The Evolution of the Mythical Vampire in Popular Culture from Bloodthirsty Monster to Twilight’s Boy-Next-Door
(Written by Linda Andrew for Eng. 693, Athabasca University, 2013)
The vampire. He is a creature of disturbing contradictions—at once cruel and charming, beautiful and deadly, evil and tragic. He answers to no mortal man, and exists on a plane beyond sickness, injury, and death. Most of us will never meet a vampire, and gratefully so, but still we are intrigued. He has been with us for two centuries, terrifying and enticing us with a fatal charisma that makes us…admire him. At the very least, we respect him.
In Western popular culture, the vampire has assailed our imaginations from the pages of books. We have peeked through our fingers at him on the silver screen and we have watched him on television from the relative safety of our living room armchairs—but in all honesty, nowhere is completely safe from the vampire. He seduces entry and takes what pleases him, and this is what equally draws and repels us. He is his own master and flouts our human parameters. Today, he is almost everywhere we look. American journalist James Wolcott remarked that “popular culture no longer craves archangels and new dawns. Pop culture traffics in vampires and deads of night” (npag). We love a good thrill, and to thrill us is where the vampire is exceptionally adept.
He is our dark side—our most hidden inhibitions. He embodies our secret desires and to see these anxieties brought to life on the big screen or among the pages of a book liberates us from our fears, because we are assured that we are not alone. We identify with him as he sidesteps boundaries and breaks free of supercilious customs and restrictions, and somewhere inside us we wish we had the audacity to do something of the same in our own lives.
The vampire has grown as we have grown. He has kept pace with the fads and fascinations of our modern society. Where we have lacked, the vampire has glutted our shadowy spaces with all the salacious glee of the wicked and covetous. Yet, as we have become more creative in our diversions, we have required of the vampire to evolve into the sort of complex character that is able to hold fast our fickle but sophisticated palates. He must retain our attention, or, as with so many other outmoded forms of enjoyment, we will simply abandon him for something new. However, the vampire has not yet failed us.
Popular culture has welcomed the vampire into its community, making him the modern day protagonist in a society often plagued by distress, conflict, and despondency. Far from our Victorian ethic and prudery, we have looked beyond the sanitized hero and our romantic illusions of an absolute right and wrong have faded to gray. The vampire is the perfect reflection of our lost innocence—the dark hero of a troubled generation.
Through the works of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, this paper will explore the evolution of the mythical vampire in popular culture, from evil villain to modern hero. I will explore several significant vampire personas that have manifested in popular culture as the myth has progressed over two centuries. This analysis of the vampire character will discover the need satisfied in popular culture by the vampire as his legend endures and influences us throughout his steady evolution from the monstrous Count Dracula to the virginal boy-next-door of the Twilight saga.
Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale, and the First Vampire of English Literature
The story of Polidori’s vampire character does not begin with John William Polidori, but with George Gordon Lord Byron. In his era, Byron was like a modern day rock star and notorious for his extravagances, dalliances, and debauchery—all of which he was roguishly unrepentant. Simon Bainbridge, in his essay Lord Ruthven’s Power: Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, Doubles and the Byronic Imagination states that “Byronmania was not simply a matter of the poet’s power over passive readers, but a phenomenon in which readers’ own imaginations played a crucial role” (23). Byron’s allure was born of an alarmingly astute ability to see into his audience’s deepest yearnings, and through his writing, provide them with an outlet. Byron’s fan base was enormous, and as Bainbridge explains, his women readers were devoted to him. “Through his verse Byron created a relationship of peculiar intensity and unprecedented intimacy between his poetic persona and the woman reader in which the latter felt that she alone could truly understand the poet and redeem and reform him through her love” (21). Like most rock stars, Byron was sought after by women, and because Byron was surrounded by women, men wanted his friendship. Among these men, was John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician.
During the summer of 1816, Byron rented the Villa Diodati along the shores of Lake Geneva. His house guests included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley), her half-sister and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, Matthew Gregory Lewis, and John William Polidori. During a particularly bad summer storm, the friends found themselves shut in and bored. They began, with the storm raging outside, to read German ghost stories. The “spooky” atmosphere influenced Byron to suggest a ghost story writing contest. Each of the friends was to write the most frightening story they could imagine, and then tell it to the others. More than just a game among several literary chums, this sparked a writing phenomenon that brought about the Gothic horror novel genre that produced Mary Shelley’s brilliant and terrifying novel Frankenstein and planted the seeds for Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale.
During the weekend at Diodati, Byron also wrote a fragment of a story he was never to complete. Included in Byron’s Mazeppa, this piece of a story is called, aptly, A Fragment of a Novel. The issue with Polidori’s novella and Byron’s unfinished manuscript is that they both used the same name “Ruthven” for their villain. Therefore, “many people wondered who actually wrote The Vampyre. However, Byron constantly stated that the story belonged to Polidori” (Heeley npag). In fact, Byron wrote a sharply worded letter to Polidori’s publishers distancing himself from Polidori’s work. He stated emphatically “a few days ago I sent you all I know of Polidori’s Vampire [sic]. He may do, say, or write what he pleases, but I wish he would not attribute to me his own compositions” (Byron 306). This curt response was due to the fact that, before the novella went to the publishers, Polidori and Byron had a falling out when Byron fired Polidori for being, as Theodore Dalrymple describes in Between the Lines: The Very Model of a Vampyre, “bumptious, tiresome, and opinionated” (npag). Their friendship was beyond repair. Polidori, as a way of getting even, remodeled his vampire character after Byron.
Because the Byronic persona was such a favorite among the Georgian era British, Polidori’s efforts to wither Byron’s popularity, by making of him a blood-drinking vampire, failed miserably. The effect of Byron’s poetry on the female audience was well established, and this same effect was felt through the Byronic character. In Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in Popular Romance, Helen T Bailie cites Linda Barlow’s description of the Byronic persona as “dark and brooding, writhing inside with all the residual anguish of his shadowed past, world-weary and cynical, quick-tempered and prone to fits of guilt and depression. He is strong, virile, powerful, and lost” (142). Because he lives a life that is, in many ways, apart from regular society, his life is shrouded in mystery. Bailie continues, saying that he “is usually surrounded by rumors of associations with the black arts or, in contemporary romances, with illegal activity. He is autocratic, wealthy, considered dangerous and, most importantly, exudes sensuality; an eroticism that makes other men suspicious of him and which intrigues and attracts women” (142). This idea of a non-traditional man, fallen from grace, and relegated to his own sensual and brooding despair, prompted an emotional reaction from women desiring to save him from himself. While Polidori’s Lord Ruthven is singular in his evil ways, the essential nature of the Byronic figure is still identified by Byron’s faithful female readership that waits breathlessly, hands clasped over quickened hearts, for his next verse.
Thus, Polidori’s audience experiences a strange fusion of emotions as they read Lord Ruthven’s nefarious exploits—they are curious but horrified, outraged but spellbound, revolted but attracted. It is the moth to flame paradigm that best reveals the vampire’s magnetism, and as Simon Bainbridge states, it is this magnetism that embodies the “thrills and dangers of Byronism” (23).
Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, is the first vampire of English literature. The character of Ruthven paved the way, and set not just the standard for all vampire tales and plays for the next fifty years, but also established much of the English tradition of vampire mythology. To the Georgian audiences of his day, who were just learning to appreciate the Gothic horror novel genre, Lord Ruthven was remarkable in his level of sheer wickedness and shockingly despicable morals.
Polidori’s innovative tale was at first taken to be sensational and fanciful by the academic community, but certainly nothing of serious literature. However, the popular culture of the age was entranced by the spell of the vampire. As Richard Switzer remarks in The French Review, the character of Ruthven is “a supreme example of lack of discriminatory taste on the part both of the public and of the authors, and a witness to the reactionary force exerted by the public in the evolution of literary genres” (112). The final truth for any work of literature remains in the willingness of the public to pick it up and read it. To the dismay of many crusty academics of the day, “the figure of Lord Ruthven remains, nevertheless, dominant as the vampire par excellence…he stands out as one of the most popular characters ever to appear in literature” (112).
