Bloody minded - why we're fascinated by vampires

BY ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 05:00 18/07/2010
vampire
Vampires have become a pop culture phenomenon - again.

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Vampires are everywhere nowadays  on television, in novels and last week in our courts following a vampire-style attack  but they aren't the evil demons of old. How did the tribe of Dracula go from villain to hero, and why have so many of us been sucked in? By  Anthony Hubbard.

MODERN VAMPIRES are semi-soft and caring. Today's blood-sucker is likely to be vegetarian – he drinks animal blood, not human – and wants to be chaste. Edward Cullen, the 17-year-old vampire hero of the ragey Twilight films and books, stares at his muddled lover Bella and croaks: "I've never wanted human blood so much in my life." Bella goes cross-eyed and leans against his chest. "I trust you," she murmurs.

Or take True Blood's Bill Compton, lover of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic Louisiana waitress played by Anna Paquin. Bill kills a fellow "fang-banger" who tries to murder her and then spends a lot of time fending off avenging vampires who want his blood. Compton is a well-meaning member of the oppressed minority of vampires. In a town hall meeting he wows the humans with a sob story about being turned into a vampire while sheltering in a woman's home as a confederate soldier in the Civil War. Vampires have rights too. All they're seeking is their place out of the sun.

Then there's Damon and Stefan Salvatore, the teenage vampire brothers circling around another young thing, the plucky orphan Elena Gilbert. One is good and one seems bad, but there's no neck-tearing and ravishment here. There are, however, lots of dark urges and smouldering by the school lockers. The Vampire Diaries are certainly about vampires, but they are also diaries of teenage woe. And they are a soap about the dirty underbelly of Mystic Falls, Virginia.

What is going on here? Politically pious vampires? Vampires who "just say no"? Vampires who want to share with the humans instead of draining their blood? Vampires who want to help? "Where," asks Massey academic Andrew Cardow, who has made a special study of vampires, "has the evil gone?"

This is the paradox of the vampire and his terrible secret: he has no inner core. True, vampires drink blood and are typically undead. But other than that, they can be anything, and in popular culture they are: male vampires and female vamps, lesbians, gays, bi's, straights and neuters, wizened old men and fresh-faced tots, mass murderers and wimps, toffs and peasants, Transylvanians and Californians, glamour kittens and frumps, demons and mums. Perhaps every age gets the vampires it deserves. Perhaps it says something about ours that vampires have gone squishy and suburban – but what?

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Of course vampirism can be real, and serious. There have been vampire-style murders. Last week three young people appeared in Wellington District Court charged with a vampire-style attack. The charges are unproved of course, and the trial has not started. But there are documented cases of real violence based on the fantasy of the vampire.

The Twilight series shows, on the other hand, just how far in popular culture the de-fanging can go. It is, of course, the vampire version of Romeo and Juliet. "Bella appeals to the awkward teenage girl in me," says Twi-hard and journalist Catherine Woulfe, 27. "Oh, and Edward's everything I want in a man, but I could take or leave the whole undead thing." Edward is "essentially good, chivalrous, smart and thoughtful, devoted to his family, gentle (but dangerous) and very black and white. He loves Bella so that's that, he'd do anything for her. No messing around about needing to find himself first, and he's not interested in any other girls". Vampire love is forever – Edward is, after all, immortal – and rescues Bella from the humdrum. "There's also the sweetness of having a secret, and of having something [a vampire boyfriend, or knowledge of vampires] that sets you apart and lifts you above your peers to something extraordinary," says Woulfe, a graduate in English literature. "If I wanted to critique Twilight I could rip it apart. I just don't want to."

VAMPIRES HAVE always had a special appeal: they are about sex, death, and power, the three corners of the human condition and the core of literature high and low. All this, in one daft mixture that can be varied to taste. And the camera loves a vampire. He is perhaps the most popular villain of the movie age, starring in a staggering 180 productions, with the first one in 1913.

So we might think our current obsession with vampires is new, but no. "Vampirism has never really gone away, it's just changed its form," says Massey University English lecturer Tim Jones, who recently finished a PhD on gothic literature. "If vampirism were icecream, it goes from flavour to flavour." Lots of the young people in his tutorials feel no shame about declaring in an academic environment their love of Twilight, the books by Stephenie Meyer that morphed into wildly successful films and a TV series. "This is the stuff!" they cry.

How come? "The Harry Potter kiddy generation has surged into the hormone-driven teens and was looking for something with a little more spice," suggests New Zealand Skeptics chair Vicki Hyde, who has three teenagers. In the United States, teenagers also had the much steamier Carpathian vampire romance series written by Christine Feehan, which is "actually filthy – you know, like a really dirty Mills and Boon", says Jones.

The Twilight series is more much chaste and reflects the values of Mormon mother-of-three Meyer. She won't put graphic sex in her books, and Edward's struggle to stay pure is based on her idea that everyone has free will. "I really think that's the underlying metaphor of my vampires," she told Time magazine in 2008. "It doesn't matter where you're stuck in life or what you think you have to do; you can always choose something else. There's always a different path."

