Monday, October 20, 2014

Ghouls, rated

Halloween season seems like the right time to reflect on how much I hate the supernatural, especially in its spooky and/or undead varieties.

Here's a handy guide, to help you remember:

Zombies: I will never, ever--not if I live to be 200 years old--watch a movie or read a book involving zombies. I lose brain cells every time someone uses the word "zombie" in a sentence.

Werewolves: Hard to imagine they could be interesting, but the possibility isn't zero.

Vampires: As much as I hate virtually everything that has been written and/or filmed about vampires, I remain hopeful that they could be interesting.

Witches (sorcerers, warlocks, etc.): interesting maybe one time out of twenty.

Ghosts: I'm more interested in ghosts than not.


I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am.

How do the rest of you feel about supernatural characters, narratives, or tropes?


Fretful Porpentine said...

Depends on the characters and the story (although I admit I don't get the craze for zombies, AT ALL). But in my experience, the odds of meeting characters I care about in a story about the supernatural are no worse than in most contemporary literary fiction (where the unwritten rule seems to be "no happy endings, and minimal plot"). I'm not sure, in other words, that the inclusion of particular plot devices either precludes or guarantees something I'd be interested in.

Bardiac said...

The Witch of Edmonton wins! And Tom the Devil Dog!

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Yeah, I agree. All that supernatural gibberish is boring and stupid. The interesting thing is that the supernatural stuff you refer to in popular culture isn't really actively harmful, except in a very attenuated manner. In contrast, the supernatural gibberish that underlies organized religion--while equally boring and ridiculous--is unfortunately used to justify the worst excesses of human nature, including slavery, rape, war, and genocide.

Flavia said...


Agreed, basically--I'm talking about what subjects, characters, or tropes attract my interest in some inherent and immediate way. I'm not drawn to magic as I'm not drawn to fantasy or sci-fi or anything set in outer space--but that doesn't mean I haven't really enjoyed works of fantasy or sci-fi; just that those things aren't a draw, and sometimes pose an obstacle to my getting interested.

(And please note this isn't the same thing as genre snobbery! I don't think fantasy, sci-fi, etc., are lesser genres, and I believe some extremely talented people write in those modes. I just am not excited about them in the way some people aren't excited about costume dramas, or ballet, or jazz.)


First, I disagree that religion does more harm than any of the other beliefs that are used to organize (and divide) human society; human beings have a propensity toward belief systems that enable their desire for domination. Religion has certainly been used toward this end, but nationalism has caused as much bloodshed, as have beliefs in racial or ethnic superiority. (And one need only look at the officially atheist Soviet Union to see an easy counter-example.)

Second, I'm not actually talking about religion in this post--and if you've read me with any attention for any length of time, you'll have noticed that I'm not deeply interested in the supernatural aspects of religion, either.

But thanks for sharing, again, the one thought you've ever had about religion.

Withywindle said...

I find sorrow more interesting than fear; therefore I find werewolves, vampires, and ghosts more interesting than witches or zombies.

From sheer self-promotion, a little story I posted on the blog a few years back, that had a vampire in it:

I don't remember if you were reading my blog yet at that point; apologies if this is a repeat.

Dearly as I love Torquemada, the Catholic Church for me will always be the Church of Erasmus, Hopkins, and Tolkien. Who all, I like to think, would have enjoyed a good zombie story every now and then.

Sapience said...

I'm a die-hard sci-fi/fantasy reader, but I still have a hard time with Zombie stories, mostly because I find the zombies become excuses for gratuitous violence rather than anything interesting in their own right. Exceptions: Warm Bodies (which is really Romeo and Juliet where Romeo is a zombie who has to learn to be human again so they can have a happy ending), Mira Grant's Feed series (which is really more about politics, journalism, and fear of pathogens than actually about zombies, even if there are lots of zombies) and Cherie Priest's Boneshaker series (where the zombies are the least interesting thing in a Steampunk, Civil War-era Seattle).

Werewolves, on the other hand, I usually enjoy. (I'm trying to figure out how to work Bisclavret into my class on Chivalry next semester.) I like Vampires less reliably, but they can be interesting to me--I adored Buffy the Vampire Slayer; even if most of the vampires were pretty flat, the ones who became main characters like Angel and Spike were very interesting. Witches are more "eh" (magic becomes too much of a deus ex machina most of the time for me). Ghosts are my *least* favorite of all, but I'm not sure I could tell you why.

Historiann said...

None of that crap is interesting to me, but I take that as just another sign of how alienated I am from mainstream American pop culture.

Flavia said...


I find sorrow more interesting than fear.

Yes! Agreed. So I'm interested in ghosts to the extent that they represent the living's perceived continual relationship with the dead--but I'm emphatically not interested in ghosts as random spectres who haunt the house you just bought, or whatever.

