Americans are all about bloodsuckers…and it’s the undead ones, not the Goldman Sachs traders, who have hearts in a flutter. Under the specter of the Reagan administration, Stephen King wrote in his 1981 book Danse Macabre that horror fiction, by creating a narrative of pure good versus pure evil, is “as Republican as a banker in a three-piece suit.” Now, gone are the 18th-century views of the sanguivorous as putrid ghouls who defile good citizens and vestal virgins. The vampire genre has been democratized and reinvigorated by a feasting of tall, dark, and pulseless hunks, from True Blood’s genteel Bill Compton (played by Stephen Moyer), to Twilight’s brooding Edward Cullen (played by Robert Pattinson). While most viewers are swept away by epic human-vampire romance (and in True Blood’s case, gratuitous sex that makes you yearn for a partner with fangs), these vampire narratives follow a long tradition of reflecting societal woes. Honing in on themes of female empowerment and modern sexual mores, to the culture wars, vampire allegories have taken on a particularly American sensibility. Thus, vampire television, film, and fiction have used these mystical creatures as a vehicle through which to posit questions of gender, sexuality, and minority politics in the first decade of the 21st century.
The current vampire vanguard evolved out of the high literary tradition of 19th Century romanticism. Gothic horror as it appears today was born the summer of 1816 in a villa on Lake Geneva. Here, Lord Byron, hotfooting it from marital problems, proposed a ghost story competition amongst his companions, including physician, John Polidori; friend, Percy Shelley; Shelley’s mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; and Godwin’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was also Byron’s ex-mistress and pregnant with his child. During these reading sessions between rarefied friends and lovers, the grotesque monsters of Eastern Europe transformed into the soulful freaks and dashing patricians of modern popular culture. Godwin, who married Shelley later that year, expanded on her written exercise, publishing the harrowing Frankenstein in 1818. The novel presents contemporary anxieties towards the Industrial Revolution. The hideous and misunderstood monster, engineered by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, is a jarring warning against the abuse of technology and the dehumanizing effects of factory work. In 1819, Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre”, which had been inspired by one of Byron’s discarded drafts, was published in New Monthly magazine. In the tale, Polidori’s vampire is a suave charmer, homosocially traveling the world with his male companion, whilst invidiously luring high-society women into his crypt.
Solidifying the vampire’s lateral move from peasant folklore to blue blood bodice rippers was Irishman Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula. Differing from Frankenstein’s sympathetic approach and Polidori’s foppish villain, Stoker has more disparate views of good and evil and masculine and feminine. Scholars have pored over this text, as reported by Joan Acocella for The New Yorker. Nina Auerbach, in her 1995 book Our Vampires, Ourselves, explicates the changing notions of homoeroticism from Polidori’s tale to Stoker’s novel. In Polidori’s story, sexuality is decadently ambiguous. The primary relationship in the novel is between the protagonist, Aubrey, and the vampire Lord Ruthven, as dead female bodies pile up in the background. Further, Lord Ruthven is able to “pass” as mortal in human society, as how gay men would “pass” as straight men in polite company. Stoker, however, wrote during the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895, where ‘indecent’ homosexual behavior was made anathema. Consequently, Stoker posits his characters within the strict confines of heteronormativity. Stoker also shows conflicted feelings about the rise of turn-of-the century feminism. Although his heroine, Mina, has worked as a school mistress and is an accomplished typist (a progressive trait for a late-century aristocrat), the overwhelming thrust of the novel, as perceived by Auerbach, depicts women as “weak but good” and men as “strong but less good.”
These great works of prose quickly made their way across the pond to the United States, where they were co-opted by the film industry. The first major breakthrough came out of Berlin, with the unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula by F.W. Murau in his 1922 silent film Nosferatu. A product of the Weimar Republic’s expressionist movement, the deformed, and truly horrific Count Orlok was the physical embodiment of the ugliness of humanity. The film reached American audiences in June 1929.
Vampire flicks took a decidedly Hollywood turn with Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula. It was Universal Studio’s first horror talkie, casting Béla Lugosi, with his deliberate, Hungarian-tinged drawl, in the title role. In the first two days of its opening at The Roxy Theatre in New York, it had sold 50,000 tickets. In the difficult years of the Great Depression, Dracula went on to be a massive hit, cementing American blood lust for horror cinema.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, vampire parables have waxed and waned. Their moral fortitude is variable: on one extreme, they are deadly villains, and on the other, they are the noble, isolated creatures illustrated by Louis in Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire. Today’s crop of vampires, however, have M.O.s just as multifaceted as a box of L’Oréal hair dye.
