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Of Vampires and Souls

Way back when this show first started, I was disappointed with BtVS vampire mythology, because BtVS canon, at least as it was presented in season one, was that a vampire wasn't,
"...a person at all. It may have the movements, the memories, even the personality of the person that it took over, but it's still a demon at the core, there is no halfway."

Consider what this meant. Essentially, it meant that a human's soul, their essence, their mind and spirit, left the body upon death as it normally does, but instead of the body rotting away, some sort of demon spirit took up residence there. This demon was an entirely different individual who had access to their predecessor's memories, and walked around in their body, and talked through their vocal cords, but wasn't that person at all.

It also meant that there could be no Louis de Pointe du Lac, no Nicholas Knight, no use of the vampire mythos as a metaphor for how each of us struggle with our own dark sides and darker urges and triumph or fail. Vampires were to be two-dimensional bad guys that Buffy could snuff without any pesky moral ambiguities getting in the way.

The reveal that (apparently) good-guy Angel was a vampire did nothing to change this mythology. Essentially what had happened in his case is the gypsy curse caused Liam's spirit to return to his own dead body after 150 years and "possess" it, sharing occupancy with the demon.

There could be no honest "guilt" in a scenario like this, and all of Angel's moping made no sense--he wasn't there when all those people were killed by the actions of his body. The demon did all that.

Well, of course, this explanation for what a vampire is was way too limiting for a story of the kind of depth that Joss and company wanted to tell, and they had essentially tied their own hands by setting it up this way. But lest we think they "really didn't mean it that way," even as late as season five, one of the Mutant Enemy writers wrote,

We feel like there's a ghost of the person you once were inside them -- a philosophical ghost, not an actual spirit. It is, in fact, a demon, but the demon is infused with some of the characteristics of the people that they possess (David Fury, Zap2it.com, Feb 9, 2001).

"Some of their characteristics," but again, not the same person at all.

Guys, I love ya, you got emotionally real, gut-wrenching story-telling down pat, but metaphysical geniuses you are not. This may be what you said, but it's not what you showed, nor what you intended to show. Not by a long shot. We have gotten to know a lot of vampires over the years, gotten to know their "human predecessors", and if that's not the same person, then I'm taking down my philosopher shingle for good: Liam, William, Willow, Darla, Harmony, these are clearest examples. We saw slightly less of the human life of Drusilla, and slightly less of the vampire self of Xander, Ford, or Alonna.

But even more compelling, for story line reasons, we were meant to believe that Angel, Darla, and Spike's struggles with remorse were real struggles because they were culpable for the unsouled vampire's deeds, and there could be no culpability if the unsouled vampire were not the same person as the human or the souled vampire.

And the metaphysical problem was so easily solved by equating the word "soul" with "conscience" instead of "mind/personality/essence." So that is what most fans did. The conscience is what leaves the body upon death, and the only thing that moves in is a change in physiology that requires blood as nutrition. Everything else is in tact. The writers' party line then becomes the Watchers' party line, the story they told Slayers to get them to slay without angsting over it.

How would you behave with blood lust and no conscience?


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 3rd, 2008 12:12 am (UTC)
This is Angel's recognition that the worse traits he exhibited as Angelus came from him, Liam, from his worse traits as an individual. This is sort of the point of me asking the question, "How would YOU behave if you didn't have a conscience?" I think each of us would behave in a way that let our worst traits run free, those things we normally keep a lid on because we believe that they're wrong to act on. And those things are so individualistic.

Angel recognizes that what made him so bad in his Angelus days was precisely what made him a bad person in general. You can take away the demon, and he'd still have those traits, even if he kept them under control.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:03 am (UTC)
How would you behave with blood lust and no conscience?

We've had this discussion, but I'll go back to noting that I think my worst trait - aside from self-involvement - is my lack of ambition and drive. I'm very low id, and short on frustration. I'm motivated by convenience. Which, actually, would make me an inconsequential villain.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:09 am (UTC)
In other words, you'd be the redshirt in the teaser of the Buffy episode, except that would involve getting out of your armchair and turning off tonight's random sports thing, and *that's* so not going to happen.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:12 am (UTC)
It depends. If I'm killed and dumped by some random vamp, yeah I'd be a red shirt.

But if they don't catch me when I first rise, I probably find out that there are things that kill vampires, and I spend the rest of eternity not doing the things that attract the attention of things that kill vampires. And watching a lot of TV.