Polidori recreated the Eastern European version of the vampire into a fiend that would both appeal to the appetites of and strike terror into an urbane Western audience. According to Caroline Weber of Seattle University, Polidori accomplishes his task in three ways. First, instead of a grotesque brute as seen in the Eastern European vampire mythology, Lord Ruthven is a “real, though monstrous, human being” (145) rather than a walking corpse. Lord Ruthven is a creature with a mind and an independent will, capable of problem solving and critical thinking. Yet, even though Polidori introduces Ruthven as a person, this is only how Ruthven appears. Polidori makes it very clear at the onset that Ruthven possesses a quality that, while one cannot precisely put a finger on it, one senses there is something very troubling about him. In a stark description, Polidori immediately chills his audience:
“[T]he light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighted upon the skin it could not pass” (Polidori 1).
This odd Lord Ruthven is clearly a wicked man who has, because of his distinctiveness, managed to ingratiate himself into London Society where any unique person, provided he or she is class appropriate, is a welcome diversion. Barely a Lord, Ruthven becomes the toast of the town and “more remarkable for his singularities, than for his rank” (1), but as a titled aristocrat, he is still one of the club. Nevertheless, Polidori paints a portrait of one on the outside looking in. Ruthven observes with malevolence the cheerfulness around him, as a lion crouching in the tall grass searching out its next meal—cold and calculating, and possessing a frightening intellect.
Second, Lord Ruthven is an English aristocrat (Weber 145), and therefore, to the aghast Georgian audience, one of their own. He is described by Theodore Dalrymple as an “aristocrat of chillingly distant mien, who [is] capable of fascinating people by the magnetism of his eyes” (npag). Very much the aloof snob of Georgian aristocracy, Ruthven possesses an air of indifference that fringes on boredom and gives “few other signs of his observation of external objects, than the tacit assent to their existence, implied by the avoidance of their contact” (Polidori 2). Yet, he revels in forbidden behavior and the participation in corruption. Ruthven “delights in ruining the innocent and supporting the vicious, addicted to the aristocratic vice of gambling, or of draining others of their money, status, mores, and self-esteem” (Weber 145), and this is where Ruthven takes whatever cruel pleasure is afforded him. He is the most monstrous of men—and as a man, indeed he is scandalous to the audience. He is a predator of all things pure. A destroyer of maidens, and to the audience of the day, for whom a lack of chastity in a young girl is next door to witchcraft, Ruthven is presented as the most devious of villains…and English.
Third, “Polidori’s vampire is a traveler” (Weber 146), and to raise alarm even further among the audience, capable of setting foot in England and walking among them. Yet, in spite of the terror Ruthven causes, his draw is equally as intense. This is the paradox of the vampire character. He is many things at once, “a seducer, a creature of fear and desire, disgust and attraction” (145), with both a heart of stone and eloquent speech that attenuated his malignancy.
This is why the rich and virtuous young Aubrey is first attracted to Ruthven, and pursues his company. Even though he learns that “Lord Ruthven’s affairs were embarrassed” (Polidori 2), he still sees Ruthven as “the hero of a romance” (2). He mistakes Ruthven’s superiority and snobbery for wisdom and worldliness—both qualities that naïve and gullible Aubrey is sorely lacking. Thus, Polidori’s audience watches in stifled dismay as young Aubrey, the woman he loves, and his younger sister are led unwittingly to pain, madness, and death.
As the story develops, the audience’s perception of Ruthven begins to change. At first, believing they are seeing the wickedness of a man, they soon begin to understand that Ruthven is not a man at all—but something darker and more sinister. Ruthven is artful and ubiquitous under the most bizarre of coincidences as is seen when he chances to arrive in Athens in time to nurse the ailing Aubrey back to health. Still, the awful truth about Ruthven’s actual nature is not revealed until he is seen alive again, after his violent death in Greece. The audience, like Aubrey, cannot “believe it possible—the dead rise again!” (Polidori 12). They watch helplessly as Aubrey, now bound by an oath they know was deceitful, cannot will himself to speak the truth about Ruthven, as though held in the grip of some power beyond his control. For when “he attempted to ask concerning Lord Ruthven, the name hung on his lips and he could not succeed in gaining information” (12). The audience understands the full weight of Ruthven’s mastery, and they are awed by him.
Aubrey yearns to tell what he knows, but it is unclear whether Aubrey is unable to speak because he is under Ruthven’s hypnotic power, or because he is unwilling to break what he understands is a binding gentleman’s oath. In any case, the burning secret that holds him hostage begins to wear on his mind until “[h]is incoherence became at last so great that he was confined to his bed chamber” (13). Whether or not Ruthven’s power is to silence his enemies with a spell or to drive them to insanity, his hold over poor Aubrey is palpable.
The audience understands that Lord Ruthven cannot die, and that any wound he incurs will heal. He has hypnotic powers that are able to force behaviors upon unwilling victims. Most importantly, Ruthven is a vampire who feeds on the blood of young women. The audience is afraid and enthralled. In Psychological Perspectives on Vampire Mythology, Margaret L Shanahan explains that
“[t]he differing major psychoanalytic interpretations help us understand the compelling fascination with narratives and images grounded in vampire mythology. This mythology rests on central metaphors of the mysterious power of human blood, images of the undead, forbidden and sexualized longings, and the ancient idea that evil is often hard to detect in the light of day” (npag).
Polidori’s audience is disturbed by what they see, but seduced unawares by their own internal desires. Fearful that one like Ruthven might be at the next party they attend, they still leave their windows open at night. There are primal urges at work here that speak to lust, greed, and the lure of immortality. These, in spite of the fear their daylight selves experience, are their masters through the moonlight hours, and the vampire is the reigning prince of the night. Polidori’s tale spreads like a grass fire, and a Western European vampire craze ensues for the next fifty years.
Polidori’s The Vampyre, A Tale, exploded onto popular culture, and as Stephen Meyer states in Marschner’s Villains, Monomania, and the Fantasy of Deviance, stimulated “a wave of vampire literature throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1897” (112). Ruthven began to spring up all over popular culture, first in a French novel by Cyprien Berard entitled Lord Ruthven, ou les Vampires. This novel, after its release in early 1820, was almost immediately translated into a play. Richard Switzer reports in The French Review that “[o]n June 13, 1820, at the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin took place the first performance on Le Vampire, apparently the work of a trio of authors…The success of the subject was immense, inspiring a series of imitations and parodies” (110). In 1851, the acclaimed novelist Alexandre Dumas created another play, also called Le Vampire, with Lord Ruthven as the vampire, but with a different plot than the first play.
The story of Lord Ruthven was told repeatedly, and while other vampire stories continually appeared on the scene, “those discussed here were certainly those attracting the most attention. They were all great popular successes” (111). However, they were all a retelling of Polidori’s original character, with merely a varying back story added. As Switzer adds, “[n]owhere is the subject treated with originality and vigor” (112). Ruthven the vampire was slowly coming to the end of his fictional reign of terror. Audiences were becoming bored.
Today, Polidori’s short novella has fallen out of favor with the masses. Lord Ruthven is largely forgotten. However, the Lord Ruthven archetype is alive and well. In fact, Lord Ruthven did not simply vanish, he was swallowed up by the next incarnation of the vampire character. With Polidori’s template of the vampire as suave, intelligent, aristocratic, and deviously evil, Bram Stoker composed his extraordinary masterpiece Dracula in 1897. His character re-established the vampire phenomenon in the wake of Ruthven’s fading triumph. Even though Polidori’s Lord Ruthven has become obscure, he carved a path in popular culture for all the vampires that followed him.
Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, the Undisputed Vampire King
In 1897, Irish novelist Bram Stoker gave life—in a manner of speaking—to the most infamous of all vampire characters. The character is, of course, Count Dracula of Transylvania. Unlike Polidori’s short fifteen page novella, Stoker’s work is a fully developed novel, yet it is consistently flawed. Jim Steinmeyer remarks in his book Who Was Dracula? that Stoker’s work “is not a great novel, and it has been criticized for its host of implausibilities, coincidences, and overwrought characters” (1). Even so, Dracula has remained a mainstay of Gothic horror, and the best among many.
The allure of Stoker’s irrepressible vampire Count Dracula remains as steadfast in popular culture today as ever he was. In his book Vampires, Nigel Suckling quotes Christopher Lee, the famous actor who portrayed the evil Count in several films. Lee suggests that
“Dracula’s appeal lies in his being a wish-fulfillment figure for both sexes. For men he offers the model of a superman with absolute power over the women he desires, untrammelled by civilised notions of fairness, consideration, or fidelity. For women, said Lee, he appeals to their secret desire to surrender to such absolute mastery, to sublimate their own will and identity in that of a dominant male” (Suckling 7).
While Lee’s opinion may seem sexist and unenlightened, he is, of course, speaking to the dark side of the human heart, and within those shadowed avenues, he may be on to something—especially in the notion that the powerful Count Dracula embodies a sort of “wish-fulfillment”. Count Dracula is, after all, immortal. It is within his power to share that immortality with mortal man.
What is interesting, is that even though Bram Stoker chose the name of the fifteenth century tyrant, Vlad Dracula also known as Vlad the Impaler, Stoker knew very little about the actual character of the real life Dracula, or the setting of Transylvania where he first introduces the Count. According to Steinmeyer, “Stoker’s knowledge of Transylvania came from Arminus Vambery, a Jewish-born adventurer from Hungary” (100), who had traveled the region disguised as a Dervish. As for the person of Dracula, Stoker visited a library in Whitby—the port where Count Dracula first lands on English soil—and found there the book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia. The book, written by a notable English official William Wilkinson during his posting in Bucharest, discusses at length the terrain of Transylvania and is “probably where Stoker first encountered the names Dracul and Dracula, the names applied to father and son rulers in Wallachia in the fifteenth century…Stoker’s later account of the historical Dracula is a similar pastiche taken directly from Wilkinson” (107). Yet, in spite of Stoker’s limited knowledge of the real life Dracula, the story does not seem to suffer as a result. The audience merely travels through a mountain road at night with Jonathan Harker, and their attention is riveted on the events that take place within the walls of Dracula’s eroding castle.
When Dracula was first released to Victorian audiences, he supplied them with a sinister journey into realms of nightmarish horror and fear, and established the vampire in a more evolved light than the vampire of Polidori’s novella. While Count Dracula is every bit as wicked as Lord Ruthven, he is better revealed to the audience in terms of his power and abilities. Stoker does two things in his novel that have earned him his place in the canon of English literature and make his vampire Count a popular culture sensation: he addresses fatal flaws in the social mores of the day, and he develops the vampire’s characteristics which have remained largely constant in this creature’s mythology.
Dracula drew the immediate attention of the audiences by the way in which Stoker addressed the very real social restrictions of the day. As Leila S May remarks in Foul Things of the Night: Dread in the Victorian Body, “[v]irtually every dominant motif of dread in the Victorian era is funnelled into a single, overdetermined text appearing at the end of the nineteenth century. Dracula embodies a seemingly boundless array of Victorian anxieties” (16). The most apparent of these anxieties are racism and fear of the foreigner, the role of women in Victorian society, and sexual repression.
Count Dracula is the archetypical other. He is a person of strange custom and language. He is the pollutant in an apprehensive society very much adverse to change. As the foreigner, he is easily blamed for the ills in Victorian society. Margaret L Carter, author of The Vampire in Literature: A Critical Bibliography, suggests that “in classic horror the monster typically represents the Other, as in Dracula the Count stands for the foreign and racially alien invader” (npag). Count Dracula makes no secret of his desire to immerse himself into English society. He tells Jonathan Harker of his intentions. “I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, and all that makes it what it is” (Stoker 31). To the English, foreigners represented crime, disease, corruption, and moral decline. Foreigners were degenerate.
In Vampirism and the Degeneration of the Imperial Race: Stoker’s Dracula as the Invasive Degenerate Other, Monika Tomaszewska explains that the “utilization of the vampire myth enabled Stoker to incorporate into his horror tale this characteristic fear of foreign invasion, making the novel especially relevant to the fin-de-siècle epoch. In the book, the vampire does not represent a single disruptive figure but a subversive primitive alien force that threatens the civilized, ordered world” (3). The audience received Stoker’s message with uneasiness, and now familiar with the vampire persona after Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the vampire character revealed not only an infection in Victorian culture, but a method to lance the wound.
The uneasiness of the Victorian audience continued as Stoker spoke to the idea of women as intelligent beings with determination and skill, and their role in society. This woman threatened to join the workforce and was able to make autonomous decisions without the guidance of a male. Mina explains to Lucy that she is
“simply overwhelmed with work. The life of an assistant schoolmistress is sometimes trying…I have been working very hard lately, because I want to keep up with Jonathan’s studies, and I have been practicing shorthand very assiduously. When we are married I shall be able to be useful to Jonathan, and if I can stenograph well enough I can take down what he wants to say in this way and write it out for him on the typewriter” (Stoker 56).
This, in itself, does not seem subversive until one is made aware that secretarial work was traditionally a male profession in Victorian times, just as were all other professions.
The woman’s duty in this era was to marry well and produce English sons. Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, in Feminism, Sex Role Changes, and Other Subliminal Fantasies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, points out that “since huge families were considered a fulfillment of the woman’s basic function in life, women were literally consumed at a psychic and often biological level by childbirth” (107). For Stoker to suggest that Mina was capable of other interests was not only astounding to the Victorian audience, but revolutionary. Van Helsing describes Mina as possessing a “man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted” (Stoker 247) It is her “man’s brain” that allows Mina to recognize the best position to save herself—surrounding herself with men. Thus, Mina is elevated above the weaker Lucy, who is completely feminine, emotionally fragile, and able to succumb to the vampire’s seduction and consequent pollution.
Lucy, conversely, as once the vision of Victorian womanhood in purity, beauty, and devotion to the males in her life, falls from grace after encountering the polluting influence of the foreigner. Now corrupt past an ability to continue in the Victorian ideal of feminine grace—subservience, submissiveness, and childlike sexuality, there is nothing left for her but utter degradation. As Demetrokpoulos observes, Lucy is “a blond, fragile, porcelain creature—above all simple minded” (109), but under the Count’s influence, the feminine deconstructs until Lucy finally throws off the most noble vestige of the Victorian woman—she abandons motherhood. This is demonstrated in her tomb after her vampiric transformation when she carries a kidnapped child into the mausoleum to feed on it, but is apprehended by Van Helsing, her fiancée Arthur, and the other men. Dr Seward describes the scene in his diary. “With a careless motion, she flung to the ground, callous as a devil, the child that up to now she had clutched strenuously to her breast, growling over it as a dog growls over a bone. The child gave a sharp cry, and lay there moaning. There was a cold-bloodedness in the act which wrung a moan from Arthur” (Stoker 222). As her fiancée sees this last remnant of womanhood abandoned by Lucy, she is no longer a person to him and he falls “back and [hides] his face in his hands” (222). The noble task of destroying the vampiric Lucy then falls to Arthur. Afterward the demise of Lucy the vampire, Lucy the human woman, now liberated of the vampiric influence, is at peace in her in her coffin, and as Dr Seward records in his diary, she is “no longer that we had so dreaded and grown to hate…but Lucy as we had seen her in life, with her face of unequalled sweetness” (227). Only in her destruction can Lucy be rid of the foreign pollutant and returned to a state of purity—her ‘natural’ place as a woman in Victorian society.
