Romanticism & Contemporary Culture
Immortals and Vampires and Ghosts, Oh My!: Byronic Heroes in Popular Culture
Atara Stein, California State University, Fullerton
—An omnipotent and immortal superbeing, bored with his omnipotence and immortality, laments sarcastically, "Heavy is the burden of being me!"
—A vampire-turned-rock star violates the principal codes of his own kind with the hope of starting a war to relieve his own boredom.
—A black-clad ghost of a rock star, half-insane with grief, takes revenge on those who murdered him and his fiancée.
—A black-clad Immortal known as the Lord of Dreams, stands barefoot in a rainstorm he has created, his coat swirling around him, as he mourns the failure of yet another love affair.
—A vampire with a soul broods over the guilt of the crimes of his past and longs for the unattainable love of his life.
The Byronic hero, with his ambition, aspiration, aggressive individualism, and "Promethean spark," is alive and flourishing in the latter half of the 20th century. Although they may not know it, my students see him again and again on their television screens and in movie theaters. For me, one of the particular interests in teaching the Romantic period is that, in some respects, I believe it has never ended. And the interest in the Romantic poets themselves is a continuing motif in popular culture, from their appearance in such science fiction novels as Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard, Dan Simmons's Hyperion series, and Tom Holland's Byron-as-vampire novel, Lord of the Dead, to their appearance in such films as Haunted Summer and Gothic to Byron's appearance in the syndicated television series Highlander. Popular music often echoes Romantic themes and makes allusions to Romantic poems, and many rock performers seem reincarnations of the Romantic poets: Jim Morrison of the Doors (Blake mixed with some Byronic flamboyance), Robert Smith of the Cure (mostly Shelley also with some Byronic flamboyance), Morrissey of the Smiths (Shelley), Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (a combination of Byron and Shelley), and the late Kurt Cobain of Nirvana (mostly Byron again).
I cite these examples in class, and students eagerly note them (despite being dead almost 30 years Jim Morrison still has enthusiastic fans among students who were born since his death), but I particularly focus on the pervasiveness of the Byronic hero in popular culture. Drawing such connections allows students a fuller understanding of Byron's work and its cultural context while at the same time providing them with another tool to analyze the films, television series, and books they, as consumers of popular culture, so avidly appreciate. While I discuss these connections in my undergraduate classes, I also created a graduate seminar on the subject, "The Development of the Byronic Hero." It is a topic which engages student interest and provokes some of the most thoughtful and original papers I read each semester, papers which further the work of exploring the dynamic interaction between Byron's works and the dark heroes of contemporary popular culture. I believe my approach particularly resonates with my students because I am an avid fan myself, so I am able to combine an academic and critical perspective with my own enthusiasm for the same popular texts. And a discussion of the Byronic hero often provokes students to come up with their own examples, some of which have helped me in my own research. A discussion of the links between the Romantic period and contemporary popular culture can make for a truly interactive classroom experience, and the interest and enthusiasm is readily evident in my students' reactions.
