Themes in Television: The Thing About Vampires
Recently, my coworker sent me an urgent Facebook message asking for help. Her teenage son had an essay due the next day on the movie Twilight, and it had to address whether or not the movie upheld or challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality that is often seen in vampire tales. I’ve both seen and read Twilight (something I have to admit to rather reluctantly), but I even had to pause a bit. Because even though I know how Twilight portrays gender and sexuality, this question encompasses all vampire tales, and there have been a lot.
Over the past two decades, vampires have been a staple in mainstream media. What is the appeal? Whatever the original lure was, the current vampire trend has become decidedly sexual in nature. Compared to other supernatural beings (like zombies and werewolves), vampires are at once exotic and familiar, being that they keep their original human form in most modern representations. And the way they feed is extremely up-close and personal, which can be seen as erotic (as long as you do not die from the experience). In almost all representations, they hold this sexual appeal, and in nearly all there are some tropes that remain standard despite small differences.
Given Halloween, my love of vampire shows, and the question recently posed by my coworker, I wanted to take some time to delve into the vampire myth and its current representations in shows like The Vampire Diaries, Penny Dreadful, True Blood, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The Origin of the Myth
Before we dive into contemporary television, let’s start at the beginning. Stories of undead beings that feed off the life force of humans can be traced back for centuries, but the modern vampire is believed to have been born in 1819 in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (a short work that can be read here). Interestingly, that work features two kinds of vampires. One: a being that rises from the dead and still drips blood from its skin and targets loved ones from its former life; two: a nobleman with a sinful soul who charms people with his words and then victimizes the innocent. In both cases, the vampires survive.
This second depiction of the vampire was further popularized in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. Again, you have the charming nobleman. Here, he is stronger, levitates, and not only speaks to animals but also has the capability of turning into them. Sunlight makes him weaker, but it does not kill him, although garlic, crucifixes, and doorways will keep him at bay. Decapitation and a stake to the heart prove to be his undoing.
Over a hundred years later, many of the modern vampire depictions maintain these same characteristics, with some marked differences. From here, I want to highlight those distinctions while hypothesizing how the commonalities might increase the allure of vampires in today’s society. A tall task I hope to accomplish in short order.
Everyone knows that vampires and sunlight don’t mix. What not everyone knows is that there are some humans who cannot stand the sun as well. While they may not burst into flames upon walking into the open during daytime, they do have skin so sensitive to sunlight that it will burn, blister, and swell when exposed. These individuals suffer from porphyries, a group of rare diseases that produce too many porphyrins during the production of heme (an important part of hemoglobin – the oxygen-transport molecule in blood). A quick search for porphyria on the internet shows that many believe these diseases could have inspired the vampire myth due to the side effects – sufferers avoid sunlight AND garlic (which is believed to worsen symptoms).
Whatever the inspiration, it is clear that an aversion to sunlight is central to the vampire myth. These are creatures of the night who are unable to come after you during the day. For most, exposure to the sun will cause them to combust and burn until only a pile of ash remains. Unless you want them to survive, of course, in which case you can give them access to spelled rings, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Vampire Diaries, or give them a gallon or two of fairy blood, like in True Blood. Other vampires, like in Penny Dreadful stay in the shadows and noticeably flinch away from open flame. And others still glitter when exposed to sunlight, because they are not dangerous at all and instead live a vegetarian lifestyle. Yes, I am not the biggest Twilight fan, but it has to be mentioned simply for this rather large departure from the vampire myth. Unless sparkling can be considered a weakness, the Twilight novels were the first I know of to completely remove the threat of the sun without a witch’s intervention.
So why the appeal? Danger lurks in the dark. Things seem more mysterious because not everything is exposed like in the brightness of day. Sexy things happen at night. And no matter how much you love the danger, there is something comforting about knowing that you are safe during the day.
Would You Like to Come In?
Speaking of finding a place safe from vampires, you are not completely vulnerable when the sun goes down. At night, the one place you are safe from a vampire is your home. In most vampire stories, a vampire must be invited in before they can enter. At that point, a vampire can come and go as he or she pleases until the invitation is revoked. This is useful if you get in a fight with your vampiric significant other.
