Politics & Policy

Twilight Chic

Our pop culture has turned the vampire from monster to hip Other.

It probably all turns on what happens when the fangs touch your throat. Not that vampires are real, so far as I know. This means you must imagine the moment of penetration — a phrasing which, in our Freud-besotted culture, is fraught with suggestion. So maybe it’s Freud’s fault that vampires turned sexy. A substitution of modern movies for old novels is also to blame. This is the only explanation for Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan’s suggestion — in her December review of that teeny-bopper vampire sensation, the Twilight series — that Lucy and Mina in Bram Stoker’s Dracula were enthralled, in a sexual manner, by the smooth-talking count. It’s a common misreading of the novel these days that has yielded an art-imitates-lit-theory phenomenon currently manifested in the Twilight movie. It sold three million DVDs the first day of its release this week , and the book may receive a Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice award this weekend. Most adults have tacitly assented to the notion that vampires are hot, and it’s so little wonder our kids have followed suit.

That Dracula was a monster rather than a masher, however, was apparent to Stoker’s contemporaries. The Bookman called him an inhuman villain, and the Daily Mail called Stoker’s novel a “weird, powerful, and horrorful story.” Letting your weak-kneed aunt read Dracula, intoned the Pall Mall Gazette, “would be manslaughter.” It took decades of creative interpretation to alter this common-sense reading.

It’s a little-disputed assertion today, of course, that Victorians had sex on the brain. Stoker may have intended, as he explained in his notes, to render a demonic monster, but we know what he was really thinking when he turned that long-toothed sex fiend from the old country loose on England’s cream-skinned virgins. It’s an article of faith, now, that any story about vampires must, as Flanagan asserts, really be a story about sex. Literary theorists love this angle, penning breathless articles like “Feminism, Sex Role Exchanges, and Other Subliminal Fantasies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Their pop-oriented counterparts, meanwhile, churn out novels like Dead until Dark, a bloodsucking mystery/bodice-ripper in which vampires “come out of the coffin.” Vampires, in these modern novels, are like gays and lesbians — people just like you and me who are marginalized only because of their sexual tastes.

It’s not surprising then that vampires, transmogrified into sexual beings by numerous modern film adaptations of Dracula (one of the most egregious of which is Francis Ford Coppola’s misleadingly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula), have now become vegetarians and — in the Twilight series — even abstainers from premarital relations. The genius of Twilight author Stephanie Meyer was to make them suitable for children. Never mind that Meyer can’t write “worth a darn,” as horror master Stephen King puts it. She has invented a kinder, gentler vampire — the kind you’d let your daughter date.

We have fully reversed the symbolism of Stoker’s vampire, who represented a demonic assault on a virtuous community. Today’s vampire is the hip Other, and the community around him is either bungling, intolerant, or simply a source of comedic relief (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night, for example). The modern vampire is in touch with his sexuality, but the community suppresses it. The modern vampire is coming to take away your girlfriend, and she kind of likes it. The modern vampire is the guy you wish you had been in high school, or the guy you wish you’d dated in high school, and Meyer has turned that into gold.

The trouble with this evolution is that fictional monsters serve a valuable cultural purpose. They remind us that we live in communities, and that our communities must be defended from those who would rend them asunder. Though he is no conservative ideologue, Stephen King always seemed to fathom this intuitively. His stories and books featuring vampires made them evil through and through. The difference between his Salem’s Lot and Stoker’s Dracula is that King is also a bit of a dystopian, so while the community in Stoker’s novel worked together in the end to stop the menace, King lets the community fall. Still, he’s wise enough to know that creatures lacking in fundamental attributes of humanity don’t make for good neighbors.

By inverting the traditional vampire tale, so that the community is predatory and the monster an object of empathy if not admiration, we have found one more avenue along which to push the tired idea that community is, rather than a source of life and happiness, a locus of oppression. The Twilight series simply carries our modern love affair with the undead to its natural conclusion; the lovelorn vampire and the object of his infatuation get married and make a baby.

I’m all for multiculturalism, but this is too much. As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Likewise, sometimes the Other isn’t a cool countercultural rebel who puts a thrill up your leg, he is a monster who wants to suck your blood or, if he is technologically savvy and has a religious ax to grind, blow up your kids’ school bus. I’m not worried that the modern vampire movie will lead filmgoers to agitate for reconciliation with Osama bin Laden just because the terror master of 9/11 is also pale, has a funny accent, lives in a cave, and is a bloodthirsty egomaniac. But I do think there is value in entertainment that draws a clear line between good and evil.

While many parents are fine with having their youngsters read the Twilight series and watch the accompanying movies, I think there might be some merit in recent fare like the horrifically bloody (and financially less successful) Thirty Days of Night, in which vampires descend on a remote town in Alaska once they know daylight won’t return for a month. These creatures devour throats with viciousness, and the few townspeople who survive are saved only by the voluntary self-sacrifice of their leader. On the surface, Twilight might be more suitable for preteens, but maybe they could use reminding that creatures that prey on communities don’t often make cool boyfriends. Because there are monsters, Virginia, and sometimes they just need killing.

 

– Tony Woodlief writes about faith, parenting, and sometimes even vampires at www.tonywoodlief.com.

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