It's those Extrovert vampires who really get themselves into trouble.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:26 am (UTC)
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:34 am (UTC)
We've had this discussion

It's one of my favorite Buffy discussion questions, just 'cause I think it says a lot about a person if you're honest with yourself. For example, I think I would do a lot of petty anger killing of various people I've known over the years. How sad is that?
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:40 am (UTC)
It depends on how you want to look at it. It's sad if you are filled with frustration and anger - enough to kill. But its a mark of grace to have negative emotions but choose not to act upon them.

It's certainly a mark of maturity to admit that it's within you. A lot of people wouldn't.

I mean - I'm sure there are people I would kill. I wouldn't be any more virtuous than any other vampire - in truth it'd be expediency not virtue - but it might just appear that way on first glance.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:49 am (UTC)
I feel anger and frustration sometimes and try to act on it in constructive ways. I think vampires though, Buffyverse vampires, have no motivation to do that. There's no conscience telling them not to act on their darker urges of course, but there's also no social compass telling them that that kind of stuff *is* less than constructive. They can take whatever they want, and they really do regress into the Id.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 03:58 am (UTC)
True. I think, on a basic level - much of the human drive to be constructive (metaphorically and literally) is rooted in the awareness of our own mortality.

To a vampire, sans conscience, eternal youth is remarkably corrupting, and often stultifying as well.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
Exactly, it's like when I think, "OMG, I'm f*** 40 years old, it's time to stop messing around and stewing in my own juices and *do this thing*" (whatever the "thing" du jour is).

Although if I were eternally young and pretty, I might start to think that quite a few of my oh so important "things" aren't important at all.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:19 am (UTC)
Hmm. This is actually not something I've ever thought about before, weirdly enough. (Or maybe not so weirdly.)

Must ponder.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:39 am (UTC)
I think it's fair that if we discuss what in Liam is in Angelus, or what in William's mother is in vamp!Anne, or etc, etc, we ought to be able to ask, what in *me* would get exaggerated and twisted if I were turned?
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:42 am (UTC)
Well, of course, it's unlikely that I would be turned...

Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
Of course, if you're a good girl and not at all reckless or provacative, you'll *never* get attacked.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
Oh, I might get attacked. I just wouldn't get turned.


Seriously, though, I'll have to think about it. I would probably be pretty nastily evil: less with the straightforward violence, more with the manipulation. I'm pretty good at getting people to do what I want (see, uh, podcasts ;>), but if I didn't have to worry about ethical or social constraints, I think I would really get a thrill from getting people (and other vamps) to do my bidding through some horrible mind games. I'd probably try to stake out my own terrain, since my ambitious streak would come to the fore.

And then some more powerful vampire would come along and kill me. The end.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 04:57 am (UTC)
I can see you as a Master Vamp (Mistress Vamp?) with your own group of minions. Darker and more full of machinations than Sunday. Saner than Drusilla. And much, much smarter than Harmony.

Wow, you're like Darla. Except way cooler.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 05:04 am (UTC)
Ha! Yes, I would probably be disturbingly Darla-like. Hardly cooler, definitely geekier. I'd be a weird combination of Darla and Dalton.

Wow. I may have nightmares about that, now.
Jul. 3rd, 2008 05:13 am (UTC)
Darlton, the cool, geeky manipulator master vamp.

I feel fan fic coming on....
Jul. 10th, 2008 11:51 am (UTC)
The Watchers Did It
And we all know what pissy bureaucrats they turned out to be. Giles quoted a book when he said what he knew about the vampire and I have to admit not much happened to change his mind over the years. But, the longer the Buffyverse went on the more complicated it became. The Slayer was found to be part demon created by the Watchers to do the battle for everyone else. Vampires were demons but not the most evil creatures around. So, I say that due to dramatic convenience or, the fans who pointed out some of the obvious about their metaphysics, that the writers had to evolve the vampires as well as the Slayers which reached a new low with the Vampire hookers in season five.

The Soul thing looked good on paper for awhile but would make for flat characters unless they could do things that were more unexpected and less to do with being pure evil, kinda like normal folk.
Jul. 10th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Re: The Watchers Did It
And that was exactly the problem. The way they set up the nature of vampires in season one, you were looking at some really, really two-dimensional vampire characters. Which I think they realized early on, and had to fudge with. However, I don't think all the writers were ever entirely divested of the idea that the the soulless vamp is an entirely different person than the souled vamp. I'm thinking of some mid-season 4 AtS episodes especially, where every word of dialogue is "OMG Angelus is a separate consciousness/person/entity from Angel!"


You can excuse that when the dialogue comes out of the mouths of Angel's friends, who are trying to reassure themselves they don't work for a monster. But in eps like Orpheus, it's just cringe-worthy.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )