Never Grow Up: Revisiting The Lost Boys
A few years ago, I started watching the television series Once Upon a Time. The show featured classic fairy tale characters like Snow White, the Evil Queen, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood and others, weaving them into a narrative that jumped between the world of fantasy and real life. In the second season, an unexpected villain emerges: Peter Pan.
It was a jarring inversion of how we tend to view the boy who never grew up. In J.M. Barrie’s story (and in the subsequent film by Disney) Peter Pan is a hero. Perhaps he is a bit vain and self-absorbed, but he also embodies the essence of youth, that sense of joyful exuberance that believes that anything can happen and adventure is just around the corner. In this new depiction, Pan is a demonic tyrant. Longing for a life free of responsibility, he is granted eternal youth and uses it to dominate and manipulate all who venture into Neverland.
A quick perusal of the news reveals why this depiction of Pan is so unsettling: We all know him. The boy who refuses to grow up, who feels entitled to everything and is either oblivious to or protected from consequences is a reality we live with every day. He is Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Ethan Couch or Brock Turner. He is the culture that shields a privileged young man from consequences to protect a “bright future” or excuses the grown man’s past crimes as “youthful folly.” It’s the product of a culture that viewed the 1978 comedy Animal House not so much as a comedy, but a guide to life. This Peter Pan is the embodiment of a culture that has turned sexual violence into an epidemic.
Once Upon A Time is not the first to recognize the problematic nature of the boy who never grows up. Director Joel Schumacher explored the idea in his 1987 film The Lost Boys. The name, of course, has its roots in Peter Pan’s band of boys who live in Neverland. Peter, who hated mothers after feeling betrayed by his own, leads this motley gang who came to Neverland after falling from their cribs and laying unclaimed for a week. They live a wild, carefree life and never leave their childhood.
The story of The Lost Boys follows Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam Emerson (Corey Haim) who move to Santa Carla, California after their mother Lucy’s (Dianne Wiest) divorce. The city is plagued by a rash of disappearances and murders, but this does not stop Michael from falling in with a local motorcycle gang that has been terrorizing the area. The gang, led by David (Keifer Sutherland), lures Michael into their group through Star (Jami Gertz), before leading him on a reckless, high speed motorcycle ride along the beach and to the edge of a cliff.
The gang turns out to be a tribe of vampires. It is no mistake that the bulk of the vampires are all young men. The behavior embraced by the vampires are those traditionally “masculine” activities excused by the notion “boys will be boys.” They play fast and loose with their lives, take what they want, and delight in violence.
David and his friends make their home in the remnants of a luxury hotel, initiating new members by having them drink from a bottle of blood. Their philosophy is on full display when, after Michael has been partially turned, the gang takes him to a railroad bridge. The entire group hangs from the bridge, dangling above an enormous chasm. Each member of the gang then willingly plummets into the fog below. As Michael panics, David declares, “Michael, you’re one of us. Let go!” David then releases his grip and falls, leaving Michael to choose whether or not to follow suit. The message to Michael: as a vampire, there are no consequences for your actions. David reiterates this idea later when he says, “Now you know what we are. And now you know what you are. You'll never grow old, Michael. And you'll never die. But you must feed.”
In a literal sense, feeding means drinking human blood. Michael is taken on a hunt and presented the opportunity to participate in the murderous frenzy. This will complete his transformation into a vampire. However, the blood lust that he must satiate is symbolic of more than the literal drinking of blood. Vampirism has long been used as a metaphor for unrestrained sexuality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often seen as representing something akin to Freud’s id, the embodiment of our animal/instinctive desires. Biting his victim’s neck is a thinly veiled reference to sex, hinting at what the delicate sensibilities of the Victorian era would not allow Stoker to say outright. These erotic undertones have continued to be a prominent part of vampire stories, from the homo-eroticism of Interview With the Vampire, to the blatant blend of violence and sex in the television show True Blood. To be a vampire, you must give in to your dark desires and take what you want to survive, regardless of the consequences. The final message is this: All that matters is what benefits you and your appetites.
In the story, Michael rejects this idea. He is horrified by the feeding frenzy and seeks the help of his brother Sam to cure his growing vampirism. In essence, Michael decides to “grow up,” recognizing the horror of living a life ignorant of consequences. Sam enlists the help of the Frog Brothers (as a side note, their Rambo-esque depiction of brash, foul mouthed, Reagan-era nationalism deserves its own essay. The essence of this comes when Edgar Frog (Corey Feldman), dressed in camo and a red bandana, declares, “...we're dedicated to a higher purpose. We're fighters for truth, justice, and the American way.”). The Frog Brothers state that to reverse the vampire curse, they must kill the tribe’s leader.
For the majority of the movie, viewers are lead to believe that David is the leader of the vampires. He is the charismatic head of the motorcycle gang, but the movie has a twist in store. The actual head of the tribe is a character named Max, a rather goofy middle aged man who runs the video store where Michael and Sam’s mother works. Max is actively stalking Lucy, attempting to turn her into a vampire so that she can be “mother” to his tribe of lost boys. Despite being a middle age man, Max is Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. He is the spoiled, over-indulgent Baby Boomer, trapped in a perpetual mid-life crisis. He refuses to grow out of the reckless indulgence of youth.
Max and the vampires’ eventual defeat reveals a note of optimism in the story. It rejects the morality that says that “boys will be boys” and that, somehow, this adage absolves their misbehavior. It recognizes the violence, destruction and horror inherent in this attitude. With a little luck, our culture will eventually come to the same conclusion.