“The blood is the life, Mr Renfield.” – Dracula, 1931
“This is the skin of a killer.” – Edward Cullen, Twilight
“It’s like a whole big sucking thing.” – Buffy Summers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
With hordes of simpering teenage girls dragging their reluctant boyfriends (assuming they have any) to the latest film derived from Stephenie Meyer’s anaemic angst-fest Twilight: Eclipse, I think it’s time to remind ourselves that vampires used to be scary. I remember as a kid being terrified even of Christopher Lee in Hammer’s interminable Dracula series; he had red eyes, fearsome pointed fangs, and bewitched his victims into subjugation before drinking their blood and turning them into walking, thirsting corpses like him. All right, granted he mainly used his powers on a succession of Victorian ladies who were a smidgen too old to be playing the damsel in distress, but it made a huge impression on the 9 year old me, and my nightmares were often haunted by visions of Lee’s blood-dripping fangs as he burst into my room at night intent on slaking his unholy thirst.
Later, I and my horror-loving contemporaries had our childhoods scarred by, of all things, a vampire television show – Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s classic ‘Salem’s Lot. Ferocious Nosferatu Mr Barlow made far less impression than the unspeakably creepy floating little boy scratching to be let in at his brother’s window before draining the life from him. Unlike the Gothic campery of Lugosi’s and even Lee’s Count Dracula, these were vampires living in the real world who cared not if you were a middle aged lady in a Victorian nightdress; everyone was meat and drink to them, even little boys like us.
And now what do we have? The simpering, emasculated Cullen clan, toothless, bloodless and sexually neutered, brought to us courtesy of a starstruck Mormon intent on spreading the message of romance via sexual abstinence. Edward Cullen might be the dream of millions of contemporary teenage girls, but a proper vampire he is not. The Twilight “saga” is the end result of an ever-diminishing spiral of vampire worship that appears to dominate the current reading lists of vapid teenage girls with a hint of old-fashioned goth and absolutely no sense of humour. They’re everywhere; Vampire Academy, The Vampire Diaries, and even the actually rather good True Blood are the best representations of vampires around us right now. No longer monstrous, erotically charged, walking dead men intent on draining you dry until you’re like them, the vampire of 2010 is an insipid sub-Byronic hero who, like Pinocchio, desperately wants to be human. And probably looks like he should be in one of the emo bands who provide the near-identical soundtracks for shows that are basically Dawson’s Creek with tastefully trimmed fangs.
So what changed? How did we get from the menace of Count Dracula to the whimpering, neutered high school stalker that is Edward Cullen? Well, sad to say, there are two rather talented people to blame, though I’m sure neither envisioned the end result of their innovative tinkering with a long established mythology.
The first is Anne Rice. Rice’s 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire revolutionised the genre of vampire fiction, and it’s never been the same since. For the first time, the vampire wasn’t an unknowable, nightmarish monster that had to be destroyed for the good of humanity; he was a person, trapped by his own predatory nature, with regrets and feelings like our own. Even if those feelings were mostly self-pity characterised by endless Romantic moaning like a sort of low rent Coleridge. Louis de Pointe du Lac was the first vampire we were meant to sympathise with – even if many of us had been cheering the vampires along even when they were the bad guys.
The effect of Rice’s novel on the genre was immediate and seismic, and suddenly even good old Vlad Dracula wasn’t just a monster, but a misunderstood romantic. Dan Curtis’ TV adaptation of Dracula – produced the same year and starring Jack Palance – was among the first to use the by now well-worn plot device of Mina Harker being some sort of reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love. It doesn’t really work in Curtis’ version, principally because Jack Palance has a total of two facial expressions, but it became established with variations like John Badham’s 1979 stage play adaptation and even Francis Ford Coppola’s sumptuous and otherwise very faithful 1992 film, reverentially entitled Bram Stoker’s Dracula lest we think it was written by Jackie Collins.
That’s not to say that romance had never been present in the noble count’s soul before; the very first adaptation, FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, sees the legally distinct Graf Orlok trapped by his insatiable desire for Mrs Harker, vaporising in the first rays of the morning sun. The wellspring of almost all movie vampire lore, Nosferatu was the first piece to show vampires being killed by sunlight – an Achilles heel now so firmly established, it’s easy to forget that Stoker’s novel had the villain walking around quite happily in the daytime, albeit with his power somewhat diminished.
Tinkering with the myth is fine – every vampire story has changed the creatures’ characteristics to suit its own plot. I can hardly hold it against Twilight that its vampires can move around in the daylight – though I do hold it against it that if caught in direct sunlight they look ‘magical and beautiful’. But Graf Orlok, while he may have been a romantic (or just extremely frustrated) was never going to set any lonely girl’s heart alight. He looked like a shaved rat, with his bat ears, elongated incisors and bald head.