The most prominent theme in Stoker’s Dracula is that of the sexual repression that was near virulent in Victorian England. In Vixens and Virgins in the Nineteenth Century Anglo-Irish Novel: Representations of the Feminine in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Susan Parlour discusses the emerging idea of Victorian women as sexual beings, but that this notion is one that can only lead to ignominy and death. Parlour discusses Stoker’s experiment with acknowledging feminine sexuality as courageous. “In allowing the young women in the novel to transgress the clearly demarcated boundaries of sexual behavior and to engage with their sexuality in such an overtly explicit way, Stoker succeeds in breaking new ground in literature” (npag).
Voluptuousness is the word Stoker uses over and again to depict the female vampires in Dracula, and begins with his description of Dracula’s brides. Jonathan Harker, at his first encounter with the three vampire women states that “all three had brilliant white teeth, that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips…I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips” (Stoker 39). Harker, a devout denizen of Victorian maleness, is horrified by their seduction of him, but still a victim of his own uncontrollable sexual arousal. He is imagined as the helpless man, unable to withstand the advances of a wanton woman, and is thusly innocent—in spite of his own raging desire and the fact that he does not spurn their flirtations.
“I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood” (39).
The image of Harker submissively and yearningly peeking out from under his eyelashes at the woman whom he believes means to seduce him, takes on the role of the sexually compliant feminine when confronted by the deviance of a sexually predatory woman. In effect, she robs him of his rightful place in Victorian society as the sexually superior male. The sexual woman is not a woman but a vampire, because no true woman, by Victorian standards, is self-identified sexually.
This scene epitomizes the sexual fear of the Victorian man—that he, in the presence of a sexual woman, will become sexually dominated. Susan Parlour explains that eliminating the vampiric females therefore becomes the goal of the men in Dracula. “Stoker…manages to create new viable visions of femininity which promote autonomy in both sexual and intellectual matters. The fact that these women are not allowed to survive is not necessarily reflective of the artist’s personal viewpoint but is a result of the rigid and inflexible dictates of society” (npag). Even though the Victorians enjoyed a passive journey through the forbidden world of sexual freedom, they were unable to partake of it.
Count Dracula, the morally ambivalent being, living beyond the dictates of Victorian society, reflects back to the audience of his time a glimpse of their own suffocated desires. He is what they dare not be, but behind their mask of fear, they taste his taboo offerings vicariously. Vrunda Stampwala Sahay, in Repulsive Pariah or Romantic Prince? Transforming Monstrosity in Bram Stoker’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula comments that “this tale of a notorious vampire has been through countless re-interpretations which have created an otherness that embodies society’s evolving fears about itself” (npag). The Victorians were moved by Dracula, seeing in him their own frightening limitations. The uneasiness toward the sexual dynamic in Dracula morphed into doubt. Doubt in themselves. Doubt in the status quo. Sahay adds that the vampire persona overall embodies “cultural fears…where sexuality plays a powerful role in problematizing the relationship between love and carnal, violent desires that cannot be restrained” (npag). The Victorian audience embraced Dracula because he understood their needs. The notion of clinging to the blanket of abhorrence that barely covers the tantalizing desire beneath is not a new thing, and it is that breathless longing to break free from the weights and constraints of cultural pressures and expectations that left the Victorians enamoured of Count Dracula and his wicked liberty. Notwithstanding Dracula’s peculiar appeal to Victorian audiences, he had successfully rebuked their flaws. Perhaps it was simply a whisper of something new—a different way of experiencing the world.
Count Dracula establishes the power of the vampire. He is immortal and “undead”. This is the term Abraham Van Helsing uses to describe the vampire to his group of men intent on destroying Dracula after Lucy’s death. The term “un-dead” refers to his physical existence beyond his soul. That is to say, Count Dracula is not embodied by an immortal soul—departed from his body upon his mortal death—but his physical body lives on in the vampiric form in place of such. Where the soul of Count Dracula has gone is not discussed by Stoker, but the audience knows that Count Dracula, as the creature vampire, is damned. Therefore, Dracula has an aversion to all things connected to the sacred such as crucifixes, communion wafers, and holy water.
The character of Abraham Van Helsing gives a complete description of the supernatural abilities and limitations of the vampire. “The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil” (Stoker 249). The vampire Dracula is supernaturally strong, “so strong in person as twenty men” (249). His length of life has made him more intelligent than mortal men, and “his cunning be the growth of ages” (249). He is merciless and cruel. “He is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not” (249). The vampire has the ability to materialize and shape-shift into other creatures. “He can transform himself to wolf…he can be as a bat…he come on the moonlight rays as elemental dust” (252). Dracula controls certain animals and commands the storm. “He can, within his range, direct the elements: the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things; the rat, and the owl, and the bat…the moth, and the fox, and the wolf” (249). Yet, he can only maintain his power through his diet of blood and by the dark of night.
The vampire also has limitations to his supernatural powers. During the day, Dracula has no power at all, and must sleep in the soil of his own country, or as Van Helsing describes, “when he have his earth-home” (252). Count Dracula cannot enter anywhere “unless there be someone of the household who bid him to come; though afterwards he can come as he please” (252). Dracula is limited by running water and may only pass over it “at the slack or flood of the tide” (253). He loses his power in the presence of garlic and sacred objects, and “the branch of a wild rose on his coffin keep him that he may not move from it” (253). As well as the stake through the heart and beheading, “a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead” (253). Therefore, while the vampire is possessed of extraordinary power, he is governed by a set of laws that curb his abilities, hold him prisoner to his own earth, relegate him to darkness, and exacerbate his need to drink the blood of the living.
Bram Stoker has established the traits of the vampire that have been, completely or in part, stable in the vampire mythology to the present day. After the novel was published, the vampire staked his claim in society, and enthralled audiences with not merely his terrifying presence, but his lust for life. After all, Count Dracula is nothing if not a survivor. In spite of the fact that Dracula is dead, his character possesses verve, and a creative approach to living that is unequalled. He craves lifefulness in all its forms, and finds his power through its consumption. Dracula is aware of his own immortality and also of his own damnation. Therefore, he simply has nothing to lose. His existence is one complete in freedom from inhibitions, and this appealed enormously to the audience of Stoker’s day.
Lindsay Bradshaw cites Texas Tech professor Erin Collopy in her article Blood Thirsty: Why are Vampires Ruling Pop Culture? noting that “after the novel came out, fascination with the blood-thirsty creatures came to an all-time high, eventually leading to the 1931 film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi” (npag). If Count Dracula had been popular before the 1931 film, he achieved super-stardom afterward. The final leg in Count Dracula’s evolution was complete in Bela Lugosi’s long black cape, thick foreign accent, aristocratic evening attire, and piercing eyes. Since Dracula the film was released in 1931, there have been 28 films released using the Count Dracula persona including nine made by Hammer Studios in London, starring Christopher Lee as the vampire Dracula. There have been several Dracula spoofs including Columbia Pictures 1995 film Dracula: Dead and Loving It, directed by Mel Brooks.
In 1992, Columbia Pictures released Francis Ford Coppola’s superb Oscar winning film Bram Stoker’s Dracula which was loosely based on Stoker’s novel. This film created a sympathetic vampire character—one who was deeply betrayed in a way that cost him his beloved wife for whom he searches the earth until he finds her reincarnated in the person of Mina. The film is less the horror of Dracula and more the love story between Dracula and his wife Elizabeta/Mina. In the end, Dracula finds peace. It is this notion of the vampire as a tragic figure who is not beyond redemption that once again reinvented the vampire’s enormous popularity.
Popular culture offers many villains who are beyond the hope of salvation as is seen in the Halloween, Friday the Thirteenth, and Nightmare on Elm Street monsters. Going no further than teen focused horror with a resplendent showing of spurting blood, the monstrous fiends in these sagas are killed repeatedly, only to rise from the dead in the next lucrative if absurd sequel. Two-dimensional, untroubled by and unaware of their own evil and maniacal identities, they continue with their unrelenting carnage to the squeamish glee of their young audiences. Count Dracula, however, rises above his first identity in Stoker’s novel, and takes on a more comprehensive personality in Coppola’s movie. This manifestation of Count Dracula loathes himself, and holds to the remnants of his dwindling humanity. Beneath Dracula’s cruelty is a conscience and a soul—a soul that grieves beyond consolation.
