The New Hot Topic: Vamps Don’t Really Suck, Per Se

If you had asked me when I was little what my concept of vampires was, I would have said something combining Tom Cruise’s portrayal in “Interview with the Vampire” with the goth kids that hung out at the piano-store end of the mall—altogether a frightening image. If you ask most American kids that same question today, they would likely respond with a description of Robert Pattinson.

The symbol of the vampire, older than our country, has once again been appropriated for consumption by a modern audience in the shallow form of “Twilight” and the more thoughtful effort, “True Blood,” which possesses some capacity to reasonably incorporate the character’s symbolic relevance to modern issues.

In the competition for ultimate domination of the American pop culture sphere, only obnoxious shows about equally obnoxious rich brats from Manhattan can even come close to challenging the vampires. The question, then, is, “Why now?” How can vampires—certainly not a new creation—suddenly be so hot that they’re not just hotter than the girl next door, they are the girl next door?

Though Americans have been exposed to vampire lore for centuries in the form of Germanic, Slavic, and African myths, vampires did not really enter the American psyche in earnest until the Victorian Gothic Period in the mid-19th century. The sexual violence and racial miscegenation associated with vampires excited the fears and fetishes of Victorian audiences; the vampire’s bite is often depicted as a sexual kiss and embrace, and the victim’s demise as orgasmic ecstasy.

The depiction of vampirism as a blood-borne disease served as a vehicle for fears of racial “pollution.” Tales of vampires often included the fall of a rich and powerful family after one member became infected. Vampires were the Victorian’s perfect symbol for a threat against purity.

With the advent of film, vampires made their transition from the page, starting with silent films and continuing all the way to movies like “Blade,” before the current boom. Until recently, even when poetic license was taken with the genre, the portrayal of vampires was relatively aligned with historical conceptions: vampires were strangely erotic, but always fringe and dangerous. In the last few years though, vampires have stood up from the ranks of common horror (aliens, sharks, and murderers) and into an epic spotlight. Now they are the stars of an incredibly successful book franchise, a blooming film franchise, a hit HBO show, a new show on the CW, and the list goes on. How did this happen?

The answer: a Mormon from Arizona, author of the “Twilight” series, Stephanie Meyer. While we were all fidgeting over the release of the next “Harry Potter” book in the first half of this decade, Meyer was working away on an idea that would make Potter look disturbingly mainstream-pagan.

Before I go any further, here’s a refresher on the “Twilight” series: it’s an allegory for waiting to have sex until after marriage. Charming. Mormonly charming. If you’ve watched or read the first installment, this intention is immediately evident. Kristen Stewart stumbles around onscreen licking her lips in Pavlovian fashion while Robert Pattinson winces a thousand times and whispers that Stewart smells so good—but he just can’t have sex with her... I mean, bite her... I mean, get busy with her... I mean, suck her blood and send her into the immortal undead state of vampires (i.e. people who don’t wear promise rings).

In my opinion, Meyer has chosen a strange vehicle to promote premarital celibacy, and in adopting the vampiric image, she’s failed, unsurprisingly, to erase the centuries-old associations and make it her own. Her vampires still stir the same strange Freudian conflation of sex and violence that has captured the attention of Americans since the Victorian era. What’s more, vampires are now being marketed to children, exposing them to content that was once intended for a much more mature, albeit repressed, audience. Meyer and many others today are taking the reins of mythology—steeped in perverse sexuality and racism—without much consideration of the implications of its wholesome family marketing.

Meyer’s exploitation of the genre can be contrasted with the recent successes of the series “True Blood” and the Swedish film “Let the Right One In,” which both pay respect to the symbolic origins of vampires while simultaneously playing into modern consciousness. The latter is as incredible as it is frightening, as it recreates the starkly alienated landscape of most childhoods through the eyes of a vampire girl. “True Blood,” based upon a book series by Mississippian Charlaine Harris, plays heavily on the inherent rape-like violence of vampires. Meanwhile, it implicates the presence of racial tension in the South by featuring these fanged characters who threaten the “blood” of others. These attempts have made honest and artistic efforts to expand on the form, rather than irresponsibly misappropriate it.

Vampires aren’t going away any time soon. Americans love the possibility of fang-baring sex-violence way too much, and the tabloids have us all invested enough in a possible off-screen romance between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart to keep watching the movies for another 10 years. On top of all that, vampires are immortal! I bet there are tons of mallrat goths whining about being way ahead of the curve, and I give props to them for still being scary. At the end of the day, though, no matter how historically accurate vampire depiction is or isn’t, I still think pop culture is in need of a silver bullet. I mean more unbridled, non-vampiric sex and violence. I mean a stake in the shape of a cross.

—Staff writer Andrew F. Nunnelly can be reached at nunnelly@fas.harvard.edu.