Fiends to Friends: How modern Western culture has transformed the vampire myth

From Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula, to the hot new television series True Blood, vampires have clearly endured in pop culture. One might even say that they are immortal. Whatever their origin, this long procession of folklore reveals that these ancient creatures have haunted us for many, many years.

Recently, though, vampire media has exploded. Why has the vampire become so popular as of late? By speaking with experts and cultural critics, as well as some die-hard fans of the vampire media trend, we attempt to answer these questions.

Kirsten Stevens, a graduate student at Monash University, explains, “The vampire has found many faces, many representations, and many metaphorical meanings which have allowed it to enjoy a consistent presence…as this society’s ‘outsider’ and ‘other.’” Stevens suggests that vampires tend to signify deviance from social norms, and that that attribution has changed as society has changed.

One example of this deviant symbolism comes from a vampire classic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which became popular in the Victorian era. Stoker’s female vampires are overtly sexual and seductive. They were demonized because women during this time were expected to be chaste and modest.

Ironically, this was also a time when prostitution was booming, so much so that it became known as “the great social evil.” Stevens explains, “…it is also this [otherness], which provides for its most paradoxical fascination.” Essentially, Stoker’s female vampire is the embodiment of Victorian social anxieties.

The sexual exploit of Stoker’s female vampires made them both heinous and enticing. Vampires have always been highly sexualized, but in classic vampire myth, this sexuality is cast as repugnant behaviour. The representation of the vampire as sexually overindulgent has carried into contemporary portrayals.

In 1997, Joss Whedon launched a television series called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The story is about Buffy Summers, a young girl who is chosen as the latest in a long line of female “Vampire Slayers.” With the help of her friends and her patriarchal mentor, she must battle the forces of darkness in order to restore balance to the human world. Her first love interest is a vampire named Angel, who is unlike other vampires in that he has a soul, preventing him from indulging in his vampiric urges.

Professor of English Literature Sara Humphreys explains that the show is “more about the ways in which we all have to grapple with identity politics, using ‘monsters’ as a way to express difference.” In keeping with the traditional casting of vampires, Whedon’s monsters represent conflict and adversity.

However, the show does mark a shift in portraying vampires as humanized, rather than always monstrous. We can observe this through the character development of its atypical vampire characters, Angel and Spike, who possess souls. What differentiates Whedon’s Buffy from older myths is, as Humphreys explains, “the monsters often have a personality.” They are no longer just stock figures of horror, but are given integrity. Stevens explains that these characters are “removed from the vampire’s bite and from its associated eroticized and violent excesses.” This humanizes the vampire, which is atypical of the convention.

Although this improvement serves to cast the vampires in a gentler light, it still condemns the violence and sexuality of their nature. When Buffy consummates her love with Angel, he loses his soul and becomes a violent, miserable monster again. They ultimately never end up together, and Angel eventually gets written out of the show.

While Buffy still ascribes to the old tradition of casting the vampire as a monster, the humanization of the vampire is the beginning of a more sympathetic attitude toward it. This movement is taken further in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight.

Twilight is a vampire-themed romance novel series. It is the story of Isabella (Bella) Swan, a teenage girl who moves to Forks, Washington, and falls in love with Edward Cullen, a 104-year-old vampire.

The vampire characters in this novel are without a doubt the “cool” kids in school. They portray a quiet, dark mystery and ensuing toughness. They even sparkle like diamonds in the sunlight. They are portrayed as superior to humans, verified through Bella’s eventual decision to become a vampire.

Jaclyn Stergiadis is a big fan of the series. Her fascination developed because she loved the idea of “a regular…human girl attracting this gorgeous otherworldly guy.” The vampire as idol is a fairly recent trend, but Stergiadis explains, “Everyone wants to be ‘super’…it’s more exciting than our normal human lives.” Many young fans of this series share Stegiadis’ attitude; they idolize the vampires.

