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Not long ago, the above piece would frighten us.  The person being caught was clearly the victim, and the chaser the villain, whom we hoped would quickly reach his end.   But thanks to the nature of today’s film and television, things aren’t as black and white.  Now we ask ourselves if the person being caught deserved it; or perhaps the villain is simply misunderstood, or, in some circumstances, we are even attracted to the “bad guy” because he is doing something wrong.

Although most of us are used to the conventional hero, a John McClane type, who fights evil and saves the day, a recent change in film and television has shifted the spotlight onto the anti-hero.  Nowadays we are sometimes barracking for the bad guy, even if their acts are wrong.  Characters like Jack Bauer from 24, or Dexter, or even Edward from Twilight; we know what they are doing is wrong, and we ourselves would never commit such crimes, but at times we are still attracted to them.  So why?

The Conventional Hero

The hero as we know it to be today originated from Ancient Greek mythology.  Originally portrayed as a demigod who represented their religion, the hero became a character with traits like bravery, courage and self-sacrifice in times of danger.  In today’s film industry the modern hero is usually an ordinary person who has been thrust into an extraordinary situation and has to fight for themselves, and typically those they love, to survive.

Before Blockbusters, the hero represented what was morally right; they served to set an example to everyone else.  Yet despite this, and a hero’s impressive list of skills and characteristics, the anti-hero is becoming more popular.  The anti-hero is a protagonist whose personality traits are different to those of a hero, sometimes the antithesis.  However, unlike the villain, they are still usually supported by its audience; as is the case with the anti-hero and protagonist of the show Dexter.

Melissa Rosenberg, screenwriter for both Dexter and The Twilight Saga believes that we support Dexter because of the journey he is taking.

“[Dexter’s] gone through life making a study of what it is to be human so he can pass as one. But he also becomes more and more human with each episode.  So we root for him to reach there and then he surprises us by showing us the monster inside him. We see the evil in [him], we see the monster in him and I think it’s reflective of the monsters within ourselves.” (As originally quoted on CraveOnline.com)

The Rise of The Vampire

Before Anne Rice and Stephenie Meyer popularized vampires for teenagers around the world, the vampire was considered a villain, introduced in folklore in Eastern Europe to scare children.  It wasn’t until 1819 when John Polidori wrote the novella The Vampyre that the blood-drinking vampire came to be known.

It is widely considered that this novella influenced Bram Stoker while he was writing his novel, Dracula, whose main character still appears more in film than any other character aside from Sherlock Holmes.  And although Count Dracula was considered an unattractive villain, Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of him in the 1931 film adaptation, which depicted him as a suave European, continues to have a more lasting impression.

However, until Anne Rice, vampires were still not considered as love interests.  Her interpretation of the vampire though, a romantic anti-hero of sorts, is still depicted in modern film and television today.  So what is the appeal?

As one fan, Kim Weigel, says “tales of vampires that would lure you in with their beauty, place their lips on your neck and drink your blood, were mysterious and dramatic storylines that I couldn’t get enough of”, while screenwriter and creator of True Blood Alan Ball has said “to me, vampires are sex” (as originally quoted on GoodReads.com).

And so the fascination with modern vampires was born.

Twilight and Beyond

In the 2000s a new era of vampire was born thanks to Stephenie Meyer.  While traditionalists were outraged by her interpretation, females around the world fell for Edward and the Twilight world.  Since the first book in the series was published in 2005, more than 116 million copies of the series have been sold worldwide, and the film franchise, which so far consists of three films, has grossed over $1.8 billion at the box office.  So what caused Twilight to be so successful?

Martyn Peddler, an ACMI lecturer who is also doing his PhD at the University of Melbourne on Superheroes, believes that the fascination surrounding vampires is less because of their supernatural qualities, and more because of the challenges that surround them.

“We need excuses to keep people apart because for years it was enough that one character was rich and one character poor, so they couldn’t be together and had to fight for true love.  Now that’s not enough.  Now one’s a human and one’s a vampire, [so] how can they be together?”

However, fan Rochelle Davis believes we are attracted to vampires because they possess the qualities we want to have.  “Vampires have always been portrayed as attractive, sexy, mysterious, confident and dangerous beings.  I think I was subconsciously attracted to them because they embody all the traits (to a much greater extent) that I, or most people, would like to have.”

Since Twilight, the popularity of vampires have risen with shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood becoming top hits; both of which include vampire-human relationships, but also the gore, violence and blood that was prevalent before Twilight.

The Bad Guy Phenomenon

Although in real life, the “bad guy” is far less romantic as we’d like to believe, in film and television the anti-hero is on the rise.  Shows like Dexter are examples emphasizing this attraction.  Dexter follows the life of blood-spatter analyst Dexter, who appears to be ordinary, until we learn that he is a serial killer.

