Our Culture’s Obsession With Vampires

I have had two people make comments in the last week to me about vampires, so it seems fitting to wish my blog friends a Happy Halloween by sharing my thoughts on the “vampire phenomenon.” The first was my mother, sighing and inquiring, “Why is everything about vampires now?” when I mentioned that Tim Burton is in talks to direct the re-imagining of Dark Shadows. The second was a comment from a friend on a recent episode of Supernatural, in which she said she appreciated the show’s dedication to “not romanticizing” vampires, but instead showing them for what they are – evil. “When did vampires become romantic, anyway?” she complained.

Our culture does indeed have an obsession with the undead. HBO’s True Blood has critics and fans alike salivating. On the CW, Damon and Stefan Salvatore are constantly competing for the affections of the beautiful Elena, when not fending off werewolves and contending with cranky witches. Twilight has taken the world by storm and become one of the most popular fandoms of our modern age. Where did this phenomenon begin? Why is it so tremendous right now? What does it say about our culture? And what does it mean that vampires are glorified, sexualized, romanticized? How about how this is spreading throughout Christian culture as well? How does one reconcile blood-drinkers and the anti-religious elements of vampires with a strong personal faith? Some would say you cannot be a Christian and “like” vampires. I am not as narrow minded as that, but I do think our society’s thirst for the undead is revealing.

The original vampires in literature were never particularly romantic, but depicted as predatory. Many believe Stoker was the originator of the lore and while his Dracula did indeed pave the way for future incarnations, he was not the first author to write of them. Legends take vampires back into ancient mythology and the goddess Lamia, who drank the blood of her children. Fascination with vampires exploded in the early 1800’s when a number of short stories featuring them became popular in the garish sensational magazines of the time. A French author soon wrote Carmilla, arguably the first vampire novel. Then, Dracula hit the presses, both a startling tale of evil and a symbolic reflection on the Victorian era – its chauvinism, its rise in feminism, its increase in abortions, its fascination with the occult, and its abandonment of traditional religion. Its undercurrent is that evil exists that cannot be destroyed without faith, a sort of metaphorical cautionary tale.

Interestingly, one of the most obvious alterations in the ever-present evolution of “modern” interpretations of vampires is the loss of faith. When Stoker wrote his novel, his emphasis on religion was crucial in bringing about Dracula’s demise. Holy wafers, holy water, relics, crosses, and such could ward off and defeat vampires. But as the stories progressed, such aspects lost their power and soon failed to resonate at all. Remnants of such traditional, religious means of defeating vampires still lingered in Langella’s time but with the popularity of Anne Rice began to diminish. Modern vampires, depending on the storyline, are not as affected by religious artifacts, which could signify our culture’s increasing apathy for and disinterest in faith. Lestat and Louis enjoy entering churches and looking at crucifixes. Damien and Stefan have no problem entering holy places, either. Sunlight either gives vampires headaches (Moonlight) or destroys them (Buffy, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Underworld) or even makes them sparkle (Twilight).

One might ask when exactly vampires became not the fearful, evil creatures of the night but empathetic, haunted, romantic souls in search of redemption, who fall in love with a mortal. It probably started with Dark Shadows, a very popular “vampire soap opera” in the 1960’s. There, the mild-mannered, gentle and romantic Barnabas challenged the concept of an “evil” and manipulative vampire as standardized by Christopher Lee and Bella Lugosi. The sensuality of vampires caught on and when Frank Langella took over Dracula on Broadway in the 70’s, the Count had been rewritten into a much sadder, more romantic figure. The production was such a success that it was taken to the big screen, and Langella fought to maintain the romantic aspect of the character, so much so that in spite of his dastardly deeds, the Count emerges as an empathetic force rather than a cruel one. One could say this was the first successful launching of Dracula in a sensual aspect, since his tender love scene with Lucy caused a sensation, tapping into female desires in a way that no vampire had done before.

Then, Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire. Vampires were suddenly cool – and her characters were memorable and haunting: the self-centered, often cruel Lestat, the tormented and guilt-ridden Louis, and the ravenously hungry, manipulative eternal child, Claudia. Audiences marveled at them, smiled at them, cried with them. Vampires were pitched to young readers in the early 90’s with the young adult book series, The Vampire Diaries. Riding on its success, Buffy the Vampire Slayer soon premiered and the world met Angel, a vampire with a soul fighting for redemption… arguably the inspiration for every haunted, tortured vampire to follow. Mick, Edward, even Bill Compton is in some ways modeled after Angel, who is modeled after Stefan, who is modeled after Louis, who could be inspired by Barnabas. So… who is responsible for ultimately making vampires romantic? The answer would be Dark Shadows, and Anne Rice.

