A Screen To Sink Your Fangs Into
I get asked about vampires a lot. (It must be part of the job description.) What I think they mean, what the current fascination with them means, if I think they really exist—you get the idea.
My answers run along the lines of: "It's complex," "What do you mean by 'current' fascination?" and "Well, yes. Of course. But not in the way you think."
People have been fascinated with vampires for a very long time. In ancient
Bram Stoker didn't invent the vampire. He did, however, tap a vein of Victorian and imperial British uneasiness about female sexuality, contamination, disease, and "foreign" elements. Anne Rice didn't invent the vampire, but she did turn him into a rock star, raising questions of celebrity, sexuality, and friendship—not to mention religion. Everyone who tells a vampire story reinvents this most ancient of shapeshifters. The vampire is an almost-blank screen on which we project a number of our deepest fears and fantasies. The metaphor of sucking blood has so many layers, it's not even funny.
And vampires nowadays seem particularly attractive not just to adults, but to teens.
The very idea of the extended childhood/adolescence we call "teenage years" is a relatively recent invention, and it is fraught with all sorts of emotional peril. No wonder teens are fascinated with vampires. When you're navigating the shark-infested waters of constructing an identity, not to mention peer groups and pressure, you look for buoys. The vampire is a perpetual outsider, and even well-adjusted teens often feel the same loneliness. In many ways, the teenager and the vampire seem, well, meant for each other.
I see two core attractions for teenagers in the modern idea of the vampire. The first is defining, and the second is specialness.
Teenagers in the process of constructing their identities have a number of problems. One of the most difficult is defining themselves. Definition can happen in opposition—I will never be like my parents, for example—or with belonging, being part of a specific group. The vampire is a perennial outsider (how many fictional bloodsuckers are lonely?) who is at the same time a part of a very small select group (those who suck blood or its equivalent to prolong their existence.) The romance of the vampire can either be that he's a loner or that he's part of a select few. It's having your cake and eating it too, with the extra frisson of snappy capes-and-evening wear fashion sense. Not to mention the several layers of symbolism inherent in bloodsucking.
The second core attraction, what I call specialness, is slightly different. Readers are invited to share in the vampire's uniqueness, either through the vampire's eyes (as in the
Through the vampire's eyes we can enjoy our own sense of uniqueness, a sense that teenagers fight for on a daily basis even as they're swimming in the current of peer conformity. If we view the vampire from the site of the "chosen" protagonist, we get a sense of forgiveness as well. We would all like to think that there's someone out there who will love us even when we're clumsy, dweeby, weak, dorky, or even just plain unappealing. It's a bonus if that person is an ultra-wealthy, handsome, sexy-tragic predator whose soft feelings are reserved only for us.
And then, of course, there's what I see as a third major contributing factor—the fact that modern vampires are downright sexy. Power, consent, contamination, and a thousand other touchy issues centering on that most dangerous of adult playgrounds, the one modern advertising plumbs endlessly to sell ideas and products to teens (including the idea and product of "being a teenager," as if there was just one approved way to do it) are reflected in the different variations of the modern vampire. The bloodsucker becomes a way to test-drive different fantasies and attitudes about sex, power, consent, and the body; a body that is in the teenager's case rapidly changing in varying ways. When a teen feels that their own body is unfamiliar territory, who better to turn to for test-drive fantasies and ready-made attitudes than a similar shapeshifter?
In fiction, vampires are dangerous and disturbing. But reading about them means the reader is in control, can choose how far and deep to go into the fantasy. During a time in their lives when most people probably feel acutely helpless—caught between school and peers, parents and teachers, cool and uncool, with a changing body and hormones revving—the control of deciding just how far you can go into a fantasy is welcome.
The wonder isn't that vampires are so popular. The wonder is that they aren't more popular.
The attraction doesn't stop with wish-fulfillment and social adjustment. I happen to think that the vampire metaphor is a very good one for delivering certain lessons. People who "sponge" off others mentally or emotionally—or even financially—are a danger, and teens can be a vulnerable group. Once you realize that someone is an emotional vampire, or "draining you dry," having a name to put on the behavior and the implicit assumption that you don't have to put up with it is halfway to solving the problem. I'm not advocating putting a stake through the heart of the friend that perpetually owes you ten bucks, but I am saying that once you recognize someone as a vampire of whatever sort you have the option of getting on your garlic and getting out your cross. Vampires can teach us to protect ourselves, a lesson each teen needs desperately.
Like any broadly-useful tool, the vampire metaphor mutates over time. Also, like any tool, it can be used or misused. It's not the vampire's fault, really. The type of shape we see projected on the vampire screen tells us more about ourselves than it ever will about the screen. When you're a teenager, confused or adrift in a world full of conflicting messages, the figure of the vampire can be like sonar—a way to externalize and examine things, so they don't seem so overwhelming. Turning the screen to see the different type of vampires is just as useful as trying new clothes and makeup, searching for the look that is yours alone. You have to know what doesn't work sometimes before you have a hope of finding something that does.
Dead or not, the vampire provides that useful service for us. I truly do suspect the bloodsucking undead will never really die.
And I, for one, can't wait to see what that shapeshifter will do next.