How Vampires Represent the Modern Ideal
I originally wrote this with the intention of publishing it right before Halloween, because y’know, vampires. But due to hectic setbacks I was not able to finish it in time. Then in November I participated in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, which consumed all my writing time and energy. On the bright side, I did win the challenge!
So here we are, it’s the beginning of December and I just decided eff it, better late than never. So without further ado, enjoy your modern social critique sprinkled with vampires.
It’s almost Halloween (*haha just kidding) so I thought it would be appropriate and fun to talk about vampires! Vampires have been part of our collective mythos for a long, long time, but their image and what precisely they symbolize has evolved. Vampires have had a resurgence of popularity in the last decade or so and have taken on a different, sexier form.
Originally vampires were supposed to be terrifying. Stories of Vlad the Impaler (aka Count Dracula), Nosferatu and the rest of the old school vampires were meant to scare and scandalize people. Vampires were the embodiment of our repressed urges and tapped into human fears surrounding death, violence, cannibalism, blood and the dread that animalistic desires lurk inside all of us.
Eventually our culture embraced the latent violent/erotic connotations vampires had and exploited it, especially for TV and movies. This is when we started to see vampires who were sort of terrifying and a little sexy, like Christopher Lee in the Hammer produced Dracula films, or Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins on the Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. Nowadays vampires are mostly sexy and a little bit terrifying (except for Twilight – there is nothing terrifying about the vampires in Twilight except for the messages they are sending to impressionable adolescents).
The current popularity of vampires obviously says a lot about our erotic or violent imaginations and general wish fulfillment in the form of immortality and power. However, I believe their popularity also has a lot to do with the way they exemplify some of the ideals our 21st century culture obsesses over. I would go as far to say that if a person was capable of fulfilling all our contemporary aspirations towards youth, beauty, perfection, etc, which is impossible, the result would essentially render that person into a vampire.
What sort of ideals am I talking about? Well, our modern western culture has a lot of obsessions, beliefs it emphasizes and qualities it pushes us all to strive for. Some of these ideals are pretty ridiculous, others unattainable, while still others are straight up harmful and frightening when deconstructed.
Let’s break this spooky shit down.
Vampires are forever young (and conventionally attractive)…
Our culture is extremely preoccupied with physical beauty and puts a great deal of value into being young and attractive while prescribing a beauty ideal that is very restrictive. We are even lead to believe that youth and beauty will empower us and make us happy, but that is a misleading oversimplification of reality.
Vampires fulfill this ideal perfectly: they are immortal, in most cases forever youthful, almost always conventionally attractive and these superficial characteristics do indeed bestow them with power. As far as 21st century vampires go I have rarely seen an ugly one, or even an average looking one. Every vampire in Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Interview with a Vampire, and so on is practically flawless. Why do we rarely ever see a vampire who is old or doesn’t conform to our culture’s beauty standard? Because most people would find that unappealing and it would defeat the point. People love modern vampires, because they play into our fantasies of being young and beautiful forever. Almost as if to say, immortality wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t get to look like a thin, 22-year-old, airbrushed supermodel for all eternity.
Vampires never eat…
Well, at least they never eat regular human food. They might be blood-thirsty, but vampires don’t have to worry about their diet. They are the flawless undead and no amount of blood is going to make them gain weight. Not surprising that in a culture ripe with eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food, beautiful creatures that get to opt out of eating food entirely are so popular. I had not given this aspect of vampires very much thought until a friend of mine pointed out how many times in the book Twilight the main character, Bella, talks about not eating, or how much she admires the vampires for not eating.
“The anorexic’s fantasies of bodily absence [in] her pursuit of extreme thinness might be seen to express the desire for ‘the impossible fiction of the non-body’ (ibid.). Here ‘…the ideal is not merely a thin body…not just a reduction but an eradication of the body’.” – Sally Miller, Vampires, the Body and Eating Disorders: A Psychoanalytic Approach
Vampires are always rich…
At least the ones we like and care about. Every popular vampire protagonist comes from a wealthy family, or is inexplicably rich. They all have luxurious lifestyles, in fancy houses, with fashionable wardrobes and tons of them own night clubs. For some reason being noble, aristocratic, or well-to-do seem to be prerequisites for becoming the undead. The point is, we like our vampire the way we like our reality TV stars, living lavishly.
Vampires are very, very white…
They are almost always white, and their paleness or “whiteness” is often fixated on as a beautiful, admirable or desirable quality. Needless to say it is extremely problematic that most depictions of vampires are white and they are praised for their whiteness. It’s creepy and racist with colonial undertones.
“[The Twilight] saga upholds dominant ideas about race that associate whiteness with civility, beauty, and intellect on the one hand, and indigenous people with animality and primitivism on the other.” – Natalie Wilson, Got Vampire Privilege?: The Whiteness of Twilight
Vampires are sex-negative…
Being sex-positive means you think sex and the desire for it is healthy and that pleasure is nothing to be ashamed of. If we look at the blood-thirst vampires experience as analogous to sexual desire (a comparison many stories make), then we see how vampires exemplify our own culture’s dysfunctional relationship with sex. A vampire’s thirst for blood is often shown as conflicted and fraught with only two possible outcomes – evil vampires who embrace their desire and become monstrous, or reluctant vampires who struggle and feel ashamed of their nature. So whether you’re a horny human or a thirsty vampire, the message is you’re doomed to either be a tortured soul or a monster!
Vampires also represent a sexual desire that is predatory and thrilling. Most sex researches recognize that rape fantasies often come from a conflict between desire and shame, that they are about giving into forbidden, sexual desire that a person believes they are not supposed to have. Vampire stories play out like elaborate rape fantasies where they seduce, “glamour”, or mind control their victims into passionate, hedonistic, blood rituals. A vampire is the perfect solution for a person who wants sex, but who feels they are not supposed to want sex. Vampires represent the part of ourselves that wants to control our “shameful” urges, but simultaneously wants to give into them. I believe that this facet of vampire fascination is another subtle expression of the rape culture we live in and need to learn to recognize, process and protest in a conscious way.
So let’s review, our modern society idealizes being young, beautiful, not needing to eat (or at least not needing to worrying about your diet and resulting body weight), being rich, being white and having a conflicted, fraught, shameful relationship to your own erotic desires. Sounds like a vampire to me. The problem though, is that we are not undead, immortal creatures of the night, we are humans who have complex, legitimate needs and who come in a myriad of colors, shapes, ages, socio-economic classes, sizes and appearances.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see the appeal. I know I found the concept of vampires very alluring when I was an angsty, teenage girl myself. There is nothing inherently wrong with fantasizing about vampires or enjoying the books, movies, television, etc made about them. I do however, see something very wrong with aspiring to be like a vampire, or exploiting people’s insecurities in order to reinforce unhealthy ideals we have in our culture. The popularity of vampires is a reflection of dysfunctional parts of our culture that we simultaneously fear and desire – parts that we need to shed some light on and examine.
In the end I don’t think vampires are creepy, but the unattainable ideals our culture beats us with everyday as well as the messages we internalize about what we need to be happy are scary as hell.
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