood ties and racial harmony, purportedly stealing young women and children, and enacting dark cabalic rites to ancient gods that left its victims drained of blood and horrifically mutilated. I am speaking, of course, of the Jews, or at least, the perception of the Jewish diaspora in the European Middle Ages. The Jews had been taken from their native lands and brought into servitude to a variety of empires and masters, dispersed throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, and left without any overarching identity outside of their religion. As Europe unified under the banner of early Christianity, the Jews, once seen as the chosen people of that Christian God, were perceived to be increasingly pagan. At best, seen as the people responsible for crucifying the Christ, backwards and intolerant to the point of antagonistic to their own savior, who had walked among them unknown.(1) At worst, they were dark-skinned Outsiders, part and parcel of a three-way struggle for the Holy Lands, quietly and decisively ensnaring these Christian lands in a bid for destruction from within.(2)

Native Europeans formulated a series of rumors and mischaracterizations directed toward the Jews, all with the intent to cause social division and distrust. Christians throughout Europe claimed that they poisoned wells with urine, fecal matter, or noxious chemicals. They said the Jews desecrated the holy wafers that represented the body of their God. The ‘Blood Libel’ gained special dominance amidst these cruel rumors, marked by its extremities. This rumor alleged that the Jewish community stole young non-Jewish children from their surrounding communities, ritually mutilated them, and drained them of their blood before disposing of their corpse like someone would dispose an empty can of pop. It combined a protective instinct toward children with a series of repulsions and taboos related to violence, bodily fluids, and disrespect for the dead, a potent mix to ensure the immediate attention of the communities it reached, and widespread coverage of the libel throughout the land.

If this was insufficient to ensure the Jews were branded with a foul reputation, this rumor had more alterations to raise fears and loathing wherever it traveled. The Blood Libel rumors easily mutated through its spread, adding new details and amplifying others, which gave it an unnaturally extended lifespan. At the height of the Crusades and perceived Christian duty toward the Holy Lands, detractors proclaimed the Jews to be motivated by a secret obscene pact of native’s blood in return for their Holy Lands. In this narrative, all Jews in all locations were always the enemy, lionized and radicalized against their new homes and ready at the moment’s notice to slaughter their neighbors for their god. When the Plagues were sweeping through Europe, Jewish ritual cleanliness and prescribed interactions in caring for the sick, handling bodily fluids, and maintaining hygiene kept them from dying in the same numbers as their Christian neighbors. In this instance, they were closely associated with the rats, the perceived plague-bringers, and accused on two fronts of unnatural self-protection against the plague and perpetuation of this travesty against their neighbors. After a period of time, the Blood Libel altered their expressed motivations to the sacrifice of Christian blood for Jewish health, either by spilling it before their icons, bathing in it, or consuming it. Later still, the rumor gained almost delightedly-lavished details on the Jews consuming this blood: mixing it with their wine, making unleavened matza balls with it, even consuming the pure blood of a Christian innocent to stave off their own diseases. They were purported to be cursed by Christ on the cross to have internal hemorrhages or ulcerations that required constant consumption of blood. Some versions indicated the Jews to have symptoms like porphyria or leprosy that again required blood to heal them. One version even went so far as to say that all Jewish men menstruated anally or penilely, and that this blood-loss could only be counteracted with the consumption of blood. The Blood Libel became firmly entrenched with this Outsider society secretly preying upon good, decent native peoples and consuming the blood of their most innocent and helpless.

There are a few cases noted in public record of the Blood Libel rumor charged against the Jewish community. Like the witch trials, which would proceed from these events, as well as the Inquisition, which would rise in the middle of the Blood Libel accusations, these charges were directed to very specific ends. The excessively bloody tale allowed accusers to turn public opinion against the Jews, drive them from their homes, take their possessions, kill them in large groups, and exile them from their new countries. Each case built on the charges of the last, including new details to scandalize the non-Jewish European populace and better excuse their actions. Its credibility rested less on substantial evidence, and more on mob mentality and the public’s desire to believe that these neighbors they framed as ‘other’ were capable of such atrocities.

The first of such accusations against the Jewish community came in 1144. The body of young William of Norwich was discovered in the forest covered in stab wounds, and the locals placed blame on the Jews immediately, disproportionately retaliatory toward dozens of Jews versus a single fixed perpetrator, and singularly racially based. Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich around 1449 and became fixated with the case. He unsuccessfully tried to have William canonized as a saint, specifically focusing on his death as ritual murder and martyrdom, and penned a book that laid the claims out in lurid detail. In the Life of Saint William of Norwich, a converted Jew named Theobald of Cambridge purportedly revealed the existence of a secret international council of Jews that would select a child from a different country each year for ritualistic murder. The murder would take place around Passover, or Easter, to ensure that the Jews would be able to take back their Holy Land, and always done by the local Jews. In this specific case, the book claimed William had been crucified, although this claim didn’t match the wounds discovered on his body. Glowingly racist, Thomas repeatedly called the Jews “our enemies” in the first volume, and produced two more between 1155 and 1172, specifically alleging that the Jews were to make the ritualistic murder mirror that of Jesus’s death as closely as possible. Although few commoners were literate, upper-class individuals like priests, merchants, and noblemen would have had access to this book and dispersed these accusations as given fact.

In light of this publication, further accusations followed in Glouchester (3), Bury St. Edmunds (4), and Bristol (5), each increasing mob rage and prejudices, and finally culminating in bloody massacres in London and York from 1189 through the mid 1190s, uprooting entire family trees in the process.(6) These prejudices had brewed and developed along quietly, but these instances gave communities the justification to act on their discomforts and prejudices. In each instance of accusation, locals attempted to saint the young ‘martyrs’, and local cults developed around their veneration. Many cases of ‘ritual martyrs’ included the removal of their bodies to church-grounds, which increased attendance to these holy sites, and amplified these distorted stories. By canonizing these children as saints, the Church continued the depiction of these falsified deeds as truly abominable, to the point that anyone who endured them must have the attributes of a saint. It painted the Jews as monsters, inhuman or traitors to the human race, and opened the justification for future discrimination, each case the building block for the next.

Then came a decidedly different kind of crime against the Jews, one step above killing a few representative kinsmen, or massacring a few families here and there in vigilante ‘justice’. On July 31, 1255, nine-year old Hugh of Lincoln went missing from his home. His body was recovered the 29th of August from a well, and accusations against the Jews soon followed from a man named John of Lexington.(7) Friends of Hugh claimed to have witnessed the local Jew Copin enact certain tortures to him including crucifixion, and the boy had been found in Copin’s well. That was all the evidence they needed, and they used torture to extract additional confessions from him that implicated his community as a whole. This case was markedly different because of an economic element that came into play: only six months earlier, King Henry had sold the rights to tax the Jews to his brother, Richard, Earl of Cornwall. The Jews, by practicing separate religious and cultural rites, were taxed additional amounts per-person to live in the country, and were encouraged not to convert so that this lucrative additional income could be generated year-to-year. King Henry created a loophole for himself to be able to take back a portion of that income by decreeing that Jews convicted of crimes would turn over their money, possessions, and properties to the Crown. Instead of mob-like pogroms and lynchings, Jews would now be put on trial so their wealth in totality could be funneled back to the Crown, and this essentially declared open season on Jews and assured future persecution for monetary gain. No longer would they just be killed or ostracized; the Crown would bleed dry their wealth and assets in the process. In total, some ninety Jews were arrested in connection to the death of Hugh, and they were held in the Tower of London, all on the charge of ritual murder. Eighteen were hanged when they went to trial by instead asking for their right to a Christian jury; their property was appropriated by the Crown. The rest were pardoned and freed, reputations irreparably damaged, thanks to Richard of Cornwall’s desire for renewable income. Hugh of Lincoln was canonized as Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln to distinguish him from the adult Saint Hugh of Lincoln; in no small part due to the surprising amount of wealth and ease of access generated by such a ‘martyrdom’. Geoffrey Chaucer included the story in his Canterbury Tales, and the Blood Libel became a staple of English literature ever since. Despite Richard of Cornwall’s fund-drive, tensions increased bitterly and resolutely until the Jews were forcibly expelled from England in 1290.

