My colleague introduced me to the British TV series on BBC, Being Human, created and written by Toby Whithouse. She knew my interest in the supernatural, including vampires. We spoke on many occasions about the HBO series, True Blood, and our mutual dislike of the movie Twilight. Within these conversations, she suggested that I become familiar with Being Human. (SyFy made an American version of the show, but canceled it after its fourth season.)
When I first watched the British version, I started a season behind. I got the first episodes from Netflix, and after watching the first, I became immediately hooked. I’m not totally sure why the show intrigued me. Honestly, the premise was a bit odd. A ghost, werewolf, and vampire renting a flat and living together appeared gimmicky (not as gimmicky as The Gate, I guess). However, the idea of “being human” as the title suggests, three supernatural phenomena hoping to streamline into normal society, was an absorbing idea. In fact, I was jealous that I didn’t come up with it first.
As previously mentioned, the show consists of a ghost, Annie, a young werewolf, George, and an old but young looking vampire, Mitchell. All three characters reject their current supernatural status and attempt to protest their supernatural and battle instinctual urges. By fate, George and Mitchell befriend each other and move into a house that Annie already occupies. The series deals with the struggles of each character.
Annie struggles with identity. When she lived, she lived a complete lie. Her happiness stemmed from denial. Death forced her to reflect on her life. Her fiancé dated someone else during Annie’s and his courtship. His cheating posed to be the least of Annie’s worries as he pushed her down the stairs, killing her. Her naivete in life transformed into her most significant struggle in death.
Even with the most mundane of activities like speaking to the pizza delivery person or making tea, Annie constantly attempts to assimilate into normal society. She says, “I like making tea; it makes me feel normal,” even though she can’t drink (Season 1, Episode 1).
George maintains an almost normal life excect the one night of the month when the full moon transforms him into a werewolf. Before the attack in the park, George hid from life. He veered away from confrontation, relationships, and anything that might be a struggle. Like a snail, he comfortably tucked away in his shell. As a werewolf, George is forced to connect to his animal or “beast-man” instincts. Though the werewolf symbolizes his Hyde, his dark shadows, George exploits these characteristics for his benefit. The things he shied away from in the past, he confronts. Arguably, without the beast-man directing him, he would not have a pregnant girlfriend and experience life to its fullest. Life had a tendency to push George around, and now he pushes back. In George’s case, the werewolf facilitates his ability to confront emotions that he normally suppressed in a positive more productive manner.
In both cases, with ghost and werewolf, Being Human presents new and interesting interpretations of these traditional supernatural icons. Though some traditional conventions are secure, George, for example, transforms only under a full moon, modern attitudes have broadened pop cultural interests. The werewolves in Underworld transform when they want, for example.
While these other two characters are interesting, this essay focuses on the vampire. Perhaps Mitchell contains one of the most progressive interpretations in pop culture history to date. He eats food, he tries to avoid blood, and he walks in daylight. Though we have seen all of these situations before, in this show each one is addressed openly and directly. Being Human not only ignores certain aspects of vampirism, the show aggressively conflicts with common pop cultural beliefs, which causes a more disturbing adventure. Arguably, it has never been so frightening to be part of mankind.
In the movie, Nosferatu (the undead), Count Orlok doesn’t have a place setting for himself at the table as he does for his guest, Thomas Hutter, which suggests he doesn’t eat. The movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well, suggests that the vampire doesn’t eat. Dracula even says, “I never drink [dramatic pause] wine.” Though wine isn’t on Dracula’s menu, as he clarifies in his conversation with Harker, he obviously hints to another liquid of desire.
On the opposite side, as in the tetralogy by the Russian author, Sergei Lukyanenko, beginning with Night Watch, vampires eat normal food. The lost boys eat lo mein noodles and/or worms. In the movie version of Night Watch, the young vampire neighbor, Kostya, eats meat while he speaks with Anton. Also, Jerry, from Fright Night, likes beer and bites into the occasional apple. There is even a female vampire, Bianca, who drinks red wine at the end of Season 1, Episode 5, “Bad Blood,” of the Dresden Files. Dresden asks if the wine is “red enough for you?”
The traditional belief and common acceptance is that vampires don’t eat food and only drink blood. Although, as previously mentioned, the intake of food contains many interpretations. The necessity of food for vampires, though, moves beyond caloric intake or nutritional value. Whether vampires eat or not has little to do with their health.
Mitchell, of course, eats regularly. He eats like a living human. Though he may not need to eat, eating becomes second nature. Food, then, is an adaptation, a convenient way to appear human. With any interpretation of Dracula, Nosferatu and so on, food becomes an important way to introduce the idea of commonality. Dracula has food on hand for his guests, which suggests an attempt at conformity. The food eases the guests and, ultimately, leads them to their demise, but food is unnecessary for the (un)dead to survive. As Dracula says in the movie, Van Helsing, “You can’t kill me, Victor, I am already dead.”
