The evolution of TV’s demon hunters

Demon hunters have changed: no longer crazy old men like Van Helsing, the current breed of screen heroes are young and, well, cool...

Since the days of Dracula and Van Helsing, demon hunters have always existed in popular culture. While this idea has evolved to include witches, slayers, vigilantes and modern-day descendents of classic characters, they have essentially remained the same over the years. There are many reasons for a character to be or become a hunter, but they always have just one goal – rid the earth of evil and save humanity. Our television screens have hosted a myriad of interesting figures over the years and now, with shows like Grimm flying the flag and subverting a lot of our ingrained ideas, the TV demon hunter is experiencing a kind of second golden age.

The first, of course, came with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Charmed in the nineties – a decade that married the fantasy genre with modern popular culture on the small screen more than ever before. We were done with the period pieces and elaborate gothic settings and were finally given an alternative – the demon hunter as a young adult. This led to WB shows like Buffy and Charmed, which both told the story of young women in modern society. High school is hell and so, apparently, is life after high school, they told us. With kick-ass heroines all the rage on television during the decade, it made sense that the glut of fantasy would coincide and form its own, even more niche genre.

After this came Buffy spin-off Angel, which opted instead for the ‘hunter as detective’ urban fantasy motif that has continued and evolved to this day. While demon hunting duties actively interfered with the lives of Buffy and the Halliwell sisters, here it was just part of the day job and much less (at least at first) about saving the world. Angel and the rest of his crew weren’t destined to do anything good or worthy, and were only united by their extensive knowledge of the demon world. For Angel it was about redemption through hunting his own kind, whereas previous TV vampire hunters had either been on revenge missions or adorned with unwanted duty and destiny. This was one of the first times it had really been a conscious choice.

But these days, the word hunter will lead minds to just two shows – Grimm and Supernatural. The latter came first, the year following Charmed’s demise on the same network, and marked a definite shift in the tone and subject matter of the genre. The show featured two brothers raised as hunters by their father after their mother was killed by a demon (I’m going with the original idea of the story here, so bear with me) while they were children, and it pitched the adventures of the Winchester brothers as a road movie as much as it was a detective series. Originally, they weren’t destined or even obligated – it was just a way of life.

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Through nine seasons on the air, the characters have been every kind of hunter there is – destined to free Lucifer and act as angel vessels, seeking revenge for their tragic past, solving crimes and helping the helpless all at once. Via some clever developments, Sam and Dean have now become Men of Letters in addition to their self-made hunter status, and looking back through the various incarnations of what Supernatural says a hunter can be is a bit like looking through the changing trends of the entire genre. And, while demon hunters have turned up periodically elsewhere over the years (series like The Dresden Files are worth a look), we would have to wait for Grimm before a hunter would take centre stage again.

All of these contemporary series had one way or another scattered their demons throughout society assuming that, if our hunters were functioning human beings with jobs and relationships, then so too would be modern-day demons. Whether they were high-powered businessmen, bitchy mean girls or the Mayor of Sunnydale, evil beings in these fantasy shows were the modern day equivalent of wolves in sheep’s clothing. They allowed these series to tell their allegories and deliver their messages in entirely different ways since, by updating the themes and stories of old fairytales, folklore and fables, it was all too easy to relate the issues to our own lives.

But nothing did this more than Grimm, which has taken that subtext and lifted it to a whole new level. The main character, Nick, is actually a descendant of the Brothers Grimm, for a start (think ITV’s Demons, but better), and we learn throughout the first season that the beasties in those original tales were actually demons that Grimms could see through their human facades. After his Aunt dies in the pilot episode, Nick is tasked with finding and stopping these Wesen whenever he happens upon a particularly nasty one, and he later discovers that his duties come with some of their own special gifts and physical enhancements.

Like in Charmed, Nick’s powers came to him late in life and he’s not sure how to deal with them at first. This leads him to the door of friendly neighbourhood Wesen, Monroe, who becomes his sidekick and confidant, causing the expected subversion of Nick’s destiny to destroy all demons he comes across. Interestingly, whereas previous shows had made this rebellion into the Romeo and Juliet-style love story with Buffy and Angel or Phoebe and Cole, in Grimm it’s the best-friendship that acts as the forbidden love. Nick’s girlfriend, Juliette, is as normal as they come and very late to the party in terms of knowing the big secret.

This, of course, feeds into the angst of wanting to be normal and raging against destined greatness, and it’s just one of the ways in which Grimm can be perceived as rather old-fashioned. It’s a post-modern demon hunter show, if you will, and often finds itself commenting on the genre at the same time as revelling in its well-known formula. Nick defies convention by befriending the creatures he is supposed to be hunting, and Grimm never shies away from muddying the waters even more when it comes to the morality of its central characters. The body count might not be larger than in its predecessors, but these creatures don’t turn to dust or explode at the sight of a newly brewed potion.

And this is where Nick and his emerging team of demon fighters differs most from the Scooby Gang, Angel Investigations or the Halliwell family – he has a ready-made cover as a detective before he even gets started. Previous demon fighters or occult investigators in general have needed a ‘friend on the force’ in order to get information and track down leads, but Grimm has worked out the perfect solution to this issue. Nick is his own friend on the force, which occasionally leads to him investigating his own kills, and is instead in more desperate need of a friend on the other side of things.

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Monroe is more than a sidekick – he is an entirely different kind of hunter operating on the same show. Its Angel if Wesley had been the main character, with Monroe the one with first-hand experience of the world Nick has been thrown into so unexpectedly. He’s the mentor, the muscle and the confidant for Nick, and that’s what makes the central partnership of Grimm so fresh and different. Television about demon hunters has always had a certain element of the police procedural to it, but Grimm has combined and shifted several well-worn elements of the genre to create something new.

This has resulted in more and more mutant amalgamations of what we expect a demon hunter to be coupled with new ideas and fresh takes on old ones. Sleepy Hollow is a perfect example of this, with the genre’s old paranormal investigator actually time-travelling to modern-day Sleepy Hollow and teaming the fantasy genre with an otherwise contemporary detective show. While the nineties brought us hunters plagued by their own destinies and constantly complaining about it, and the noughties gave us Sam and Dean Winchester, now it seems we have the complete assimilation of urban fantasy and crime shows with Grimm and Sleepy Hollow. It’s not about revenge or redemption anymore, and demon hunters no longer have to operate on the fringe.

Grimm season 3 starts on UKTV’s Watch on Wednesday the 5th of February at 9pm.

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