The Byronic hero is so pervasive in contemporary popular texts that once one begins to establish, in class, the parameters of his type, the examples seem endless. From the Western hero to the science fiction hero to the action-adventure hero, we can find any number of heroes who seem to be descendents of Byron's Manfred. I believe that two of the primary factors that resonate with both nineteenth-century and late-twentieth-century audiences are a voyeuristic interest in the criminal and a conviction of individual powerlessness in the face of wealth and institutional power. In fact, these factors are related, for the criminal (temporarily, at least) escapes the restrictions of law and society to pursue his own desires. We see this fascination in eighteenth-century crime and trial narratives and folk ballads about outlaw heroes, in the figure of the Gothic villain, and in the fictional exploration of the psychology of such villains as Maturin's Melmoth and Collins's Count Fosco, two characters who inspire both fear and desire. The Byronic hero has the same defiance of society's rules and institutions and the same bad-boy appeal of the charismatic villain, combined with an aspiration after generally more admirable goals than those of the typical villain character. In both nineteenth-century and late-twentieth-century texts, the Byronic hero is given superhuman abilities. Given his superior capabilities, the Byronic hero, whether in his nineteenth-century or contemporary incarnation, provides his audience with a satisfying vicarious experience of power (and empowerment, for that matter), autonomy, mastery, and defiance of oppressive authority. At the same time, however, in his superhuman mode, he cannot establish a meaningful connection with his audience. Almost inevitably, however, the hero's creators do not allow him to remain in his superhuman condition; they "rehumanize" him, in effect, and/or have him voice approbation and admiration of ordinary human values. In his superhuman condition he cannot be reintegrated into society, even if he has benefited that society with his heroic actions. He must be rehumanized, exiled, and/or destroyed, all of which serve to leave the audience with a more comfortable identification with the hero. In his superhuman condition, he is an unattainable ideal, a hero who inspires awe but cannot be emulated. At the same time, he lacks social skills and an ability to relate to other people; he is a loner and an outcast, and he can be arrogant, contemptuous of human beings, bad-tempered, overbearing, cold, ruthless, and emotionless. As such, admirable as he is for his abilities and his willingness to take on the powers that be, he is alien to his audience. They find no shared basis for sympathetic identification. If, however, despite his superhuman abilities, he ultimately reaffirms his humanity, he leaves the audience content with their own condition and able to identify with the hero. They cannot be like him, and they are flattered that he wishes to be like them.
The examples listed at the beginning of my essay are not the only ones I refer to in class, but they are some of the most obvious ones. In some cases, their creators deliberately set out to evoke Byron; in other cases I believe that the Byronic hero has become a kind of cultural archetype, and actual knowledge of Byron on the creators' parts is not necessary, although they may well be familiar with the Gothic tradition and the Gothic villain from which the Byronic hero evolved. Bram Stoker's Dracula and his descendents must be a particular influence on creators of dark heroes in popular culture, particularly given the erotic appeal of the vampire villain. I suspect also that the creators of these Byronic heroes are more likely to be familiar with Emily Brontë's Heathcliff than with Byron's heroes. Heathcliff's romantic and erotic appeal is a major contribution to today's Byronic hero. My students refer to the attraction women have for Heathcliff and his literary descendents as the "bad-boy syndrome." In fact, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer makes a point of self-consciously emphasizing the bad-boy syndrome, exploring the heroine's erotic attraction to vampires, despite her calling to destroy them. In this respect, Buffy, despite her superhuman powers, creates an identification with the audience, many of whom find the vampire characters Angel and Spike irresistibly attractive. This essay will describe, in turn, the examples of Byronic heroes I cited at the beginning.
Q (John de Lancie) is an omnipotent and immortal entity who made several appearances on the more recent Star Trek series: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. De Lancie deliberately set out to perform the character as one who was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," having become well-versed in Byronic lore by playing the poet in a play called "Childe Byron." De Lancie also bears a preternatural resemblance to Byron himself. Q appears in several Byronic guises. In the episodes "Hide and Q," "QWho," and "True Q," he is a Satanic tempter, reminiscent of Cain's Lucifer, trying to lure characters with knowledge and power for his own ends, which seem at once both malevolent, and brutally educational for the characters he tempts. In other episodes (most notably "Qless" and "Tapestry"), he resembles the jaded, world-weary narrator of Don Juan, cynically decrying the naivete of humans and yet envying their capacity for wonder and idealism. And in "Deja Q," he has been stripped (temporarily it turns out) of his powers, and spends the episode bitterly lamenting the limitations of humanity in a fashion similar to Manfred and to the speaker of Canto 3 of Childe Harold. Just as Childe Harold despises his own "human frailties" (3.14) and condemns himself as "A link reluctant in a fleshly chain" (3.72), "Spurning the clay-cold bonds which round our being cling" (3.73), and anticipates "when at length the mind shall be all free / From what it hates in this degraded form, / Reft of its carnal life" (3.74), Q abhors the limitations and discomforts to which a physical existence condemns him:
It was a mistake. I never should have picked human. I knew it the moment I said it. To think of a future in this shell. Forced to cover myself with a fabric because of some outdated human morality. To say nothing of being too hot or too cold. Growing feeble with age. Losing my hair. Catching a disease. Being ticklish. Sneezing. Having an itch. A pimple. Bad breath. Having to bathe?