Rice’s Louis, on the other hand, was like all of her characters – dead, but impossibly good-looking. The fact wasn’t lost on Neil Jordan when he made his rather po-faced film adaptation, casting Brad Pitt as the longlasting moaner for whom death is just an excuse to mope. Louis, naturally, gets away in the end of the novel, and a sequel seems forthcoming. And sequels there were, though it took Rice several years to work up the confidence to write one. But once writing, she seemed totally unable to stop, so that now it seems even the most minor characters from the original novel have another devoted entirely to them.
The most important of these, though, and the one that set the dynamic for conflict in every anthropomorphised vampire story since, was the subject of her very first sequel – Lestat de Lioncourt, otherwise known as The Vampire Lestat. Fun-loving, blackly humourous and utterly amoral, Lestat was everything whinging Louis was not. Having an absolute ball being undead, thrilling to the hunt and considering humans lesser beings put on the plant solely for sport, he was the very essence of the villainous vampires of the past – but now the story was being told from his point of view. Revelling in what I suppose you’d have to call joie de mort, Lestat was the polar opposite of Louis, and yet despite their frequent conflicts, nothing could quite tear them apart. They were drenched in the sort of doomed homoerotic subtext previously reserved for the incumbents of Tennessee Williams plays – and together, they set the template for how vampire stories would go from thereon in.
So – Louis and Lestat. One hates being undead, the other can’t get enough of it. They hate each other and they love each other. So far,so kinky, and horror literature seized on the concept, heightening the always present sensuality of the vampire and turning what used to be a sexual subtext into just text. SP Somtow’s excellent Vampire Junction simultaneously sexualised and castrated – literally – his vampire protagonist, while Poppy Z Brite’s more-Southern-gothic-than Anne Rice Lost Souls? has the logical progression of a vampire teenager having a homosexual relationship with his own beautiful, immortal father.
But horror literature – Stephen King and James Herbert aside – is rather a niche market, especially when it gets that kinky. The likes of Somtow and Brite took Rice’s template to an extreme, but it would take more than that to make it popular. It would take… well, let’s see, a long-running hit television series with mass appeal, smart writing and a groundbreaking mix of everyday drama and comedy with fantasy and horror. Step forward, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Yes, the other person primarily to blame for the glut of squeeing fangirl vampire romance – quite unintentionally – is the very talented Joss Whedon. Buffy was a surprise sleeper hit, taking Rice’s ‘mournful, brooding vampire’ template and adding a new ingredient – a totally empowered, if often shallow and vacuous, girl heroine, who was no mere damsel in distress. Buffy Summers was, basically, a superhero vampire hunter, like Marvel Comics’ Blade. But unlike Blade, she liked to flirt with the dark side, and here was where the ‘brooding, melancholy vampire’ came in. Angel was an undead creature cursed with a soul to make him regret and torture himself over all the blood he’d spilled – Rice’s Louis, almost to the life (or death).
But there was no Lestat to balance him out. That balance was redressed as early as season two, as we met William the Bloody – forever to be known as Spike. Spike was almost exactly like Lestat, even down to the (dyed) blond hair. But filtered with a modern sensibility reminiscent of Lestat’s rebirth as a rock star; Spike was deliberately reminiscent of a 1970s British punk, despite his 19th century origins and distinctly wobbly accent. Apparently defeated at the end of the season, Spike was too perfect a balance to abandon, and he returned the very next year then became a regular the year after that. Unrepentant but controlled by a chip in his head, you could rely on Spike for a sneering putdown or a bit of the old ultraviolence – providing it wasn’t against humans, or the chip would give him a blinding headache. The difference between Spike and Angel was that Angel didn’t want to be a monster but had to fight against it, while Spike wanted to and couldn’t.
And the difference between Rice and Whedon was a sense of humour, the one thing lacking in the overly earnest, angsty drivel of the Twilight series. Almost from the start, the pomposity of Rice’s vampire archetypes was constantly punctured by witty dialogue and the insightful characterisation of Joss Whedon. Angel’s brooding moods were constantly mocked, at first by the other characters and eventually by Angel himself – by the time he got his own spin off series, he’d admitted to a fondness for Barry Manilow and at one point got turned into a felt muppet, none of which undercut the believability of the character. Spike, on the other hand, was artificially neutered but lost none of the menace, even when he fell for Buffy. And the show got distinctly darker when she not only reciprocated his advances, but broke his cold heart by admitting she only wanted him for sex.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a constantly evolving, emotionally complex and surprisingly relevant piece of fantasy television. It perhaps dragged on two seasons too long, though even those last two seasons had gems like Once More With Feeling – a musical episode that actually addressed character motivation through song – and Normal Again, which posits the (unresolved) idea that the whole series is a dream Buffy’s been having while incarcerated in a mental institution. But after seven years Whedon called it a day, and Buffy came to a dignified end. Then the network pulled the carpet out from spinoff show Angel, and that came to a more abrupt, but still heroic, conclusion. And popular vampires retreated back into the aether – or perhaps the coffin.
