The most terrifying mythological monsters are the ones that want to sleep with you.
Look at mermaids, for example—supposedly dugongs mistaken for beautiful topless women (how far away/homesick/salt-drunk do you need to be to mix those up? I digress) by ancient sailors, the stars of myths and horror stories about sailors wrecking their ships or drowning having been distracted and seduced by the sea ladies’ beauty. It certainly made for a good cautionary tale: scurvy-induced hallucination or not, travelling men should be wary of any strange, ethereal women they come across. They’ll seduce you with their sweet songs and drag you under the sea to drown, or maybe crash your ship for good measure. And they’ll take all your sea-biscuits when they dump you. Wicked wanton creatures! Wanderers beware!
Sirens, mermaids and other watery seducers appear in the legends of all cultures with any coastal connection, and of course they have equally dangerous, gorgeous cousins extending into all kinds of supernatural creatures: handsome and lustrous vampires, succubi and incubi, enchanters and enchantresses and a whole parade of demonic legions set on leading the unwary to ruin via their undergarments.
It’s easy to see where this mythological trope comes from. Much in the same way that fairy tales teach children good morals and life lessons (and terrify them into compliance), these myths were part of establishing a moral and safety-conscious compass: in the case of the sirens, don’t get distracted by sexy ladies when you’re missing your wife on long journeys, because you’ll end up underwater. In the case of vampires, don’t talk to strange men, because they might bite you and drink your blood. It’s less daunting, in a way, than straight-up saying ‘don’t have affairs with women you meet while at sea because you’ll end up with terrible guilt and illegitimate foreign children’ and ‘don’t talk to strange men because they may overpower and sexually assault you’. By creating veiled imagery, the warning is established.
Vampires have always been a thinly veiled metaphor for the world’s perverse dangers. I mean, look at them. They’re unearthly, eerily perfect, strikingly handsome or beautiful, strong and pale (because pale people are the prettiest, obviously). They’re mysterious and sexy and they roam the night being disgustingly elegant and fashionable. They are allure personified—and they’ll kill you and eat you if you fall for their charms!
And not just that, but they’ll infect you and turn you into one of them. What could be more horrifying than being magically warped into pseudo-gothic Eurotrash? Or worse yet, being used as a living mini-fridge for all their blood-supping needs, turned into a mindless slave. Vampirism is dangerous and wicked and it’s spread by blood. Substitute bodily fluids, as it’s easy to do in a lot of viral cases, and you have a very apt metaphor for STDs.
Even as health technology progressed and we invented and popularised plenty of ways to prevent and combat the medical consequences of sexual activity, the stigma still remains. Maybe it’s the prudish Victorians (the side of Victorian society that was prudish, anyway, because those guys were frisky fools) still in us as a society, and we want to cling to the Dracula archetype of the converted, corrupted, scarily sexy creature of the night.
Even when these alluring lady vamps are the heroes of their own stories, a la True Blood, for example, their species and especially the part of it they represent are still portrayed as devilishly and inhumanly attractive, associated strongly with promiscuity whether they actually sleep with a lot of people or not. It’s all in the portrayal: count the number of times they lick blood seductively off their lips or make it clear they’re having a very good time drinking the stuff.
And hey, that’s okay. Fiction is a vessel through which we can examine and explain the world, and if warning people of the potential dangers of casual sexytimes through the imagery of soul-sucking bed demons works for people, who am I to stop them? But there’s a negative stigma attached to all this metaphorical business, and that is that sex in itself is inherently evil.
On the vampire example, a lot of paranormal fiction leads the reader into the world of the monsters at hand through the eyes of an expressly ‘innocent’ human girl character. These young women that get entangled with the vamps’ world are always contrasted shockingly to their blood-sucking companions, a la The Vampire Diaries and, well, any story really that follows a naïve virginal girl into the dark and dangerous world of dating, romance and exploration of her own sexuality. I mean, night-crawling monsters. We need look no further than the Twilight saga for demonstration of this: Bella literally has her humanity ripped away from her when she sleeps with Edward, and after a terrifying transformation she instantly takes about three levels in attractiveness. She did the deed, she became a blood-drinking sorceress of the night. Be careful, girls! It could happen to you!
Let’s also look at Beautiful Creatures, wherein the women in a family of enchanters are claimed by magical alignment to either the ‘dark’ or the ‘light’ on their 16th birthday. An interesting metaphor for the paths young women are parcelled onto as they grow up to start with… until it gets just plain offensive. The women claimed by the ‘dark’ warp instantly into lace-clad femme fatales who strut around and control people (i.e. men) with their sultry influences. The ‘light’ and the as yet non-aligned are expressed to be pure and adorable. Evil is equated inescapably with sexiness.
This stigma is entrenched in any real-world and fictitious handling of the concept of witchcraft: it was something bizarre and unholy that women did, often running around naked and killing things and generally making everyone uncomfortable with the act of drawing power from themselves. The succubus is also worth noting—beware the dominant, outgoing seductress, because she is a creature of the black abyss and she will devour your essence after conning you into buying her a drink. Incubi are also waltzing around the world entrancing wide-eyed young women, but the stigma remains: the innocent women are preyed on and destroyed, and the ones making their lustfulness overt are the demons.
This is that cruel business we call slut-shaming to an art form honed by generations. Why has the concept of physical desire become so associated with monsters in our civilisation? As I’ve said, the trope ranges from Greek mythology to YA fiction. Especially, not always, but most notably, female sexuality… is it because we’re scared of it? Is it something we’re significantly uncomfortable with that we have to equate it to pure villainy and embody it with supernatural entities that will harm, corrupt and kill us?
There’s a whole lot of societal baggage here and many, many unfortunate implications. Fantasy provides a unique vessel for sending the message of its author, and so commonly that message seems to be ‘sexy people are evil’. The worst part is, not every creator is necessarily out to slam down the concept of anyone who dares to express perfectly human desires—perhaps the archetype simply appears as a matter of course because it’s so ingrained in our collective psyche. And that’s what’s really worrying.