Manfred and Q similar evince a disdain for human contact and for having to accommodate oneself to such inferior beings. When the Abbot asks Manfred why he did not sustain those "noble aspirations in my youth, / To make my own the mind of other men, / The enlightener of nations" (3.1.105-07), he explains that even the role of leader would be degrading: "I disdained to mingle with / A herd, though to be a leader—and of wolves. / The lion is alone, and so am I" (3.1.121-23). Q similarly expresses his doubt that he will be able to work with the crew of the Enterprise: "I'm not good in groups. It's difficult to work in groups when you're omnipotent." Despite Q's stated disdain for humans, he returns repeatedly to the Enterprise to torment Captain Picard and his crew. The implication is that he is trying to mitigate the boredom of his immortal existence.
The desire for immortality and the discovery that it's not all it's cracked up to be characterizes several contemporary Byronic heroes. A prominent one is Lestat of Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat, the second novel in the series The Vampire Chronicles. Rice's own references to Byron suggest that she deliberately casts Lestat into a Byronic mode, and as Kathryn McGinley points out, "For Byronic heroes [ . . . ] particularly the Ricean version, immortality can be simultaneously desirable and intolerable" (86). Throughout the novel, Lestat is the rebel, defining his own moral code, and rebelling against all authority, both human and vampiric. Lestat sees himself "as a hungry, vicious creature, who did a very good job of existing without reasons, a powerful vampire who always took exactly what he wanted, no matter who said what" (380). As such, he provides a powerful vicarious experience for readers who can't always take exactly what they want. The vampires are appealing characters because they allow readers to experience what they cannot have themselves and, at the same time, they share the readers' possible longings for purpose and meaning in a confusing world. Lestat seems reminiscent of Byron's Childe Harold and Cain when he says, "I'd been born restless—the dreamer, the angry one, the complainer" (VL 23). The novelist herself, explains, "I've always been fascinated by the vampire, the elegant yet evil Byronic figure. It's easy to say it's a metaphor for the outsider, the predator, anyone who feels freakish or monstrous or out of step but appears normal" (Beahm 135). Rice plays on the rebellious aspects of her outlaw hero to increase his popular appeal, for "the antiestablishment messages of rock music contribute to the vampire's freedom from conventional moralities and the power of this subversive appeal" (Roberts 52).
Lestat is not only an outlaw to human society by virtue of being a vampire, but he is also a rebel among vampires, disregarding their rules and conventions. He conceives of his planned rock concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco as "an unprecedented rebellion, a great and horrific challenge to my kind all over the world" (VL 14). Lestat defiantly announces, "Old rules didn't matter to me now, either. I wanted to break every one of them" (16), and he instantly appeals to every reader who ever broke rules or wanted to but didn't have the means:
I mean what if they really believed it, really understood that this world still harbored the Old World demon thing, the vampire—oh, what a great and glorious war we might have then!
We would be known, and we would be hunted, and we would be fought in this glittering urban wilderness as no mythic monster has ever been fought by man before.
How could I not love it, the mere idea of it? How could it not be worth the greatest danger, the greatest and most ghastly defeat? Even at the moment of destruction, I would be alive as I have never been. (VL 17)
The last sentence is telling—to feel alive would be worth sacrificing his immortality, just for the sensation, a sensation lacking in his vampire existence. When the ancient vampire Marius comes to Lestat in a dream and accuses, "You act on impulse, you want to throw all the pieces in the air," Lestat shouts in return, "I want to affect things, to make something happen!" (VL 522). His impulsiveness is simultaneously destructive and the source of his appeal to readers. Like Napoleon, Lestat is "Extreme in all things" (Childe Harold, III, 36). The "fire / And motion of the soul" of the Byronic hero is "quenchless evermore" and "Preys upon high adventure" (III, 42). The author herself confesses her affinity for her hero, Lestat: "He's my devil, my dark lover, my alter-ego. Sometimes I think he's my conscience." She notes further, "If you know Lestat, you know he's just dying to get into the spotlight." Rice here describes the appeal of the Byronic hero: demonic, dark, erotically-irresistible, and a voice of conscience, a conscience that may defy the rules of society, but defines its own morality. Yet without his humanity, the Byronic hero would ultimately alienate his readers. We envy his power and autonomy, his ability simply to do what he wants without fear of authority, but we are drawn to his humanity. If such a powerful being suffers from feelings of isolation and confusion and makes terrible errors in his dealings with others, then our own feelings and errors are more acceptable, particularly when we see them glamorized and romanticized in the form of vampires or other similarly powerful entities.