While speaking to a friend at work, he pointed out that this invitation can be taken metaphorically as well as physically. You are doing more than simply letting a vampire into your home when you invite them in; you are vocalizing your trust and acceptance. You are making yourself vulnerable by taking away that slim protection and letting the vampire cross the threshold into your home and life. The key is that it is your choice to allow the vampire to enter. And given the very sexy vampires that inhabit today’s television shows, it is no surprise that they get a lot of invitations.
I think this need for an invitation also speaks to the world that the vampire inhabits. Inside the house represents our civilized society. Outside is completely wild and undisciplined. Perhaps part of the appeal of the vampire is this world from which they will enter your life. This dark, sexual being is the very representation of the Freudian id, which is in direct odds with the super ego of civilized life. Doesn’t everyone want to embrace their wild side? And what would be better than to do so by physically embracing a vampire within the comfort of your own civilized home?
An Achilles Heel
There are many other defenses that humans can wield against a vampire attack. For a killing blow, you need to go for a stake to the heart or a dismembered head. Or both, as is the case in Dracula. In Buffy, the titular Slayer goes about actively fighting vampires with the intent to deal this killer blow. In Penny Dreadful, similar techniques are applied, though fire is added to the mix along with some pretty ineffectual bullets.
In the others, the intent is not to kill all vampires but only those that are deemed threats. To that end, more confining rather than fatal methods are used. Silver chains do wonders to keep vampires locked up as the silver burns their skin. In Vampire Diaries, an herb called vervaine is used to either burn the skin with direct contact or prevent a vampire’s mind control from taking hold if ingested regularly by the human victim. Speaking of mind control…
Your Wish Is My Command
Don’t feel completely safe yet. Though you have defenses against vampire attacks, vampires have ways to get you to let your guard down. For one, they are incredibly manipulative by nature and can often exert control over your mind. In True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, all vampires have this ability (called glamouring and compulsion respectively). This mind control only works on humans, unless the one doing the compelling is an Original vampire. On Buffy, this ability was rare, reserved for the oldest of vampires The Master and Dracula, and the most twisted, Drusilla, who was also gifted with visions of the future. Essentially the vampires have a sort of Jedi mind trick that can alter people’s memories. Penny Dreadful seems to showcase this ability as well, as that vampire master has the ability to invade Vanessa’s mind. This ability seems to date back to the smooth talking Dracula, who was able to seduce his victims with ease.
Vampires are not only gifted with mind control, but also with super strength, super speed or agility, and super fast healing. These abilities seem to be the only ones shared across all depictions, although vampires are able to move so fast as to create a blur in True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Penny Dreadful and Twilight but do not appear to do so in Buffy. In True Blood and Twilight it is interesting to note that vampires can display other gifts as well, but that the type of ability differs from vampire to vampire. For example, Bill in True Blood professes to have no special gift, while Eric can fly. In Twilight, Edward can read minds while Alice can see glimpses of the future. All of these gifts give the vampire additional power over humans, making them more dangerous, foreign, and possibly more alluring.
And Finally… Blood
Finally, we must talk about the one thing that unites all vampire narratives and separates the creatures from their undead counterparts, the zombie. Vampires are driven by the need to consume human blood. They are equipped with elongated teeth in the form of fangs that can easily puncture the skin and allow the blood to flow freely. The bite can be over any artery, but favorites seem to be the femoral or carotid arteries, given their proximity to more pleasurable and sexual areas. Here is the key to the sexual nature of the vampire and its appeal. No part of the human body feels more fragile than the neck and none more sensitive than the inner thigh. To allow someone close to those areas can be dangerous, meaning that the vampire bite represents being at your most vulnerable. To allow someone to have access to those areas can, inversely, be a huge form of intimacy and trust. And to allow someone to take blood is another matter of great trust, as blood is connected to the idea of our very life force. A few too many eager sips could easily lead to exsanguination and death. That mix of intimacy and danger seems a potent cocktail that keeps us coming back for more stories of these beings.
Of course, that is only when the vampires are attractive and nubile. When the vampires look less like humans, such as the monsters depicted on Penny Dreadful, then it is probably the rush of danger rather than intimacy that drives their appeal. When the vampires look like True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard, then it makes perfect sense that someone like Ginger would give up her entire life for just the chance of being his. And with new vampires continuously showing up on our television screens, I for one will be always ready for more.