This wasn’t the end of Blood Libel, and once released into the world, it was employed to great effect throughout Europe. Similar accusations, trials, mob massacres, and economic persecution cropped up in over a dozen odd countries to drive the Jews out over the next few centuries. The depictions of the Jews as nomadic and desperate had direct ties to their near-permanent exile and continuous loss of any form of haven through the effects of the Blood Libel. It took a long time for the Jewish community to be able to venture back into the countries they once lived, and they still faced economic disadvantages and social persecution from the communities which had driven them out before. But the Blood Libel and its bloodthirsty effects would not die so easily with the passage of time, and it merely spread its message through different formats, like William Shakespeare’s 1600 play the Merchant of Venice, with the villainous Jew Shylock thwarted from collecting on his debts by specific Blood Libel laws preventing him from spilling even a single drop of Christian blood, unless he wanted to give up his wealth and property in the process (again economically motivated and economically thwarted). Western literature and film borrowed visual elements from the Blood Libel here and there, with the depiction of grotesque hypnotic predator and outsider Svengali, for example, and the vampire narrative drew strongly from the xenophobic impulses toward Jews, as well as the fixation on blood and plague-bringing as two essential traits of the vampire.

Dracula, the single most popular vampire in the history of vampire narrative, displayed a wide array of those folkloric traits, particularly his great show of wealth, but his foreignness was emphasized as one of the greatest indicators of wrongness, especially in regards to his desire to assimilate with native Londoners. Given a long, prominent nose; long facial hair; at times sallow skin; dark, somber clothing; and shying away from the cross, as the Jews were said to, Dracula’s attributes alluded to certain Jewish stereotypes without actually crossing into uncomfortable readings. Unfortunately, its first cinematic translation borrowed straight from Blood Libel and anti-semitic textbooks to present its lead vampire. Nosferatu, a plagiarized translation of Dracula to the silver screen, may have been the first surviving depiction of a traditional male vampire in cinema, and was quite the doozy on audiences. Prior to its appearance, cinematic vampires were traditionalized femme fatales, ‘vamps’, divorced from the grotesqueries of their literary male counterparts and dominantly sexualized. Nosferatu’s Count Orlok returned to the earliest connections between the Blood Libel and vampires, purposefully taking anti-semitic imagery and reinfusing it into the vampire narrative. This vampire transfixed viewers with his strikingly bald pate, bulging eyes, rat-like teeth, spider-like hands, and dark clothes, all fixtures of racially-charged anti-Jewish propaganda. He traveled with rats, bugs, and spiders, again emphasizing the connection to plague vectors, and his methods of predation struck viewers as twisted, frightening, and wrong to all senses, devoid of any hint of sexuality. The anti-semitic connection unfortunately drew in that ‘wrongness’ as another inherent aspect — now, in addition to the assertion that the Jews were vampires, they added that the vampires were Jews — that these monsters were identified by these cultural aspects which made them more monstrous than before by the inclusion. Nosferatu also debuted for a different cultural audience; whereas Dracula was aimed toward English audiences, Nosferatu was rewritten to be placed in, populated by and directed to the German community. It premiered in 1922, between World War I and World War II, and it took every anti-semitic depiction and bias as inspiration to horrify its audiences in a direct continuation of the Blood Libel through the very specific insinuation of outright vampirism.(8) In World War II propaganda, this lie was used to great effect to dehumanize the Jews again and make them repulsive. Combined with prior Blood Libel practices, the anti-semitism rampant in Germany provided fertile ground for them to deprive millions of Jews of their homes, communities, livelihoods, possessions, and lives. The aftermath of the Holocaust struck Blood Libel and the easy villains-as-Jews stereotype from the media, for the first time in centuries.

Vampiric ‘Jewishness’ mercifully faded from the forefront of public consciousness as other fears took precedence. Dracula’s own eponymous Count was decades ahead of its time in bridging the xenophobic fears of racial blood pollution and societal divide with unvoiced fears of homosexuality, and classist struggles against the aristocracy. Given the close proximity of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, and the prevailing theory that an aristocrat or upper-class individual committed the murders, it allowed for a fortuitous segue into less controversial camps. From an economic mindset, some association remained. Even after the Jews began to be perceived as ‘white’, they were still racially othered, still considered a subset like Caucasian and Aryan, still excluded with their own strict rules of bloodlines and family ties. Due to longstanding laws that dictated that Jews could not own land or certain businesses, well-established Jewish families had solid links to banking, loans, and financing services, certainly making them richer than Christian or Muslim peers, and inspiring resentment in their neighbors.(9) That financial divide may have played a motivation in the pogrom targeting of Jewish communities, but it carried over strongly in anti-capitalist works. Karl Marx depicted capitalists as blood-suckers, using vampiric elements to portray capitalism as a predatory mechanism that sucked in “living labour as its soul, vampire-like.” He essentially said that the very way they lived (by the constraints of the lands they lived in) producing interest and profits were extracted from the labours and livelihoods of others, that they contributed nothing to the system but parasitically fed off it for their own benefit. (It should be noted that while Karl Marx had a Jewish background himself, he wrote works described as radically anti-semitic, like On the Jewish Question.) Others played on the stereotype of Jews as self-interested money-grubbing villains by conflating money and debt with violence, like Shakespeare’s Shylock, if not literally blood-sucking abominations, then at least perceived as grossly exploitative of those around them. Economists and critics noted that the Jewish-oriented capitalism and vampirism were closely related, particularly with regards to unrestrained consumption and accumulation of wealth and resources. Ironically, despite this extremely negative reputation that again funneled back to a definitively vampiric portrayal of exploitation and appetite, it was their detractors and aggressors who did more to steal the wealth and properties of the Jewish community wholesale, exploiters with tremendous appetites of their own for that hard-won Jewish success.

Recently, we have seen a return of vampiric elements to modern Blood Libel, through political cartoons, graffiti, slang, and propaganda. These pieces are undeniably anti-semitic in nature, and borrow from the cultural cache of the vampire, with its own tropes and stereotypes, as a new form of shorthand for the Blood Libel. No longer, for example, do we see the Jews illustrated as mutilating native children with lances, like the Christ; instead, these racist depictions show them with long fangs in their mouth exsanguinating their victims as vampires do. In many ways, the stereotypes of vampirism seem the most concise way to stigmatize the Jews, just as the way the Jews were portrayed developed the stereotypes of vampirism in the first place. The Blood Libel was weaponized against the Jewish population to remove them from the countries they made their home, kill them en mass, incite violence and hatred for them, and justify the large scale theft of their property. Unfortunately, in every regard, history has proven this to be a pretty effective way for getting rid of Jews. Whereas Satanic pacts and black magic is now seen as a ridiculous flight of fancy, and practitioners of witchcraft deserving of religious freedoms like everyone else, the capture and mutilation of children for dark rites or merely for subversive acts of loathing against their host countries still somehow is portrayed as a believable and continuous action with urban legend ‘cases’ and claims continuing to this day. As long as some faction is able to use the Blood Libel to stir public opinion against the Jews, it will be put to use, and as long as Hollywood has a fascination with the vampire, some echoes of those stereotypes will remain present in the depiction of the vampire ever-onward.

Footnotes and References
Further Reading

The Werewolf/Vampire Dichotomy

Pop culture has a fascination with monsters and monster movies, from the advent of cinema up until modern day. Movie makers and writers produce a wide spectrum of monsters dependant on the interests of the audience and the creativity of the talent involved, and the most effective and popular monster movies tap into present discussions and fears in the public consciousness. As noted before, these monster narratives allow filmmakers and writers to discuss social taboos and other large, unwieldy allegories, often by personifying the forbidden in the shape of the monster. And while tens of thousands of monster films have been made over the last hundred years, we tend to simplify it down to two very basic kernels of monster storytelling.

