"Heart of a heartless world, soul of soulless conditions"
- Marx on religion as the opium of the people
Popular Culture – the spectre of our imagination
The mass appeal of ghouls, ghosts and uncanny creatures, may appear to be something of a present preoccupation. However, the 'popular culture' of the undead – various bloodless entities and supernatural beings, hovering between heaven and hell – has ebbed and flowed throughout history.
Out of the unknown
Witches, werewolves and spine tingling spectres were not foreign to the ancient world. Open University students of Greece and Rome get to read about dangerous spellbinding crones in the original Latin (for instance on the language module Continuing Classical Latin).
The avid letter-writer Pliny (2nd century CE) relishes relating an episode about a haunted house and the discovery of a skeleton in chains waiting for a decent burial.
In the racy novel Satyricon a werewolf story forms part of the banqueting fare. The Romans wined and dined on strange portents and stories of the supernatural.
Centuries before the Roman Empire the Greek world had produced the Homeric epics; the Odyssey is peppered with fairytale and folklorist episodes, as the hero Odysseus (Ulysses) makes his 10 year journey home from Troy.
(Think O Brother Where Art Thou or Big Fish for recent cinematic takes on this famous adventure and its flawed but tenacious protagonist.)
Myths about luckless mortals metamorphosed into something monstrous or facing amorous gods in larger than life and outlandish forms permeate the many myths Ovid, the famous poet of Rome, wove into his epic work.
(Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1st century CE) is studied in Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds.) Ovid presents the reader with a numinous landscape in which anything can happen and where human beings might suffer traumatic transformations into wild animals or find themselves rooted to the spot as trees.
The fascinating thing about such 'fantasy fiction' is that it created a space or place as much then as it does now where literary artists could visualise and symbolise the fragility, fragmentation and permeability of our physical identity, fears of social alienation and the complexity of the human condition.
The Twilight Zone
Vampires as we have come to know, love, or be bored silly by (brooding and Byronic types craving redemption and exercising abstention are becoming something of a cliché) do not have any obvious precedent in the Greek and Roman past.
These rather bloodless creatures are both beholden to and radically different from the charismatic and erotically charged Dracula of Bram Stoker, a Victorian Ur text for literary and cinematic vampiric traditions.
Dracula is a set book in The Open University module on the 19th century novel, which includes some fascinating analyses of its qualities from Gothic to fin de siècle fantasy, how it manages to be simultaneously sensational, supernatural, romantic and realist.
Milly Williamson, in her book The Lure of the Vampire, nails some of the reasons for Dracula’s impact – now and then – and why we are so fascinated by the dishy undead.
And over recent years – who would have thought it! – the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer has found its way into the teaching and research of The Open University Classical Studies Department.
Buffy takes two vampire lovers during the seven seasons and in one episode very nearly succumbs to a traditional Dracula figure in a wonderfully worked out pastiche of Stoker. But where does the cultural trajectory of Greece and Rome come into the equation?
The Outer Limits?
I am not alone in the classics academic community in finding Greek and Roman strands in the Buffyverse.
The 2004 conference on this theme (organised by the Open University and Maynooth, National University of Ireland) inspired a number of publications on classical connections in the works of Buffy creator, Joss Whedon.
In my forthcoming book on the Pygmalion myth on screen I have focused on a robot girlfriend April in Buffy. This pleasure machine with feelings seemed to me to be a close match with the ivory statue sculpted by the king of Cyprus.
Both uncanny creatures were brought to life to love, honour and obey their creators. We featured the robot girlfriend in our reception of Ovid section in the Myth course and the audio taster Buffy meets Pygmalion has, at time of writing, attracted nearly 60,000 hits on iTunesU.
April, a technological miracle is ultimately only a moving statue. She is a simulacrum which in Latin can mean sculpture, substitute, likeness and ghost.
When the vampire Spike commissions April’s inventor to produce a Buffy robot to satisfy his passion for the Slayer (his natural nemesis) it raises all kinds of questions about the dead, the undead and the never alive in the first place. This is one weird relationship.
As Gaby Wood wrote in her fascinating book Living Dolls, when making the link between replicas, revenants and replicants, death is inherent in the simulacrum.
Ironically, Spike is later used by the real Buffy as a sex toy, and yet both are bonded by being resurrected from the grave (Buffy has died but been torn out of her heavenly resting place to resume her role as Slayer).
Buffy, before and after death, was in terror of losing her humanity, of 'turning into stone', 'shutting down' and yet sex with Spike 'makes her feel'.
Is ‘big bad’ Spike (one of many vampire pin-ups): the dark 'heart of a heartless world, [the] soul of soulless conditions'(Marx)?
And is this scenario perhaps one more clue about the lure of the vampire in contemporary culture – along with androids, gynoids and other strangely configured creatures the vampire is a metaphor and a measure for what it is to be human.
[Image: simulacrum of a simulacrum - a Madam Tussauds waxwork of Buffy by Loren Javier.]