McFarland is one of my favorite publishers and a recent title caught my attention with the publication in 2008 of Heather Duda’s The Monster Hunter in Popular Culture. Duda is an assistant professor of English at the University of Rio Grande in Rio Grande, Ohio. With this volume she addresses a deficit in the academic literature on horror as she turns her attention to the monster hunter as a compliment to studies on the monster itself.
TheoFantastique: As you note in your book, the vast majority of exploration and critique has focused on the monster but next to nothing on the monster hunter. Why do you think this is?
Heather Duda: First, I want to thank TheoFantastique for giving me the opportunity to discuss my work. I am a big fan of the site and honored that my work is included here. I don’t think people find the monster hunter as interesting a character as the monster. The monster stands in for a wide range of repression from sexual repression to a fear of The Other. It’s a very intriguing character to analyze. On the other hand, the traditional monster hunter – especially going back to Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula– is a white, upper-class, educated male who seeks to maintain the status quo. There is little that is sinister or hidden about him.
TheoFantastique: Of course, aspects of pop culture are reflections of ourselves, and as we change these aspects change as well. You draw attention to changes in horror in the second half of the twentieth century and state that the monster hunter changes as well. How is this so and what kind of changes do you see?
Heather Duda: One of the major changes to American culture that affected horror was an increase in skepticism. Thanks to such events as Watergate and the Vietnam War, the American public has learned that its leaders and its military cannot always be trusted. That lack of trust is certainly apparent in horror as it lead directly to the downfall of the traditional monster hunter. At the time America was becoming more skeptical of its leaders, the slasher films were becoming more and more popular with their random, chaotic villains who refused to play by the established “rules” of the game. When the monster refuses to recognize and play by the rules, the rules are no longer relevant. The keeper of those rules – the monster hunter – is both inadequate and useless. Someone new must step up to try and beat back the new monsters, a someone who knows and understands the new rules. This someone tends to be an ex-monster, which is the most significant change to the monster hunter character. Today’s monster hunters are themselves monstrous, something Abraham Van Helsing would never have considered.
TheoFantastique: In your book you analyze one of the leading monster hunters, Van Helsing from Dracula in literature and film. Can you summarize some of the ways in which this character has evolved in keeping with our evolving culture?
Heather Duda: Abraham Van Helsing is a highly educated, white, upper-class male who leads a group of younger white, educated, upper-class males and one woman on a fight to retain the purity of Victorian ideals. When first introduced by John Seward, Van Helsing’s attributes include physical and emotional strength, an even-temper, and tolerance. There is never a question that he cannot succeed in his quest to maintain the status quobecause he is the epitome of a Victorian gentleman. This prototype continues on through the many vampire movies of the first-half of the twentieth century. As I mentioned above, events like Watergate and Vietnam cause a significant change in the character. With the rise of the slasher villain, the traditional monster hunter disappears because he no longer holds the key to defeating the new monster. But even though Van Helsing may disappear, his characteristics continue on. In his place come monster hunters who are actual monsters but who maintain the ideals of strength and courage. However, one of the big things the male monster hunters struggle with is redemption. Many are drawn to fighting their own kind so they can ease their own guilt over past actions (something Van Helsing never had to deal with). This desire for redemption mirrors our own hope that things can get better and that maybe our leaders will find a way to fix things. If Americans believe they are at least partly to blame for their country’s and the world’s problems, then redemption would be a very important element of the contemporary monster-hunting narratives.
TheoFantastique: You reference Nietzsche’s warning that “He who fights monsters should look into it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into the Abyss, the Abyss also gazes into you.” How has this applicable to the late modern monster hunter like Angel or Blade?
Heather Duda: Vigilantism is the number one thing a monster hunter should avoid. When a character has so much power, it is easy to abuse that power. Although the monster hunter does, indeed, have abilities far beyond the average person, the concern is always how those powers should be used. A monster hunter spends most of his/her time in a frustrating battle with never-ending evil. A win is never a win for long. The big question for a monster hunter is, “Why shouldn’t I use my power in the way that my enemy does?” This temptation alone illustrates Nietzsche’s warning. Also, with characters like Angel and Blade, they are already on the edge of the Abyss by virtue of being monsters. They not only have to control the urges to abuse their power, they also have the control the urges to return to their previous life as a monster. In almost every monster-hunting narrative I examine, the monster hunter does slip at some point. Luckily, there is always a friend or lover there to pull the monster hunter back. It is really only through a connection to a community that characters like Angel and Blade can use their powers without falling into the Abyss.
