Out of the coffin and into the screen


It is two years now since the Twilight franchise gave its last feeble kick and then disintegrated into a pile of ash. The glittering vampire is dead. Long live the traditional vampire.

Most of us breathed a collective sigh of relief when Breaking Dawn – Part II finally died out in cinemas. At last it was over. Give it a little time, and the whole awful thing could be forgotten. Serious horror fiction fans, who had spent most of the previous five years developing ever more creative ways to pour scorn and contempt on Stephanie Meyer’s version of the vampire myth, declared themselves more than ready for the cinematic world to move on. It has therefore provoked more than a little consternation that this doesn’t seem to be happening yet.

Where have all the scary vampires gone? Has the celebrity-worshipping banality of Twilight succeeded where a long line of heroic, damnation-defying vampire hunters failed? Has it laid the traditional vampire to rest?

The answer is yes, but only for now. It is important to consider why the Twilight phenomenon happened in the first place. To be sure, the aforementioned “serious horror fiction fans,” despite their occasional snobbery, were entirely correct. Edward Cullen and his fellow sparkly vampires could not have been more anodyne or less interesting, and the same can be said of the films they starred in. But Twilight was not just some kind of embarrassing aberration. It happened for a deep-seated cultural reason, and understanding that reason is also the key to understanding why it will not endure. It may seem like the authoritative, frightening figure of the old-fashioned vampire has been killed off, and to be sure, we haven’t seen him in a long time now. But we shouldn’t worry. Human nature and the nature of Western culture both dictate that he, or she, will be striding back onto our movie screens sooner or later.

This is because of the symbolism inherent in the vampire myth. It is a commonplace of psycho-cultural criticism that the most popular movie monsters are all personifications of real human fears. Thus werewolves symbolise the inner animal that lurks within us all, zombies personify our fear of the slow but unstoppable advance of death and decay, and so on. Under this rubric, vampires are a symbol for human sexuality. It is no coincidence that the foundation of the modern vampire myth, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, emerged from Victorian England. It gives us a personification of sexuality – a creature of the night, transmitted by blood, driven by hunger for tender flesh – that we are unambiguously expected to fear and reject. As brought to the screen in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, the Count is a hideous, creeping, unwholesome monster.

The trajectory of vampire films since then (and film has overwhelmingly been the medium in which the vampire has evolved) has followed a course that tacks remarkably close to the course of changing Western attitudes to sexuality.

The Hammer films of the ‘50s, emerging from a Britain locked in an austere, pseudo-Victorian values system, were unappealing monsters just like Nosferatu. Then from the ‘70s onwards, a new breed of vampire began to emerge: the sensitive, romantic, stylish vampires that first appeared in Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire and then swiftly crossed over into the movies. The personifications of sexuality were following the road set out for them by the sexual revolution, and it was a road that led them inexorably away from actual horror. Come the ‘90s, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave us Angel and Spike, both of whom were attractive, admirable figures who had romantic relationships with the heroine of the series. Come the 21st century, and we have True Blood, which imagines a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin” to live openly alongside us – in parallel with 21st-century openness about sexuality.

Seen in this context, Twilight is a function of the way a great many teenagers understand sexuality in the age of the internet: it is demystified, taken for granted, almost routine. This is a complex phenomenon with both positive and unhealthy elements to it, and here is not the place to offer value judgements on attitudes to sexuality in contemporary teenage culture. It is enough to recognise that this is why Edward Cullen is so profoundly unexciting. He cannot be scary or threatening, because the thing he represents is not thought by his target audience to be scary or threatening. He is a vampire for his age, just as Dracula was.

But it won’t last. The teenagers of the Twilight generation are growing up now, and they are discovering that sexuality as experienced by adults is not only serious, complex, and potent, it is also mysterious – it is something we are striving to understand. The vampire as an abominable monster is definitely not something we should wish upon our culture again, for it would indicate a resurgence of some very unhealthy sexual attitudes. But the vampire as a figure in darkness, a powerful and commanding being who inspires respect and demands to be taken seriously, will always be with us. Give the movies another ten years or so to catch up. Sooner or later, the old-fashioned vampire will be brooding on our screens once more.

PHOTO/Flickr/Il Fatto Quotidiano


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