A friend recently told me that the horror villains we fear are subconscious stand-ins for things we’re afraid of in real life. Vampires stand for a fear of change; zombies for a fear of crowds or strangers. Fear of clowns is a sign you’re a normal, well-adjusted, perfectly rational person.
Inquiring minds want to know! I started with vampires—and I never got past vampires!
When I went online to learn what it means if we fear vampires, what popped up was an article by Ralph Blumenthal, “A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse.” He was writing in 2002 about villagers in Malawi believing that the government was colluding with vampires to collect human blood in exchange for food.
At the time, Malawi was in the grip of starvation, a severe AIDS epidemic, and political upheaval. He cited Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves, to the effect that stories of the undead embody power ”and our fears of power.”
In nearly every culture in the world, there is a legend of some variation of vampire-like creatures—the dead who reanimate and come back to feed on the living. And there is general agreement that the roots of vampire legends are in the misunderstanding of how bodies decompose and of how certain diseases spread.
In an October 26, 2016 article in National Geographic titled The Bloody Truth About Vampires, Becky Little wrote, “As a corpse’s skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer. And as internal organs break down, a dark ‘purge fluid’ can leak out of the nose and mouth. People unfamiliar with this process would interpret this fluid to be blood and suspect that the corpse had been drinking it from the living.”
Modern images of vampires are pretty stereotyped: fangs that bite the necks of victims; drinking human blood; can’t see themselves in mirrors; can be warded off with garlic, killed with a stake (or silver nail) through the heart; are aristocrats who live in castles and may be sexy. This image was popularized by Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 film adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name. Unlike Bram Stoker’s description of the monster in the 1897 novel Dracula as a repulsive old man with huge eyebrows and bat-like ears, Lugosi showed audiences a mysteriously elegant gentleman in evening dress.
In European folklore, vampires typically wore shrouds, and were often described as bloated, with a ruddy or dark countenance. Specific descriptions varied among regions: sometimes male, sometimes female, might have long fingernails, a stubby beard, the mouth and left eye open, a permanently hateful stare, red eyes, no eyes, etc. Fangs were not always a prominent feature, and blood was generally sucked from bites on the chest near the heart rather than the throat.
But perhaps the most important theme of Barber’s book is that, lacking a scientific background in physiology, pathology, or immunization, the common response of ancient societies was to blame death and disease on the dead. To that end, the interpretations they came up with—while wrong from today’s perspective—nevertheless were usually coherent, covered all the data, and provided the rationale for some common practices that seemed to be otherwise inexplicable.
Should you ever be pursued by a vampire, fling a handful of rice, millet, or other small grain in its path. The vampire will be compelled to stop to count every grain, giving you time to escape. I found no information on how vampires came to be associated with arithmomania, but it endures: remember The Count von Count on Sesame Street?
At this point, I realize that getting into methods of identifying vampires, protecting against vampires, ways to destroy vampires, and cross-cultural variations on vampirism is way beyond the scope of this blog. Instead, I refer you to books such as this:
Seeing a vampire in your dream symbolizes an aspect of your personality that is parasitic or selfishly feeds off others.
Alternatively, a vampire may reflect feelings about people you believe want to pull you down to their level or convert you to thinking negatively in a way similar to theirs.
To dream of being a vampire represents a selfish need to feed off others.
To dream of being bitten by a vampire represents feelings about other people using you or feeding off you and being unable to stop it.
Vampires may be a sign of dependence, problems with addiction, social pressure, or ambivalence.
A dream vampire might be telling you that you need to start being more independent and relying less on others resources or accomplishments.
To dream of killing vampires represents overcoming dependence on others.
Repeated dreams of vampires hovering over your shoulder and correcting your spelling or suggesting topics for research and expansion is almost certainly a sign that you are writing a blog entry about vampires.
Bottom line for writers:consider whether a vampire is a fit metaphor for your character.
Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways:
1) A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant). Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.
2) An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict. Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder. Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.
Where prejudice comes from:
1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong. Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc. Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked. Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.
2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient. We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function. If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).
Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes. E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative. For example, I hate Yankee fans. They make me angry.
Behavioral: the treatment of others. When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members. Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.
Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations. The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs. (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)
Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..
In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences. Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination. When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed. This is scape-goating.
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations. Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.
The basis of conflict and tension are obvious when two (or more) characters are competing for the same goal, such as a promotion, or when a character is beset by physical danger such as a life-threatening cancer or an approaching hurricane. A threat of any sort to the character or to someone (or something) the character cares about is an excellent source of conflict and tension. But using internal conflicts can add just as much power to your plot.
You can’t have your cake and eat it, too = approach-approach conflict
The character has multiple appealing options but can take only one—e.g., two marriage proposals, only one dessert from a tray of twelve, only one new car, etc. This type of conflict creates the least tension because there is no real downside. It’s all good.
Between a rock and a hard place = between the devil and the deep blue sea = an avoidance-avoidance conflict
Will the character get back surgery or live with the pain? Wash the car or rake leaves? Stay in an unhappy marriage or get a divorce? The reader may feel more sympathy than tension. The level of tension depends partly on the pain the character suffers while weighing the alternatives, and partly on how bad the options are. For example, Sophie’s Choice: to save herself and one child at the price of choosing to send one child to the gas chamber, or refuse to choose and sentence all three of them to death.
Take the bitter with the sweet = an approach-avoidance conflict: one goal with both positive and negative aspects, ultimately resolved in favor of the stronger
Virtually all relationships as well as many other aspects of life fall into this category. One factor affecting the amount of conflict or tension is how nearly the positive and negative aspects are matched (the closer they are in strength, the greater the tension). If an otherwise perfect spouse has one annoying habit, probably no big deal, the marriage is solid; if a buyer is drawn to a white picket fence but the house is practically falling down and overpriced, no-sale is a pretty safe bet. But if a deeply flawed spouse has nearly as many annoying habits as good ones—if the house is in a perfect location with a great school district and enough yard for the seven dogs—it could be a game changer. Comparable positives and negatives will create lots of tension.
A second factor is how important the ultimate outcome is. If I want a Ph.D. to qualify for a college professorship but don’t want to spend the time, effort, and money to go for it—not to mention the risk of failure—big decision, lots of tension potential. If I want a bag of chips from the vending machine but think $2 is an outrageous price—not much tension.
The positive (which pulls the character to approach) and the negative (which pushes the character to avoid) are what psychologists call “valences.” Both diminish with distance—time, physical distance, space. Something far away will affect the character’s immediate behavior and feelings less than something that is imminent.
Love and approach-avoidance conflicts
Love is always a high-voltage relationship, so let’s consider the special instances of approach-avoidance conflicts reflected in absence makes the heart grow fonder; out of sight, out of mind; and can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.
Absence makes the heart go fonder when, with distance, the negative qualities or aspects of the date/lover/spouse exert less influence and the push-away diminishes; the person doesn’t seem so bad. If you aren’t actually hearing the obnoxious laugh, smelling the bad breath, or arguing about politics, the heart grows fonder—though maybe not fond enough to renew the relationship.
Out of sight, out of mind is the opposite: positive value diminishes with distance until the original attraction may have no more pull at all. The sweet kisses don’t mean so much when you aren’t getting any! Ditto sense of humor, help with chores, being a good listener. This is often the source of the “Dear John” letters received by people in the military, in prison, in college far away, etc.
In terms of conflict and tension, can’t live with ’em and can’t live without ’em is the best. One brief detour into psychology: negative valence declines more sharply than positive valence. Soooo, when both valences are significant, the case sometimes evolves in which the sharp decline in the negative crosses the slower decline in the positive valence.
The point where the valences cross is the point of vacillation: closer, and the relationship is so negative that one or both parties withdraw. With greater distance, the positive stays strong longer than the negative and the couple gets back together. These yo-yo relationships can go on for years. This could happen with any type of relationship—playmates to spouses. Whole books have been written by and about couples who marry, divorce, and remarry.
Takeaway for writers
Good writers need to be good psychologists whether or not they ever studied the discipline or use the lingo, just be sure the positives and the negatives are believable for the character and appropriate to the conflict.
Characters in conflict within themselves can provide plenty of page-turner tension!