In my opinion there is a positive and a negative to the increase in popularity in vampires, as well as the “softening” of vampires. In many regards, vampires are symbolic of a transcending religious experience, a fallen creature divided from God by its sin. If you want to take vampires in their most primal form and explore the symbolism, they are anti-Christ figures living off the blood of humans in a mockery of the sacrament of Communion. They are creatures of darkness who are eternally damned. In their re-envisioning as soulful, tormented “anti-heroes,” they speak of mankind’s quest for eternal life. Vampires are immortal. They have achieved immortality at a tremendous cost, forsaking their salvation. Thus enters a soul in search of forgiveness seeking to no longer be “damned,” an image of eternal sorrow in an endless quest for salvation, usually through finding a way to renounce blood and “live again.” Where the peril lies is in diminishing the brutal realities of vampires… stories that have heroic vampires questing for redemption are good, because it promotes the realization that being a vampire is horrific. It does not diminish their separation from God, their aversion to sunlight (always symbolic of God), their loathing and shame over drinking blood to survive, or that their lives are empty and meaningless because immortality without salvation is terrible: to live on when others have died.

The danger is in making vampires too romantic, in not allowing the audience to see the evil in them. Many films and series balance the romance and violence well. Langella’s Dracula is commanding, charming, and sensual but that does not prevent him from manipulating Mina and killing people. Stefan and Angel both struggle with a blood addiction – whenever they drink human blood, they tend to go on reckless killing sprees. Mick hates his lifestyle so much he would rather die than drink blood from another human being – and is determined to find a “cure.” Bill and Eric are not “nice.” They are fascinating, but deadly and have almost no sense of compassion or guilt. Yet we like them.

Our culture’s fascination with the undead I believe stems from the spiritual emptiness in their lives. It is a form of escapism, a realization that there is more to life than what we see around us, an acknowledgement of a supernatural plain. Our culture is lost, and searching for truth wherever it can be found. It is taking refuge in a fantasy in order to escape the pain of ordinary existence; it is searching for God without even realizing it, clinging to a notion that yes, there can be life after death, and even the greatest evils can ultimately be forgiven. It is a different fascination for Christian vampire fans and secular ones. The latter are searching in earnest for meaning in existence whereas the former are indulging their fantasies. Most women and especially teenage girls harbor fantasies about “bad boys,” and wanting to be the “good girl” that redeems them. This is why Twilight in particular is so popular – what is more romantic than finding someone who will love you for all eternity, who will be with you for all eternity, who is strong, and brave, and beautiful? Who wants to protect and love you and not threaten your chastity until after marriage? (The latter I think appeal most to Christian girls for obvious reasons, but I can see it resonating in the secular culture as well.) Who is dangerous to others but tender with you?

I suspect a great many Christian girls find it difficult to contend with their own sexuality. Because our values forbid experimentation or physical involvement outside of marriage, we turn to vampires as a sort of refuge, a means of being daring and scandalous without actually doing anything wrong. Vampires are “safe.” They do not exist and therefore are of no threat to our reputations or our virginity. Plus, as vampire Tesla in Sanctuary would say, they have always been “just plain cool.”

Bonus: Vampires Who Do Not Sparkle Multi-fandom Music Video.

What do you think about vampires? Sound off below!

2 Replies to “Our Culture’s Obsession With Vampires”

  1. Fortunately, vampires don't exist so most people will face no threat from them — but I do think that a fascination with dark things can sometimes lead to problematic behavior. The “Twilight” series is not very good in a literary sense, and the films leave much to be desired, but it's easy to see why young girls like them so much. They're romantic-minded, and Edward has an old-fashioned morality to his behavior that is very appealing when contrasted with modern boys.

  2. I believe you're right on, once again. 🙂 Have had similar thoughts about vampires lately. I got to watch the 2nd in the Twilight series. To be honest, I found it poorly produced, acted, etc, etc. But there were certain aspects that made me realize why the other teenage girls enjoyed the film so much. You listed them. There is something about the thought of someone loving us for all eternity. 🙂 But that is such a false view of vampires and all that goes with it. Sometimes I shudder to think of the kids who think a vampire is something good or cool to be.

    I think vampires can get as addicted to blood as a junky to his meth (or whatever drug it may be). The condition would be terrible. I can't imagine.

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