Whenever I talk about vampires, I generally get one of two reactions.
One of them is the overenthusiastic fan. They’re kind of like this:
Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing wrong with being a die hard Twilight fan (a Twihard). You like what you like and nothing and no one has the power to make you not like it. However, when I encounter these particular people, they know about two vampires: Dracula and Edward. That is to say, they’re very into Twilight–and not that much into vampires. Maybe they know Louis and Lestat, too.
The other reaction I get is the vampire snob. They’re kind of like this:
When I encounter these particular people, they usually only know about two vampires: Dracula and Edward. That is to say, they hate Twilight very much–but don’t really know that much about vampires. Maybe they know Louis and Lestat.
Now, this isn’t really a defense of Twilight. I would certainly never tell someone not to be in a fandom (I am a proud member of three, by the way).
No. What I would like to talk about is vampires. And why we love them. At least, why I love them.
If you’re wondering what makes me qualified to talk about vampires, you should know I’m a fairly capable vampirologist. My specialties are the Victorian and twenty-first century vampires in English-language fiction. I don’t do poetry or anything before 1819, the year that gave us the Ruthven formula of the aristocratic and mysterious vampire. I know a little about the Slavic vampire, but since I don’t speak Russian (or any other Slavic language), I’m not an expert in those fields. Also, just in case you’re wondering why I have specialities at all, it’s because I just came out of a master’s program where I wrote a one-hundred-page thesis on vampires. I’ve also written a fiction book about vampires and hope to get it published–eventually.
Normally, this is the part where I would give a brief history lesson on vampires, but I’ll just post a further reading section and link to books. Many of them are free and some of the scholarly ones are fairly cheap.
My introduction to vampires came at Halloween. I was eight years old and I decided to be a vampire. I had a fancy black cloak with red lining, my grandmother slicked back my hair, draw a widow’s peak with eyeliner, and painted my face white. I even had plastic fangs. As a kid, I wasn’t that drawn to vampires. I knew what they were, but they hadn’t taken over my imagination yet. I’m not one of those people that’s been obsessed with darkness and death since I was a child. My life might be more interesting if I was, though.
Now, I’m going to tell you a few things about myself. They’re going to seem off topic, but they really do matter, I promise. First: I love the X-Men. As a kid, I fell in love with the notion that one day I might just randomly gain the ability to shoot laser beams out of my eyes. Or move things with my mind. Or have huge metal claws erupt from my knuckles. Second: I watched a lot of action-packed shows like X-Men, Power Rangers, Charmed, Cardcaptors, Digimon, Pokemon, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, etc. Third: my mom had a lot of Anne Rice books on her bookshelves.
When I was twelve, my friend let me borrow a book called In the Forests of the Night by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. She published her book when she was thirteen. So I started writing and never turned back.
See, for me, vampires combine a lot of the things I loved as a kid. They had superpowers, they were outcasts, they went on adventures to save other people–or even the world. The more I read and watched vampire books and movies, the more I realized that vampires just kind of fit everywhere. Vampires fit into drama, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comedy, mystery, and so on. As I’ve gotten older and done serious research, I’ve realized that it’s this protean ability to change that has given them their longevity. And it’s their inability to change that has given them their popularity. I’m willing to bet that if I took a poll of how many people wanted to be vampires versus other creatures–you know what? Here:
With a choice of monster, I’m willing to bet most people would pick vampires.
Why? I guess immortality might have something to do with it. No amount of money or social power can protect someone from death. But is that really all that makes the vampire so seductive?
I don’t exactly have an answer to that question, but I do have an idea about it. Vampires, unlike other monsters, encapsulate the fears and desires of the time periods that created them. Nina Auerbach, my favorite vampire scholar, says, “every age embraces the vampire it needs.” I would take it even further: every age manufactures the vampire it needs. For example, you can read Dracula, a masterpiece of vampire and Victorian literature, and clearly see the fears and prejudices the English held at that time: fear of foreigners, of hypersexual women, of feminized men. You can also see what they desired: women to be virtuous, men to be masculine, women to be subservient to their husbands, and maybe some orgies on the side. Vampire literature teems with fears and desires. You could look at Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre, Byron’s Fragment of a Novel, Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire–if you want to know what people used to be afraid of and secretly wanted, read some fiction.
This idea, however, doesn’t stop in the nineteenth century. It goes all the way to King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, and Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and Smith’s The Vampire Diaries.
Then, of course, we arrive in the twenty-first century, which all but hemorrhages vampire literature: Twilight, The Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque Du Freak), Vampire Academy, Blue Bloods, Vampirates, Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter, The True Blood Series (formerly The Southern Vampire Mysteries), The Morganville Vampires, Peeps, The Historian–and these are just the ones I’ve read. There was a point post-2005 when I swore I saw a new vampire series every time I walked into a bookstore. With the exception of The Historian and Cirque du Freak, the ones I just listed off all concern romance in one form or another.
What does that say about us then? And I say “us” because these vampires didn’t just come from nowhere. They’re a product of our society–like serial killers or carnies. Even people who hate Twilight, the poster child of twenty-first century vampire literature, still react to it somehow. The anti-fans seem to be just as vociferous as the fans themselves. But a book doesn’t sell over a hundred million copies because no one likes it.
Some people are worried that books like Twilight send negative messages to young readers–girls in particular, since it’s young girls who mostly adore Twilight and because they are the target audience. I won’t argue that it doesn’t, because then I’d be wrong. However, vampire literature sells because it speaks to something in readers, something they can’t find anywhere else. Rice has incredibly sensitive and sensual vampires, but these are inaccessible to pre-teen or even teen readers. Rice’s style is…luxurious, to say the least, and it’s easy to get lost if you read at an eighth, ninth, or tenth grade level. Meyer’s style, comparatively, is much easier to grasp–boring at times, but not usually confusing.
I won’t get into the issue of attacking something that attracts primarily female fans–that’s a separate issue entirely, but I want to make sure you know that I know about it.
When it comes to figuring out what something like Twilight (and books like it) say about the beginning of the twenty-first century, only time can tell. We read Dracula with the benefit of hindsight and with tons of historical information about Victorian England at our fingertips. After a few decades, hopefully we’ll be able to understand even more about vampires and why we love them.
Early Vampire Texts
The Vampyre by Dr. John Polidori here
Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu here
The Blood of the Vampire by Florence Marryat here
Dracula by Bram Stoker here
Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach here
The Vampire Lectures by Laurence Rickels here
Vampire God: Allure of the Undead in Western Culture by Mary Hallab here
From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford here
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King here
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice here
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer here
The Awakening by LJ Smith here
Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris here
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova here
*This is by no means a comprehensive list.
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