Despite a large pantheon of impressive monsters spanning a wide range of subjects, werewolves and vampires remain the most popular monster types, and they exist in a kind of framed dichotomy in the same way that we’ve polarized the colours red and blue, or pitted pirates and ninjas against each other in a short-lived fad. While the werewolf and the vampire used to coexist peaceably — ‘The children of the night! What music they make!’ — pop culture gradually shifted the two into a comfortable opposition of ideals, from tabletop roleplaying games to film franchises centered around their eternal warfare. The idea of culture-clash between the two became most overt with the popularity of the Twilight franchise, when teens and young adults enamoured with the series were asked to choose between ‘Team Edward’ or ‘Team Jacob’, essentially declaring their public allegiance to the perceived superior boyfriend for the series’s female protagonist. The idea had been percolating in the decades prior, particularly with the emergence of supernatural erotica, as subtext became text. Now, the question of werewolves and vampires in opposition added itself to accepted lore. In a way, this helped cement their position as the co-regents of the monster world. Popular rivals fare better when placed in diametric opposition, because doing so artificially limits the choice to one or the other. At the same time, it emphasized the polarized differences between them that contributed to the easy opposition: intellect and emotion, impulse and control, neat and messy, wild and tame, earnest and restrained. Because we can recognize aspects from both sides of this polarity in ourselves and our culture, both have retained social cache. The way the narrative structures have been set up, the aesthetics of these creatures, and the allegories they represent all allow for temporal facelifts to keep pace with each generation, fresh and relevant for all situations. The polarized dichotomy between these monsters also allow us to introduce or mix up a wide array of allegories and dissect what we are afraid of through shifting expressions of these basic monster types. Romanticization is a way of removing the fear from these monsters, though, and as pop culture’s love affair with werewolves and vampires has taken the sexual undercurrents as its new output, we once again must reinvent what it means to be a werewolf or a vampire to provide these monsters to new generations to come.

It’s important to note that my generalizations largely refer to the male monster figures in their fixture in society; while similar tropes are present in the female versions or spin-offs (eg Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter), these presentations give more weight to gender tensions, sexualization, and female empowerment or exploitation than universalized fears. Anything explicitly referring to female tropes or changes outside this paradigm will be remarked upon.

Narrative Structure

Werewolf and vampire tales have specific narrative structures that remain fairly consistent throughout their allegorical interpretations. The werewolf transformation story is always presented as a ‘terror by night’ with high collateral damage. If the werewolf is the protagonist figure, oftentimes they begin blissfully unaware of their dark side unleashed on the populace, awakening in a foreign environment, frequently nude, without any memory of their transformation or glut of carnage. Ignorance is the last shred of bliss. Like Oedipus, when they discover the truth, they resign themselves to a life of exile, frantically search for a cure, or seek out death as the only certain relief from their affliction. Vampire stories have traditionally remained distant from the vampire’s narrative. They might offer the vampire an opportunity to tell their story, but couched in that distance, the audience has no certainty for whether this is a neatly packaged lie to induce sympathy, or true revelations bestowed in a moment of fellow-feeling, a break from their aloof nature. The vampire is a quiet predator who works on one or two victims at a time, slipping into and out of bedrooms, occasionally taunting the victim’s cohort, but otherwise remaining a thief in the night. It’s a slow, draining, plaguelike terror, ill-defined and difficult to defeat, but always vanquished by a pure heart.

Werewolves represent a very primal focus in humanity. These beastly creatures give in to their impulses and desires in a multiplicity of forms beyond the physical. They are indelibly associated with nature and with the loss of control in favour of naturalism. The transformation trope generally turns man into an animalistic form, trading intellect for raw, testosteronal strength. That’s a popular image, one borrowed by ancient militaries as a scare tactic, and to bolster the morale of its footsoldiers where adequate defenses, feed, and pay would not suffice. Psychologically, it’s easy to accept the werewolf mythology and its associated transformation tropes into our lexicon; inundated with words like ‘lizard brain’, ‘alpha male’, and ‘primal self’, and with the increasing acceptance of evolutionary theory, culture has left a lot of openings for man’s ‘animalistic nature’ to assert itself. It’s interesting to see where the werewolf movies retain public interest. During times of great struggle, where the individual man feels weak and helpless, suppressing frustrations against a cold and structured society, the werewolf myth finds a home on the screen. Werewolves represented an outlet to vent those aggressions in a more ‘naturalistic’ sense against the unfeeling and inhuman violence of long-distance warfare, the atomic bomb, the cubical-divided workplace where interaction was limited. The werewolf offers a form of fullest expression of self with no memory or responsibility for their actions.

Counterpoint to these almost positive expressions of personal power, the werewolf also represents the loss of control, becoming too naturalistic and losing identity to the passions. There is a certain essence of humanity in the later representations (devoid of the transformation fears) that is absent in the werewolf-as-monster stories, and lost with each rising moon. Giving in to that monstrous impulse eliminates all forms of self-control, removes that person entirely from society into a very isolating existence. Oftentimes, those who transform wind up hurting the ones they love most in the course of their unnatural existence. The werewolf/transformation narrative is a suitable allegory for addictions and self-serving pleasures: while pursuing their desires, they become slaves to their urges, and those urges destroy them. A werewolf has visceral physical power granted to him, the ability to destroy, but this power is more of a bind and impediment than the offering of more complete self-determination; it is an illusory feeling, and emphasizes that power cannot be mistaken for control.

Vampires, in comparison, represent a sense of super-perfection of self. The modern pop culture vampire maintains a certain dignity in his dealings, from drawing humans into his thrall to feeding upon them. He is stylish, suave, and sexual, retaining a sense of old-world manners and wealth with the recent addition of societal acceptance for women’s rights or homosexuality, in short, viewed as the perfect gentleman suitor for all modern women. The 1931 depiction of Dracula was a fangless predation, moving in for a kiss that never landed, but soon the eroticization would take center stage. Hollywood stripped him of his blatant monstrosity and cloaked him in allure. Where the novel’s justification for his titles was a long and bloody history as a warrior-prince, the movie gave him the kind of nobility more recognizable to Englishmen. The vampire is a crystallization of the nostalgia for the past, with little adaptation for the crassness of the present, a fairy tale prince with a dark flaw that set him apart as a ‘bad boy’. Vampires have the curious nature of looking backward and looking forward at the same time, and as the stories slowly moved away from focus on the ‘living corpses’ aspect, the monsters became beautified. They could offer all the benefits of living in the past and the certainty of living the future out unchanging, unaging, undecaying. It was the promise of the golden apples in Greek mythology, a return to Eden: knowledge, and immortality with eternal youth.

The dark prince appearance also conceals an unpleasant side frequently played up in vampire films. Although vampires have little in the way of physical monstrosity, they remain at heart predators, and it’s terrifying to consider that one of your friends, neighbors, or family members may be concealing treacherous desires. Depending on the film or book, the thirst for blood may be depicted as an unfortunate necessity, like human hunger for food, to be sated reluctantly; or it may be presented as an unavoidable addiction, where a single sniff, a single drop, a single taste is enough to incite a sharklike feeding frenzy. For all that the vampire wants to be gentle, sating those urges requires hurting and victimizing a human, usually one they’ve set aside as a love interest or sexual partner. And in the multiplicity of films that offer no vampiric viewpoint at all beyond stock villain, the ability to blend in and get close implies a more unsavory form of human-to-human predation.


An important part of the representation of werewolves and vampires is their physical presentation, and beyond the monstrous figures stereotyped to bear-sized wolves and man-sized bats, their human forms featured strongly in how they were received by audiences, as well as what they represented.

Contemporary parody and humor media made the immediate connection between the werewolves and the hippies, counter-culture warriors hungering for a more expressive time, where man was given the right and freedom to howl. Examine the aesthetic of the werewolf through the ages, in his human form, and you’ll find the same physical tropes represented: longer, shaggier hair, sideburns or facial hair; a broad, strong build, a gradual shift from propriety to more provocative attire (unusually revealing for the era), a withdrawal from society and its conventions. The visual openness underscored the emotional openness that the werewolf explored. The Wolfman Jack from The Hilarious House of Frightenstein and Shaggy’s short-lived tenure as a werewolf in Scooby Doo! And the Reluctant Werewolf each show the most obvious conflation between the hippy culture and werewolves, using bipedal wolf-man forms with differentiated faces and hair-versus-body hair, as well as full human attire to illustrate this fusion. It’s true that the early cinematic depictions of werewolves also went the wolf-man route, but this was stated to be a product of the limitations of movie makeup, prosthetics, and puppetry for the time period; these depictions of werewolves in ragged clothing focused on grotesquely liminal fusion of a man who wore his passions and his hungers openly, loosely garbed in the visage of humanity but visibly set apart.

