A Deal With Death
"I was better than them," the mass–murderer, Charles Starkweather said after a killing spree which left eleven people dead across Nebraska in 1958, later fictionalized in the film Badlands. "They killed me slowly;" said Starkweather. "I killed them quick."
On a surface level this seems nothing more than the shadowy cool of the Eternal Villain, as played by Pacino or De Niro, a man without pity, justifying his atrocities with the cold calculus of self–interest. This bogeyman so beloved of Hollywood is a cliché now, instantly recognizable — Alan Rickman as a terrorist, Christopher Walken as a gangster, Rutger Hauer as a hitcher — as much a modern myth, in fact, not just a stereotype but an archetype. On a surface level we might see nothing more than psychopathy in his lack of empathy. But beneath the surface of these murderers the symbolic resonances ring the deeper, richer toll of a tale far older and far truer than any Hollywood schlockbuster. The thrill of the thrillers that they stalk through with impunity — until, that is, the hero or heroine arrives to turn their kingdom of slaughter upside–down — turns on our awareness of what these individuals are, what they represent . . . death.
What was missing from the movie of Starkweather's real–life tale, what is all too often absent from fictive representations of the Eternal Villain, is the sense of mystery that makes their menace more than just mundane. Here or there — in the slasher movie, say — the killer is represented as truly demonic (even if his only magical power is the ability to stroll casually and still catch someone running for their life), but in Badlands there is no mention at all of the most fascinating element of Starkweather's tale: how in the years leading up to his killing spree, the would–be murderer, spending days in the desolate hills around his hometown, had a series of . . . experiences where Death, he claimed, came to him in the form of a man with the head of a bear; Death took him down through the flames of Hell, golden flames which were beautiful, which did not hurt at all, and, as in some narrative of fantasy or folklore, struck a deal with him.
"They killed me slowly; I killed them quick," Starkweather said, casual as regards his inevitable execution. As far as he was concerned he was already dead; had been through Hell, and was now deputized by Death to do his work, to send as many souls his way as possible in exchange for preferential treatment in eternity.
This deal with Death is the same deal offered the vampires of much contemporary fiction — most notably in Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire or Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls. Underneath the Gothic intrigue and adolescent angst, the repressed sexuality of the vampire's bloodlust, at the core of the modern vampire is the transformative empowerment that comes from acceptance of death, rebirth as a sort of Homo superior, a being who, in passing through death and coming out the other side, has moved beyond humanity's fragile mortal state.
The appeal of this trope may be, in part, as a compensatory fantasy for the disempowered, the weak and the weird dissociated from their peers (socially dead) and dreaming of demonic revenge (the rebirth of release), but it would be glib and dismissive to see it as only that. Death is a discrete state; the tales of vampires, the self–mythology of a Starkweather, these are not just stories of the weak become strong but of the dead reborn. The psychological state mapped by the metaphoric death should be correspondingly discrete, not simply misery (however profound) but a categorically distinct sense of self. "I'm dying here," does not express the same sentiment as "I'm dead."
The rebirth of the vampire as a being of acute senses and even more acute hunger — an overwhelming desire to consume life — gives the clue to the state metaphorised as death in these myths and fictions; Starkweather's, the vampire's, the psychopath's death, each is a death of the soul, a destruction of the ability to care. Rebirth is a restoration of desire. In the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, vampirism is rendered explicitly in these terms; when a human becomes a vampire their own soul is destroyed; the demon they become is born from that destruction.
Intriguingly, psychologists distinguish schizophrenia into two stages, acute and chronic, the former a state of wild psychosis, visions and voices, the latter a state of cold affectless delusion in which the patient often sees themself as a dead thing. The acute schizophrenic, hounded by demons, might well be seen as the all too real psychological truth underlying those heroic descents into the netherworld. We might well be reminded of a Sumerian tale of death and rebirth, that of Dumuzi, doomed and on the run, fleeing the demons sent to drag him down into the netherworld, into his own unconscious. If death is sleep, sleep is psychosis. The chronic schizophrenic, the vampires of legends, the Starkweathers of reality — serve as reminders that not everyone returns intact from that dark realm.
But these are stories where the rebirth is incomplete; the human–become–demon may be empowered in their new state but they are not truly restored to life, undead rather than reborn. Such tales illuminate the death–and–rebirth motif, but they only tell half of the story. Nevertheless, they're an important reminder of the darkness of the tomb, a warning as we approach the gates of Hell that this journey is no adventure to be taken lightly. The ferryman, Charon, in Greek myth, must be bartered with before he'll take a living being across the river Styx; the living do not belong in Hell.
So Death's minions — the vampires, the psychopaths, the demons — stand at the gates like the three–headed dog Cerberus who blocks the path to Hades, living signs that if we pass we may not ever truly, fully return.
Abandon hope, they say, all ye who enter here.