TheoFantastique: Would you say that Batman in the film The Dark Knight is perhaps the epitome of the popularized monster hunter that has been transformed by prolonged interaction with the Abyss, and that the huge reception of this character at the box office says something striking about our culture?
Heather Duda: Absolutely. Bruce Wayne must continually struggle against his alter-ego. Being Batman is such a strong compulsion for the character. It must be intoxicating to have so much power, especially in a world where evil has been in control for so long. Yet when Batman takes over, there is the vigilantism risk mentioned previously. Batman is a loner and that is never good. One of my favorite scenes in The Dark Knight is the conversation between Bruce and Lucius over Bruce’s use of the surveillance system. The conversation demonstrates that Batman’s sensibilities have not completely overtaken Bruce’s, thus keeping Bruce from the Abyss; but, again, it is a connection to another being that keeps Bruce from falling too far. An even better example of a character who has fallen into the Abyss is Rorschach from Watchmen. In fact, one of the chapters on Rorschach in the graphic novel is entitled “The Abyss Gazes Also.” Rorschach sees everything in terms of good and evil; all evil must be destroyed, no questions asked. Frankly, Rorschach lives in the Abyss. I quote an interview where Alan Moore says he never intended Rorschach to be liked, yet fans really flocked to him.
You’ve touched on a great point when you ask what characters like these say about our culture. Why do we like vigilantes? Our intense interest in these characters certainly doesn’t seem to reflect a good worldview on our part. Deep down inside, maybe we like the idea of taking matters into our own hands without worry of repercussion. I hope it doesn’t mean that we feel as if we are living in the Abyss with Rorschach; I hope we, as a society, are a little more hopeful than that.
TheoFantastique: You see Mina Harker as the “grandmother of the contemporary female monster hunter.” Can you touch briefly on how this is so?
Heather Duda: Bram Stoker’s Mina Harker does not get nearly the respect she deserves in the various film adaptations. In Stoker’s novel, Mina is a smart woman who brings together the various narratives and experiences of the characters into a cohesive flow. Every time the men keep her in the dark about their plan to defeat Dracula, the plan fails. Towards the end of the novel, Mina is bitten by Dracula and starts to transform into a vampire. It is at this point that she is most powerful because she has a psychic connection to Dracula. She allows Van Helsing to hypnotize her so they can follow the vampire back to his castle. She demands to come along on this final attempt to rid the world of the villainous Count. Without her, the men would certainly fail as they have before. I see Stoker’s Mina as a strong, independent woman who is not afraid to give in to her monstrous side in order to save those she loves. These are exactly the traits that characters such as Ellen Ripley and Buffy Summers will embody a century later.
TheoFantastique: How does Buffy the Vampire Slayer signal a dramatic new way forward for female monster hunters, yet perhaps also indicate that we have a ways to go in relating gender to this concept?
Heather Duda: I love Buffy. I think she is an amazingly complex character within the horror genre. Traditionally in horror, female characters are either the victim or the vixen. A victim will be pure and faithful while the vixen will be sexually forward and powerful. At the end of a classic horror film, the victim is saved while the vixen is killed because a woman with agency (especially sexual agency) can never be allowed to survive within a strong patriarchal culture. Buffy and her fellow female monster hunters merge the two into one character. Buffy is certainly never afraid to take the lead and fight the monsters. On the other hand, she also deals with typical teen angst over boys, friends, and clothes. She demonstrates that a woman can be both fragile and powerful; that women are not an either/or creation. Yet, there are problems with the female monster hunter. The biggest concern I have is with numbers. There are far fewer female monster hunters than male monster hunters. It seems like the American public is not entirely ready for a powerful female character who is not afraid – or remorseful – of inflicting bodily harm on the bad guys.
TheoFantastique: In your view, why are monster-hunting texts still so popular in film, television and graphic novels?
Heather Duda: We all want to believe that the world can be a better place. The monster-hunting narrative provides us with a possible model of a better tomorrow. Even if we know that the monster hunter will only succeed for a moment and not for the long-term, it doesn’t matter. The fact that a powerful being is watching out for humanity is enough. As the world continues to be an unpredictable place that is controlled by fear, I predict that we’ll see more and more monster-hunting texts. Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a place without fear of terrorism, war, hostility, famine, and disease?
TheoFantastique: Heather, thank you again for your fine book, your exploration of this neglected topic, and for making time to discuss it here.