Count Dracula, in Stoker’s novel, is rarely seen after his introduction in Transylvania, even though his wicked presence is felt throughout the novel. While he is self-directed, Stoker’s vampire still waxes and wanes in his overall construction. He has evolved past Polidori’s Ruthven, as already stated, but his motives, except for wanting to escape his castle prison, are left largely to the imagination of the audience. Why the vampire purchases his particular properties in England, and indeed, why he disembarks the ship at Whitby, are also unexplained by Stoker’s novel. However, in Coppola’s film, these questions are answered fully, and give Dracula’s motivation for everything he does—he wants Mina. This is a purpose that the audience connects with, and one toward which they feel empathy because, strangely enough, the audience wonders why Dracula should not have some latitude in winning back his wife, so cruelly torn from him long ago.
Of course, Dracula must die in the end. Yet, in Coppola’s film, Dracula is not killed by righteous men as in Stoker’s novel. In Coppola’s vision, Dracula lays down his life to save Mina from an eternity of darkness, and asks her only for the peace of death. Having come to the precipice, Dracula’s ruthless ambition crumbles in the gray light of dawn, and love wins the day. It is a romantic notion, but one that brought a lump to the throat of movie-goers. Human nature is sometimes a rumination of Dracula’s wickedness, but human nature also craves the poignant. We want to see the dark hero redeemed and his soul restored. For this reason, Count Dracula becomes the dubious hero of his lengthy tale, and if any happy ending can be proffered him, then it is realized in his final sacrifice. Sheila Stewart says in The Making of a Monster: Vampires and Werewolves, that sometimes “people try to get in touch with their shadow side and end up loving the darkness they find” (41). Popular culture abandoned the old Dracula of the 19th century in favor of Coppola’s rendering of the character. The audience was not only enthralled with this incarnation of the vampire Count, they fell in love with him. For the first time in Dracula’s portion of vampire lore, the audience wanted the vampire to get the girl.
Throughout the last century, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has flickered in and out of popular culture’s favor, but the story has never faded into obscurity as did Polidori’s The Vampyre; A Tale. Most of the world knows who and what Count Dracula is, and he has become a metaphor, over the years, for the greedy and powerful in society who prey upon and ‘suck dry’ the average person. Today, he is considered the most enduring and notorious arch villain in English literature.
Anne Rice and Her Reinvention of the Vampire Mythology
During the 1970s, Gay Pride swept across the United States, culminating in the White Night Riots after the murder of gay politician Harvey Milk in San Francisco, and in the first homosexual march on Washington, DC. The 1970s were also alive with the feminist movement, including groundbreaking landmarks that include the US Supreme Court decision of Roe vs Wade, the establishment of the National Organization for Women, the “Take Back the Night” anti-rape, multicity marches, and the presidential implementation under Jimmy Carter of the National Advisory Committee for Women. The 1970s included law suits and federal decisions regarding desegregation. North America was on its way to becoming an inclusive society, and this open-minded perspective was revealed in the tastes of popular culture.
The vampire persona, therefore, made new headway that displayed the evolving tastes of Western culture. Now there was an African American vampire as seen in the 1972 movie Blacula. In 1971, the movie Lust for a Vampire centered on the lesbian vampire persona. The film Countess Dracula in 1972 revealed a powerful female vampire. These movies were moderately popular, and aside from much blood and gratuitous nudity, attempted to form a statement of the world at that time. Yet, they did little to advance the vampire mythology, and are seen today as exploitative.
Then, in 1976, Anne Rice published Interview With the Vampire, the first of twelve in her sweeping series of vampire novels, now known as The Vampire Chronicles. In these books, Rice rethinks the vampire mythology, and in the process, turns it on its ear. In spite of first receiving mixed reviews, Interview With the Vampire developed a devout popular culture fan base, and by the 1985 publication of the second novel The Vampire Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire was an international sensation with what can only be described as a cult following.
The enormous success of Rice’s vampire mythology is defined by her ability to hone in on social changes and build a vampire that not only caters to this reformed mindset, but embodies it. Lestat becomes the antecedent vampire of the new age. Yet, the character of Lestat proves more than a mere minion of popular opinion; he is a definitive response to all its outrage, disparity, and tensions. He epitomizes the notion of moving beyond and rising above the upheavals of society in his era. Anne Rice accomplishes this by contemplating the vampire as a creature beyond simple human normalcy or with a human understanding of his place in the world and popular culture embraced her new vision of the vampire. This vampire threw off bias, lived in a state of moral relativism, and made otherness cool. He was the articulation of the social climate in the late 1970s.
Rice’s creation of the new vampire persona in her novels asks why vampires, who are self-identified immortal creatures that no longer consider themselves human, would be at all concerned with anything pertaining to human values. While the vampires in the Rice mythology are sensual, they are decidedly non-sexual in the manner recognized by the human understanding of sexuality. Since vampires in the Rice universe sexualize blood and blood-letting, they are no longer given to genital sexuality, neither do they biologically reproduce. This means, since vampires can be created from either men or women, for one living in a vampiric state, gender no longer matters. In an on-line Fanpop interview with Anne Rice, she responds to questions about her vampire characters’ sexuality saying “I see the vampires as deeply loving all sorts of people. Once they are made vampires, they transcend gender and sexual desire. Their loves have to do with the essence of the person” (npag). To the vampire, blood is blood.
The complex relationships between vampires that are introduced in Interview With the Vampire are based on the meeting of minds and the exchange of blood, rather than either the heterosexual or homosexual paradigms. For vampires in Rice’s mythology, there is no distinction between genders because blood is the sexual element, or race because all vampires are one species, or age because all vampires are immortal. As a result, there is a new freedom in the world of Lestat that was previously unknown by his vampire forbears.
With all the previous notions of sexism, racism, and human sensibilities dead and gone, Rice’s vampire is free to explore new terrains of existence beginning with a look inward. The story in Interview With the Vampire is told by the vampire character Louis to a young mortal journalist. He tells the tale of his meeting with Lestat, his transformation from human to vampire, and the existence he and Lestat experience together. Louis and Lestat attempt to define their beingness, ponder their connection to the natural world, debate questions about the existence of God and their understanding of eternity, and develop a philosophy focused on the nature of evil.
In a society slowly restructuring its moral position on many levels, Western culture listened in on the conversations between Rice’s vampires regarding good and evil. While Louis struggles with the human notion of evil, Lestat believes that what a human might consider as evil, is in fact, simply his true vampire nature, and therefore not necessarily evil—the lion is not committing an evil act when he kills and eats a gazelle. The lion is only evil to the gazelle. Lestat explains this nature to a guilt-ridden Louis, saying that
“evil is a point of view…We are immortal. And what we have before us are the rich feasts that conscience cannot appreciate and mortal men cannot know without regret. God kills, and so shall we; indiscriminately He takes the richest and the poorest, and so shall we; for no creatures under God are as we are, none so like Him as ourselves, dark angels not confined to the stinking limits of hell but wandering His earth and all its kingdoms” (Rice 88).
In effect, Lestat, by transforming Louis from human to vampire, has also changed Louis’ nature into a vampire nature which Louis can do nothing else but embrace in a world where human nature can no longer be his. This transformation is reflected in 1970s society as Louis struggles to come out of the closet.