As for witches & magicians (and this gets at Sapience's comment, too), I'm also not interested in them as objects of fear, or in magic qua magic (dude, I HATE magic). I'm pretty much only interested in them when there's a question of how they relate to the rest of society, or how they use their powers ethically or come to understand them, etc.

So you & Sapience make a plausible case for werewolves, on the same basic grounds.


Yes, agreed about zombies. I don't think that, in pop culture, they're usually a vehicle for saying anything interesting about death, the relationship of mind/soul to body, etc. It's just about disgust/distaste for the body and the desire to imagine bodies as inhuman.

fourtinefork said...

Any feelings about Buffy? (Sapience, above, mentioned that.) It's streaming in a variety of places and delightful on multiple fronts, not limited to enjoying the unfortunate late 90s/early 00s fashions. (I watch it when I'm feeling blue.)

And that show is, ultimately, not about the supernatural but about being human. Some of the characters are flat, but it's about teenagers figuring out what it means to be a person and what kind of person they want to be. There are some really weak episodes, especially early when the show is finding its footing, but it's a much smarter show than I ever gave it credit for at the time.

But there is so much supernatural-y crap out there now. I saw a few minutes of Twilight on a plane and was glad I was on an airline that provided free drinks and that I had a decent book.

Bardiac said...

I think Fourtinefork's point about how much supernatural stuff is whirling around our culture is really important.

Folks are really obsessed, and understanding why seems way more interesting than the now old (and oversimplified here) "it's all xenophobia" explanation I got way back when reading Stoker seemed edgy.

Flavia said...


I admit I never watched Buffy, mainly because I didn't have a t.v. back then (and for whatever reason wasn't part of any groups that watched it collectively--though I later developed a ton of friends who were obsessed with the show). My spouse speaks well of it and owns some seasons, so I should give it a try.

Bardiac (and Historiann):

Yes, agreed. And I think that some of my impatience with the spooky & undead supernatural is about how silly and impoverished an attempt to deal with big questions it seems, and how disconnected from the millennia of intellectual and artistic inquiries into the same subjects.

One of my theories is that this pop-cultural obsession is partly a product of that disconnection--the fact that most people don't realize that there are whole libraries full of books (philosophical, religious, literary) wrestling with questions about death, including the problem of dead bodies; the afterlife or lack thereof; the relationship between soul/spirit/mind and body; and what it means to live in the knowledge that we and everyone we love will eventually cease to be.

Just about the only show that I've enjoyed that deals with these issues is Six Feet Under, which is emphatically about the living and how they cope with and try to make meaning out of death--and since it's set in a funeral home, it's smart about the ways that tradition, ritual, and different belief systems function and fail to function, whether the participants are believers or not. It never suggests that there is a supernatural realm--but it's sensitive to the human desire for one. (The dead occasionally appear to the living, but the show takes no position on whether they're ghosts, hallucinations, or dread- or wish-fulfillment projections.)

scr said...

I don't like any of that stuff, but I was talked into watching Zombieland at a party, and laughed my ass off. Now I've seen it 2 or 3 times.


Sisyphus said...

I have a quite different take --- with the exception of Angela Carter stories, I could care less about werewolves (yawn!) and quite like zombie related stuff. Don't discount the importance of ugliness and bodily pain and decay in a society that has become so sanitized and comfortable!

I don't care about ghosts, except in the most metaphorical type of ways like being haunted by the past in Faulkner, etc.

Now witches and magic I used to be really into and I read a lot of fantasy back in high school and college --- I think the really good stuff does a lot a world-building in a way that brings back what we have lost from fairy tales (I'm ignoring Disney here), and the best writing about magic is really all about power. Doctor Faustus, extended.

Andrew Stevens said...

Buffy is a great show, but as fourtinefork says, it's not really "about" vampires. I don't know if being ostensibly about vampires did the show more good (by hooking in people who wouldn't ordinarily watch a show like that without them) or harm (by scaring away people who would otherwise have happily watched it and loved it).

Just to warn you, I don't think the show really gets going until about midway through the second season and I think there's a drop in quality after the third season and the drop is fairly precipitate after the fifth. The third season is one of the best things ever though.

undine said...

This: "I think the message here is: I'm interested in human beings. The further one gets from the human, the less interested I am."

Except cats. I'm interested in cats, but not in fiction, since modern fiction does unfortunate things to animals in the interests of This Is A Symbol--Now Pay Attention.

I watched Buffy to bond with family members who liked it.

That's about all my experience of the undead or supernaturally inclined beings.

Susan said...

Well, I am interested in witches historically. But I think they are kind of an early modern Rorschach test, where you can trace almost every theme in the field... I've talked about them twice, and it's an entirely different discussion each time.

Flavia said...


Yes, I think studying the (allegedly) supernatural as a historian is quite a different thing!