The most common, and most recent, examples of the incredible rise and success of supernatural fiction are Harry Potter and Twilight. The latter alone has sold 116 million copies and the movies have allegedly cashed two billion dollars. No wonder so many writers, publishers and producers are paying serious attention to the metaphysical!
But as we all know, supernatural fiction was born way before Harry Potter and Edward Cullen came into the picture (or in this case, into the paper.) If we look at the history of storytelling, we’ll find legends and fairy tales in every culture; all dealing with magical creatures, talking animals, witches or mythological gods who interact with humans or by themselves. Even the Bible is filled with supernatural phenomena!
Most modern fantasy/horror tales stem from three iconic figures. In the early 19th century, an 18-year-old girl came up with the idea of a man formed by an amalgam of body parts from dead people and brought back to life. The girl was Mary Shelley and the novel was Frankenstein. From a short story contest and a dream that inspired this young writer, the horror and science fiction genres were born. But the sad tale of Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not limited to horror fiction. It has also been rendered in comedies and cartoons.
From folkloric tales and legends came shapeshifters such as the werewolf to capture the popular imagination. This moon-devoted creature has been rendered in a variety of ways, from the tragic tales of The Werewolf of Paris and An American Werewolf in London, to the 80’s comedy Teen Wolf and the romantic Jacob Black in the Twilight Saga. It’s interesting to see how this classical archetype has been repeatedly portrayed as the vampire’s nemesis.
In the comedy-horror film, An American Werewolf in London (1981), David Naughton is an innocent American tourist who gets bitten by a werewolf in England. Like most lycanthropes in fiction, he goes through a painful transformation and acquires an insatiable appetite for human flesh that dooms him to a tragic ending.
Third, but not least, is the infamous vampire. Initially borrowed from oral mythology and archaic superstitions, this archetypical figure has never been more popular. It is alleged that the inspiration for Count Dracula came from a real person, Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince from the 15th century who cruelly killed thousands of his own people. In 2005, author Elizabeth Kostova brought us The Historian, a novel that explores the possibility that this historical character may in fact have been the feared Dracula and may still be alive. The range of vampires in literatures is so wide that it can satisfy any taste. If you crave the Gothic antihero dwelling in dark dungeons and coffins, you can turn to Bram Stocker’s Dracula. If you enjoy the flamboyance and decadence of a more sensual vampire, you might be pleased with Anne Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt. But if you’re weakness is the “lost soul” tormented by his own nature, you will most likely find this archetype in the most recent vampire renditions. The birth of the repressed and introspective vampire can probably be attributed to another one of Rice’s creations, the melancholic Louis de Pointe du Lac from The Vampire Chronicles. Many claim that the virginal vegetarian vampire, Edward Cullen, is a direct descendant from Louis.
|Two different depictions of a vampire. Tom Cruise as the self-indulgent and narcissistic Lestat, and Brad Pritt as Louis, the paternal vampire with a conscience.|
Recurring themes revolving these three iconic characters are power, strength, repressed sexuality, sensuality, forbidden love, suicide, sacrifice and possession (sexual or by killing/eating/drinking the victim’s blood.) This last theme is a major element of children’s literature. How many wolves and witches haven’t set out to feed of children’s tender flesh? Likewise, aliens and zombies throughout the history of literature have gained strength from us tasty humans.
Another appeal of the supernatural is the ability to build alternative/parallel worlds that may or may not represent utopian societies for the writer and his/her audience. In these worlds, cataclysmic contests between good and evil prevail (whereas the real world has several shades of gray and it’s harder to “take a side.”) So am I right in thinking that in this way, fantasy/science fiction is simpler than real life?
From what I’ve observed, supernatural fiction can be divided in three large categories (correct me if I’m wrong):
- A human in a fantastic world.
- A fantastic character in the real world.
- Fantastic creatures in fantastic worlds.
To me, it’s easier to identify with number two.
|In Ghost (1990), a man gets killed in front of his fiancée but stays on earth as a ghost to protect his beloved. The film, starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, is considered one of the most romantic stories of all times.|
Which type of supernatural fiction do you prefer?
I know people who flat-out refuse to read or watch any fiction that isn’t rooted in the real world. It’s not my preferred kind of fiction, either, but I have on occasion enjoyed reading or watching these types of stories. Still, the popularity of the supernatural puzzles me. Do writers/directors have a legitimate interest in these subjects, or are they following a trend? Do writers believe in the things they write about? If the young adult market has become so large, what are adults reading? And here’s the last question for those immersed in this kind of fiction: are people reading supernatural fiction because it’s available everywhere, have they developed a taste for it because of its popularity, or have they always had a genuine interest in the esoteric world?