Over at the Castalia House blog, Jeffro Johnson recently made a post entitled “Why Post-Christian Fantasy is Inferior to the Real Thing”. Johnson argues that a process of secularisation has sapped the appeal from modern fantasy fiction:
Vampires were divorced from concepts such as damnation and hell and transformed into sparkly boyfriend material.
Evil witches that trafficked with demons were similarly defanged in a move to present them as mere “wise women”.
The freaky pagan cults responsible for building things like Stone Henge went from working horrific rites involving human sacrifice to being proto-hippies living in tune with nature.
Elves ceased to be inscrutable and inimical to humanity and were recast as effete snobs that differ from us only insofar as they have pointy ears and longer lifespans.
Crucifixes ceased to have any inherent power over vampires, elves, and the occult; they were replaced with whatever symbol a protagonist might have strong feelings of nostalgia for.
With spiritual elements removed or watered down, these fantastic creatures are reduced to glorified superheroes. They become less horrific. They instill less wonder. The worlds they live in lose an entire dimension. Worst of all, the people that stand against them face significantly lower stakes.
Johnson concludes with speculation about why this happened:
Did stories gradually get altered over time as a reflection of a culture that was itself becoming less Christian? Or were the stories revised as a means of instigating such a process? It’s hard to say, really. Either way, the root cause is the same: the very idea of objective evil makes some people uncomfortable. They’d rather see its most extreme depictions edited out of their entertainment rather than entertain the thought that it exists even in imaginary worlds.
For my part, I think that Johnson is being needlessly reductive in his comments on this phenomenon.
To start with, let us take a sidestep from the fantasy world of vampires, elves and witches and into the science fictional realm of aliens. Early modern attempts to imagine intelligent extraterrestrials made the essentially creationist assumption that such beinfs would necessarily resemble humans: consider how the 17th century writer Bernard de Fontanelle, who knew that Venus would be hotter than Earth, concluded therefore that its inhabitants would “resemble the Moors of Granada”. The development of scientific thought led to the realisation that an alien organism would be (ahem) life, Jim, but not as we know it.
Since then, authors of fiction have taken whichever of the two approaches suits their purposes. In the former category, we have Dejah Thoris, Superman, Klaatu and the Vulcans. In the latter we find H. G. Wells’ Martian tripod-dwellers, the unknowable abominations of H. P. Lovecraft, the ocean of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris and the aliens seen in the recent film Arrival.
Likewise, with the supernatural concepts listed by Johnson, authors are free to choose a place on the sliding scale between human and inhuman. We have the defanged vampires of Twilight, but we also have the bat-demons of Penny Dreadful. We have Casper, and we have Sadako. We have Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and we have Scott Snyder’s Wytches. (Sometimes the dichotomy can be seen with in a single work: compare Ron Weasley to Lord Voldemort.)
Although it is popularly supposed that vampire fiction started with Dracula and then made a steady decline that eventually led to Twilight, the truth is more complex. If we go back to the start of vampire literature we find that Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave the theme a poetic treatment in “Christabel” while, at around the same time, John Polidori was using the vampire as a caricature of Lord Byron – and by doing so begun the process of humanising the inhuman.
After this, James Malcolm Rymer adapted the vampire for a mass audience with his penny dreadful serial Varney the Vampire; this starts out with an imitation of Polidori’s Byron-alike, and proceeds to water him down even further as the overlong story drags on its way. Indeed, the narrative has a stretch where Rymer establishes that Varney is a deluded man who merely thinks that he is a vampire. Then, after Varney succeded in almost totally demystifying the vampire, Bram Stoker would do much to reverse this by returning to East European folklore for inspiration.
Then comes The Munsters. Then comes The Descent. Then comes Twilight. All of this looks less like a decline and more like a pendulum swinging back and forth – although even that fails to take into account the fact that multiple treatments of the theme, reaching vastly different degrees of sophsitication, may co-exist at the same time.
But if we are to assume, for the sake of argument, that supernatural beings of fantasy have been undergoing a general process of demystification and humanisation, then how did this come about? Is there any basis for Johnson’s theory connecting this to a drift away from religion?
I’d suggest looking at some of the other factors. A big one would be the development of film and television.
I am reminded of what fantasy author John Grant, in his book Masters of Animation, said about Walt Disney’s tendency to demythologise fantasy:
Part of the magic of the stage Tinker Bell is that the audience never sees her as more than a rapidly moving dot of light, and the strength of the story can be gathered from the way that grown-ups and children alike can be induced, toward the end, to clap their hands fervently, often with tears in their eyes, to bring back to life what everyone knows is just some jerk at the back with a flashlight – it’s a perfection of the art of suspension of disbelief. Walt, by contrast, decided to show us Tinker Bell as a distinct little human being… the gambit lost something from the story that perhaps Walt didn’t know was there in the first place.
Grant also notes that this demythologisation occurred even within the specific content of the Disney canon, so that the “wholly magical and thereby transcendently incomprehensible Blue Fairy of Pinocchio” (as he describes her) was ultimately replaced by the bumbling and homely Fairy Godmother of Cinderella.
In terms of screen fantasy, we also have to take into account budget restraints – something that transcends faith and creed. The film The Devil Rides Out was written from an overtly Christian perspective, and yet its vision of Satan is the banal sight of a man wearing a goat mask and idly glancing back and forth.
Elves, vampires and witches are the products of oral storytelling, but their images were codified on celluloid (a process that arguably begun with 19th century illustrators). If you were to mention the word “vampire” to a Transylvanian villager of the 18th century, they would picture a being unique to the darkest corners of their own imagination. If you were to mention the word to a guy walking around California circa 2017, he would picture a cartoon caricature of Bela Lugosi.
Once an image has solidified, it will be imitated and parodied. That is how we get from the intangible beings of folkloric imagination to Count von Count, Grotbags the Witch or Snap, Crackle and Pop. This stems not from a decline in Christianity, but from a rise in mass media.