Another superhuman Byronic rock star figure is the hero of the film The Crow (dir. Alex Proyas, 1994), a favorite of many of my students. He is a ghost who returns a year after his death to revenge the murder of himself and his fiancée by a group of thugs working for the leader of the criminal underworld in Detroit. Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) dresses completely in black, and sports white and black clown make up on his face. Like Lestat and Q, Eric lives by his own rules, resisting the authority of the police department and seeking vigilante justice on his own terms. In between scenes of him killing his enemies while cracking dry jokes and mocking their weaknesses, we see him passionately grieving over his fiancée. In a contemporary version of Manfred perched on an Alpine height, daring the avalanche to come and kill him, Eric crouches on top of an urban skyscraper, strumming haunting chords on an electric guitar, a very portrait of angst. The Crow is a good way to discuss the origins of the Byronic hero in the Gothic villain, for Eric, in his madness and bloody vengefulness, is barely one step over the line from the criminals he pursues. This often generates a classroom discussion about the appeal of villains in popular culture and the particular appeal of heroes whose souls are almost as dark as those of their enemies. Eric also exudes a Byronic arrogance; as a ghost and an outlaw, Eric transcends the law and moral codes of ordinary people. Like the Byronic hero he achieves an almost total autonomy. In his initial encounter with a cop who tries to arrest him, when the cop yells "don't move!" Eric mockingly remarks, "I thought the police always said 'Freeze.'" The cop insists, "Well, I am the police, and I say don't move, Snow White. You move, you're dead," and Eric raises his arms, announcing, "And I say I'm dead, and I move."
The contemporary Byronic hero is almost always dressed in black; Rice even comments on the way Lestat has created fashion trends among his fans and even other vampires. In his epic series of Sandman comic books, Neil Gaiman also envisions his hero, Dream, also known as Lord Morpheus, in the same terms. Gaiman describes him as looking "like the skinny, undead king of the style biker punks from hell" (Gaiman 26), and as "pale, tall, brooding, dark, relatively humorless, and Byronic in a late adolescent kind of way" (Bender 238). Dream is the lord of the realm of dreams (known as "the Dreaming"), and he is immortal, older even than the gods. While he is extremely powerful, he remains vulnerable in his relationships with women, which invariably fail. After one lover leaves him, his emotions create rainstorms all over his realm, and he orders her rooms erased and forbids any mention of her name. We see him, in Chapter 2 of Brief Lives, leaning on a balcony in a quintessentially Romantic pose, barefoot, rain streaming around him, and his dark cloak flapping in the wind. His face is set and grim, and the drops running down it could be either rain or tears or both. Dream's melancholy is countered by the ever-practical Mervyn, a handyman with a jack-o-lantern head who does odd jobs around the Dreaming. When the faerie girl Nuala sympathizes with Dream, remarking that he must be "very sad," Mervyn retorts,
Nah. He enjoys it. I mean, hell, it's a pose, y'know? He spends a coupla months hanging out with a new broad. Then one day the magic's worn off, and he goes back to work, and she takes a hike. Phhhht. Now, guys like me, ordinary joes, we just shrug our shoulders, say, hey, that's life, flick it if you can't take a joke. Not him. Oh no. He's gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin' the loss of his beloved. So down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet. (Ch. 2, 4-5)
Gaiman creates a protagonist who embodies existential angst, and he clothes him with all the attributes of the Romantic hero: black garb, black hair, pale skin, and a hopeless love life. But he also includes the voice of an anti-romantic, who dismisses it all as a pose, and the artist's drawings of Dream corroborate Mervyn's suspicions. Dream is a cliché of Romantic melancholy, and he strikes theatrical and melodramatic poses as he leans on his balcony in the rain, too distracted even to put on a pair of shoes, although he has donned the required black cape. Like Manfred, he is pompously arrogant and largely unsympathetic to human concerns. But his end is a heroic one, like Manfred's. Having incurred the vengeance of the Furies, while performing an act his sense of conscience and duty told him was right, he braves their attacks on himself and his realm. His death is inevitable, but like Byron's Manfred, he defies those who come to claim him and dies on his own terms, in a state of defiance, thereby, like Byron's Prometheus, "making Death a Victory."