In comparison to the werewolf, the pop culture vampire has always been immaculately groomed, with no facial hair (even in fashion eras where some facial hair is considered attractive), slicked back hair kept short, displays of wealth in jewelry, and fashionable dark attire, if somewhat dated. The 1931 version of Dracula portrayed the Count in more contemporary attire, fit for a night at the opera, rather than the 1880s fashion, or that of the centuries of his existence prior. It was such a strikingly appealing look that future portrayals lagged over further updates to the design, even if presenting a non-Dracula vampire. Grandpa from the Munsters and Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows both adhered to this convention. The look simultaneously suggested glamour and wealth or ‘class’, and a tightly controlled image: power, money, sex. Lestat and Louis from Interview with the Vampire both dressed to the contemporary high-class dress code of the retrospective period the film took place, adorned with flashy vests, embroidered coats, and long, flowing, romantic hair, but as the film concludes in 1990s, they’re both still sporting frilled cuffs and poofy shirts, stuck in the conventions of the past. Some vampires were able to adapt, certainly, and now we can integrate portrayals with crisp business suits or bad-boy leather jackets and jeans, just as the vampire stories have shifted from obvious outsiders to invisible threats; largely, there’s just enough of a differentiation in style to draw interest and approval from prospective prey. It’s a mechanism to attract victims, but the pop culture convention of physical attractiveness also is one of the few ‘benefits’ associated with the vampiric curse. For that, it’s interesting that the inability for vampires to be photographed or viewed in the mirror became such a large part of cultural mythology. The only way for humans to perceive their own fleetingly mortal youth and beauty is through photographs and mirrors; here, as the vampires gain the ability to impress that upon others, they lose the ability to appreciate it for themselves. And as humans remember the past through photographs, so too would vampires become unmoored from the public record, eternally living in the moment. It’s the paradox of living in the past, and simultaneously having no past to speak of. These details lend themselves well to more abstract and allegorical representations of high concepts like time, decay, and mortality through more introspective cycles of horror media.

Allegorical Representation

Horror media cycles through a series of monster types in response to environmental shifts in interest. The easiest example is the rise in alien movies around the time that the Cold War started heating up and the Space Race gained traction. Alien movies have three subsets: alien invasion, interplanetary warfare, and alien abduction; two of those, featuring strong cultural or planetary clashes and the struggle for existence in the face of a cold and inhuman enemy, clearly paralleled propagandist pieces on the USSR. Rather than name the present enemy, or parallel present turmoil in past wars, moviemakers chose to use the monster movies as allegory and outlet for these tensions. Alien horror movies have entered typical shorthand for ‘evil empires’ or administrations out to ‘destroy our way of life’, and this simplification of the themes helps explain when and why these alien films reappear. Elemental monsters and natural crises, likewise, return amidst discussions of human impact on our environment, nature responding to our pollutions and manipulations with a strong retributive force. It would make sense that, likewise, werewolves and vampires have allegorical substructures tapping into generalized societal fears. These monster types have existed longer than the environmental monsters or the alien threats, though, and as witnessed in the aforementioned Twilight films, their basal allegories have changed over the years. The Godzilla film franchise is over sixty years old, but while these ‘kaiju’-type monsters now emblemize the effects of human pollution, the first film suggested the destructive power of the United States’ atomic weaponry against the Japanese islands, itself an allegory against a monstrous political superpower. In comparison with werewolves and vampires, this is a relatively young genre. We can expect that in addition to the overarching themes present in the two monster types, both might be subject to some allegory-shifts over the course of their long lifespans.

The werewolf narrative is actually an examination of transformation in its broadest sense, and the repressed internal self coming to the surface, with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and even the Incredible Hulk representing modern expressions of this trope. The Jekyll/Hyde story follows the traditionalist approach toward werewolves, suggesting a purposeful transformation into a monster for the sake of the individual’s pleasures, and it’s an outlier against the more popular representation of lycanthropy as an unwanted ‘curse’. These narratives couple physical transformation with moral or internal transformation, literalizing degeneracy as something inherent and visible to outsiders. While these stories and early werewolf depictions indicated a degree of acceptance and involvement in their lycanthropy, 1970s monster movie narratives removed even the vaguest sense of awareness of their actions from the werewolf to place them as an unfortunate protagonist. They would remain completely unaware of what was happening to them, and would be as victimized by their self-expression as the werewolf’s victims were. The horror turned from blatant self-indulgence of violent, tabooed acts to the horror of the loss of agency. It’s no coincidence that contemporaneous Jekyll/Hyde narratives followed suit, divorcing the moral ‘super-ego’ Jekyll from the amoral ‘id’ his hidden self represented. If this self-expression came without awareness for the consequences, then the fault supposedly could not lie with the man. Regardless, the impulses remained, originating in the subconscious of the so-called moral individual; the only difference would be how ‘moral’ it would be to accept, condone, and facilitate the unlawful acts their other side committed. The normalcy of the werewolves by day or the meek versions of monstrous doctors like Dr. Jekyll or Dr. Banner also call into question the universality of these monstrous impulses inside us all. Our moral selves move through society with a respect for taboos, but the desire to breach taboos is also inherent, and the temptations boundless. These monsters illustrate what happens when that willpower and self-control is weakened, or when the curious side is given the strength to overpower the will.

Among its allegories, the vampire myth is an effective discussion of plague vectors and culture clashes. It played off well during times of widespread sickness, particularly with invisible transmission, and it resurfaced again in new, clublike settings to prey upon the promiscuous and the ‘deviant’, alternating between then-common sexually transmitted diseases, and the newfound horror of AIDS. Chameleon-like, the vampire has always been depicted as a kind of outsider, delineated by his wealth, his aristocratic background, his foreign birth, or his sexual charisma. Narratives like Nosferatu or Salem’s Lot used a shock of physical monstrosity, but tied these expressions to the vampire’s outsider status as a tired and limitingly racist expression of the evil immigrant. There is no adaptation to their environment in these narratives, because these evil immigrants are only here to despoil the native women and spread their sickness through the land. Although we like to view ourselves as slightly more civilized now, strains of xenophobia have generational dominance, and these allegories may still find use for present audiences.

When paired with a more attractive visage, the vampire instead took more easily to the threat of rape, underscored by decades of opposite-gender predation affirming the sexual nature of the contact, then subverted in titillating implications of bisexuality or homosexuality, as with Interview with the Vampire or The Hunger. The taking of the blood as rape remains the strongest allegorical impulse in these films, particularly due to the increased sexualization of vampires, but with the recent inclusion of loving consent or grey-consent, most vampire depictions in the last ten years have turned instead to tropic depictions of fractured fairy-tale love affairs, leading to a cooling of interest in vampire horror stories. Buffy, Vampire Diaries, True Blood all straddle Hollywood’s uncomfortable new border between the dark prince charming and the dangerous predator, and it remains to see where vampire fiction will go now that preteen sparkle remains in every crack and crevice of pop culture’s memory.

The Present and Future

The basic allegories present in these examples of horror media have remained true for most of the life of vampire and werewolf narratives, but over the last ten to twenty years, new allegories formed, mostly as a response to the increasing romanticization of these monsters. Some of these narratives even called into question whether these monsters could even be called monsters anymore.

For example, as werewolves took the place of romantic protagonists or rough, wild men to win over, becoming more socially acceptable and removed from their monstrosity, they returned to one of the basic ‘real world werewolf’ tropes, namely being able to recall the time spent as a wolf, and to direct the actions of their feral self; essentially, offering back control. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Jacob’s depiction in Twilight both offer a ‘super-hero’-type transformation sequence for the monster, removed from uncontrollable external factors like the position of the moon. The BBC mini-series Jekyll handed the reins of control back to the good doctor through a kind of shared-persona born out of love and dedication rather than selfishness and wickedness. It might have been an unsatisfying end to the normally tragic narrative, but it represented a distinct tonal shift in the way our society views these monster-transformations. Even the Hulk, long seen as the bastion of uncomfortable, uncontrolled outbursts of raw primal rage, now has meditative mechanisms to channel his strength into something positive. When the uncontrollable becomes controlled, in other words, it is no longer monstrous.

