Today is the most important day of the year in many a young girl’s life. No, I’m not talking of the surely thousands who will be celebrating their birthdays. No, I’m speaking of the millions more who will be lining up at the multiplexes tonight (or did very early this morning) to journey into the angst-ridden world of Twilight. The latest fan-driven money printer from Hollywood concludes this weekend to the tears and relief of a deeply divided audience. The target demographic, unsurprisingly, slurps up every frame of shirtless biceps like a vampire at the back of a blood drive. Yet, much more intriguing in this pop phenomenon is the monstrous backlash it faces. The books, films, CDs and commemorative dish sets being moved by the Twilight brand come under constant criticism for ruining the image of “real vampires.” This disconnect is even better when one considers the idea that there is a working definition for what a vampire is in fiction. The truth is there has never been a clear-cut explanation of vampirism in anything from folklore to counterculture. Even in the sparkly-Edward dominated landscape of today, there is contention of what makes a vampire be a vampire. I have little interest in discovering if KStew and RPatts have an eternal happily ever after (onscreen or otherwise) or if wolf-boy can hook up with their daughter without seeming like a creeper. But despite my apathy, I like that the series highlights an even older tale in pop culture: the Gothic reworking of the vampire formula.
The modern vampire arguably began with the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. The book is a clever allegory and contemplation on modernity, professionalism and the woman’s role in society during the upheaval at the turn of the century. It represented the dawning of new technologies and the last breath of Victorian exceptionalism. Of course, you probably just know for being the granddaddy of all sexy vampire stories. Dracula’s the suave, elegant aristocrat, afraid of sunlight. A seductive monster draped in black capes and tight threads…except that’s not Stoker’s Dracula. Instead, it’s our lusty image of the “traditional vampire” which mostly stems from Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal in Dracula (1931).
In the novel, Stoker’s blood-addict is introduced as a frail old man with hairy palms and a long white moustache worthy of Fu Manchu. Throughout the course of the story, he regresses in age to a young, but ugly man full of cruelty and paleness. At no point does he wear a cape, say “I never drink wine” or, much like mocked-Edward Cullen, wither in the sun. Based on Stoker’s own Gaelic legends, Dracula is a daywalking corpse with a sweet tooth for repressed English virginity.
And isn’t that what vampires are really all about now? Sex. Stoker used his folklore as a sort of Victorian PSA on the dangers of promiscuity. Drinking blood is to vampirism as rampant sex is to syphilis, venereal disease and chaste women becoming streetwalking whores. However, the sexual implications changed in the 20th century from one of horror and rape to one of fantasy and forbidden pleasure. In the 1922 German masterpiece, Nosferatu, the sexuality of the vampire is still spreading death, as he literally brings the Black Plague with him on a ship loaded with rats to kills off most of Germany. Yet, by the time the 1950s roll around, Christopher Lee is getting his fang on with buxom beauties clearly enjoying the fluid swaps in scenes meant to titillate.
All this pent up frustration was released when Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire in 1976. Instantly, the narrative moved from being the story of vampire hunters to the story of vampire anti-heroes. Rice introduced the mainstream to not a lone predator, but a whole race of bisexual vampires that are humanistic, tortured, philosophical, and very, very pretty.
Her undead were still monstrous, but the protagonists felt remorse and shame for their actions. The influence of the guilt-ridden vampire was overwhelming in pop culture. The sexualized creature of Victorianism no longer had to be branded a villain, but rather a misunderstood victim and hero. Popular American literature became flooded with romantic heartthrob vampires intent on sweeping maiden women off their feet. Edward Cullen may be many things, but unique is not one of them.
There has been a cinematic backlash to this image with films like The Lost Boys, Near Dark, From Dusk Till Dawn and Blade to name but a few. Those flicks rewrote vampires for mass consumption as grungy, greasy post-modern thugs. If they were sexy, it was a con for the monster to show its teeth. But none of them could redefine the creature. Demonic Youth Gangs, Strippers Succubi, Holy Water, no Holy Water, none of them caught on like Anne Rice and her imitators. But they did prove the rules of what makes a vampire are still in flux.
With all these conflicting definitions for how a suckhead should behave, it is unsurprising pop culture would welcome the most recent incarnation with open arms, especially when the archetypes are recast as moody teenagers afraid of consummating their relationship because when his fangs penetrates her flesh, she will “become a monster.”
Twilight is just another popular stop on the long road of vampire mythos, no more invalid in reinterpreting nosferatu than when Germans added sunlight. Sure Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, has her monsters walk in the day, but so did Stoker. Her vampires regret drinking blood and even abstain from the practice of feeding on humans, but so do Rice’s. And her fangless vampires sparkle in the sun, such as….okay that’s just dumb.
Even so, Meyer is mixing her gothic literature with the time-old Prince Charming fairytale for modern tween girls. Now, Prince Charming is a vampire and his princess is a teenage daughter of divorcées who feels awkward at school—making her a terrific avatar for any and all female readers to graph themselves upon—whose swept off to a fang-tastic happily ever after. Is that any worse than other popular revisionists in the genre? Meyer’s Mr. Darcy with sparkles is just as valid as the toothy Count.
In the end, Twilight has not taken anything away from vampire mythology or pop culture. It is just what is popular right now. It continues the trend of sex and blood and mixes old themes from folklore and Victorian repression into a singular, easy-to-digest piece of popcorn…if you can stomach it.