The most recent example of a Byronic hero that I use in class is the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), who began as a character on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and now has his own spinoff series, Angel. Angel, a vampire whose soul has been restored by a gypsy curse, broods over his guilt for his crimes in his past. He was among the most powerful of vampires, Angelus, a conscienceless and remorseless killer with a sardonic and bitter sense of humor. Angel's evil self is shown both in flashbacks to his past and in a series of episodes in which he has temporarily been stripped of his soul and returns to his evil ways. The heroic Angel, however, rarely smiles, and his eyebrows are knitted in an almost permanent frown. He dresses in dark clothing like our other heroes (vampires are apparently very concerned about fashion), usually wearing a long black coat that gives the effect of a cape. He has devoted his recent years to fighting supernatural evil in the form of other vampires and demons, in an attempt to make up for his decades of murder. He dispatches the bad guys with arrogant panache, allowing himself flickers of satisfaction before returning to his almost-perpetually serious and gloomy state of mind. In the episode "In the Dark," Angel comes by a magical ring that will allow him to be outside by daylight. Despite his feeling of awe and wonder at seeing the sun, he announces to his friend and colleague Doyle (Glenn Quinn), "I'm not going to wear the ring." Shocked, Doyle complains, "You got a real addiction to the brooding part of life." Angel explains, however, that he has to continue to bear the burden of his guilt:
Angel: I've thought of it from every angle. What I figure is I did a lot of damage in my day--more than you can imagine.
Doyle: What? You don't get the ring because your period of self-flagellation isn't over yet? Think of all the daytime people you could help between nine and five.
Angel: They have help. The whole world is designed for them. So much that they have no idea what goes on around them after dark. They don't see the weak ones, lost in the night or the things that prey on them. And if I join them, maybe I'd stop seeing too. [ . . . ] I was brought back for a reason, Doyle. As much as I'd like to kid myself, I don't think it was for eighteen holes at Rancho.
He insists that his role is not to enjoy himself, but to continue to work for redemption—at night and in the dark. Angel is not only Byronic in his guilt, but also in his love for one who is perpetually inaccessible to him, the Slayer, Buffy. The two characters had a passionate affair but discovered the hidden clause in the gypsy curse: a moment of "perfect happiness" will strip Angel of his soul and turn him evil again. Thus, he must remain apart from his love, Buffy, in a state of perpetual longing. In a recent crossover episode ("Sanctuary"), Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) tells Angel about her new boyfriend, Riley, and Angel angrily characterizes his own forced isolation: "You moved on. I can't. You found someone new. I'm not allowed to, remember? I see you again, it cuts me up inside, and the person I share that with is me." Angel is a favorite of many of my students, and, in fact, it was one of my students (Greg Arnold) who introduced me to the series by writing a paper about Angel as a Byronic hero, just as it was several students of mine who convinced me to read The Sandman. Thus, a mutually beneficial learning process ensues. My students' own expertise as "consumers" of popular culture contributes to my own understanding, and the work on popular culture some of them do in their own papers gives them an enhanced critical ability and a new tool with which to examine both nineteenth-century texts and their descendents from a complex critical perspective.