As I suggested, food becomes a necessity for any vampire who wishes to appear more human. In this case, food is necessary, but not necessarily for health or survival reasons. The difference between Being Human and the rest is Mitchell’s habitual eating. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the appearance of food has a purpose to lure the weak and create a familiar atmosphere; however, food in Being Human seems, at first, to have minimal significance. Mitchell eats here, there, and at any time of the day. He drinks whatever, which may suggest something more frightening than a vampire restricted to only blood—a vampire who is more like a human.
Blood, of course, separates the living from the (un)dead. Blood is the “life” source of vampires so to speak - at least that is the common pop culture understanding. In vampire lore, blood contains many symbolic interpretations, including but not limited too sexual desires and taboos, religious and spiritual connotations, and, of course life and death. What if, though, vampires deemed human blood unnecessary?
True Blood vampires “evolve” and drink synthetic blood from bottles (that is some do). The synthetic blood persuades vampires from draining human lives, assimilating into the normal population (though vampires attack innocent and not so innocent people quite a bit in this series). If not a source of survival, blood, then, must take on another value.
The same colleague I mentioned in the beginning of this essay wrote about the hyper-sexuality of True Blood, really attractive metrosexual characters, including vampires, partaking in as much sexual activity as possible. Blood, in this case, replaces required sustenance as a measure of existence for sexual desires, acts, and taboos.
Lestat from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles demonstrates a need for blood, and in the movie Interview with the Vampire, Lestat drinks rodent blood in order to regain his strength after the attempt on his life from Louie and Claudia. However, in the film Queen of the Damned, Lestat sleeps for decades before reviving to Jonathan Davis’s music, which suggests blood as a preventable necessity for existence. Blood could be considered superfluous as a measure of existence and rather an agent of strength and power.
Anton in Night Watch uses blood as a tool. After Anton receives blood, the butcher, Kostya’s father, says, "There is only one time they ever drink blood on the night watch when they are out hunting us vampires.” The blood connects the vampire spiritually and replaces GPS to locate vampires. Anton dislikes drinking the “red stuff” (blood). He calls it "shit." He has negative physical side effects when he drinks it as well. Eventually, Anton vomits the blood up.
Many other examples of blood-starved vampires exist as well. Blade uses a synthetic formula to suppress his desire for blood. Vampires in Day Breakers actually grow stronger from the lack of blood; they revert and morph into a more monstrous subterranean version of the vampire; they don’t die from the lack of blood.
I’m unsure if the vampires in 30 Days of Night need blood to survive, but they waste a lot of blood. These vampires seem to prefer human annihilation and mutilation as sport more than drinking blood for necessity. In any case, not all traditional or modern vampire tales use blood for survival. As Alan Ryan states, “There are vampires that do not suck blood at all from their victims. Instead they steal things that are perhaps just as valuable…things like youth…and hope…and love."
In Being Human, Mitchell weakens from the lack of blood consumption, but he doesn’t die. Blood, in this case, represents a desire, a want, and even an addiction. And the side effects of blood cause tremendous strength and powers beyond human capacity. In the pilot episode, Mitchell pounds his chest as if a surge of energy pulsates in his body. When Mitchell and Daisy killed twenty boxcar passengers in a later season, neither feels fatigued; indeed, they accomplish the murders in record time.
Mitchell uses blood to occupy an internal void. Whether that void represents sexual desires, supernatural powers, or a connection to his instinctual beast-man, he maintains addictive behaviors toward blood, going through withdrawals without. This unnecessary requirement for blood proves to be more frightening than blood as a necessity—a desperate vampire in want.
There may exist a story or two that deals with vampires dying from lack of blood, but Being Human isn’t one of them. The majority of vampire stories, too, especially modern examples, avoid whether blood is crucial to, I guess, “life” of vampires. The question isn’t whether vampires drink blood; the question lies in the belly of need versus want. Honestly, which is more terrifying, a blood-craved vampire using blood as an addiction, which contributes to unnatural powers, or a vampire that uses blood as a necessary food supply?
In Cirque du Freak, the vampires use blood as a support system only drinking their fill without killing the victims. Mr. Crepsley puts his potential victims asleep, pricks their neck with his nail, sucks the blood, and licks the skin to heal the access point. The Vampanese, on the other hand, kill their victims after sucking them dry because they can’t get enough.