But Buffy, by dint of the nature of its central character, had created a surprising new fanbase for vampire stories – teenage girls. Girls wanted to be like Buffy Summers – and while some wanted nothing more than the kickass superpowers, still more, it seemed, wanted a doomed, Byronic romance with a mopey immortal tortured by his own demonic nature. Books started to appear. LJ Smith’s Vampire Diaries series, written in the early 90s, was resurrected (pun intended) and extended, while Richelle Mead gave an unwilling world the Vampire Academy series, and Charlaine Harris weighed in with the rather better Sookie Stackhouse series, adapted for TV as True Blood. All of these, you’ll note, are written by women, generally women of an age to have been teenage viewers of Buffy. But the one that caught the imaginations of more emo-loving, self-harming teenage girls than any other was Stephenie Meyer’s dreary Twilight series – the ultimate extension to the trend of defanging the vampire to make him a safe plaything for teenage girls who wanted something a little bit more Byronic than the singer from Dashboard Confessional.
And the true nature of that defanging is to emasculate the vampire. Traditionally, vampires have been steeped in sensuality, if not outright sexuality. Stoker’s Dracula scandalised late Victorian society for its (at the time) overtly sexual tone, with the vampire protagonist playing on the repressed sexual desires of the two main female characters. Rice’s Louis and Lestat shagged like satyrs, Louis with his usual doomed, nihilistic air and Lestat with full on lust. Even rat faced old Graf Orlok in Nosferatu basically dies because he can’t resist the lure of getting his leg over.
But such things are not for Stephenie Meyer (and why can’t she spell her forename properly?). A devout Mormon, she’s been accused of writing, with Twilight, “abstinence porn”. She, conversely, claims that it’s better to show romance without sex. Why, she argues, does romance always have to equate with sex, especially graphic sex in literature? That’s actually a fair point – if you’re writing about people. But vampires aren’t people, and a heightened sexuality has been intrinsic to the legend for centuries. Take way their sexuality, and you might as well take way the fact that they drink your blood.
And in fact, Meyer does that too. Her vampire heroes, the Cullens, are as abstinent from blood drinking as they are from shagging. That’s hardly surprising, as the one is a crudely written metaphor for the other in Meyer’s world. The Cullens have to exert tremendous self control to keep from drinking blood, as once they’ve started it’s almost impossible to stop. But just in case you didn’t get the profoundly obvious metaphor, simpering hero Edward Cullen literally refuses to have sex with passive heroine Bella – a shame, as her lust for him is the only positive thing she does that contradicts the 19th century damsel in distress stereotype. In fact, Bella seems to spend 90 per cent of her time having to be rescued, if not by Edward then by thwarted would be beau and werewolf Jacob Black.
But neither man wants to have sex with her. Oh no, that would send out the wrong message to the teenagers of America. Although the net result of their refusal, coupled with their tendencies (in the films) to stand around looking buff with their shirts off, is a presumably unintentional homoerotic tension that borders on the hilarious. Presumably there’s slash fiction out there in which Edward and Jacob finally consummate their feverish lust for each other – God knows, it’s probably better written than the actual Twilight novels.
So is this the final end for the vampire? From a terrifying walking corpse that wants to kill you and drink your blood to a toothless plaything for pale girls who don’t like to go out much and have a problem getting boyfriends? There are still shreds of hope. True Blood, the TV adaptation of the Sookie Stackhouse series, is a marvellously full-blooded and overblown Southern Gothic melodrama that makes Anne Rice look like Enid Blyton. It still follows the basic Buffy formula of an empowered heroine (Sookie is a telepathic waitress!) caught between a mopey brooding vampire (Bill Compton) and a sexy blond bad boy vampire (Eric Northman). But it’s set in a fascinating world where vampires and humans uneasily coexist, and written in a style like Tennessee Williams without the restraint. Not to mention that it features massively gratuitous amounts of sex, violence, swearing and drug abuse; the dark side of Twilight, it probably gives Stephenie Meyer palpitations just thinking about it. And like Buffy, it has a sense of humour – the cardinal sin of the Twilight series is that it takes everything about itself so bloody seriously.
And while we’re on humour, us Brits have waded in with Toby Whithouse’s excellent Being Human, from BBC3. The comic/dramatic tale of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a flat in Bristol and trying to fit into normal society, it’s produced some genuinely chilling portrayals of vampirism mixed with moments of pathos and laugh out loud humour. Mitchell is another vampire trying to be human; but he keeps failing. He’s genuinely funny when out with his mates in the pub, or trying to hold down in a menial job in a hospital; but when he gets really dark, as he does in series one when caught in a vampire civil war or series two when he’s out for revenge, he is one of the most chilling vampires you’ll have seen for ages.
And the kinkier, more niche aspects of horror literature are fighting a rearguard action against the nauseating spectacle of the Twilight series. This is often better demonstrated in the world of comics, where Steve Niles gave us the excellent (and extremely violent) 30 Days of Night (coincidentally adapted into a film directed by David Slade, who has just given us the latest Twilight movie).
So hopefully, this faddish adoption of a monster by insipid doe-eyed teenage emo girls is just a passing thing. The vampire’s been in the doldrums before, and always risen from the coffin again. All we need is to get the fangirls sexually interested in some other classic monster. I suggest they try going on a date with a flesh eating zombie…