The Vampire Mystique

I think we can generally agree that 2008 has been the Year of the Vampire, what with the collective pop culture obsession over vampires being whipped up to a fever pitch. Societies do seem to go through various peaks of vampire frenzy, but this has been a particularly intense year, and I think that the nature of the vampire obsession has gotten really interesting.

My father and I were talking about this a few weeks ago while we were doing our laundry (long story), because his students had all gone to see Twilight, and they were pretty trashed at his early class the next morning. I found it interesting that both the boys and the girls had gone to see it, and I was explaining the whole Twilight franchise, and we started talking about the vampire mystique.

Because there definitely is a vampire mystique. And, as my father points out, a lot of it has to do with sexuality. Vampires are either alluring, mysterious men who seduce innocent virgins, performing a highly sexualized act in sucking their blood, or they are vixen temptresses (like Dracula’s three brides) who bring men to their knees. (Who could forget that episode of Buffy where Giles meets Dracula’s ladies…) The victims of vampires become sexually charged themselves in a lot of stories, with their pale skin and ruby red lips and sudden lust (all the more shocking in virgins).

There’s a lot of play in the vampire mystique with blood and the power of blood. I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the fact that most women bleed once a month in a process which many men find terrifying, confusing, or utterly mysterious, and here’s a cult mythology built around the consumption of blood. Vampirism brings the collective obsession with sex and death to a natural conclusion, in which the two are intertwined. There’s a reason many cultures refer to orgasm as the little death, people.

And the story has remained pretty consistent ever since Stoker planted the idea in the Western consciousness. There’s really not a lot of variation in vampire stories, and people have been gleefully eating them up, so to speak, and fantasizing about them. The idea of being powerless and enthralled by a vampire is appealing to many people, and I think especially to people who are struggling with their sexuality. You can fantasize about anything you want when you imagine that you are doing it under duress, because you are enspelled by a mythical being whom you cannot resist. Hence, it becomes acceptable to fantasize about things which might be taboo in other situations, for men and women alike. The vampire is the ultimate object of sexual fantasy.

Until Twilight, which turned the entire system totally upside down, and I find that totally fascinating. Twilight is about the opposite of sexuality, with a consummation that only happens at the end of the book, and a torrid love affair which occurs without the expression of sexuality. It’s a total subversion of the traditional take on the vampire tale. Oh, sure, the vampires have unearthly beauty, and many of them are alluring to humans, but the similarities pretty much end there. (And please don’t get me started on the sparkling thing, ok?)

And what intrigues me about this is that young women are going totally wild over the Twilight books, even though they are a total reworking of the highly sexualized vampire tradition. They are the anti-sex, and women are loving it. Women are falling in love with Edward, to the point that the line between fact and fiction is becoming blurred, and the actor portraying Edward in the films is being mobbed by flocks of women for whom he has become an ideal. When Baxt and I read the books over the summer, we discussed the idea that Edward is “safe,” in that he’s very strong, and beautiful, and he chooses Bella over all the others, and he wants to protect her, and that appeals to a lot of young women. It definitely figured in our high school fantasies, for sure, and I’ll bet that a number of my female readers could confess to the same.

But Edward isn’t just safe, he also has the whiff of danger, and that’s what appeals to young women in his character: he is himself dangerous, and he’s the one protecting Bella from himself. Just like sexuality is viewed as dangerous, so a boyfriend who “controls himself” is safe. And, indeed, when Bella does start pushing to have sex with Edward, he decides “for her own good” that they should wait, just like that idealized high school boyfriend.

Stories of star-crossed vampire/human romances often include this element, but not quite to the point that Meyer took it. Edward isn’t just saving her from his sexuality, he’s protecting her honor for marriage, which seems especially odd in the context of a society where marriage seems to hold little value. (Except, of course, when you have an opportunity to deny it to someone else.)

It’s truly fascinating, and I think it reflects a fundamental shift in our culture, because it’s not just young women that are reading these books, it’s older women. Twilight Moms, as they call themselves, are a very active part of the Twilight community, and that suggests that this character, and this story, have some kind of universal appeal. And I think the appeal is the antisexuality of the books. It’s the rejection of sexualized activities, and the embrace of abstinence, which is something that seems to really grip the growing evangelical movement in this country.

American society is caught in this very strange virgin/whore dichotomy right now, and the Twilight books really illustrate that. Especially for young women, sexuality in this country is a total minefield, and it sometimes seems like there’s no way to come out on top. And here comes this white knight in a grey Volvo, telling you that he will protect you from the scary reality of the outside world. He will make your choices for you, take away the difficult decisions and protect you from the whores by keeping you a virgin. Not just that, but he is going to reward you for your chastity and purity by giving you eternal life, wealth, and everything you could ever dream of. Suddenly, saving yourself for marriage is not just “the right thing to do,” it’s a choice which opens the door to a magical and miraculous world.

I tell you what, I’d take Angelus over Edward any day of the week.

5 Replies to “The Vampire Mystique”

  1. I tried to read the first of Meyer’s books, and couldn’t get much beyond the first chapter- never mind that she has taken the sexuality out of vampires (and that whole “we don’t eat humans” thing is just bogus) but OMG, the WHINING.

    Give me sexually predatory vamps, please, or broody ones, like Angel, Nick, and Mick.

    Even Vampire Bill is preferable.

    (Came here from Holidailies)

  2. I don’t know that I entirely agree with the assessment that she has taken the sexuality out of things. It seems to me that what she’s done is taken the sex out of things, while steeping the characters basically non-stop in an almost unbearable sexuality, to the point where every touch becomes a fulfillment of a sexual promise.

    I think that’s what’s appealing to so many of the readers – in a world where sex has become non-taboo, where the sex act is no longer something that exists on the periphery, I think there is something more appealing in a sexuality that seems to shrug off the banality that comes from mundane penetration. In, to put it another way, a sexuality that still has a promise and allure that the literal act of sex so many of the books’ fans have already experienced turned out not to have.

  3. Amen to that. Edward is boring. Spike, now, that’s an interesting vampire. Or, as you say, Angelus. (But not whiny-ass Angel.)

    I agree that we’re having a sort of vampire obsession right now, but haven’t we been having that since Interview with a Vampire? Or at least since Rice began publishing sequels and it got really popular in the early 90s? Then there was Buffy, and a bajillion new fantasy novel series focused on sexy vampires (Laurel K Hamilton kicked that one off). I wonder if we could look at the different waves of vampire obsession over the past 20 years and connect them to political/social changes.

  4. Brendan, you’re right, her books are highly sexually charged, but with a strangely innocent sexuality. Until, of course, the payoff in the final book, in which is implied that sex really is the pinnacle of desire, and that all of that snuggly stuff was just a prelude. So, ultimately, I stand by my assertion, because in the end, it really does all boil down to (married) tab a in (married) slot b.

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