From the abstinence coached by Twilight to the irreverence of True Blood, vampire stories are more popular than ever--and more varied in their message.
VAMPIRES ARE everywhere: House of Night, Twilight, Southern Vampire Mysteries, Night Huntress, Savannah Vampire Chronicles, Guardians of the Night, Blood Ties, Being Human, Demons, Let the Right One In...
Ever since Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, vampire stories have exerted a consistent fascination, but the seemingly limitless list of contemporary versions is remarkable. The legend of the bloodsucking "undead" provides a potent and flexible metaphor within the rapidly changing political currents of our time.
Stoker's Dracula is rich in contradictions. It is a "St. George versus the Dragon" Christian allegory ("dracula" derives from words meaning "dragon" and "devil"). It is steeped in British imperialism's orientalist fascination with the mythical East, which represents both the evil antithesis of the West, but also the irresistible lure of forbidden desire.
The figure of the centuries-old count, inhabiting a gothic castle in Transylvania, feeding on the local peasantry, expresses bourgeois distaste for aristocratic decadence and parasitism. But the vampire offers an equally apt allegory for capitalism: the soulless boss who bleeds workers dry. (Think of Thievery Corporation's song "Vampires," dedicated "to the world banking system.")
Paradoxically the vampire also represents the outcast--the unfathomable other, who is beyond the pale and a threat to civil society--but at the same time the mysterious bohemian non-conformist, perennially appealing to the repressed middle classes.
The primary source of anxiety in Stoker's novel is female sexuality. Dracula contaminates pure virgins--through exchange of bodily fluids--to make them monstrous. The three "voluptuous, wanton" female vampires in Dracula's castle provoke "a wicked, burning desire" in the upstanding citizen Jonathan Harker. Such women must obviously be staked through the heart and beheaded.
From the beginning, then, vampires have been fluid figures, associated with sex, illicit desire and gothic romance. Dracula is a seductive count, but he is described variously as rodent, reptile and insect, and even in his human manifestation, he is repulsive, with white skin, red eyes and engorged bloated flesh.
Francis Ford Coppola's gorgeous 1992 Bram Stoker's Dracula captures both sides: Dracula is one moment a soulful Gary Oldman, the next a grotesque cadaver or a river of rats.
TODAY'S VAMPIRE has been tamed and is more romantic heartthrob than scary monster. In a culture where youth is revered and death feared, such an embodiment of immortality is enthralling. But beyond this common factor, the 21st century vampire assumes diverse ideological guises.
Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series books are overtly conservative. The teenage heroine Bella Swan is painfully self-critical (she sees herself as ordinary, uninteresting, clumsy and plain), and worships the superhuman vampire Edward Cullen, who is richer, older (by almost a hundred years), more experienced, physically stronger and uncannily beautiful. She thus feels undeserving and insecure, convinced first that he despises her, and later that he will abandon her.
The central theme is abstinence: No drugs, no alcohol and no biting before marriage. The "good" vampires are "vegetarian," feeding only on animals. The plot turns on the question of whether vampires possess souls.
Judging by the books' immense fan base among teenage girls (which certainly can't be accounted for by their literary merit--as Stephen King puts it, Meyer "can't write worth a darn")--the series taps into something in that demographic, even though the author came of age in the 1980s, and Bella's strangely insipid world lacks many markers of modernity.
They do offer a compelling story of true love that conquers all, and imaginatively eroticize chaste displays of affection. But their popularity seems symptomatic of an era where women's rights have suffered such setbacks that a generation of teenage girls sees sex as danger, and identifies with a relentlessly self-abasing heroine willing to sacrifice everything for her boyfriend.
It is telling that Bella's worst nightmare isn't death by vampire or werewolf, but that she will get old and ugly while Edward stays eternally youthful and beautiful. The bite of the vampire trumps retinol or botox.
"Post-feminists" argue that the Twilight series is popular because young women crave "traditional romance." But this can't account for the matching popularity of other series like the House of Night novels by mother and daughter team P.C. and Kristin Cast.
In this parallel universe, the House of Night--part Wicca coven and part Hogwarts--is a matriarchal finishing school for "vampyres" (evoking the radical feminist "womyn"). In a departure from the usual plot, the teen heroine Zoey becomes a vampyre, rather than falling in love with one.
Zoey loathes her bigoted Christian fundamentalist stepfather, and welcomes the escape from claustrophobic family life. Her new friends are gay, straight, Black and white; they use cell phones and are sexually aware without losing their autonomy. This is a feminist revision of Dracula: As one high priestess notes, "Stoker vilified vampyres."
BUT OF all the current vampire tales, the one that best captures the political sea change of the post-Bush era is the HBO series True Blood by Alan Ball (doing for the undead what he did for the dead in Six Feet Under) based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. Unlike the self-righteous Twilight and earnest House of Night, True Blood is also very funny and irreverent.
Since Japanese scientists have invented synthetic blood (Tru Blood comes in O Neg or A Neg and is best microwaved), vampires are in the process of "coming out of the coffin" to take their place in civil society.
The opening credits are exhilarating: a rapid series of disturbing, inspiring and bizarre juxtaposed images from the deep South--civil rights marches, Ku Klux Klan gatherings, sexually objectified female bodies, a decomposing fox carcass--to the accompaniment of Jace Everett's haunting song "Bad Things."
Anna Paquin plays the (telepathic) waitress Sookie Stackhouse, who, impatient with the narrow horizons of the backwoods town of Bon Temps, La., and frustrated with the petty-minded prejudices of her workplace, welcomes the first "out" vampire in town.
After a series of brutal murders, suspicion inevitably falls on the vampires, who face constant discrimination (in one of the many witty details, a church sign reads, "God hates fangs"). In a reversal of the standard crime formula, here the police are one-dimensional, incompetent and bigoted, while the quirky and complex protagonists are the regular working-class townspeople.
While the series flirts with stereotypes, this is in tension with the superb script, and in season one, the two main Black characters, Sookie's friend Tara and the gay short-order cook, Lafayette, have the best lines. In the first episode, Tara, who is reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine, quits her job at a store called Super Save-a-Bunch. She explains, "I can't work for assholes," to which Sookie replies, "When did you get to be so picky?"
Confronted in a television interview with vampires' proclivity for violence, a member of the American Vampire League replies, "Doesn't your race have a rather violent history of exploitation? At least vampires never owned slaves or exploded nuclear weapons."
Vampires have come full circle: once representing the threat posed to bourgeois society by the oppressed (the colonized, women), in True Blood they represent a refuge for the oppressed from the monsters lurking within capitalist society itself.