Perhaps in response to the loss of terror toward this basal element of the werewolf/transformation narrative, new transformation allegories developed. Instead of the animalistic monster developing from naturalistic (masculine) hormonal impulses taken to an extreme, transformation horror explored the perversion of science (a sharp difference from the naturalistic werewolf, at first, but a perversion typified by its sublimation to the power of nature), gender liminality, and the effects of puberty. The scientific angle is present in the Jekyll/Hyde narrative and in the Hulk, but fulfilled to a large degree in science-fiction horror like The Fly or even District 9, where the protagonists endure protracted, unstoppable physical transformations, losing control of their bodies and their identities. Transformation stories involving male-female gender liminality were a rare and fleeting fad, playing upon societal shock or discomfort with transgender individuals or the equation of male and female; Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde typifies this kind of story, implicitly suggesting an inherent wrongness in the introduction of female hormones into the male body, or ambiguous interchange between the male and female bodies. These stories indicated that body dysmorphia was itself monstrous, and the desire to physically alter oneself to the alternate presenting gender a sin against nature, but they focused dominantly on the feminization of women as the inappropriate interchange. Women, again, come on trial in puberty as the driving force of werewolf transformation horror. The body changes present in puberty are universal, as are the psycho-sexual developments for children entering into adulthood, but the subversion of these changes literalized in a werewolf story plays more strongly in women’s bodies. Ginger Snaps demonstrates this formula from first menses presented as abominable and onward, and with the isolating cohort of sisterhood as a form of pack mentality beyond mere sexualization. In fact, it amplifies the ‘horror’ of feminine puberty by conflating werewolf infection with bloody discharge from below, again emphasizing how unnatural and monstrous the processes are perceived. While equally dubious a ‘fear’ as that of the transgender allegory, the puberty angle holds the most promise for future werewolf and transformation stories, especially as traditional werewolves are effectively defanged through romanticization.

Why are we no longer afraid of vampires? The answer comes not entirely from our examination of vampires, but from our examination of humanity. As pop culture became more secularized, the importance of the human soul receded from discussions in favour of ‘consciousness’. Philosophically, too, the discussion of the consciousness precluded an innate moral compass; humans, we said, were not born moral, but conformed to societal expectations and rulesets to navigate through life. Vampires have always been very deliberately conscious and calculating monsters, capable of conversing with humans easily and blending in with their prey. Unlike the werewolves, they’re very ‘human’, and humanized with every opportunity to give themselves self-expression. Dracula, the vampire who popularized all vampires for western audiences, reacted vengefully to the deaths of his loved ones, expressed the capacity to love, provided sustenance for his family, and engaged in discussions of poetry, literature, history, and theology. He demonstrated a humanity in life after death, emotional and intellectual. Is there any wonder that in the absence of a tangible threat against spiritual oblivion, the vampire became attractive? Immortality and eternal youth, the perception of old-money acquisition, the opportunity to be well-traveled and well-read, in exchange for a little bloodletting from people you could make forget — who wouldn’t be tempted? It’s the number one reason for teen interest, actually. As an uncertain future and the disappointment and perils of adulthood loom ahead, here fiction offers a way to freeze time in the mythologized ‘best years of your life’, and in the arms of a perfectly charming ‘dark prince’ to boot. Dracula, again, was a titled, landed, old-family noble who fed from a neat cross-section of England’s class structure; it is often supposed that his blonde bride is flanked by two serving class women whom he brought into immortal life alongside their mistress. A nobleman consorting with those below his station is the stuff of hot-blooded romance fiction, and pairing that with the offering of immortality the absolute dealbreaker for teen interest.

One loss for the vampire narrative in this newfound appeal is the traditional vamp. Female vampires or ‘vamps’ have always been the object of male desire in pop culture. From their introduction onward, they consistently played up irresistible beauty and cool attentions. As the original ‘femme fatale’, to love them is to invite death; they consume the strength and love of a grown man and abandon him when he is spent. In their earliest depictions, these lady vampires were merely another attractive face for Death herself inviting a bewitching, obsessive, all-consuming passion that would lead to male downfall, eg, ‘flirting with Death’. These depictions provided a rare opportunity for female empowerment, but with the simultaneous maligning of female beauty and sexual desire as entrapment; not by their words (most remained voiceless), but their bodies as sufficient weapons to allure their prey. Their contrasting male counterparts did not include such levels of seduction early on, instead vying for a combination of brute masculine strength and hypnotic powers to render their prey defenceless and available, or attacking while their victims slept. Hardly the same kind of effort involved! Interestingly, as male vampires have gained sexual charisma in pop culture, female vampires have receded from the discussion as seductresses. It indicates in part the shifting audience for vampire narratives from male-oriented horror to female-oriented romance, and the empowerment of women beyond their bodies and into the traditionally male spheres. These sexualized representations are no longer necessary now that women themselves have moved beyond simplified madonna/whore complexes in monster narrative. What is offered in return? Something more of even footing, pulling the lady monsters into the mother/maiden/crone paradigm as inscrutable matriarchs, sexy girlfriends, doting wives, loyal mothers, and obedient daughters, everything, in short, that women presently face as roles. There’s much potential to be found in plumbing the depths of the female vampire, particularly in the struggle against these restrictive stereotypes, and we may see the werewolf/vampire dichotomy rehashed for more exclusively feminine allegories as these discussions come to the foreground again.

Similarities and Conclusions

Both of these stories appeal to audiences as a response to feelings of repression, whether in the socio-political context and the psycho-sexual context. Each narrative arc suggests a superficial degree of freedom and empowerment in these monstrous forms, whether from powerlessness in society, or from the cruelties of aging, but reveals to ultimately be a form of restriction in themselves. For all the vampire’s charm, he still resigns himself to feasting on the blood of innocents and strangers around him, bound by his hunger. Should he find love, his options are to leave the human despoiled but watch them wither over a mortal lifespan, or to seduce them into the same unfortunate lifestyle he loathes, and it remains to be seen whether that love lasts when the flush of blood has left their body. The vampire can intermingle with society, but fundamentally remains an outsider, incapable of forming families outside of unnatural curse-based ties. Likewise, the werewolf maintains an arm’s length distance, the illusion of control in the daylight shattered again and again by the waxing and waning of the inconstant moon. His hunger moves beyond satiation to addiction, controlling his every movement as a monster. While he is more human than the vampire, he can never be accepted by society because of the inherent threat that he represents, forcing him into loneliness and isolation; again, the only pack he can make is one born of spreading his infection to others. Both display a kind of inevitability: they will hunger, they will feed, they will descend further into the darkness. The sad fates of these monsters exemplifies the harm in indulging in sins, vices, and taboos unchecked, but each also illustrates the threats from outside: the abusive husband, the rapist hiding behind the face of your employer. They’re universally accessible for a multiplicity of shared allegories, and for all the superficial divides, they have much in common to anchor them as fundamentals in monster stories. Pop culture may have distilled them down to two hot men fighting over a woman, but there’s so much beyond that that reaches out to concerns still present in our culture, and to concerns we’re only now beginning to touch upon, and they will remain a mainstay in media for as long as they’re useful. Maybe forever. They’ve tapped the vein of public consciousness, and there’s so much to draw from that it’s doubtful the well will ever run dry.

Werewolf References
Vampire References


Taboos are an important part of monster stories, and many monster stories originated to inform their audiences of the consequences of taboo breach. They are deeply intertwined with our fears and impulses as a form of central drive for human actions. It makes sense that we should look into the meaning and origins of taboos to better understand how they’re employed in monster stories, and for what purpose. Understanding taboos help explain the appeal of the monsters, and how they’ve maintained a kind of universality despite sourcing from different parts of the world.

What is Taboo?

The word ‘taboo’ is a loan-word taken from a Polynesian dialect by Captain James Cook on a visit to Tonga in 1771. Taboos, also spelled ‘tabu’ in Tongan and ‘tapu’ in Maori dialects, are specific prohibitions commonly accepted by a society; actions, thoughts, or words considered to be uncommittable as either the sacred or the profane. In modern culture, the word ‘taboo’ has been colloquially watered down to ‘forbidden’ or ‘verboten’, removing the rationalization behind the taboo but retaining the threat of punishment. Originally, they were believed to have been passed down by the gods or spirits, and violating the taboos would result in serious harm: sicknesses would affect the individual, family, or community; rivers would dry up; crops would die; women would miscarry; or even random, unavoidable death. The inclusion of taboos in early legal code or moral code was an important addition to ensure that they were recognized and respected.

