Who is afraid of the sparkly vampire?

At the Guardian, Stuart Heritage complains that vampires, werewolves and zombies just plain aren’t scary anymore and blames Twilight.

The list of complaints are things we’ve all heard a thousand times before. Vampires and werewolves are no longer scary these days because they’re no longer monsters and besides, there’s way too many of them. In short, creatures and tropes that used to be the province of the red-headed stepchild genre horror have been appropriated by the mainstream and hardcore old time fans don’t like what the mainstream has done to their genre.

And who is to blame for this sad state of affairs? Well, of course it’s women. As a matter of fact, the whole Stuart Heritage article – like many of its kind – is dripping with more or less subconscious misogyny. Take this choice quote, for example:

Take True Blood, for example. Although I’ve never really been a fan, I’ve nevertheless tried to watch it whenever I could because other people insist that it’s worthwhile. Admittedly, most of those people have been women who dress their cats up as butlers and have Tumblr sites called things like Elysian Moonquaver, and only watch True Blood because there are topless men in it and it’s marginally less embarrassing than admitting to liking Twilight, but that’s by the by. I stuck with it.

So the only people who like True Blood are women who dress their cats up as butlers (WTF?), have strangely named Tumblr blogs and who are just watching for the shirtless dudes anyway. Never mind that there isn’t a whole lot of shirtlessness in True Blood until Alcide, the werewolf, shows up in season 3. Unless you count Jason Stackhouse, and Jason’s exploits, with or without a shirt, are more of a turn-off than anything.

I wish that the misogyny inherent in those “vampires really suck these days, cause they just aren’t scary anymore” articles would surprise me, but frankly it no longer does. But what does surprise me is the insistence that vampires should be scary and portrayed like proper horror vampires.

First of all, the scary horror vampire still exists. There still are pure “evil vampire” stories such as 30 Days of Night (which IMO treats vampires a lot worse than Twilight, because the vampires in 30 Days of Night are basically zombies that don’t like daylight). What is more, the scary vampire exists alongside the romantic vampire, often the in same story. Every paranormal romance series out there has a struggle between good and bad vampires as a background conflict and sometimes a bad vampire even gets promoted to romance hero as in Kresley Cole’s most recent novel Lothaire. Vampires in Buffy were monsters and both Angel and Spike spent part of the show as villains. In Twilight, pretty much every vampire not named Cullen is a villain. The vampires in Being Human were largely evil, even good guy vampire Mitchell was quite scary at times, until the writers tried to turn him into an outright villain in series 3 by having him eat a whole commuter train including a bloody annoying ex-Eastenders actress, all of which pretty much killed the show for me, so that I’m not even bothering with series 4. As for True Blood, even the good vampires in the Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood aren’t all that nice to begin with, both Bill and Eric are pretty damn unpleasant at times. Though humans are not necessarily better.

The defanged, sparkling vampire who does nothing but pine after a pretty girl does not exist outside the imagination of Twilight haters. Angel, Spike, Bill Compton, Eric Northman, John Mitchell, Lothaire, Lestat, even Edward Cullen are all inherently dangerous predators, even if they have chosen not to give in to their darker impulses.

The trend to portray vampires more as troubled humans and less as outright monsters goes back further than Twilight or even Buffy and Anne Rice. In fact, it can be traced back to the 1960s and the paranormal soap opera Dark Shadows. And it goes hand in hand with the gradual humanisation of other former monsters such as werewolves.

I have the theory – to be explained at length in my PhD thesis – that the portrayal of “monsters” such as vampire and werewolves became more human as the othering of marginalized people in the real world became less and less acceptable. This also fits in with my findings that the 1960s were the turning point where the portrayal of former monsters began to change. And of course supernatural beings make excellent metaphors for the marginalized group of the author’s choice.

Viewed in this light, I find complaints that vampires and werewolves just aren’t scary anymore like they used to be and that the only acceptable portrayal of a vampire/werewolf/demon is that of an outright monster deeply troubling. Because if the gradual shift in the portrayal of vampires, werewolves, demons, fallen angels, zombies, etc… from monster to troubled human and potential romantic partner since the 1960s is a reflection of how othering of various minority groups has become increasingly inacceptable in the real world, then what does it say that some people want to return to the pre-1960s status-quo of vampire/werewolf/whatever as monstrous and evil?

