How vampires got all touchy-feely
By Brendan O’Neill
With the hit film Twilight, the transformation of vampires from terrifying, bloodsucking killers to sensitive, emotionally-intelligent, misunderstood souls, is complete. How was Bram Stoker’s legacy so drastically betrayed?
When you hear the word “vampire”, what image comes to mind? Men in black cloaks, with pasty faces, protruding fangs and an insatiable desire to feast on people’s blood?
Strange Transylvanians who sleep in coffins by day and flap around like bats at night? Perhaps you think of gangs of the undead, who are scared of garlic and can only be killed by having a wooden stake driven through their hearts.
Well, think again. The vampire has had a makeover. He’s no longer a weird, threatening foreigner, with a strange voice and even stranger dining habits – the vampire has become super-cool, lusted after by girls and envied by boys.
The movie Twilight, which topped the US box office earlier this year, and receives its UK release on Friday, is an adaptation of the first in a series of teenage vampire novels by American author Stephanie Meyer.
It tells the story of a human girl, Bella (played by Kristen Stewart), who falls in love with a 108-year-old vampire who looks like a 17-year-old boy, Edward (played by rising Brit heartthrob and former Harry Potter star, Robert Pattinson).
Edward is no Dracula-style neck-chomper who devours the human girl and terrifies the cinema audience. He’s a cool, handsome, trendy school student, and a “vegetarian vampire” – that is, he resists his inner desire to drink human blood and feasts only on animals instead.
This is a story, not of beastly excess, but of heroic restraint: Edward suppresses both his lust for blood and his physical desire for Bella, even refusing to kiss her in case he is tempted to “bite and drink”.
It seems the vampire is no longer a marauding hunter of unsuspecting humans; instead he is a symbol of celibacy and common sense.
And unlike many other vampire films, the “victim” in this one – human teen Bella – is not scared of Edward and his family of cold-skinned, beautiful vampires. In fact, she wants to join them. The chase is reversed: the human pursues the vampire, and the vampire resists.
On its US release last month, Twilight raked in $35.7m (Â£24.36m) on its first day – the highest-ever opening-day gross for a non-sequel or non-summer movie. And judging by the screaming teenage fans at its London premiere this week, it will do very brisk business when it goes on general release in the UK on 19 December.
Count von Count of Sesame Street
Count von Count (Sesame Street)
Tom Cruise (Interview with the Vampire)
Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys)
Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee (Dracula)
David Boreanaz (Angel in Buffy)
Wesley Snipes (Blade)
Richard E Grant (The Little Vampire)
So how did the vampire go from being the stuff of nightmares to the object of young girls’ dreams – from a figure of evil to a desirable outsider?
Edward in Twilight is not really the first “vegetarian vampire”, struggling to contain his dark desires.
In cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that began in the late 1990s, Angel, played by David Boreanaz, had a conscience and a soul, and resisted the desire to drink human blood, living on pig’s blood instead. Angel is also an example of the decent, desirable vampire, who even assists (and flirts) with the vampire slayer.
For Milly Williamson, author of The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the changing cultural depictions of vampires reveals much about human society itself.
There has been a “general shift”, she says, from the vampire as exotic foreigner – as depicted in Romantic poetry in the 19th Century and most famously in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula – to the vampire as edgy “outsider”.
“From the 1970s, the vampire has achieved a cool, bad boy, exotic and sexy image”, she says. “And he has become a sympathetic creature, someone we feel for.”
This is not entirely new, she points out. Right from the Romantic period in the 19th Century, when there was widespread fascination with Eastern European “vampyrs”, the vampire has been a “pathos-filled creature who has been at odds with his ontology and his innate desires, and who has struggled with them”, says Williamson.
Yet it is significant, she says, that this aspect of vampire lore has risen to prominence since the 1970s.
“The vampire is a rich and very flexible symbol of so many different things”, she says. “He can be a threat to us and our everyday lives – or he can be an enticement away from our everyday lives.
“It is interesting that in the 1980s, in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the vampire even became a kind of symbol of family values. The vampire films The Lost Boys and Near Dark [both released in 1987] are really about holding families together, whether it’s the vampire family or the human family.”
Yet, she points out, even in those movies the vampires retained the post-1970s outsider appeal. In The Lost Boys the vampires are cool indie kids with peroxide blonde hair; in Near Dark they are cowboy types who flirt, drink and play pool on the outskirts of Oklahoma.
For Williamson, the key to this shift in the depiction of vampires – from something threatening to something tantalising – lies in the social upheavals of the 1960s.
“The counterculture changed the way we view those who are ‘outside’ of traditional society”, she says. “It celebrated ‘outsider status’ rather than denigrating it.”
It is striking, she says, that after the rise of the counterculture, that “ultimate cultural outsider” – the vampire, who stalks and feasts on the ordinary humans of mainstream society – starts to look “more acceptable, even sympathetic”.
Bruce McClelland agrees. “What changes is not so much the vampire, but rather our attitudes toward being outsiders, heretics,” says the self-proclaimed “vampirologist” and author of Slayers and their Vampires: A History of the Killing the Dead.
From his extensive studies of the cult of the vampire, McClelland says that the word “vampir” emerged in Slavic societies around the 15th Century to describe those considered to be outside the Christian community.
And in different times, for different reasons, this “outsider” status of the vampire has been feared or embraced in cultural depictions, he says.
He argues that for many Romantics and leftists in the 19th Century, the vampire became a symbol of industrial society sapping people’s will. Dracula was first published during the Industrial Revolution, he notes.
More recently, the Goth movement adopted vampire imagery because they “identified with the scapegoat aspect of the vampire, who is always outside of society”, says Mr McClelland.
The vampire has remained quite consistent, he says; it is our attitude to outsiders that shifts back and forth.
And now, with Twilight, we seem to have the ultimate mainstreaming of “outsider status”. But not everyone is enamoured of the new vegetarian, celibate vampires that have usurped the terrifying figures of old. Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves plants herself firmly in the traditional camp.
“Books and movies directed at teenage girls, like Twilight, are always homogenous by definition,” she says. “I vote for the scaries.”