Our recognized taboos can be broadly split into several groups, with a dominant focus on the sexual and dietary. We have additional societal/social taboos which are more largely the basis of moral or legal codes; these are less unpalatable to us, or are highly specific to certain religions, and thus they rarely inform monster myth. They are more frequently breached and tend to be highly legislated, which also means that they are brought into discussion more frequently, and considered to be acceptable to speak about. Since societal taboos are subject to the views of society at large, and are considered acceptable to discuss, they are likewise subject to additional stipulations or alterations, up to and including the gradual dissolution of these taboos.

A selection of some of these taboos are listed below, split along loose categories I developed. It is important to note that these taboos are not universal; nor, for that matter, do these reflect the full range of taboos that have ever existed or ever will exist. While our present understanding of human nature and taboos has watered some of these down or rendered them obsolete by societal standards, the rationalization behind them and their subsequent use in monster myth requires some consideration for their former taboo status.



  • do not have intercourse with a multiplicity of individuals, particularly after pledging oneself (promiscuity)
  • do not have intercourse with someone who is pledged to someone else (adultery/cuckholding)
  • do not have intercourse with someone of the same gender (homosexuality)
  • do not have intercourse with someone of a different skin colour or perceived race (biracial relationships)
  • do not attempt to change your sexual identity or gender identity (alt sexualities/transgender identity)
  • do not have intercourse with yourself (masturbation)


  • do not have intercourse with a relative (increased taboo for increased degree of relation) – (incest)
  • do not have intercourse with a child or individual with significant age difference (pedo/hebe/ephebophilia)
  • do not have intercourse with the dead (necrophilia)
  • do not have intercourse with animals (zoophilia/bestiality)
  • do not have intercourse with someone who does not want to have intercourse with you (rape)
  • do not have intercourse with a menstruating individual
  • do not have intercourse with a pregnant individual



  • do not eat certain foods banned by religion
  • do not eat certain foods on certain days
  • do not eat certain herbs if …
  • do not consume foods banned by caste or social structure


  • do not drink blood
  • do not consume human flesh
  • do not consume excrement
  • do not consume things harmful to the body


  • do not kill
  • do not knowingly attempt to harm another human (without having a specific, societally-approved reason)
  • do not harm animals
  • do not take what does not belong to you
  • do not lie (whether under oath, perjury; financially, educationally, job-related…)
  • do not use profanity/non-socially acceptable words
  • do not defecate oneself in public
  • do not disrespect one’s god
  • do not partake in rituals, customs, attire, jobs, behaviours not ascribed to one’s class

Common Themes

More broadly, these listed taboos can be condensed down to larger thematic examinations:

  • Forbidden knowledge
  • Desecration of the dead
  • Disrespect for personal autonomy and self-determination
  • Harming the defenceless
  • Harming one’s bodily integrity or connection to the divine
  • Entrapment under false pretenses; fallacy

Forbidden knowledge is the first and largest taboo, although its role has more recently acted to inform other taboos. As a fundamental taboo, we see it in myths as broad as the Exile from Eden, Pandora’s Box, Prometheus’s Gift of Fire, Quetzalcoatl’s Curse, Odin’s Agonies, Orpheus’s Flight from Hades, and so on. In each of these tales, the access of forbidden knowledge comes at great personal cost or punishment. By violating the essential taboo differentiating the classes of access, each of these individuals seeks to uplift themselves above their station and take part in something they aren’t allowed to. Curiosity is punished, pride for status precedes downfall, disobedience is met more severely than anything else. Even the gods themselves are bound by these rules. Quetzalcoatl played a role much like Prometheus in the formation of the first humans, according to his source myths, but when he looked upon the nudity of one of his shrine maidens and learned lust, his desires and subsequent actions cursed him into a horrible snakelike form, or immediate immolation. Prometheus brought fire to the humans and was suspended on a rock to have his liver consumed and regenerated every day. Odin brought runic writing into existence by hanging himself on a tree, spearing himself in the side, and starving himself over nine days and nights, then, finding that insufficient a pursuit of knowledge, gouged an eye out for a taste from the well of cosmic knowledge. Punishing the gods emphasized the unbreakable nature of these taboos across all classes, while simultaneously indicating that the desire to act on them was present in all classes.

Respect for the dead is a fundamental both for sociological and biological reasons. Rituals of washing the dead and making sure they were properly interred or burned developed both as a way to ensure that the dead individual enjoyed the rest they were due, and as a way to prevent the spread of sickness from the processes of natural decay, if not most overtly a vector for plague. Burial and funeral rites featured so strongly as an important part of social customs that they would become a prominent element in monster stories. The threat of eternal suffering for those who were not appropriately buried, and the dead returning to haunt their families were both sufficient enough to ensure that burial rites were respected as a fundamental human right.

Personal autonomy is perceived as the first fundamental right, and the most shocking to have taken away, which makes it more astonishing that it is so frequently violated for so many people. Today, we view personal autonomy as a wide-cast net, including our labour and education, our ability to travel, our names, our right to choose a spouse or engage in mating behaviours, the food we eat, the entertainment we consume, the right to modify our bodies, and so on. Slavery and rape are abhorrent to us because it violates the basic principles of self-determination, overriding someone’s will with another’s. Most monster stories incorporate some degree of loss of personal autonomy and self-determination, whether by installing a monstrous impulse that the conscious mind can no longer resist, like the urge to feed; changing the physical composition of the character to something monstrous and inhuman; or subsuming their will to the will of another, like the first zombie stories, or the brief craze of malevolent hypnotists.

Harming the defenceless is a particularly low blow for monster narrative, because it indicates the complete lack of humanity in the monstrous individual. Our society may be hard and difficult to thrive in, but our narratives emphasized a respect for those who could not take care of themselves. Our protagonists are children, orphans, and underdogs; the wealthy and entitled have no heroic path to lift them to greater glories. Monsters rarely approach fit, healthy white males as their prey. They feed upon children, women, and the infirm, those who cannot fight back. This taboo instills a sense of honour, which is not present in monsters, despite how they would depict themselves.

Themes of bodily integrity connect back to personal autonomy, of course, but also strongly to man’s connection to the divine. Every culture has some narrative indicating how humans were shaped or chosen by the gods, conceal some god-spirit in their bosom, or how they have the capacity to become gods themselves through specific works. That connection to divinity is specified by the bodily integrity, and can be compromised. The trading of one’s immortal soul in a demonic pact is a more recent incorporation of this theme. More commonly, scatalogical themes or predation behaviours imply the loss of bodily integrity through the spread of monster-based sicknesses, or making the sacred profane. The lowest caste in the Indian class structure is composed of those who must handle bodily wastes or take care of the dead. These things were seen as impurities that eternally defiled an individual and their status.

Lies, fallacies, entrapment, and promise-breaking are fundamental monster-behaviours and widely regarded as a basic rule that must be maintained. The Greeks prized craftiness, up to and including lies, but they had specific conditions that couched even this approval. Over the last few centuries, society has been more inclusive of lies as a societal and even heroic act, as long as the ‘right reasons’ for it are made clear. But the spoken word as bond must remain a fundamental part of the monster mythos because it is the foundation of society itself. Without the ability to trust one another, trade and commerce breaks down, as does long-standing host conventions (like not killing your guests when they present weakness around you), and the ability to maintain community. Monsters are a divisive element, often existing within the community, and spoiling it from the inside out.


Taboos have frequently developed out of solid and sensible understanding of nature. Certain hallucinogens were made taboo for common people. Tribal communities understood their effects, but believed them to be gifts of visions from the gods; the godliness put these substances out of the hands of most civilians. If the substance was made freely available, the god-visions coming through so many different outlets would render them contradictory or dubious at best, or invalid at worst. Taboos reaffirmed class structures, gender ‘norms’ and behaviours, and job functions with hefty punishments for transgressors. But how did these taboos originate, and what what purpose did they have in the formation of these structures?