Mind you, I’m not saying that those who prefer their vampires scary and monstrous are automatically bad people or prejudiced in real life. Most likely they aren’t. Nor is there anything wrong with the occasional traditionally monstrous vampire or werewolf – it’s a big genre after all. However, horror is an inherently conservative genre with conservative values (the other is evil, sex is bad). And I wonder whether the insistence on the standards of the horror genre in the portrayal of various supernatural creatures does not signify a larger cultural discomfort with a more multicultural world.

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10 Responses to Who is afraid of the sparkly vampire?

  1. Rosario_O says:

    Really interesting post by Cora Buhlert on some people's insistence that vampires should be scary http://t.co/Q1LJYFtI

  2. Pingback: thebookishowl.com » Blog Archive » Linking to Others

  3. Jodie says:

    Yeah! to your theory. Studying two of the classic monster novels was used as our intro to lit crit at uni and looking at all the ways Dracula, especially has been read (interms of racial crit and nationalism especially) I totally favour the humanisng of monsters as a reaction to othering that has become more unacceptable.

    However, I’ve got my own percolating theory that recently, at the same time, humanising vamps sometimes sets the reader up to sympathise with the elite (think Cullens, the founding family vamps of Vampire Diaries, Anne Rice’s vamps). And as these vamps are overwhelmingly, visually or descriptively white, that maybe that sneaky ‘the elite are our heroes’ sentiment sometimes takes over from vamps as a symbol of dislike of racial othering. It’s not a developed and sourced theory, just a thought, but wondering how it sounds to you.

    *Sigh* I would love to read your Phd and source explore. I miss academic crit of monsters.

    • Cora says:

      You definitely have a point there, because vampires tend to be aristocratic or at least upper class types. Working class vampires are comparatively rare. The only examples I can think of right now are Cassidy from the Preacher comics, Mitchell from Being Human, Darla from Buffy/Angel and some of the lesser vampires from the Sookie Stackhouse books and True Blood. The main vampire from Moonlight was middle or working class as well.

      Werewolves are more likely to be working class, though there are plenty of upper class werewolves as well and there is one series in which the werewolves pretty much run the world and every important historical figure ever was a werewolf. Fae are pretty much aristocratic by definition, as are angels and demons.

      As for why this is so, at least with the vampires it’s tradition, since the founding texts of the western vampire genre generally feature aristocratic vampires. Both Lord Ruthven from Polidori’s The Vampyre and Dracula were aristocrats after all. With romantic vampires, werewolves, etc…, there’s also the romance genre convention that the male protagonist is almost always a wealthy upper class man, while the female protagonist is poor and downtrodden. So instead of the duke or billionaire sheikh or Greek tycoons of the traditional romance novel, we suddenly have the extremely old and wealthy and aristocratic vampire. There even is one Mills and Boon category romance which features a vampire sheikh. And the fantasy genre has the farmboy who is really a king trope. So when all of those tendencies mingle to make the modern paranormal romance or urban fantasy, we get an uncommon number of elite vampires, werewolves and other creatures.

      However, it is also interesting that, particularly in urban fantasy series, the protagonist is rarely a member of the elite or at least doesn’t start out that way. Mercy Thompson is a mechanic, Sookie Stackhouse a waitress, plenty of others are cops or down on their luck private detectives. The love interest, however, is usually a member of the elite.

      • Laran says:

        Isn’t is just traditionally so that fictional Vampires stand in for the metaphorically bloodsucking aristocracy? Old social commentary devoid of its meaning still carried along? Then it would be just a very old trope which hasn’t yet been challenged so much. (should be, of course)

        But somehow the instant idea of having (metaphorically) Hartz IV (people on benefits) bloodsuckers in fiction doesn’t appeal to me … Man, could well be that someone jumps on the idea and makes lots of money with the very unhealthy fear some people have of social benefil receivers.