Vampire-philia came to the small screen in 1997 with Joss Whedon’s television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With a run that lasted through 2003, it fused high-school drama and action/horror genres in a clever pastiche of Gen X farce. Set in the fictional town of Sunnydale, California, the petite and always fiercely accessorized Buffy is a high-school student saddled with the responsibility of saving the world a lot. The Hellmouth (the portal of chaos and evil from which the demons emerge) stews beneath the foundations of the high school. This provides endless allusions to the monsters that beset turn-of-the-millennium teens. Portrayed by the adorable Sarah Michelle Geller, Buffy is playful and flippant, always bidding a snappy adieu to her vampire foes before vanquishing them with a stake to the heart.
Buffy’s not just a fighter, but a lover as well. She has two serious vampire boyfriends, first the devastatingly handsome Angle (played by David Boreanaz), and subsequently Spike (played by James Marsden), a Sid Vicious doppelganger of sorts. Angle and Spike are happy playing foot soldiers to Buffy’s ass-kicking General, and both comfortably defer to the leaderships of heroine-with-a-silly-name. Thus, Whedon succeeded in reversing the scary movie motif of a pretty blonde girl running for her life by crafting a feminist allegory in which women have strength and men have dreamy furrowed brows and vulnerability. The symbolism is made painfully obvious in the series finale when Buffy uses her nifty slayer sickle to bisect a misogynistic über-demon…from the crotch up. Powerful women (and Lorena Bobbitts’) of the world, unite!
In contrast, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels, the first installment published in 2005, toned down the 90s “Girl Power”, relying on a more traditional boy-meets-girl, will-they-won’t-they, vampire narrative. While Buffy’s sensibility was of post-modern wit, Meyer’s is of post 9/11 sobriety. This approach aligns with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s observation that America’s great tragedy marked “the end of the age of irony.” Meyer’s earnest portrayal of a supernatural teenage romance hit the right note; her four novels have sold over 70 million copies worldwide, and the first film adaptation made $177 million in its initial seven weeks in theaters. New Moon, the second film in the saga, broke the record set by The Dark Knight for best domestic opening day sales. Released on 20 November 2009, the film grossed nearly $73 million in its first day in theaters, a 100% gain over the first film. Midnight screenings alone brought in $26.3 million. While tweens can be fickle, their love for Meyer’s world is far from anemic.
Meyer’s heroine, Bella Swan, is smart and brave, her intense longing for Edward manifest in her unrelenting heaving bosom. In the Twilight novel and film, however, she is often in need of rescue (from a rogue car, a lecherous group of men, a horde of evil vampires) by her 104 year-old vampire beau, who must resist his urge to eat her. Loosely based on the chivalric romance of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Edward and Bella’s relationship progresses slowly, and in stark contrast to Dracula’s blatant wantonness with Lucy. Edward and Bella first encounter one another in biology class. When Bella approaches, Edward is described as “sitting on the extreme edge of his chair and averting his face like he smelled something bad.” Meyer is not quite in the same literary league as Stoker, let alone Austen. What she does share with her predecessors, however, is a Victorian neurosis about sex. As a practicing Mormon, she believes that, like the fate of foolish Lydia Bennett, if a man has sex with a girl before marriage, he will ruin her. In 19th-century England, premarital sex was taboo and dangerous, as syphilis was a widespread and potentially fatal disease. Moreover, the lack of birth control pills or free condoms from the school guidance counsellor could get a woman pregnant, and most assuredly destroy her reputation. In 21st-century America, Meyer’s religion views teen sex as a violation, likening it to the violence of penetrating vampire fangs into pure flesh.
Thus, Edward is terrified that he will not be able to control his natural urges for Bella. He knows that if his bloodlust overcomes him just once, he will indelibly change her. So, instead of dry humping, they share furtive glances, hold hands, and leap from treetop to treetop amidst the charming atmospherics of the Pacific Northwest. Theirs is a study in repressed desire and delayed gratification that would make Sting jealous. Lacking Edward’s fearfulness, Bella wants nothing more than for him to ravage her. She is the aggressor, so enraptured that she wants to give him her body and human life so that they can be joined together for eternity. The frisson she experiences with every chaste encounter is what resonates with the series’ fans. While Bella is constantly tempted by Edward (and who wouldn’t be tempted by a boy who literally sparkles?), Meyer stays true to the abstinence, purity-ring set; Edward and Bella don’t get it on until the last book, when they are married. Although Meyer appears to be more engaged with the romance than putting forth a “teachable moment,” her attitude towards sexuality is clear: if you want to bite me, you have to marry me.