A critical essay, taken from the 2000 edition of Contemporary Literary Criticism, discusses some of the intriguing life questions raised by Anne Rice’s vampires, such as atheism and the search for meaning in religion. Describing Anne Rice’s novels as engaging, this essay remarks that they “are distinguished for their richly descriptive settings, provocative eroticism, and looming metaphysical concerns that reflect the precarious nature of religious faith and truth in the postmodern world” (E-notes npag). Unlike Count Dracula who fled from the mere sight of crucifixes, and who was burned by holy water, Anne Rice’s vampire characters are not repelled or horrified by religious objects. Even though Lestat is confined to darkness and must sleep his daylight hours in coffins, he has an absence of fear of either God or a notion of an after life. This is a marked departure from the Count Dracula character, but then, Count Dracula also reflected the standard of his era, where religious beliefs and social opinion existed in partnership. The society of the 1970s had witnessed a decline in religious adherence, and atheism was becoming prevalent. The vampire Lestat acknowledges that he is, first and foremost, dead already. In effect, he is in his after life. Yet, his vampire friend Louis is not as certain, and still seeks to find meaning in his own nature through a connection to a higher power. He seeks to know whose child he is, if no longer human. Is he a child of God, or a child of Satan? And do these Entities even exist?
Louis’ constant prattling about the subject of evil and God begins to annoy Lestat who is content with both his existence as a vampire and his atheism. That said, Lestat’s irritation with Louis’ incessant questions may be because he does not care, and also, because he simply does not know the answer. A response to Louis’ inquiry comes when he travels to Paris and encounters a group of vampires. Among them is the four-hundred year old Armand who is attracted to Louis’ youth and innocence. He tells Louis flatly that he has no knowledge of God’s existence in his own lifetime and adds that “this [vampirism] is the only real evil left” (Rice 235). Therefore, when Louis asks plainly, “and no vampire here has discourse with God or with the devil?” (236), Armand’s bland response is “None” (237).
He does not leave Louis completely comfortless, however. He explains to Louis that how he grapples with his theory of God is a part of what is happening to the world—that Louis is still connected to his humanity in that way—that he is evolving as Mankind’s thought evolves. Armand has lost this ability after four centuries, but sees an opportunity to reconnect with the world vicariously through Louis. Upon realizing this, Louis becomes frustrated again saying “I’m not the spirit of any age. I’m at odds with everything and always have been!” (284). Armand’s reply to Louis is also a furtive response to 1970s culture as it began to leave religion behind when he observes “this is the very spirit of your age. Don’t you see that? Everyone else feels as you feel. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of a century” (284). Louis comes away from his conversation with the ancient Armand tormented by the realization that Lestat may have been right after all—that good and evil, God and the devil, could be metaphors on a journey toward self-determination. Once again, it all depends on each person’s point of view.
Anne Rice asks her audience to reassess right and wrong, and more importantly, what is right and wrong for each individual. George E Haggerty, in Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture remarks that Rice’s Vampire Chronicles “offer a précis of some of our most deeply held cultural assumptions and an overview of the banality of transgression in the later twentieth century” (5). Social changes demanded a new construct that defied the status quo of so many decades, and this included a rejection of otherness which the vampire Lestat reveals as both unnecessary and unnatural. Lestat, without judgment, offers up permission to beingness in all its forms. Haggerty adds that “the vampire exposes the roots of bourgeois ideology in his ability to represent its desires and its fears” (9). Just as Louis wrestles with his nature and then gouges out a place for himself in the world, so too were the men and women in the 1970s breaking free of past restrictions and choosing for themselves the manner in which they would experience the world—even amid cries of outrage from the sexist and homophobic who fought, sometimes violently, to maintain control of the old cultural standards. For the audience, Rice’s vampires become the laissez-faire antiheroes, who abandon long held universalities such as right and wrong, and in their stead create innumerable gray areas.
It is more than a mere redressing of the social norms that wins the vampire his place in the hearts of the audience. It is his insufferable, profound loneliness, and the resulting coldness to the world that create of him a conflicted and world-weary wanderer. Not just a hero, but a tragic hero, Rice’s vampire is hypnotic in his beautiful anguish—a soul laid bare. Even as he hides behind indifference, his audience perceives the enormity of his forsaken state, and is pleased at his every brief moment of inner peace.
Audiences become enamored with the vampire once again, but this time it is different. The fear the vampire once generated has begun to wane. Popular culture begins to wonder if the vampire is really evil after all, or has he been woefully misunderstood because, for the very first time, the vampire is permitted to tell his side of the story. Jaqueline Ng, of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University in an on-line research report entitled The Resurgence of Vampires and Vampire Fan Discourse in Contemporary Popular Culture, writes that “pop culture has sympathetically transformed vampires into immortal sensual humans, lonely and misunderstood, struggling with feelings of love and acceptance” (npag). Lestat and his vampire cohorts in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are creatures of inner sensibilities and sorrows, brandishing despair to a despondent culture laboring through the misery of growing pains, and the vampire’s corresponding struggle to understand himself is seen by fans as heroic.
Under the quill of Anne Rice, the new vampire comes into being, steps out of the shadows, and lives in an apartment down the street. He walks the streets of New Orleans, captivated by the mortals he finds beautiful. He is well-read and multi-lingual, plays the piano, attends opera and theater, goes to the movies, and is the final word in fashion. Hip and seductive, this erudite vampire is the new metrosexual of the ultra-modern haut monde. Even though he is still confined to the night—for the time being—it is a matter of no moment, since it is during the night when he is at his best. Caught between suffering and delight, Lestat posits a chic rephrasing of otherness, and popular culture understands this as alternative lifestyles and redefined morality settle like a blanket over Western culture. Rice’s vampires are next door to the light of day, but the next phase of vampires who finally step through the open doorway into the morning light are no longer burned by the sun. They sparkle.
Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight Vampires
Edward Cullen is youthful and handsome, somewhat awkward with girls, muddling his way through high school, and trying to live up to the expectations of his family. To observe him, one might think of young Mr Cullen as a shy teenager who does not quite fit in. He edges his way through the high school corridors, keeping his eyes cast downward and ignoring the people who look his way. With his rumpled clothes and disheveled hair, he looks the picture of teenage angst. However, Edward Cullen only looks that way. In actuality, he is a vampire, one hundred and nine years old.
In 2005, Stephanie Meyer, a stay-at-home mother of three, published Twilight, the first of four novels that would become known as the Twilight Saga. Extraordinarily successful, these books targeted the young adult readership, and would eventually become five blockbuster movies. Meyer probably had no idea that her books would bring about a craze of young, screaming fans. Neither could she foresee that millions of teenaged girls all over the world would fall madly in love with Edward Cullen. Yet this is exactly what has happened, and while the young girls camped out in front of the bookstores to get the next installment in the life of Edward Cullen, Meyer had successfully revamped the vampire mythology once again.
During the years after Anne Rice rejuvenated the vampire in the public’s imagination, there was a lull in the vampire mythology. While Dracula and the Vampire Chronicles have never gone completely out of fashion, they had experienced waning satisfaction in popular culture. Wes Craven’s film Dracula 2000 released in 2000, followed by the 2002 release of the film Queen Of The Damned—the anticipated sequel to the film version of Interview With The Vampire—were received by underwhelmed audiences. In spite of star-studded casts and flashy special effects, these films were unremarkable in their successes. The audiences were bored—not with the vampire—but with the vampire of these storylines. Stephanie Meyer’s addition to the vampire mythology was nearly providential in its perfect timing.
Meyer reimagined the vampire in a way that not only revitalized the mythology, but also broadened him to fit a wider audience. The vampire character had always been most definitely adult only fare. In the Twilight Saga, the vampires are now PG rated, welcoming into the folds of vampire lore the teenage audience.
However, Meyer does more than simply eliminate fangs in her vampire characters and allow them to move about in the daylight. She adapts the nature of the vampire. Lord Ruthven and Count Dracula are evil through and through, and there is no circumstance within their original stories which allows the audience to understand the reason for this evil other than the preconceived agreement that all vampires are evil by nature. Vampires are evil simply because they exist as vampires. Lestat counters the notion of evil by arguing that how we see evil depends on our perspective. What is unnatural and evil to one may be natural and good to another.