While the chances of a serial killer being attractive seems unlikely, Dexter has shown that it is possible, with the show continually having more than 2 million US viewers a week, despite being on a private cable channel.

So is it a bad thing that we find shows like Dexter entertaining?  Martyn Peddler doesn’t think so.  He thinks we’re attracted to characters like Dexter, because in a voyeuristic way, we get pleasure out of the things that he does.

“I think there is this sense that [Dexter] doesn’t need to play by society’s rules, he gets to do what he wants, he gets to act on impulse.  And while we may never get to act on those impulses, there is a definite appeal to watching people who are outside the boundaries of normal law and normal society.”

Aside from Dexter, many other popular television shows glorify the bad guy.  Vampire shows True Blood and The Vampire Diaries both encourage viewers to sympathise with characters who often would not be appealing, yet both of these shows have had huge success.  The Vampire Diaries set the record for the most viewed series premiere for The CW, with more than 5.7 million viewers, while True Blood is the most watched HBO series since The Sopranos (which should be noted surrounds the life of a mobster).

What Women Want

According to psychologist Judith Baldacchino, of the Department of Health and Disability, Mental Health and Psychiatry, women are attracted to bad men because of society’s influence on women.  “My view is that there is a social belief that a woman who can tame a wild man is a woman with special skills and is thus of higher social standing.”

Sadly, society has shown that women are indeed competitive amongst one another; which is shown not only through our dating habits, but also the way we interact between one another and even the things that we are convinced we need to buy.  So why have we become this way?

Judith Baldacchino believes that a combination of attachment and social theory helps explain why women are attracted to less than perfect men.  Attachment theory tells us we are less likely to be attached to bad people, or things, if our original relationships are positive.  For example, if you parents have a happy marriage then you are more likely to have positive relationships.  However, while this theory works in principle, it easily becomes affected by other circumstances, which can be explained by social theory.

Social theory reminds us that we are easily influenced by other environmental factors, including peer pressure, media, social standing etc.  So how do these two theories explain our attraction to bad boys?  According to Judith, this combination leads to “most of us [feeling] worried, anxious and insecure and chasing social status.  Perfectly available to be exploited at any time by anybody with any power”.

Are We Bad?

So is it wrong if we’re attracted or entertained by characters who do bad things?  Kim doesn’t think so.  She believes “it’s all about the individual person.  What makes then who they are?  What type of person are they?  It’s not a question of good or bad, but more about the unique character that person possesses”.

Alan Ball personally believes that characters who are flawed are more interesting to write about, and more appealing for his viewers.

“I’m just more interested in stories that are real and really show me the heart and soul of characters in really challenging or difficult times in their lives that don’t judge the characters for their actions no matter how heinous they may seem of the surface.” (As originally quoted on PedestrianTV.com)

Perhaps what is more important is that these characters we sympathize with are fictional characters that do not exist.  Yes, we may be attracted to Dexter because of his ability to take control of any situation, but a real-life Dexter would be far more terrifying; a point that is repetitively made in the series by the fact that Dexter hides his true personality.

As Rochelle points out “bad boys are essentially a guilty pleasure.  It’s about wanting something you know you can’t or shouldn’t have and because of that they’re much more attractive”.

Now What?

Although the Twilight franchise is beginning to show signs of slowing, with the final movies starting to come out, it’s evident that the appeal of modern vampires is not, with The Vampire Diaries and True Blood continually increasing their viewership.  So why is this the case, and will it continue in the future?

Alan Ball thinks that currently, the American television industry allows flawed characters like these to become popular. “I think television in America is a much more welcoming place for characters that are complicated and flawed and more reflective of what I think reality actually looks like.”  (As quoted on PedestrianTV.com)

However, Martyn Peddler believes that “these things always circle back and forth.  They’ll reach a point where we get sick of seeing the same thing over and over, or the same kind of anti-heroes and suddenly we’ll want the more traditional ‘apple pie’ hero again”.  So while villains will always be present in the fictional world, over time they may be overshadowed again by the conventional hero.

Already the switch is becoming apparent.  While vampires and anti-heroes are still clearly in the spotlight, a rise in films focusing on superheroes show that viewers are changing their minds.  While characters like The Green Goblin and Captain America have been re-adapted for the silver screen, “darker” superheroes like Batman are still increasingly popular, with The Dark Knight grossing over $1 billion in revenue and becoming the tenth highest-grossing film of all time.

So while audiences want darker characters, they are again shifting towards the modern hero.  However, by seeing the choices currently showing in cinemas, including films “Horrible Bosses”, “Drive” and “Red State”, it appears that the anti-hero is still popular.

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  • Danse Macabre by Camille Saint Saens