"I Was a Teenage Vampire..."
- Monday, December 14, 2009
It's a great time to be a cute blood sucking teenage boy, or a girl who loves one. On movie screens across the country, the adaptation of the second book of the best selling Twilight series, New Moon is showing. Lest moviegoers be confused by not having the original book title, the filmmaker's created a franchiseable: The Twilight Saga: New Moon. And the CW network's got a successful new series, The Vampire Diaries, based on an earlier book series, with a similar premise about vampires attending high school. What's with this trend and why do vampires keep rising again in popular culture?
The original appeal of the vampire to the modern audience is best exemplified by Bram Stoker's Dracula, the book published on the eve of the turn of the century in Victorian England. In it, evil was distilled in the dreaded Transylvanian count whose thirst for blood brings him to England to prey on young women. These pitiable innocents cannot resist his hypnotic charm and fall under his terrible control to become undead like him. The 19th century audience could clearly read Dracula's gaining eternal life through the blood of the innocent, as a perversion of the Christianity's Communion sacrament based on the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, verse 53, where Jesus says, "Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day." Dracula is repelled by the blessed elements of bread and wine and by crucifixes, amazing the book's modern characters who start the story skeptical of spiritual powers of good and evil. The undead count's erotic pull on his victims, as well as his collection of bloodthristy wives, symbolized the horror of sexual immorality run rampant. Lust, the tale tells us, will drain you of your humanity. Dracula preys by night for he cannot stand to walk in the light, the symbol of truth.
The twentieth century saw the decline of belief in the underlying doctrines that supported such symbols of power against darkness. The typical contemporary vampire tale either shows these evil creatures unaffected by the cross (as in the movie Van Helsing) or such symbols are absent altogether, relics of an age of faith. In fact the whole use of vampirism as a metaphor for unbridled lust has shifted to capture decidedly different types of behavior in a relativistic age. Anne Rice's series of novels about Lestat and his undead companions featured a homosexual subtext that suggested the concept of the vampires as the beautiful, socially marginalized gays.
The 19th century had its many taboos and forbidden relationships based in everything from one's class to one's religiously based morality, which fed the conflicts both in society and in many great classic novels. The crumbling of such beliefs in the 20th century has made it harder to tell powerful stories about characters who defy society's conventions to find true love since cultural elites value transgression against established morality. When nothing is forbidden, it's hard to tell stories with romantic and social conflict. So, perhaps this becomes the reason writers have resorted to the vampire to restore some sense of struggle to finding true love. Twilight series author Stephanie Meyer, a Mormon, created such a tortured relationship when high school student Bella Swan finds herself strongly attracted to the impossibly handsome and remote Edward Cullen. A vampire since the early 20th century, Edward is strongly attracted to the smell of Bella's blood, a rich metaphor for romantic/sexual longing, but with his undead "family" has forsworn human blood, feasting on animals instead. Of course Bella eventually figures out just why he is so strong and incredibly fast and confronts Edward who explains his history and why he must not engage in anything but circumspect shows of affection. His dark desire overpower Edward and lead to Bella's destruction.
Teenage girls swoon reading about the why the hottest guy in school is so cold to the touch and why his noble character prevents him from acting on his desires. It's hard to think of a more romantic image of abstinence and many Christians find themselves giving the books two cheers for old-fashioned morality. But, like the cross missing at the top of a Mormon church, Christian symbols are absent. Humans have little or no defense against an "evil" vampire seeking blood and to protect Bella from this predator, Edward and the rest of the Cullen family must tear him into pieces and burn up the parts. There's no use of Eucharistic elements here. The vampires live in the cloudiest parts of the Pacific Northwest to prevent their skin from its unnatural sparkle when sunlight hits them, but it doesn't make them go up in puff of smoke like Dracula, just conspicuous. But it's hard not to admire a group of vampires who aren't controlled by the darkest impulses—they live with their curse without acting on it.
Now spurred on by Twilight's theatrical success, we have a new CW television series that's done well in the ratings among its female target audience, The Vampire Diaries. Based on a series of books by L.J. Smith, this new show also gives us high school romantic politics as horror story, which of course, high school is for so many. The heroine in this story is Elena, orphaned with her brother and living in a small Virginia town meets a really handsome guy, Stephan, who soon acting odd and evasive, which of course only makes him more interesting. And his brother Damon is even more intriguing and is more charming with a deeper undercurrent of danger. Of course these are the vampires who have been the same age since the 19th century and are now pretending to be their own descendants after returning to town. Stephan is the good brother who eats only animals, which makes him weaker than Damon who still loves to feast on human blood. Damon literally uses people up and throws them away. But of course he's more charismatic and attractive than his more virtuous brother. Again, daylight doesn't hurt these vamp brothers because of special rings they wear to protect them from the sun. Apparently the only thing threatening their wellbeing is an unusual, exotic flower, which doesn't appear to have any larger symbolic relevance. The Vampire Diaries is a series that uses the vampire genre to dramatically symbolize the drama of hormonally raging teenage love but with deadly consequences for falling for the wrong guy. As such, it's just another CW teen soap but with more bite.
Both the Twilight series and The Vampire Diaries' natural audience is girls and women attracted by the darkly handsome 20-something actors playing eternal teens. As such, there pop culture vampire tales fulfills the fantasy that bad boys can be good. That both offer the prospect of a mortal female hooking up with an undying male is part of the problem both series will confront. In an age that finds fewer forbidden loves, we find that our culture has to make them up to rediscover the thrill of dark romance.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.
Posted: December 11, 2009
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