Certain villains are all too human. They are flawed and empathetic. They are beings we can recognize ourselves in and grow from. Other villains are just monsters — vampires, aliens, werewolves and countless strange creatures that spring from the creative mind. There’s little to empathize with; little for the audience to connect to. So why are these monstrous villains still so popular? Perhaps because we’ve been conditioned to enjoy them — not unlike Pavlov’s Dog.
Ivan Pavlov was a physiologist who, while studying the saliva of dogs, noticed a very curious thing: At the sight of lab technicians responsible for feeding them, the dogs would salivate regardless if there was food or not. Pavlov soon discovered that dogs could learn to associate almost anything (most famously, a bell) that came before their food with being fed and, thus, trigger their instinctual response of salivating.
This type of learning — in which one learns to associate an unconditioned stimulus (like food) that already brings about a unconditioned response (a reflex, like salivating) with a new stimulus (like a lab tech or bell), so that the new (conditioned) stimulus brings about the same (now conditioned) response — went on to be coined classical conditioning.
Just as those dogs learned to associate the lab technicians and bells with feeding time, we can be conditioned to associate horror movie monsters with positive things — immortality, strength, freedom and even the joys of imagination can all end up being linked to various, monstrous villains.
Living The Dream Forever
The possibility of being young and beautiful forever is naturally appealing. They are characteristics frequently admired and desired without there needing to be any outside influences: Humans tend to want and seek them out on instinct. These characteristics are unconditioned stimuli with the unconditioned responses being attraction, desire and admiration.
Vampires in Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries and others of such vampiric ilk have all repeatedly represented these characteristics. Feeding time aside, they are all remarkably attractive and will remain that way forever, barring any unforeseen tragedies. On multiple occasions, these bloodthirsty monsters seduce their prey with just such promises. They glow (sometimes literally) with flawless skin, perfect bodies, rarely looking a day over 30, tempting mortals with the siren’s call: Be like me forever. The more audiences devour novels, films, comics and television, the more vampires are associated with that instinctual desire and admiration for immortal youth and beauty. The formerly unconditioned response becomes conditional in the face of the new vampire stimulus.
There are countless kinds of aliens in pop culture multimedia, but let’s focus on the antagonistic ones — those from the Alien and Predator series and others that tear humans apart to the entertainment of audiences everywhere. There are a lot of things these creatures aren’t: attractive, seductive, immortal (in the vampiric sense anyway). However, they are unnaturally strong and many are portrayed as remarkably intelligent, with a near-unstoppable drive to devour and destroy everything in their path. Yet, it’s not their abilities that draw us to this alien genre — it’s our own.
Strength of mind and body is naturally appealing, but the ability to overcome beings that have such strengths with your own is even more impressive. That’s what aliens so often provide and that’s what we learn to associate with them: We don’t want to be these things, we want to beat them. As we watch humanity band together to claim their Independence Day or win The War of the Worlds, that feeling of triumph over insurmountable odds — that pride in ourselves — is reinforced until we are conditioned to seek out similar creature features to attain that positive feeling again and again.
Hungry Like The Wolf
While vampires bring the promise everlasting, etherial beauty, werewolves and other such shapeshifters promise the more primal. Most of the time these creatures look and behave just like the average human being. They could be any one of us, but every so often (like on a full moon) their inner beast comes out. They shed their socially appropriate forms and revel in the three most basic F-words: feeding, fighting and fornicating. That is a sort of freedom the average person will never experience — not metaphorically and certainly not literally — yet may dream about having. It’s this freedom that these particular monsters offer and come to represent.
As we watch the were-animals of True Blood or Twilight shed their human forms and indulge themselves, that concept of freedom is reinforced. That once instinctual, unconditioned, response of desire for freedom in the face of the unconditioned stimuli of food, aggression and arousal all now turn conditioned with the new stimuli of were-creatures.
Worlds Of Pure Imagination
There are, of course, those movie monsters that don’t fit into any of the standard categories. Prehistoric beasts such as Godzilla, fantasy creatures like dragons, and folklore legends in the vein of Sasquatch and Krampus. What is it that they might come to represent to the audience? Creativity and imagination. Every creature and every take on a “classic” creature is a little different because every writer, director and performer has their own spin and approach. They indulge their own creativity and that, in turn, encourages us to do the same as we suspend disbelief and enter our own imagination.
Engaging our imagination is a natural behavior that is spurred by any number of things; it is an unconditioned response to various unconditioned stimuli. In fact, we might initially seek out unusual monsters randomly hoping to stimulate creativity and, when it’s a success, seek out more. With every new creature and every new form of a classic, we reinforce this connection between these original monsters and our own creativity, thus turning the monsters into a conditioned stimuli and the activation of our imagination into a conditioned response.
Monsters in pop culture media can come to represent any number of things to us: beauty, strength, freedom, imagination. Collectively, they can come to be associated with simple entertainment and escapism, which are two things humans seem to be in endless search of. They are popular and they are loved by audiences because we can learn to associate them with relaxation and the indulgence our baser instincts.