An obvious theme in Twilight is the romance element, and more specifically, what Stergiadis calls “forbidden love.” Vampires have always carried an aura of sexuality about them, but a vampire as the object of romantic interest is something new. Humphreys posits that, “Twilight reflects the vampire as a metaphor for burgeoning sexuality and lust.” Albeit fairly innocent, there is a sexual undercurrent to the story, however it is the attitude toward this sexual liberation that is unique.

While the consecration of Buffy and Angel’s love is punished, Bella and Edward are given a happily-ever-after. This sanction of otherwise forbidden love demonstrates a progression toward acceptance.

Stergiadis explains: “The vampires of old lured women into their lairs to seduce and feed on them, but that was one night of passion and then death. We want them to have a relationship.” She adds, “At the end of the day [Bella] just wants this guy she’s fallen in love with to love her back. I think every girl relates to her.”

The traditional view of the vampire was as a solitary outcast that must feed on a different human every night in order to live forever. Twilight has innovated the vampire myth in two ways. It has made vampires cool and glamorous and it has translated the notion of a vampire’s unnatural – and therefore perverted – immortal life into rather a supernatural immortal love.

Another vampire series that innovates the vampire myth is True Blood, a current television series created by Alan Ball in 2008.

True Blood is set in southern Louisiana in the fictional small town of Bon Temps, a society in which humans and vampires co-exist thanks to the development of a blood synthetic. The story follows Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who encounters the supernatural world when she meets Bill Compton, a vampire.

Considering the contentious social structure of Bon Temps, True Blood is one of the most politically charged vampire plots out there. Stephanie Arpin, an avid fan of True Blood, explains that the show is interesting because, in her opinion, Southerners function in a very strict society where “anything that is different is frowned upon.” She explains that the rigidity of traditional Southern culture makes it an excellent stage for introducing the supernatural: “It’s interesting to see how vampires…end up kind of fitting in.”

There are those in Bon Temps who accept the vampires on the basis that they do not harm the humans, but there are also some who remain bigots. These ignorant characters are portrayed as the antagonists. This marks a major shift: vampires as protagonists and humans as antagonists is the opposite of what traditional vampire myths portray.

Furthermore, Arpin notes that, “even the vampires have their own political society where they have rules and regulations to follow.” Contrarily, not all the vampires play by their own rules. Some of them violently feed on humans despite the availability of a blood substitute.

True Blood has villains in both categories: humans and vampires alike. Not one of them is typecast. This equality demonstrates that there are bad apples in every race. It is a progression from the traditional depiction of vampires as “other,” as well as a progression from Twilight’s notion of vampires being superior. True Blood illustrates through a new rendering of the vampire myth that it is the individual who defines one’s character, not their classification.

Temple University English Professor Peter Logan said, “This change in the vampires and the story lines may be a reflection of our changing attitudes toward heterogeneity. Instead of fearing contamination, we are learning to accept differences.” Recent trends in the vampire genre shed light on those in our broader society. The humanization of the vampire archetype parallels our societal progression toward acceptance and understanding of the “other.” The removal of the vampire from the demonic realm demonstrates not only that are we fascinated by the supernatural, we are also willing to embrace what is different and understand the taboo.

Archetypal characters of myth will continue to be reborn from one generation to the next, but each rebirth is a reincarnation – a reinvention. Each generation interprets and redefines these classics in a modern way. Just as society changes, so too does the symbolic value we ascribe to our myths. Fiends can become friends. What is important is that, as a constantly progressing civilization, we continue to challenge our  customs and question our superstructure as we strive for acceptance and tolerance. Ω

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2 Responses to Fiends to Friends: How modern Western culture has transformed the vampire myth

  1. Excellent. Thank you.
    I love the nosferatu type vampyre as much as I hate the teeny-bopper sparkle-puff vamps.
    Years ago (I cannot recall where it is–it’s a paper I found) I read an essay which discusses Polidori’s vamp as being intended to satirize Byron, and that the suave, sexual vampire which we’re now accustomed to was just an accident. Ha.

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