Imagine a blood driven vampire addicted to blood searching for her/his next victim, attaining supernatural powers and gratifying pleasures and unable to stop; now, that idea is demonic and terrifying. Mitchell from Being Human uses blood to satisfy something missing and, unfortunately, no matter how much blood he consumes that something will stay missing. With blood, Mitchell becomes a monster to the full degree, a blood craved maniac, a murderer with great physical powers.
Food and blood are both internal issues, and Being Human deals with both in peculiar ways. Daylight, on the other hand, remains external, at least, dealing with the literal definition. Though Ruthven, Varny, Carmilla, Dracula and all predecessors to Count Orlok found daylight a nonessential issue for survival; pop culture has turned daylight into a terminal consequence. Mitchell, on the other hand, as the early versions of the vampire, has little concern for light. Also, it seems Being Human has little-to-no concern when dealing with the issue of daylight. As in Dracula, Mitchell survives in daylight, but unlike most vampire stories, the issue of daylight is not addressed, at least, plainly. Symbolic interpretations, however, do exist.
In most cases, vampires remain nocturnal, though daylight and vampires weren’t always synonymous with deadly outcomes. It wasn’t until 1922 with Nosferatu that vampires became afraid of the dark. Popular vampires since then became synonymous with nighttime dwellers and avoided daylight at all costs; exposure would cost them their life. Vampires before Count Orlok could linger in the daylight; however, vampires became more vulnerable to external elements. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the narrator even states, “The vampire like any other night creature can move about by day though it is not his natural time and his powers are weak.” Even though vampires weren’t always deadly afraid of light, darkness and light have always been symbolic in popular vampire tales.
Now, in popular culture, most vampires have issues with light: 1)True Blood obviously addresses issues with daylight. Sookie’s fairy blood allows vampires to roam in the daylight for long periods of time. Without her blood, daylight burns and kills instantly. 2) Vampires in Vampire Diaries survive in the daylight, but they wear a ring cursed by witches, which allows them to survive. Without the ring, daylight is deadly. 3) Since Blade is half human (alive) and half vampire (dead), he can survive in the light. In the third Blade movie, Dracula, the original vampire, survives in daylight as well. The other vampires in Blade die if sunlight reaches their skin. Sunblock and motorcycle helmets do resist the sun’s deadly rays but exposure turns the vampires into ashes. 4) The vampires in Night Watch can temporarily stand the light but special UV flashlights kill them. 5) The vampires in Twilight “glitter” in the sun. The glittering demonstrates their weakness to the sun, exposing them to humanity, which prevents their assimilation into society.
With all these examples, light may or may not kill the vampire, but light always is addressed and always contains some sort of issues or concern. Even when Being Human may seem not to concern itself with daylight, the show does have some suggestive characteristics that deal with daylight or, at least, suggest a symbolic battle between light and dark.
Mitchell’s gloves have been mentioned in other writings, but those scholars address the gloves as a warming product. Because vampires are cold, the gloves as well as his jacket, hat, scarf, and so on, supply warmth. I disagree. When Mitchell is outside, mostly, he wears gloves. Mitchell typically wears a collar or scarf to cover his neck as well. In fact, all the vampires oddly enough cover up when outside. Herrick, for example, wears his police hat, jacket, and gloves when outside. When Mitchell is inside, his collar remains unzipped, or he doesn’t wear his scarf around his neck. When he is outside, his collar is zipped or his scarf wraps around his neck. Ergo, Mitchell’s clothing demonstrates concern for the daylight.
I do admit, though, inconsistencies exist. At times, Mitchell goes outside without the typical coverings: gloves, hat, scarf, jacket, or sweater. He doesn’t always wear sunglasses either. However, shade or overcast days protect from the direct sunlight. In either case, he remains outside for limited amounts of time. For example, in Season 1, Episode 5, Mitchell stands outside of work in his scrubs, his neck and hands exposed to let Herrick in the hospital; the brief minutes outside caused no harm. By the way, Herrick wore his typical hat, jacket, and gloves.
Aiden Turner, Mitchell’s actor, stated in an interview that Mitchell wore sunscreen before he went outside. Sunscreen and protective gear have influenced many popular vampire tales. I previously mentioned Blade. I mention sunscreen only to support how pop cultural beliefs create concerns for daylight. The series never suggests the use of sunscreen, yet Turner felt the need to defend Mitchell’s day-walking, which indicates the implicit prerequisite to fill in the gaps of the common belief for daylight as a deadly force against vampires. Whether Mitchell wears sunscreen or not, which the series doesn’t defend, Being Human doesn’t succumb to the typical modern (mis)conventions of daylight; it appears to adhere to original assertions.
