Monster literature: A way to deal with reality

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 Illustration by Mandy Derfler

Illustration by Mandy Derfler

Correction: Stephenie Meyers’ name is misspelled in the article below.

Professors scare up theories on classic and contemporary horror stories.

By Ana Victoria Cano

Monster literature — such as the popular “Twilight” series, “The Walking Dead” comic books and “Vampire Diaries” — is a way to escape and deal with reality, several English professors at this college said.

With roots in classic horror tales, such as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” these contemporary books also explore themes such as death, illness, the supernatural and romance, they said.

“This literature is an escape from reality even though it reflects our reality, and it’s a way we can deal with it,” said Jane Focht-Hansen, English professor and writing center director. “You can feel superior to the zombie because he does not kill you and eat your brain.”

“Twilight” is a love story; Bella, an ordinary teenager, moved from Phoenix to the rainy little town of Forks, Wash. There she meets the vampire Edward. Although both of them know it is dangerous to be together, they fall in love.

The series is an odyssey of Bella and Edward’s love that involves good vampires, evil vampires, werewolves and even a human-vampire child.

“Twilight” series author Stephanie Meyer is launching a social media campaign to produce short films by female filmmakers based on the characters of “Twilight.”

These short films will be called “The Storytellers – New Creative Voices of The Twilight Saga.”

This project is dedicated to women to give them the opportunity to be heard creatively.

“Vampire Diaries” is a series of books that became a popular TV show. The story takes place in a fictitious small town called Mystic Falls. Damon and Stephan Salvatore, two vampire brothers, arrive in Mystic Falls where they meet Elena Gilbert, a beautiful high school teenager. The three find themselves entangled in a love triangle while encountering witches, vampires, werewolves and magic creatures.

Another trendy topic in science fiction novels are zombies, like those in “The Walking Dead,” a world where epidemic apocalyptic disease has spread through the globe, causing the dead to rise and kill the living.

Focht-Hansen said monster literature also can be related to the current economic reality.

“Vampires were very popular 30 years ago, too, and when we study these types of literature – you know, monster literature – we look at the kinds of monsters that are alive in our culture,” Focht-Hansen said.

She referred to the actual economic conditions and top-down kinds of government or administration.

“We can look at the vampire as an aristocrat who is feeding off the efforts of the peasants; we can look at his death as the retribution of the working class. It is kind of interesting; we can even look at them from our current cultural perspective. Maybe the vampires are the bankers and the stockbrokers who make money off people in a mortgage loan situation, for example,” Focht-Hansen said.

The literature includes intellectual metaphors. Margaret Atwood, a Canadian writer, theorized that zombies are the people who had always been kept in poverty and rose up against those people who kept them oppressed, Focht-Hansen said.

Monster literature is nowadays very popular among teens, who often imagine themselves as being oppressed.

“Zombies, vampires and werewolves are attractive to teenagers because they haven’t found their own personal power,” Focht-Hansen said. “They’re still rebelling against the family, getting ready to go to college, to become adults.”

Teens also feel alienated, said English Professor Claudio San Miguel.

“Sometimes adolescents think of themselves as monsters or out of place,” he said. “So it is like a really concrete expression of those internal anxieties and that sense of feeling different.”

Also, teens feel they don’t have control of their lives because of what they hear and see, he said.

“Young people are told that going to college is no guarantee that they would succeed; there are jobs unavailable,” San Miguel said. “Even situations like Ebola make them think that they have no control over things. This literature gives them a way to deal with their situation. This kind of literature is a fantasy, that is, a metaphor for having to adapt to a world that you don’t feel that you have control of.”

Adolescence is all about strong emotions, learning how to manage the beast within, and these stories reflect that, San Miguel said.

“These are surface metaphorical tales that allow for teenagers to act out their more surface kinds of desires, needs, passions,” San Miguel said.

Unlike classic vampire literature, books such as “Twilight” focus more specifically on adolescent sexuality, Focht-Hansen said.

“The vocabulary of ‘Twilight’ is kind of limited, and really it is a story about teenaged boys and girls facing their sexuality; it is not really as much a vampire story as the classics are,” she said.

San Miguel agreed.

“I don’t think it’s great literature, but I understand its appeal, and it is a lot more fun and it allows you to take control of your life,” he said.

However, reading something basic, such as “Twilight,” is a great start to hook people into reading, and then they can move on to more complicated horror authors like Anne Rice and Stephen King, San Miguel said.

Mike Burton, chair of the English, reading and education department, said the most important aspects of romance are the chase, the danger element and conflict.

In the “Twilight” series, Bella and Edward are very attracted to each other. However, Edward won’t control himself, so it is very dangerous for them to be together, Burton said.

“The suspense in those books is based on those attractions and repulsions,” he said.

As the human characters battle monsters in the pages of this literature, they mirror our own challenges, and they allow us to vent vicariously, San Miguel said.

“It is all very physical and aggressive, and you wish you can take control of your life and all of that, but in all of these series, if you are angry, you can kill demons,” he said. “Like ‘The Walking Dead,’ you have anxieties about the world and you can’t solve the human problems, but you can redirect your anger and kill a bunch of zombies.”

“Literature is a facsimile of our life; it is a reflection,” Focht-Hansen said.

Fantastic creatures have been in our stories since Greek mythology.

These stories are very old; stories about half-animal, half-man creatures existed since the ancient cultures, San Miguel said.

Writing about divided creatures was a way to express the author’s own divided self and their irrationality, San Miguel said.

“It isn’t an accident that paranormal teen romance has caught on because you have all of the very real sense of young people going through adolescence,” he said.

Literature about vampires, zombies and other monsters started in the early 1800s, known as “Gothic” or sometimes “Gothic romance,” Burton said.

“Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were created at this time as a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment, which emphasized reason over emotion.

Those stories also used elements such as the emotion of terror, the supernatural, and romance, Burton said.

“(Our) modern age is very similar,” he said. “In the ’90s, with our education system, so much is emphasized in reason, technology, those kinds of aspects, and I think whenever there is too much attention to one side, the other side emerges.”

Some colleges and universities offer English courses that study gothic romance, classic horror novels or even current monster literature.

Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., teaches a seminar in academic writing, English 1010, about vampires, werewolves, zombies, and popular culture.

There is a course at this college, English 2341, which offers changing topics, such as science fiction, women and literature, children’s literature, Bible literature, African-American literature and Native American literature, Burton said.

“We could teach a course in Romance or Gothic Romance,” he said.

A few students — and even one staff member at this college — said they would sign up.

“It will be awesome to have classes like that; I would re-enroll in that,” said Marisa Martinez, senior specialist in the office of student life.

“That will be a good class to take,” said Daniela Sanchez, criminal-justice forensic science sophomore. “Here, in San Antonio, we have a lot of ghost stories.”


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