A common underlying theory on the development of sexual taboos is the natural instinct toward the preservation of the species. If an individual or group considers their ‘species’ to be further limited by geographical, cultural, or physiological differences (e.g., belief in racial divides, human subspecies, and racial superiority/inferiority, all of which have been countered by science), they may develop taboos against the dilution of their stock with someone outside their narrowed parameters, a taboo that is dominantly the perpetuation of a specific belief set and protection from the ‘outsiders’ who might influence that belief-set. In more recent years, various social-taboos have been struck down or weakened by changing group beliefs, including the taboos of homosexuality, biracial coupling, and the transgender identity. These taboos are all related to the general preservation instinct: homosexual pairings do not produce children, biracial coupling breaks down perceived racial purity, and trans individuals have the perception or stigma of altered or ‘mutilated’ genitalia, rendering them unsuitable mates in a chromosomal male/female pairing. The breakdown in their strength and range of influence may be in part due to more widely available information on the misconceptions behind these taboos: homosexual or bisexual individuals may still have or adopt children and can be good parents; biracial coupling does not produce ‘inferior’ children, introduce defects, or predicate itself on a power imbalance in the relationship; trans individuals have increasing access to safe surgical procedures, many choose to not have surgery performed on their genitalia, hormone replacement therapy does not affect their biological material, and their gender and presentation has no bearing on the effectiveness of their parenting skills, and so on.

For socially conscious individuals, particularly this most recent generation, the idea of equating these issues with taboos like consuming excrement or committing incest with a close family member borders on obscenity. It may be difficult to remember that these three taboos in particular only gained traction as legitimate forms of self-expression in the last fifty years, and still encounter problems with acceptance to this day. Taboos are also formed based on gut reactions and instincts instead of solid scientific fact. If a culture, for example, holds the male genitalia in special regard, then the removal or alteration of those genitals produces feelings of shock, revulsion, and terror. In places where these taboos are viewed as nearly universal, enacting them could easily be used as disproportionate retribution or a terrifying symbol to combat enemy morale. The observance of circumcision as a respect for God’s will met with traction from other tribes and societies as a form of mutilating genitalia, even if sourced from a religious observance. In the thousands of years since circumcision was instituted, the scientific community has developed studies to indicate that early foreskin removal helped facilitate hygiene, and equally, that removal could harm the ability to enjoy sensation from usage. There are still individuals to this day who view circumcision as an act of mutilation imposed upon an individual who cannot consent to it, without a regard for the scientific or religious viewpoints; likewise, there are groups who view the act of piercing the ears as mutilation, or groups that view piercing the ears as a sign of holiness. As long as these individuals are capable of communicating their beliefs as a group or to a group, that taboo remains valid for that community. Gut repulsion communicates the strongest taboos and trumps logic, cultural sensitivity, or religion.

The taboos listed here cannot be completely summarized by ‘an instinct toward the preservation of the species’. In the sexual taboos camp alone, the issues of promiscuity and adultery both implicitly suggest an impulse toward taking as many mates as possible, passing one’s genetic material along to the next generation, and even selecting a superior mate over the one presently employed. For those that suggest that taboos are largely formed out of animalistic behaviours, with preservation of the species as one of the primary instincts, many animals are not monogamous, and they have shorter lifespans and larger litters as balancing factors. And science, again, has come up in support of violating the taboo: polyamorous relationships in nature provide more for the offspring, and promiscuity allows for a more diverse selection of genes and competition. Humans are not monogamous by nature, neither by selection of a single mate, nor remaining widowed after that mate’s demise, unlike the truly monogamous species we have studied; if so, there would be no repercussions for acts that wouldn’t exist, like cheating on one’s mate or enjoying a variety of mates. Chastity and monogamy are entirely social structures imposed on humans. It may be more accurate to suggest that the taboos are in place for a preservation of group identity, which would include the taboos of biracial relationships, homosexuality, and transgender identity. As our society has worked to unify its people groups by new standards (or more pessimistically, targeted broader ranges of people groups to aggress), these group identities may have been modified or broken down. Alternatively, increased visibility and support for new groups formed from the taboo groups, with token ‘leaders’ spreading identification and good will, may have likewise weakened the taboos. Individuals who won public favour and then revealed themselves to be members of one of these out-groups especially contributed support; they were accepted for their talents and personhood before the classification of taboo could take effect.

Another view on the development of taboos, Freudian psychoanalysis, suggests that taboos are a form of repression taking effect. Individuals who were unwilling or unable to confront issues in their unconscious would express these issues in symbolic ways in the conscious world. Unlike many other researchers, Freud espoused much kinder opinions toward topics as universal as incest. In fact, he viewed incestuous feelings between mother-and-son and daughter-and-father as natural developmental stages present in all families, to varying degrees of literalization. Freud did not go so far as to suggest that incest was normalized, or should be, although many individuals condense his views down to the most shocking and egregious claims. Instead, he viewed patterns of misconduct as representation of incest and sexual taboos, and the acceptance of taboo-prohibitions as a societally-recognized shared structure. The same foundational impulses were present in all humans. At the time, he applied this line of reasoning as explanation for tales of abuse brought to him by the young women he studied. But as he abandoned that line of inquiry, he moved into a less literal interpretation: these foundational impulses that we considered profane affected individuals when their lives were out of balance, and they were expressed in a variety of ways as an unconscious outlet for those repressed impulses. To air them in greater narrative framework, then, would appeal to a broader audience for whom these expressions connected to the same unvoiced impulses. Innuendo and metaphor bore out these taboos to relate, communicate, interact, expel, relieve, interpret, and even satisfy these impulses in narrative form.

Taboo in Narrative

So what makes taboo so alluring for individuals to approach? Because of the strong repercussions for partaking in the taboos, ingrained from an early age, most are loathe to cross the cultural standards to enjoy a taste of the forbidden. Yet the very nature of being forbidden compels people toward it. The common expression ‘stolen cookies taste sweeter’ (or any variation of food) indicates that there is something in the risk-reward scenario itself that offers a ‘payoff’ for participating.

There are certain ‘shames’ associated with participating in taboos. Many repercussions or punishments were public, as means of discouraging others from participating in those taboos themselves, but shame had also been ingrained in the relation of the taboo. Taboo can often be split into two categories as well: the ones we’re repulsed by, and the ones we want to try but don’t want to get caught trying. Few actually want to cheat on their spouses, and fewer do, but it wouldn’t be unrealistic to say that many have entertained even momentary thoughts, or lusted after unattainable figures like celebrities while married. Religions with strong moral codes and senses of shame, like Christianity, equated conceptualization of the deed with committing the deed, so even consideration of an errant impulse specific to immediate stimuli (the attractive woman jogging in front of you on the sidewalk) or to specific objects (the famous pop star in the swimsuit in the latest magazine) carry internalized condemnation. These are developed through unvoiced or unconscious messages relayed by family, peers, and media, forming a reciprocal tie between shame and taboo.

For all that shame does to prevent us from acting on these impulses, we’re also drawn in toward that shame through curiosity. The more that shame blocks us from relieving these stresses, the more we view them through the lenses of taboo. Shame and self-loathing itself creates a psychological need for relief, which could take the form of returning to the same impulses, either in act or through fixation, neither of which is healthy. In comes the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, a word which has ties to the purging of unhealthy bodily fluids. The shame-curiosity feedback loop inherent in humans creates an emotional and mental ‘blockage’ of unhealthy thoughts and feelings that can hamper one’s fullest enjoyment of life. This mess is purged from the body through strong emotional situations in the media, through music, theatre, movies, or television, where the audience can strongly identify with the characters and follow them through their fates. Every tragic hero meets their tragic end through actions of their own design, all normal, healthy human impulses exaggerated or warped to something abnormal. In the most literal sense, catharsis is believed to provide fitting narrative judgments for all the unvoiced taboos rattling around inside a person; the character takes on the role of scapegoat, almost, so that their fate stands for the fates of the audience, and so they take the sin, shame, and emotional blockage with them when they have completed their role. In modern day, we have a variety of ways to depict these taboos and induce catharsis, and chief among them seems to be monster stories.