Enter Edward Cullen. For him, people are not evil because of what they are, but because of what they do. Evil is an action, not a condition. Therefore, one may choose to be or not to be evil. As Edward explains to young Bella, “Just because we’ve been…dealt a certain hand…it doesn’t mean that we can’t choose to rise above—to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can” (Meyer 307; ellipses in text). In essence, Stephanie Meyer removes vampires from a state of evil, and returns to them a portion of their humanity. Thus, the audience is able to identify with the vampire character, but more importantly, they see that if handsome, intelligent, and immortal Edward Cullen struggles with his own identity, then they are not alone. This message speaks loudly to a young audience elbowing their way through their difficult teenage years.
Therefore, Stephanie Meyer takes the vampire mythology places where it has never gone before. Fully identified by teenage pop culture, her vampire creatures sway the social structure of their young audiences. Stephanie Meyer accomplishes this in three ways. First, she returns teenagers to the written word. Second, she directs young girls to a pursuit of self-realization and empowerment. Third, she creates a role model for teenage sexual propriety in her protagonist. Meyer does this, yet still maintains an exciting story that reaches youth.
Thanks to serialized books such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, teenagers are returning to the practice of reading. More than merely sitting in a corner with their noses in the books, teenagers are using the activity of reading as a means of socialization among their peers. Joyce Ann Mercer, in Vampires, Desires, Girls and God: Twilight and the Spiritualities of Adolescent Girls, remarks that “sharing the ‘book world’ with others is an important dimension in situating the identities of readers” (266). Youth are not just reading the books, they are discussing them at length afterward, and those teenagers who have not read the books are suddenly on the outside looking in.
Mercer relates the feelings of one girl who had refused to conform by choosing not to read Twilight. As a result, “she began to feel extremely isolated on the outside of a shared and coded social system built around insider knowledge of Twilight” (266). To return to a state of belonging meant that this girl was forced to read the book. This begs the question of why Twilight has such an impact on young readers and what is it that draws the youth, especially the teenage girls, to its pages? It is vampire fiction after all, yet Mercer discovers that there may be factors other than the dewy-eyed romance between Edward Cullen and his young seventeen year old mortal girlfriend Bella Swan. Mercer quotes Janice Radway who claims that “women experience agency and empowerment through romance fiction that compensates for the inequities and lacks of their actual lives” (267). It is this recognition of empowerment that speaks to teenage girls who struggle with their own limitations in the real world, and this empowerment comes to them because they are reading.
Bella Swan, as Edward Cullen’s love interest, is depicted as a very average teenage girl—the type of girl who goes to the same school with any of Twilight’s readers. Not particularly beautiful, Bella is awkward and given to ‘nerdy’ clumsiness. She feels at all times like she does not fit in. Bella Swan is every teenager, and this is what makes her synonymous with the fans who read her story in Twilight. Almost every teenage girl who reads Twilight, told in the first person from Bella Swan’s point of view, hears and understands Bella’s fears and doubts, because they are an echo of the fears and doubts of most teenagers.
The on-line Shmoop University editorial team discusses Stephanie Meyer, saying that when she created the character of Bella Swan,
“she intended Bella to be an ‘everygirl’ [sic]. Ideally, that means anyone can relate to Bella, so it’s all the more exciting when something incredible and magical happens to her – a gorgeous boy/man of mythic proportions sees her as unique and completely irresistible. She becomes so precious to this man that he’s willing to sacrifice anything for her. And maybe, through the average Bella, we can imagine that it’s possible for something magical to happen to us, too” (npag).
Bella does not stand out in any extraordinary way—any girl can be her—and because Edward Cullen courts Bella with a persistence and charm that signals the final word in romance, Twilight invites teenage girls to recognize themselves as capable of living their own dream also, whatever that dream may be.
Although Stephanie Meyer’s book is drawing the romantically idealistic and less worldly teenager to its pages, adult feminists are annoyed by the idea that the character of Bella Swan gauges her own personal distinctiveness as fully valued and complete only by the success of her relationship with a man. In an article published in Excalibur, Amelia Ruthven-Nelson writes that “Bella Swan…is the antichrist to modern women’s rights” (npag). Bella is mystified constantly by Edward’s love for her, and she dwells ad nauseam on its sheer implausibility—as if she herself is beneath him. Ruthven-Nelson adds that “[n]ot only is she annoying, sullen, and melodramatic, but Bella is the ultimate anti-feminist heroine that, through her unbelievable popularity among young girls, sets women back by decades” (npag). While Ruthven-Nelson’s comments are compelling in their own right, they are nevertheless applied to a young girl character who has never experienced anything of the world, and who has never been in love before. To a great extent, Bella is still a child.
Meyer does not pretend that the character of Bella has a mature woman’s mind, and this is painfully noticeable in Bella’s perpetual observance of Edward’s good looks and her childish obliviousness of his inner attributes until much later in the story. Bella’s obsessive teenage infatuation with Edward is extraordinary in its ambition, but also in its youthful immaturity. Clearly, Bella is not an adult, and she cannot be judged by adult standards. The teenage fans, who avidly read Twilight, hardly judge Bella from a feminist perspective because within the boundaries of their still small worlds what they see is a spectacularly cute guy who also happens to be a vampire—which is both cool and awesome.
Twilight is, fundamentally, the story of an intense high school romance—nearly identical to those that continue in high school corridors everywhere teenage boys and girls go to school together. The character of Bella is certainly the starry-eyed damsel-in-distress who dates the most handsome boy in school, but upon this groundwork is where the story rests, and where teenage pop culture pinpoints its significance. Thus, Bella Swan’s character deserves a measure of forgiveness—even though, to adult audiences, she seems naïve and somewhat maudlin. For young popular culture, sticky-sweet romance trumps adult feminist ideals.
Aside from allowing for young girls to find a youthful brand of empowerment within the unsophisticated teenage love stereotype—be it politically correct or not—Stephanie Meyer builds on characters that are chaste. This is another new turn for the vampire character. Of significance, chastity does not attend only Bella, the female character, as in past vampire lore. Edward, the male hero of the story, is surprisingly also a virgin. Lydia Kokkola, in her paper Virtuous Vampires and Voluptuous Vamps: Romance Conventions Reconsidered in Stephanie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series, discusses the question of innocence and virginity in Twilight’s characters. It is Edward Cullen’s character that maintains the social ‘norm’—in the Meyer universe—of chastity among the teenage characters, namely, those characters who are unwed, and makes it very clear to both the character of Bella Swan and the readers of the story that he will not engage in premarital sex. For this reason, the vampire Edward Cullen becomes an unlikely role model. Kokkola states that “Edward is the perfectly socialized young adult: he desires both Bella’s blood and body, but he can control himself. He responds with gentlemanly grace to Bella’s inability to control her lust. He acts as a modern day Mr Knightley as he educates Bella into mature, sociable behavior” (166). Bella, as every girl, approaches sexuality as an immature teenager seeking instant gratification, where Edward, while appearing to be a seventeen year old boy, has a mature man’s mind and leads Bella to the understanding that courtly, agapic love must be the solid ground on which to build a relationship, and that a physical union must be a product of such love—not the other way around.
That Stephanie Meyer is a devout Mormon may have something to do with the way she has directed her characters, yet she may or may not be advocating a particular lifestyle to her young audience, and may only be providing an example to her readers of how young love could actually be. However, Kokkola observes the characters of Edward and Bella saying that “the very traditional place of marriage in the resolution of their sexual tension is such that only very unsophisticated readers, possibly the target audience of these novels, will fail to notice the author’s coerciveness” (166). Meyer’s approach to teenage sexuality is certainly old fashioned, and even archaic to the minds of some, yet it is important to understand the mood of North America today, and just who populates the culture that makes up Meyer’s readership.
The recent study for the The National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy by Saras Chung published by WYMAN presents some sobering figures. In North America, “teenage pregnancy is a leading cause of school dropout among teenage girls” (Chung npag). The statistics show that 30% of the girls who become pregnant, with a higher rate for Hispanic girls at 36% and African American girls at 38%, drop out of classes and do not complete high school even after the pregnancy ends. Only 1 in 3 will later obtain a GED, which is shocking when set beside the mere 6% of teenage girls who do not become pregnant during high school (npag). To affect this statistic, some groups encourage birth control distributed upon request at the high school level, but Meyer has chosen abstinence as her message. It is no wonder that Twilight has been linked to the “True Love Waits” (TLW) movement.
