Apollo - Coffin and Spluttering: Vampire Wimps?

Apollo is Woroni’s regular column in which our reviewers offer comment and opinion on cultural questions beyond our individual reviews.

Let’s talk about vampires. You probably already have an opinion about them. Finding new and progressively more creative ways to pour scorn on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight franchise has been a common pastime for many years now. Besides the general awfulness of the writing, and the patent talentlessness of the film stars, the most common point of criticism is the Twilight version of vampirism. After all, real vampires don’t sparkle in the sunlight, do they? They burn in the sunlight – or at least crumble into dust. And hang on, since when can vampires fly and exert superhuman strength without even having to shut themselves away in a coffin during the day? What happened to vampirism being a curse, a fate you actually wouldn’t want to suffer?

But rather than simply deploring this interpretation of the legend, it might be an idea to start asking WHY. How exactly did this new style of vampire arise, and why has it been embraced with such enthusiasm by writers and filmmakers alike? I believe the answer lies in the symbolism at the heart of the vampire myth – and the cultural transformations that have overtaken it.

See, it’s not just Twilight. Vampires have been getting less and less horrifying and more and more human for a long time now. Think back to the original vampire legend: Dracula, that terrifying, freakish monster of the night, an evil, repulsive creature. When Bram Stoker’s creation was brought to the screen as Nosferatu, he was depicted as almost more animal than human. He had teeth like a rat, reptilian skin, batlike ears, and his movements were those of a rodent – a rat surprised in the night. More significantly, viewers were encouraged to respond to him as an inhuman, bestial monster, and to feel not just relieved but somehow cleansed and purified when the sun’s rays finally wiped him out. What they were definitely not asked to do was to sympathise with the monster, let alone identify with him.

And for the next fifty years or so, things stayed that way. When vampires cropped up – in comic books, in the British Hammer studio’s low-budget horror flicks – they remained evil and they remained gruesome. Then in 1976, Anne Rice published her novel Interview with the Vampire, and the mythology devised by Stoker was deeply and permanently altered. Her radical idea was to make the vampire the protagonist and portray him as an attractive and sympathetic figure. Rice’s character, Louis, is sensitive, troubled and romantic, and constantly struggles against his craving for human blood. The book itself is sadly rather vapid and dull, but that didn’t matter: by humanising the vampire, Anne Rice changed the way the public looked at the legend.

From there it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch before we get to Edward Cullen, who is not only portrayed sympathetically, but has become so much of a sex symbol he’s probably captured more young hearts than Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt combined. (And that’s before he even got onscreen – Cullen was already THE standard teen crush when he was still a purely literary character, which in today’s world is probably a unique achievement.) But hang on: when you stop and think about it, the transformation we’re looking at here is pretty much a 180 degree revolution. Vampires have gone from being monsters to sexed-up romantic heroes. What the hell happened?

Look at what the vampire represents. Most of the classic monsters have retained their popularity – and their scare power – because they stand for real-life terrors. Werewolves symbolise the animal forces in human nature; zombies represent death; we remain scared by them because they tap in to our fear of the genuine horrors that we do have to confront in our lives. Vampires are no different … except that the horror they represent has recently been through a revolution of its own. Vampires symbolise sexuality.

They come out at night. They transmit themselves by blood. They are driven by hunger for human flesh. One of the most powerful passages in Dracula describes the male hero’s encounter with the Count’s daughters, who materialise in his bedroom at night and whose craving for his blood definitely has undertones far beyond the desire to feed. They argue in excited whispers over which of them will go first – “He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all” – and the man pretending to be asleep is aroused to the point that he almost surrenders willingly and without a fight. But Dracula was published in 1897, when Victorian attitudes to sex still prevailed: the vampire is a creeping, hideous thing in the night, something to be repressed, fought off and ideally eradicated. Nineteenth-century readers were scared by Dracula because the thing he symbolised scared them too.

But for the youth of the 21st century, the opposite is true. Sex is not evil and does not need to be repressed – sexuality is accepted, encouraged and treated without fear or superstition. And so the vampires of today reflect today’s attitude to the thing they symbolise. As the nineteenth-century imagination produced Dracula, so the modern imagination produces Edward Cullen, who can come out in the sunlight, who interacts positively with a human heroine, and whose appeal is obviously and uncontroversially sexual.

And if he is a fundamentally tedious creation – if he lacks charisma, if there is zero complexity or nuance to his personality, if nothing about him is genuinely exciting, mysterious, or compelling – then perhaps this too reflects something about the sexual attitudes of the culture that produced him.