When reading the Gothic and understanding the literary construction of terror and horror, it can feel like you are closed off from the ‘real’ world. The language of terror is something that only exists in fiction and dark superstitions which we can leave behind when we return to our reality. How then do we make the study of the Gothic have meaning beyond the text. The answer is simple: we don’t have to, the language of terror is already infiltrating our every day life.
For their 2014 conference, the study hub ‘Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths & Metaphors of Enduring Evil’ called for papers on the ‘Mechanisms of Monstrosity’. By this they meant the way in which the language of terror is applied to contemporary situations and used by the media. So that paedophiles are ‘monsters’, the unnecessary hounding of an individual is a ‘witch-hunt’, rapists are ‘beasts’, and so on. This language is used to make criminals ‘other’ and separate them from the rest of humanity; it can also be used to justify our treatment of people who fall outside the terms of humanness. It helps to draw clear-cut boundaries between good and evil.
Conversely, using these terms also makes the ‘evil’ more familiar by placing it within a defined and knowable context such as a film or novel. The narrative structures and rules within the text can be controlled undercutting the threat of the ‘Other’. This is particularly true when we apply the names of monsters to groups of people that we already deem to be the ‘Other’ due to their culture, religion, nationality, race, sexuality, disability, class, or gender.
This is not a new phenomenon. If we take the use of the term ‘vampire’, we can see how it has been used to represent various factions within or without society to varying effects. In his book Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film, Erik Butler dedicates a chapter to ‘Vampires and Satire in the Enlightenment and Romanticism’ in which he explores how vampires moved from Serbian folklore to become symbols for political or social upward mobility at the expense of (the) people. This satirical vampire gains capital but loses its’ soul and money becomes the means by which it tries to fill this emptiness. Satire becomes fiction when Count Dracula arrives into literature, a vampire who literally bleeds money when cut.
Vampires, capitalism, and soulless consumption continue to be metaphorically related. In a 2009 Rolling Stone article, Matt Taibbi described the investment bank Goldman Sachs as a vampire squid whose blood of choice was money and whose greed had helped to cause the recession. It is an evocative and powerful piece one which owes more to the fictional vampire than natural history. (The vampire squid does not suck blood – its name is mainly based on appearance). Early this year, Taibbi followed up his original piece with an article entitled ‘The Vampire Squid Strikes Again’. He builds upon the powerful rhetoric of the vampire to suggest that investment banks are infecting all aspects of society including politics.
This language has been adopted by many who have been aggrieved by the behaviour of bankers which has been perceived to be foolhardy. In this construction we are like the peasants living under the shadow of Castle Dracula waiting to be preyed upon. Karl Marx represented capitalism as a vampire that fed upon the lifeblood of workers. This image remains evocative today as shown in the article ‘Gothic capitalism: Marx, monsters and Buffy’ by Lena Wånggren on ‘The Gothic Imagination’ blog. By terming financial corporations as ‘vampires’ we can ignore the fact that the people who work there are also humans and it is easier to create a narrative of ‘them vs. us’. Corporations are made ‘other’, in this case the Big, Bad ‘Other’.
Whilst on the one hand this ideology can focalise pressure groups and political activism, it also naturalises the idea that corporations can only ever be evil. This can be disincentivising as it represent corporations as one unified mass which we can never overcome. It also creates a narrative of inevitability which exempts policy makers from the problems of capitalism: since if corporations are always already the ‘monstrous Other’ then politicians are powerless to enact any changes that could monitor their behaviour. By using the language of vampires in this situation, we remove the human face of business making it entirely monstrous.
On the other hand, the same language is used about groups we already consider to be ‘other’ such as terrorists. The term ‘terrorist’ has used in a fluid and complex ways and far wiser minds than mine, have discussed the ideology of the “War on Terror”. However for a brief example of our use of the language of monsters in regards to the terrorist ‘Other’, I was interested to see the following headline ‘ISIS: Arab-Israeli “Vampire” says terror group “loves drinking blood”‘. As Islamic State (as they are currently referred to) become an increasing threat we turn to the language of monsters to frame their behaviour. Clearly, the group themselves wish to promote this image that they are monstrous in order to incite fear but the media are happy to capitulate in this representation. This is not to trivialise the issue of terrorism or suggest that there is anything childish about using this language. It is perfectly understandable to want to frame, and name, the ‘monstrous Other’ in familiar terms. After all, we all know how to protect ourselves from vampires but not from the unquantifiable threat of terrorism. And if stories teach us anything its that the good guys always kill the monster and we want to believe that we are the good guys.
(Added 26th October 2014: I just want to link to this article on Islamophobia in Dracula Untold, the latest version of the Count Dracula myth, as I think it relates to the comments I was making above about the monstrous other within the Gothic.)