Although Meyer has not publicly supported or acknowledged the TLW movement, she has, as Kokkola writes, “frequently spoken about the importance of Mormon values in her own life” (166). The TLW movement is, in short, an international Christian youth movement started in the early 1990s that promotes abstinence until marriage. Their slogan “You’re Worth It!” is part of a support for teenagers to live a life of sexual purity, to consider themselves ‘gifts’, and to pursue first the other objectives of their young lives such as education and careers, leaving for later on marriage and sexuality as part of the ‘just desserts’ for their earlier labors (Catholic WA npag). This message of sexual propriety, supported by Meyer’s story, is felt keenly throughout the novel with Edward Cullen as the messenger.
Where Lord Ruthven and Count Dracula rape and murder innocent women with one of their motivations being to destroy virtue, and where Lestat questions virtue and the very existence of an absolute right and wrong, Edward Cullen reclaims physical innocence and emerges as its guardian. The vampire character must evolve to maintain interest, and the next logical transition in a society where a rethinking of and an aversion to the institution of marriage is considered modern, the vampire mythology, as always, must reflect social mores—even if it does not agree with them. Thus, Bella is very interested in a sexual union with Edward, but not at all interested in a legal marriage. Edward convinces her gradually and with sensitivity that marriage is a positive thing. Eventually, Bella comes to believe this also, and a wedding takes place in Breaking Dawn, Meyer’s fourth novel in the saga. The marriage-bed consummation of Edward and Bella’s relationship becomes an ethically appropriate—albeit ultra-conservative—part of the storyline, and signifies a new beginning of a deeper relationship between the characters.
Of course, Bella becomes pregnant as a result of her honeymoon union with Edward, and Meyer’s story moves forward using Bella’s unexpected, but conceived-in-wedlock, pregnancy as a springboard for further adventures. A 2011 press release from the California Family Health Council stated that “[p]opular media has been an effective way to start a conversation with teens about sex for years. When teens see a character they like dealing with pregnancy, it makes them stop and think about what they might do in a similar situation (npag). Thus, the idea of abstinence and teenage pregnancy is understood by Meyer’s fan base, and it has subsequently opened a dialogue with teenagers. Edward Cullen is the gentleman hero who, rather than seducing or violating a young girl, is interpreted as doing right by the object of his affection.
Books For Young People editor of Quill and Quire, Nathan Whitlock, in a brief 2008 article, upbraids child psychologist Dr Miriam Grossman who supports Meyer’s message of abstinence in a society nearly choked by lust over love. She states that “when standards are lowered to these abysmal levels, teens get a green light for behavior they’ll regret. Instead a girl should be encouraged to wait until her own Edward Cullen comes along, a man who has waited for her as she has for him; who will stay at her side, fight battles for her, and prove himself” (npag). Whitlock denounces Grossman’s view, and it is unclear why other than a prevailing opinion that marriage—in its traditional form—and chastity are old fashioned ideals that must also evolve to meet the needs of a variety of lifestyles. Perhaps his objection may also stem from the fact that this message of abstinence has for its vehicle a vampire story.
It is fair to say, however, that Twilight’s Edward Cullen is a recollection of times past when love and marriage offered a sense of eternity. This seemingly foreign concept is being received by the youth of today’s jaded society where Prince Charming and his love interest divorce after six years and spend another four in a bitter custody battle; where happily-ever-after no longer carries with it the same measure of accountability and commitment as in bygone eras. Admittedly, Twilight may be an epic head-in-the-clouds fairy tale with a copious amount of romance that is implausible in Western society’s modern climate, but perhaps that is the point after all. It is a fairy tale. Dragons and witches have been replaced by vampires and werewolves. The champion is not a nobleman, but a beautiful immortal boy-man, and the heroine is a fill-in-the-blank for any young girl who reads the story.
In spite of much negative criticism by adult audiences, the teenage audience in popular culture welcomed Stephanie Meyer’s vampire with enthusiasm. Western society has become a culture of perfection, youth, and beauty. The Meyer vampire, with his eternal youth, unfading beauty, and high moral virtue, is an excellent rejoinder to the archaic concept that what is beautiful must also be good, and this same concept is reflected in the ethos of today’s youthful popular culture. Whether or not Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight is literature is uncertain, but that she responds through her novel to the quandaries within her own culture is the lifeblood of literature. That Edward Cullen is a vampire seems secondary to the potency of this character’s innate humanity and sense of decency. Thus, the vampire becomes the new Prince Charming of the third millennium.
The Evolution of the Vampire in Popular Culture
In her thesis Taming the Vampire, Lisa N Bounds quotes Nina Auerbach who makes the intriguing remark that “every age embraces the vampire it needs” (1). The popular cultural success of the vampire character stems from its ability to address the traditions and desires of whatever culture it is born into. The vampire has moved through the past two centuries of the development of Western society finding its niche accordingly. This is evident in the vampire’s growth from a two-dimensional evil monster to a virtuous and virginal, and internally developed immortal person, and the longings of society have been interpreted and spoken to by each era’s vampire incarnation. This is why society must have the vampire character. Sometimes a scapegoat, sometimes the solution, the vampire is an iconic representation of the far-reaching corners of the human imagination, and a mirror of the human mind when that imagination becomes reality.
Historically, the vampire has been a reflection of what Western culture has feared most through the different eras. Polidori’s audience feared the loss of virtue in an empire that prided itself on strength and character. Stoker’s audience feared the lack of control in a world that was awakening to the significance of other cultures, women’s rights, and sexuality. Rice’s audience feared the death of the old status quo. The vampires created by these authors were a statement of these gathering trepidations, and created for their audiences a safe method of discussing them. After all, vampires are not real. On one hand, we have no need to fear a figment of imagination. On the other hand, these figments emanate from within our own inner landscapes and reveal the most terrible fear of all—each other. Vampires represent our terrors because they are the by-product of the terrors we commit against our fellow beings—our cruelty, our tyranny, our intolerance, and our greed. In fact, it may be true that we are the vampires we dread most. It is human beings who run rough shod over, and exsanguinate what other humans build and treasure. What is most frightening is that real humans and human agencies cannot be stopped as easily as the vampire. When we consider ourselves, we see there is much to fear, and the vampire has become one means of expressing this fear.
What then can be said about our complete lack of fear in Meyer’s vampire? Although some people are afraid of aging and ugliness, it may be that the vampire is no longer able to give a face or voice to the fear of this generation. Beneath the gloom of global warming, the steady disintegration of economies, the depletion of arable soil, the pollution of our fresh water supply, and the constant threat of violence from every corner of the earth, our fears have risen above the old cultural foibles we once contemplated through the vampire character. In past times, the vampire met us face to face, but how does he meet us now in the age of technology—in a time when we are losing our individuality; through our own distressing high tech conveniences such as the World Wide Web and on-line socialization, we are losing our own faces. We are becoming invisible to each other, and now what we fear is out there. We no longer fear the vampire, because he is simply not large enough to represent the evils we perceive in this world.
Where the vampire mythology can evolve from here remains to be seen. Perhaps as a metaphor for the ills of society, he has outlived his usefulness. Quite possibly, future audiences will see much of what past audiences saw in the vampire—a mythical creature beyond the ravages of time and an aide memoire of all we once were, both good and bad—because while much of Western society will no longer adhere to the idea of an omnipotent and invisible God, they will conditionally allow a lesser immortal with human flaws to denote and speak to the idiosyncrasies of human existence. With the vampire, there is always someone who is worse than us, or better than us, or suffering as we suffer. Oddly, this truth is comforting. Even though the vampire feeds on us, he understands and commiserates with us, so we forgive him his many transgressions. And popular culture eagerly awaits his next manifestation.
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