Is romance really dead? In some of these cases, yeah.
Our culture has long been obsessed with tales of paranormal romance, may it be with ghosts, vampires, beasts, aliens, or any number of creative monsters. There was even a 2013 romantic comedy/horror film called Warm Bodies, in which a human woman fell for a pure-of-heart, handsome zombie.
The Shape of Water, which tells the story of love between a woman and a human-like sea creature, has been called the most romantic film of the year.
Who could forget 2008-2012, when the Twilight franchise dominated the box office, the bookstore, the internet. Dangerous, attractive vampire Edward Cullen was nothing new, and many of us knew a similar love growing up: Angel, Buffy’s vampire boyfriend that alternated between beautiful brooding lover boy and dangerous, soulless murderer.
And what 90s kid could forget the dance scene in Casper, one of the most romantic moments in children’s movie history. Devon Sawa as Casper the friendly ghost as he is allowed to take human form again for one night, float-dancing with Christina Ricci? Be still my six-year-old heart. Oh, and Thackery Binx from Hocus Pocus? You remember.
As a kid watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast over and over and over, I fell in love right alongside Belle, and mirrored her feelings when she sang about her developing crush on the beast: “New and a bit… alarming.” Yeah Belle, no kidding. Also, any iteration of King Kong. Enough said.
I am hard pressed to think of even one female monster that a human man falls in love with, however. Hmm. Interesting. Nevertheless, these stories of human/monster romances go all the way back to Greek and Roman myth, and most likely further back than that.
Our obsession with monsters certainly bleeds over into our reality as well. In fact, heart throb Zac Efron is set to play the famously handsome serial killer Ted Bundy in a new film which explores Bundy’s relationship with his long term girlfriend. We’ve all heard of those folks out there who fall in love with, and sometimes even marry, imprisoned serial killers. Manson even had a girlfriend at the end.
So, I’ve been trying to think about what this means about human psychology, that we love this kind of love. One thing that comes to find immediately, is that so many of us have a deep, compulsive need to try to “save” others, myself included. The idea that our love could be enough to transform a monstrous person into an empathetic human again is a truly attractive one, but a myth that continues to find well-meaning people in unhealthy situations. Did you listen to Dirty John?
Something that all monsters in romantic films and TV seem to have in common is the idea that they are misunderstood by society, and that under their sometimes dangerous personalities lies a gentle-hearted sweetness, and that it is the love of a woman that might finally break the curse or heal the sickness, bring them back to life or tame the eternal evil that dwells within them. We talk about fairytales and romantic films setting unrealistic expectations for storybook romance, and I feel like the idea that our love can suddenly heal an otherwise deranged individual might also be a damaging story we hear again and again.
I actually saw The Shape of Water last night. It is clear that the movie is attempting to tell us something about otherness, and about how we demonize those that are different than us, rendering them less than human in our own thinking. It is the love between a human and this otherwise monstrous creature that sparks her desire to protect him from the true evil of society, those who wield their power without care or heart, those who actually enjoy hurting others.
Even with ghosts, they may not be physically dangerous, but they do represent a sort of absence, a way that they are not quite fully present, like someone who is deeply sad or numb due to life circumstances or their own sullen nature. Ever known someone who was like a ghost? Thought you could love them back into this realm where they will finally live again in full color and human feeling? Come on, admit it. I know I have.
Another interesting concept I stumbled upon in my research is that of supernormal stimuli, an evolutionary psychological concept that animals, including humans, are partial to things in our world that are more exaggerated than typical things. This was shown through a series of experiments with birds that proved that they chose to abandon their own eggs in favor of bright colored, bigger eggs placed by the scientists.
Television and film in general are considered exaggerations of our typical social cues, a dramatization of our reality, and because of this are often felt as more pleasurable, more emotionally stirring, more desirable. Perhaps the same could be said about vampires, ghosts, and other human-like creatures that show superhuman traits and appearances. Maybe it’s a stretch, maybe not.
Maybe it’s also as simple as the allure of loving something unreal, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of what it means to be in an intimate relationship, the nitty-gritty of it, the day to day.
Psychologist Josh Gressel, Ph.D., wrote about his own ideas behind one of the most influential movies from my childhood and classic monster/human love story, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (and this fairytale in general that got its start in the 1700s). There have been a lot of various meanings ascribed to this story, including that is it a metaphor for abusive relationships and culture’s expectation of women to put up with them. Gressel says that Beauty and the Beast is less about learning to love a monster, and more about learning to love the monstrous aspects of ourselves.
He goes on to say, and forgive this for being a little sappy:
Now think of some part of you or your life that you don't like, can't accept, wish were otherwise, think of in only negative terms. Some aspect of yourself or your circumstances that has you feeling trapped, that you hate, that you want to go away or to escape from. According to this tale -- and I believe the reason it holds such sway over us for so many centuries is because it is describing something true for all of us -- you must learn to love this very thing you currently hate. Not in order to get a handsome prince in the end -- that kind of artifice wouldn't work for Beauty and it won't work for you -- but because behind every mask of ugliness there lies something of value, something you must learn to treasure and to love. Until you do, you are trapped in this prison cell of not accepting yourself or your life as it is. It is only through this kind of self acceptance, genuine and complete, that we come to appreciate our issues and challenges as the gifts they are. That is when we can unite with this previously unacceptable feature of our lives and live happily ever after. This is when that which we despise is transformed into something beautiful.
So if you don’t have a true love, or even a for-now love, maybe check-in with the weirdo you know best, your own beautiful, messy self. There are monsters inside of us all, and the sooner we learn to look at them, ask them to step into the light the way that Belle asks the beast, the sooner we can tame them.