But Time argued that the Twilight series is about "the erotics of abstinence... Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint... [The books] are squeaky, geeky clean on the surface, but right below it, they are absolutely, deliciously filthy". The True Blood series has heaps of steamy sex in a seedy Southern setting. It provides the varied pleasures of squalor, banged up against Sookie's sassy sweetness. It also has a special political appeal. The brilliant opening sequence includes a shot of a kid in a Ku Klux Klan outfit, glimpses of human rights protests from the 1960s, and the maggot-infested corpses of animals. Vampire Bill, in his struggle to be accepted by the people around him, is a symbol of the struggle for minority rights in a sick society – a view largely endorsed by Charlaine Harris, the author of the southern vampire series on which True Blood is based. Some say it's about gay rights, and note a graffito in the opening sequence: "God hates fangs" [fags]. What we have here, says Jones, is "the vampire as liberal hero", and it has interesting precedents. Lost Souls, a book by Poppy Z Bright in the 1990s, is about a group of vampires and goth rockers on the road in New Orleans. They too seem to represent a punk culture that rejects mainstream right-wing values.

ALL THIS is a long way from the malevolent madness of the Transylvanian count in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the 1897 novel that first seriously infected the popular culture with vampirism. The count is, in fact, the devil. "Never did I imagine such wrath and fury, even in the demons of the pit," gasps Jonathan Harker, the hapless estate agent sent to the count's castle to arrange new accommodation for him in Britain. "His eyes were positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them. His face was deathly pale, and the lines of it were hard like drawn wires, the thick eyebrows that met over the nose now seemed like a heaving bar of white-hot metal."

Even the count, however, acts as a mirror of the times and their troubles. Tom McLean, lecturer in English at Otago University, says Dracula focuses a variety of late-Victorian fears and worries. There's sexuality – Dracula drinks men's blood as well as women's, there's religion (he's undead) and there's race and the fear of foreigners: the Transylvanian is over here, biting the throats of British women!

Some modern vampires have an obvious agenda. The witty TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) was overtly feminist. The blonde high school student drives stakes through the hearts of a thousand demons, and never loses her cheerful smile. Women could clearly do anything.

The vampire, says McLean, has proved a more adaptable creature than some other Gothic figures of the 19th century such as Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray. "While they are sort of captured in their history, the vampire doesn't have to be Count Dracula." History has shown, in fact, that the vampire can be anybody and everybody. Andrew Cardow calls it "everyman with fangs".The bad vampires persist, of course – there are hordes of them stampeding through True Blood, Twilight and the Vampire Diaries – but the vampire heroes are virtuous or at least trying to be. A landmark in the development of the sympathetic blood-sucker is Anne Rice's 1976 novel, Interview with the Vampire, made in 1994 into a film starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Louis de Pointe du Lac, played by a young and beautiful Brad Pitt, lives in 18th century Louisiana and wants to die after the death of his wife and child. Lestat de Lioncourt (Cruise) turns him into a vampire. Louis is a good man and doesn't want to kill. Eventually, of course, he does, and he and Lestat become blood brothers in a very special sense.

There is something "pseudo-queer" about this relationship, says Jones, and there is a strange sexual aura around the young girl Claudia, Lestat's adopted vampire daughter first bitten by Louis. There is a level of difficulty and ambiguity here, says Jones, that you won't find in the recent vampire movies. These, it must be said, are about as morally complex as Star Wars. They are about black and white vampires, but not grey ones, Jones says. How do we explain this sentimentalising of vampires, this decline into Disneyland? Cardow suggests that moderns cannot bear too much reality. "Modern society," he says, "is horrific." We no longer seek horror in our fantasies, but comfort, so vampires have been turned into softies.

But perhaps things are more complex than that. Romance vampires have taken centre stage in recent years, but there has been plenty of old-style mayhem and madness going on in the wings. And already there is a backlash. Film-maker Guillermo del Toro, who recently quit New Zealand after becoming too busy to direct The Hobbit, last year co-wrote a black vampire novel called The Strain. This is post 9/11 vampirism, with a jumbo-jet full of dead bodies landing in New York. A handful of vampires escape and spread a virus throughout the land – this is vampirism as a modern eco-plague, and there is nothing cuddly about it. Del Toro wanted, he says in a video about the book, none of the romantic stuff about "young men sucking the necks of beautiful people". He wants a book that is painful to read, where the reader will experience the same "dread and horror" felt by the vampires' victims.

There has been a wave of chic vampirism over the last 40 years, Jones says. There were vampire clubs in America in the 1990s. A vampire church advertises itself on the internet – apparently the parishioners don't so much suck one another's blood as breathe in their fellow-worshippers' "energy". Vampire games allow adults to play, and are as serious as games can be. "Don't try telling World Cup fanatics that `it's only a game'," says Jones.

Jones, in fact, declines to read any deep meaning into the cult of romance vampirism. It's merely literary fashion, he suggests. "There's something about popular culture," he says, "which is chaotic." New streams and themes emerge, merge, and then disappear.

But vampirism has sometimes been real. Vampire hysteria hit western Europe in the 18th century, when accounts were published of Serbian villagers, frantic after a series of mysterious deaths, disinterring recently dead people and driving stakes through their hearts.

The rationalist French philosopher Voltaire laughed at all this, but sober German doctors who witnessed the re-killing of the corpses were astounded and troubled. It's always been like that with vampires. You don't know whether to giggle or scream.

- Sunday Star Times

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