Like Gaiman, Angel's creators undermine his Byronic pose in a coyly self-referential fashion as much as they exploit it. In the episode, "The Yoko Factor," Buffy's new boyfriend Riley (Marc Blucas) worries that she isn't over her attraction to Angel, and comments on his appeal to women: "Even when he's good, he's all Mr.-Billowy-Coat-King-of-Pain, and girls really . . ." Here he's interrupted by Buffy, but he was clearly going to say something along the lines of "and girls really dig that type." Angel's creators don't allow his claims to heroism to be taken entirely seriously. "In the Dark" opens with Angel being mocked by his nemesis, Spike (James Marsters), a vampire companion from his evil past. Angel has just rescued a young woman from being killed by a drunken boyfriend, and Spike, watching from a rooftop, provides a sarcastic voiceover, presenting his own version of the dialog. He has the rescued woman ask, in the mode of a stereotypical damsel in distress, "How can I thank you, you mysterious black-clad hunk of a knight-thing?" and then has Angel reply in an exaggerated John-Wayne-like Western hero's vocal inflection: "No need little lady. Your tears of gratitude are enough for me. You see, I was once a bad-ass vampire, but love, and a pesky curse, defanged me, and now I'm just a big fluffy puppy with bad teeth." Spike, like Gaiman's Mervyn, dismisses Angel's Byronic theatrics as a mere pose, a product of fashion, the affectation of "a great poof," and "nancy-boy hair gel."
Like Byron, contemporary creators of Byronic heroes realize that there is something comical as well as tragic about the brooding, self-absorbed loner. Discussions about contemporary Byronic heroes in class allow students to explore the longstanding and pervasive appeal of Byron's creations. Like popular culture scholar Henry Jenkins, my students and I can be fans of popular culture at the same time that we examine it from an academic perspective, and I believe that doing so enriches our experience of the texts under consideration.1 The Byronic hero is a figure of autonomy, self-reliance, defiance, and power, and he is an outlaw who lives by his own moral code. I would argue that the appeal to the audience is the same in Byron's times and ours: Manfred and the heroes I've described here can successfully act on their desires to defy authority and can successfully confront obstacles in their path. They do not have to bow to institutional power or to oppressive forces, for they have both the supernatural abilities and the attitude required to fight them. At the same time, they validate their audience's own doubts and fears and sorrows. Many fans can relate to Eric and Dream and Angel's grief over the unattainability of perfect love. Many fans can relate to Lestat's perpetual questioning of his purpose in life. As fans we may envy Manfred and Q and Lestat and Angel's power, but we do not envy their boredom with their immortality and their perpetual gloom and isolation. Contemporary Byronic heroes, like Manfred, give us a vicarious experience of utter autonomy and power, but at the same time they suggest that in our powerlessness we may be better off and almost surely happier than they are. In Byron's Manfred, when the self-pitying hero is advised to seek patience by the Chamois Hunter who has prevented his suicide, Manfred haughtily and pompously responds,
Patience and patience! Hence—that word was made
For brutes of burthen not for birds of prey;
Preach it to mortals of a dust like thine,—
I am not of thine order. (2.2.35-38)
Expressing his own relief as well as that of Byron's readers, the hunter exclaims "Thanks to Heaven! / I would not be of thine for the free fame / Of William Tell" (2.2.38-40). Byron here comically undermines Manfred's pretensions to superiority. In a similar fashion, Gaiman and Angel's creators use the skepticism of characters like Mervyn and Spike, respectively, to strip off some of the glamour and luster of Dream and Angel's self-satisfaction in their own suffering. Resonances such as these suggest that the connections between Byron's heroes and the Byronic hero in contemporary culture seem to have an almost unlimited potential to be explored.
Beahm, George. "The Quotable Anne Rice." The Unauthorized Anne Rice Companion. Ed. George Beahm. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996. 135-38.
Bender, Hy. The Sandman Companion. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 1999.
Gaiman, Neil. "Original Script of Calliope." The Sandman: Dream Country. New York: DC Comics, 1991.
Interview with the Vampire. Dir. Neil Jordan. Perf. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Geffen Pictures, 1994.
Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture. New York, London: Routledge, 1992.
---., and John Tulloch. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Dr. Who and Star Trek. New York, London: Routledge, 1995.
McGinley, Kathryn. "Development of the Byronic Vampire: Byron, Stoker, Rice." The Gothic World of Anne Rice. Eds. Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996. 71-90.
Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. New York: Ballantine Books, 1985.
Roberts, Bette B. Anne Rice. New York: Twayne, 1994.