Monsters and Taboos

Monster stories have been used for millennia as a way of approaching and exploring taboos in a safe manner. Storytellers would use monster figures as a way of conveying the punishment for violating taboos: Minos’s violation of piety by failing to sacrifice a bull to his god resulted in the infliction of a taboo lust on his wife, Pasiphae. Pasiphae’s fixation for the bull resulted in the creation of a hybrid man-bull monster child, the Minotaur. And because Minos and Pasiphae failed to parent the child, but instead locked him away, they were driven to offer seasonal sacrifices of human life to satisfy him with blood and flesh. Between the three individuals, storytellers could inform of the collective taboos of impiety and disrespect for the gods, zoophilia, failure to parent, and pseudo-cannibalism. The existence of the beast itself was a form of retributive punishment for breaching the taboos of impiety and bestiality, but it is fascinatingly implicit that the curse of taboo lust was initial punishment for the impiety, and the resulting mutant offspring punishment for both the impiety and acting on the lust. As a monster, the Minotaur was not represented with human shame or impulses. He engaged in the taboo-breach of consuming human flesh as an expression of his monstrosity, and the ‘punishment’ of death came from heroic human hands as a stabilization of taboo-breach and correction.

The existence of monsters or their actions in response to violation of taboo is often portrayed as a result or consequence of the taboo-breach, but in modern times, our myths are slightly more subtle than being directly sent for correction. 1970s monster movies onward would often have a formula for victimization: immorality was punished early on with very gory, graphic displays against premarital sex and promiscuity, drug or underage alcohol use, lack of respect for authority figures, and other lapses. The survivors of these heavy-handed retributions would usually be well-dressed, well-mannered viewer proxies, and the message was this: acting in the correct way and abiding by the unvoiced moral codes would preserve you from the sweep of reactionary violence. These monsters, slashers, serial killers, murderous ghosts, the undead, would pay for the indulgence of blood-lust with their own destruction; like the Furies and those under their thrall, their singular purpose would be an endless path of violence unto their own demise. Cabin in the Woods acted as a deconstruction of the genre and its apparent morality complex. To very literally satisfy the edicts of eldritch gods, a representative population of human teenagers would be offered up to a randomized selection of primed monsters to balance the totality of humanity’s taboo-breach with a glut of violence unto the scapegoats. While traumatized, the virginal girl and singular intended survivor of the affair would then go and relate the punishment as a reiteration of the taboo-breach’s dangers. These stories necessarily must include a survivor who operates correctly within the parameters of moral law in a restoration of order and a prescription for correct behaviour; by making these characters the heroic proxies, the audiences themselves would self-identify and take those lessons for themselves. The aforementioned Cabin in the Woods goes one further with a slightly more realistic understanding of teenage thought-processes and the fallibility of humanity; by ultimately failing to comply with these unwritten rules and by being a complexly motivated human being, the audience-insert dooms humanity to extinction by the apparently very sensitive eldritch horrors. Her acts are a taboo-breach of their own against the confines of her narrative, and are accordingly offered the maximal punishment of the taboo. In doing so, it subverts and complies with the format of this particular taboo-breach fiction.

Even tragedy was intended as a form of taboo narrative and audience catharsis. Oedipus Rex, one of the most famous taboo narratives around, featured the confirmation of a curse cast long before the titular character was even born, a curse that detailed regal patricide, mother-son incest, and his ascension to the throne through these unnatural means. Although Oedipus was fated to act out these taboos, he still earned his punishment for his role in participating. There’s a dominant message in the play, one that’s overlooked for the more lurid aspect of parental incest, but his downfall occurs not because he copulated with his own mother and produced children, but because he followed the thread of truth doggedly to its conclusion despite everyone pleading with him to abandon it. The knowledge of his unnatural union was kept from him as a form of forbidden knowledge to protect their king, their queen, and Oedipus’s children. Oedipus acted in ignorance, but his actions still had consequences: he killed his own father and slept with his mother, and when he accepted these as truths, his subjects had to respect the laws of the land against such crimes. The play has a reputation for the sensationalistic revelation and the exquisite downfall that greets every character involved, but this is a difficult example to demonstrate the nature of taboo because free will was not a factor in the violation of taboos themselves. Even his search for truth at the cost of everything else, lauded as his greatest strength and hobble, comes in response to a misfortune befalling his city, one the seers decreed was a godly response to great taboo violation — his own. This is a play where every portion of his ascension and descent comes pre-scripted and at a great cost to everyone around him, thanks to the actions of his father which spurred this curse along. And for readers or viewers who followed his misfortunes past this play, his family is further diminished in the struggles and bloodshed of Antigone, wherein observance of the royal-law over respect for family and taboo-law results in more death and division. The best lesson you can take from this is to avoid offending the gods and dooming the next two generations of your family.

Dr. Jekyll is a more modern taboo narrative, superficially focused on the alteration of physicality and the removal of the moral compass, or ‘super ego’, in the pursuit of impulse and physical pleasure. The story of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde rotates around that essential struggle between satisfying one’s curiosity for taboos and maintaining one’s good character. Forbidden knowledge splits his psyche into the obedient productive member of society and the rebellious taboo-breacher. As Hyde, he tries a little of everything, from drugs and alcohol to sexuality to violence and murder, all while maintaining public appearances as Jekyll. Similarly, Dorian Gray frees himself to commit all the violations of taboo he could care to try, when separated from those consequences. His sins are writ large on his portrait’s body, from the early aging from hard living, to the cruelties set in eyes and wrinkles, shining out of his soul. Both Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray bring about their own downfall through an act of self-harm against their amoral, taboo-violating selves, Christian souls incapable of living with the multiplicity of sins bearing down on them. The punishment, in these cases, comes from guilt, fear of being caught, or self-disgust, but these stories also indicate that in the absence of external punishment, common individuals may be compelled to act on these taboos, or more accurately, that a moral nature is not as strong a constraint on moral living as the legal system is.

Beyond punishment, these taboos were displayed in uncomfortable lights as emblemized in monster action and characterization. Dracula enthralled audiences for decades with a veritable smorgasbord of taboos, intentional, subtle, subversive, subconscious, and unconscious in origin. To list only a few: both hunters and Dracula express the transmission of blood as a form of unholy marriage between the individuals, and those having multiple transfusions or from multiple individuals a form of polyamory; Dracula, an undead creature of darkness, takes blood from his victims in sleep-states or under hypnosis, exerting his willpower to render them helpless against his assault; Dracula forces a character to drink his blood as a portion of turning her monstrous; Dracula lays claim to a male character as his own to enjoy and consume, as well as to protect, as he wishes; Dracula frequently interchanges his physical form with those of animals, and takes on an animal nature; Dracula surrounds himself with vermin, usually those typically associated with plague-bearing roles like bats, rats, and insects, and offers these to a mental patient to consume; all vampires in the novel are sacrosanct and have a visceral anathema to signs of Christianity. Where only a single taboo violation or consecutive series of taboo-breaches was sufficient for narrative device before, the titular antagonist is an (un-)living taboo in the flesh, spreading the profane in the continuation of his very existence.

The multiplicity of taboos present in Dracula certainly must be one of the reasons for its longevity. As different taboos have taken center stage in public discussion, or receded from social acceptance, Dracula has likewise adapted to his audience, revealing different portions of his ‘monstrosity’ through different emphasized taboos to suit the standards and concerns of the time. As he stands in for plague vectors, directors and writers focus heavily on the corpse-like body, the plague-bearing animal familiars, and other traits associated with infection. When he plays a role as the ‘invading foreigner’, his accent, strange dress, odd customs, and socio-political plans come to the forefront, fulfilling a plethora of negative stereotypes. When he acts as a sexual predator, his allure and seductive methods of acquiring prey take center stage. The adaptability of monster myths ensures that a larger audience connects with those stories and find them compelling, allowing them to be passed along to future generations, or to appeal to the terrors and taboos of the immediate present. So too, all stories must adapt or recede to convey their subconscious messages for now and beyond.

In upcoming posts, I examine the ritual cleansing required in the event of taboo breaches and how that applies to monster narrative’s structures and rituals of disposing of the enemy, look into the origins of monster weaknesses and where alterations or regional variations came into play, and examine taboo’s effects on the fairy tale morality that governs these original folktales, culminating with a look into the innocent protagonist’s role against the forces of darkness.