The series does use darkness or blackness symbolically. When Mitchell turns, his eyes become black. The completeness of black, extreme dilation of the eyes, suggests the symbolic absence of light and the new fear, the absence of soul. His morals disappear. In other words, when Mitchell's vampire side surfaces, the monster within surfaces. The beast-man surfaces. He loses all sense of morals. His eyes fill with darkness, the external night contained within them.
Most of the time, Mitchell attempts to follow a good path in life, striving to assimilate into normal society and be as human as possible. However, he constantly must suppress inner demons. Internally, like the underworld, he locks in his evil reality. When his eyes go black, the place that holds those demons becomes uncontrollable. The black eyes represent the underworld unchained to the external boundaries of daylight. Without limitations of daylight to keep evil at bay, humanity has little protection. Being Human has freed evil to unreservedly roam about humanity, which has always had the protection of the night or the underworld to contain fear at a distance. By removing this protective boundary, evil has nothing holding it back.
In fact, the closer in physical proximity, appearance, function, and familiarity to man a monster (vampire) appears to be, the more evil a vampire appears. As Ryan suggests, “perhaps he [the vampire] works so powerfully on our imaginations because he represents such a distortion of human nature, a reversal of everything normal.” In some regard, I agree with Ryan’s statement. Vampires such as Count Orlok who resemble rats and are recluses appear as “a distortion of human nature.” However, in recent interpretations, especially concerning Mitchell, vampires resemble normal man. Though Bram Stoker’s Dracula may shape shift into a dog, his appearance for the most part is nothing more than normal. Vampires have become closer than ever in representation of man and arguably, superior man as in the perfect bodies of True Blood. Vampires are no more a distortion of man than GQ or Cosmopolitan are a distortion of man.
Interpretations of the vampire have moved nearer to humanity. Mitchell eats, drinks, goes to work, and lives during the day with little concern. The immediacy of the monster to mankind and his commonality to “everything normal” brings evil ever so closer. Fear is more immediate and intense.
I’ll take the classic epic poem of Beowulf as an example to further illustrate my point. The three monsters in Beowulf are Grendel, Grendal’s mother, and the dragon. For this example, I will start with the last and move toward the first. The Dragon contains the least amount of evil: 1) it contains no human qualities, physically, mentally, or spiritually; 2) it remains removed from the town in a cave protecting treasure; and 3) it follows the code (in this case heroic and not moral) by protecting the treasure when the thief steals some of the treasure. The dragon does, ultimately, kill Beowulf; however, Beowulf breaks the heroic code by stepping over Wiglaf and fighting the dragon as king. The dragon, then, represents fate, and the hero’s fate is buried with his treasures.
Though Grendel’s mother is evil, her actions prove to be less than her son’s: 1) she contains little to no human qualities; 2) she remains removed from humanity in her cave (the underworld); 3) she follows the heroic code by avenging her son’s death. Grendel’s mother only leaves her cave and enters the mead hall to avenge her son’s death; and 4) Beowulf must go to the underworld to kill Grendal’s Mother. Unferth’s sword, created by man, fails in battle and Beowulf turns to a sword created for giants. Only a supernatural sword can kill Grendel’s mother.
By default, then, Grendel is the most evil and most feared: 1) ironically, Grendel contains the most human qualities. He is part human and part beast—beast-man. Some experts would even argue Grendel as a human, encompassing physical deformities; 2) though Grendel remains outside of the town, he ventures into town to kill the people. His immediacy to the town is far greater than any of the previous two; 3) Grendel does not follow the heroic code. He kills people because of the noise they create. Imagine killing your neighbors because they were too loud. He breaks the code by killing without adequate reason; 4) Grendel goes to the mead hall to battle Beowulf. Instead of Beowulf travelling to an underworld, Grendel comes to Beowulf, bringing him closer to humanity; and 5) though the giant’s sword kills his mother, Grendel’s blood melts the giant’s sword.
Vampires originally in folklore were a monstrous excuse for horrendous or mysterious deaths, derived from fear. Perhaps we now fear vampires because the mystery is gone; they resemble humanity so closely because they absorb human qualities and contain familiarities. Vampires don’t remain in the underworld anymore and break moral (heroic) codes like a serial killer, for example. Mitchell represents a terrifying reality for humans, and fears are no longer protected by the fall of night. Nightmares have moved into our days. Nightmares have moved into our neighborhoods. Nightmares are no longer safely packed away at night.
Mitchell represents the total package of fear; he doesn’t even need to ask permission to come into our houses. And when peering into his black soulless eyes, fear encompasses the innocent onlooker and, ultimately, we become Mitchell’s (fear’s) dinner. The more human Mitchell becomes the more humanity fears him. Mitchell, by being human, becomes the most terrifying monster of all: us.
Perhaps George says it best, “Not everything about being human is nice.”
From guest contributor Donovan Hufnagle