For a more R-rated audience, Alan Ball’s HBO series True Blood illustrates ravishment of a more explicit nature. A Southern Gothic soap opera, it is set in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps. The pilot episode explains that vampires have come out of hiding after scientists developed a synthetic blood product called True Blood that renders human snacking unnecessary. Having been “out of the coffin” for two years, the vampire community is agitating for rights and the ability to assimilate into mainstream society.
The television series is based on Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, the first of which, Dead Until Dark, was published in 2001. The heroine is the good-hearted, telepathic barmaid, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). She is characterized by her firm moral rectitude, precocious comebacks, and her ridiculously perky tits. First premiering in September 2008, by season 2 over 5 million viewers were tuning in to watch Sookie traipse about Bon Temps looking positively pornographic in a white t-shirt.
In a Hegelian dialectic of vampire leading ladies, if Buffy Summers is the thesis, then Bella Swan is the antithesis, and Sookie Stackhouse the kooky synthesis. In other words, she’s not a fearsome slayer, but she doesn’t just mope about, staring into Bill’s eyes, whining for him to make her a vampire, either. She’s a good Christian girl, but has no qualms about pre marital sex if it’s with a good man, or dead man. She loves Bill’s erotic noshes on her neck. Sookie is also plucky, and in the season 2 finale, when Dionysian demon Maryann asks, “What are you?” Sookie retorts in her southern drawl, “I’m a waitress. What the fuck are you?”
True Blood also has an overt political agenda. The opening credits serve to set up the tensions rife within America’s culture wars. Exquisitely pieced together, it juxtaposes images of religious symbolism with totems of debauchery and decay, all to the dirty baseline of Jace Everett’s “Bad Things”. Images of a black Baptist congregation praising Jesus cuts to gyrating stripper with cellulite. There are clips of hooded clansmen, a decomposing fox, and a sign that reads “God hates fangs”.
True Blood’s vampires bear the wrath of the lunatic right-wing fringe, having a similar experience as black and gay Americans. Like the plight of many minority groups before them, vampires are only allowed to marry humans in the state of Vermont. This is a blatant reference to the gay marriage debate, but can also be seen in the context of the anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited black and white couples from marrying in Southern states like Virginia up until 1967. Most characters are fearful of vampire/human relationships, tarring women who bed vampires “fang bangers.” When Sookie can’t help but hear people’s thoughts of her relationship with Bill, most dismiss her as a floozy who’s slumming it. The town folk much rather see Sookie with a pick-up truck driving, red meat eating, Neil Diamond hating Southern Man, than a wealthy, well-mannered, Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-esque, vampire.
Alan Ball continues pulling punches at extreme ‘family values’ conservatives. He depicts a congressional candidate who makes a sport of vampire bashing (i.e., gay bashing). In his spare time, said candidate buys black market V (a hallucinogen made of vampire blood that gives one incredible sexual prowess) from a flamboyantly gay black man. Another vampire-phobe, bringing the fire and brimstone of Jerry Falwell and co., says that “Vampires have taken our jobs and our women, and their very blood turns our children into addicts, drug dealers and homosexuals!”
Season two presents more screwball religious hypocrisy. A maniacal Christian cult called the Fellowship of the Sun runs a conversion camp and vigilante training ground at the “Light of Day Institute”. Led by Reverend Steve Newlin, their objective is to eliminate the vampire menace and their pesky sympathizers. While Sookie and the gang thwart their attempt to provoke an epic human/vampire showdown, it has been confirmed that Newlin will be back for season 3, where one can expect more god-fearing gems, like when he tells Sookie, “The war has begun, you evil whore of Satan.”
Newlin isn’t all-wrong. Bad vampires still roam the earth. The human-eating ones can be differentiated through their preference for S&M gear and nasty snarls. Despite their pathological streak, we still like them, because how can you hate a creature so pretty?
It has been almost 200 years since Shelley and Polidori put quill to parchment, and gothic horror has continued to dramatize social fears. The most pertinent difference between vampire tales past and present seems to be that as they’ve gone through the wringer of American popular culture, their role has shifted from antagonist to protagonist. With the entire hullabaloo surrounding the “Twi-hards” and True Blood’s pulpy cliffhangers, one mustn’t forget that the vampire experience can be delicious if placed in its proper social context. From Buffy’s girl-power acrobatics, to Bella’s characteristically heaving bosom, to Sookie’s luridly exposed bosom, the mortal sylphs have proved to be more relevant than their polite, supernatural hunks. Next time you roll your eyes at yet another person who squeals in delight over Edward Cullen’s monosyllabic grunting, remember that there are strains of vampire mania that don’t suck.