        • Cora says:

          Oh, the western vampire definitely started out as a stand-in for the bloodsucking aristocracy and even today, vampires are mostly portrayed as aristocratic or at least filthy rich. As for why the trope persists even after the role of the vampire has changed from monster to potential romantic hero, as vampires became acceptable as romantic leads the trope of the aristocratic vampire collided with the Cinderella fantasy (i.e. the hero must be aristocratic and/or wealthy and the heroine’s social superior) that is so common in the romance genre. As a result the idea of the aristocratic and/or wealthy vampire is rarely challenged and working class vampires are few and far between. And even vampires who weren’t wealthy when they became vampires have managed to became rich several centuries later such as Promise, the vampire lover of Niko Leandros in Rob Thurman’s Leandros Brothers series, who started out poor and basically became a serial trophy wife to elderly rich men. Some working class vampires are the Mitchell character from the British show Being Human (Irish, turned as a common soldier in WWI, works as a hospital cleaner/porter in the present day), the vampire Cassidy from the comic series Preacher (working class Irish kid turned during the Easter uprising, spends much of the subsequent time as a homeless drug addict) and Darla from Buffy/Angel (a prostitute who allows herself to be turned, because she is dying of syphilis). The TV version of The Vampire Diaries also has a briefly seen black vampire who used to be a slave and was turned by his vampiric owner during the Civil War.

          I agree that Hartz IV vampires would be a lot more troubling than wealthy and aristocratic vampires simply because of the implications. However, zombies seem to fulfill the function of the poor turned into monsters, since zombie tales are often a commentary on mass culture and everything that’s wrong with it. British TV critic Charlie Brooker called zombies the “misanthrope’s monster”. And of course, zombies are one of the comparatively few creatures that are still mostly portrayed as unabashed monsters, though there are a handful of sympathetic zombies.

  4. Cora, I just came across a reference to a forthcoming book about vampires which I thought might be of interest to you so, in case it is, here are some details. It’s Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural by Victoria Nelson:

    The Gothic, Romanticism’s gritty older sibling, has flourished in myriad permutations since the eighteenth century. In Gothicka, Victoria Nelson identifies the revolutionary turn it has taken in the twenty-first. Today’s Gothic has fashioned its monsters into heroes and its devils into angels. It is actively reviving supernaturalism in popular culture, not as an evil dimension divorced from ordinary human existence but as part of our daily lives. […]

    Fictions such as the Twilight and Left Behind series do more than follow the conventions of the classic Gothic novel. They are radically reviving and reinventing the transcendental worldview that informed the West’s premodern era. As Jesus becomes mortal in The Da Vinci Code and the child Ofelia becomes a goddess in Pan’s Labyrinth, Nelson argues that this unprecedented mainstreaming of a spiritually driven supernaturalism is a harbinger of what a post-Christian religion in America might look like.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks a lot for the hint, Laura. I hadn’t heard about this book yet, but it sounds very interesting and ties in with my thesis.

      I’ve written down the details to order it, unless I can persuade the university library to buy the book.

  5. Laran says:

    A word on werewolves since I wrote my thesis on premodern ones: interestingly, there is quite some tradition of “nice” werewolves in history. Of course I am thinking of the medieval Celtic tradition which depicts werewolves as tranformed people struggling to regain their humanity. Protagonists which whom the reader is meant to identify, the so-called sympathetic werewolf. Best example Marie de France’s Bisclavret.

    And aren’t there some of those struggling werewolves in late 19th century novels? I vaguely remember reading something about that in Bourgault de Coudray’s book “The curse of the werewolf”, in my opinion one of the best werewolf studies ever. But I might be wrong.

    I like your hypothesis :o)

    • Cora says:

      The werewolf has definitely been a troubled and quasi-sympathetic character for far longer than the vampire. Bisclavret is definitely an example. On the other hand you also have Lycaon, the cannibalistic king turned werewolf from Greek mythology, who is definitely not a sympathetic character, though he is the victim of a divine curse.

      I’m blanking on struggling werewolves in the 19th century at the moment, but in the early 20th century you have werewolves described as troubled victims of a horrible curse in early horror films such as Werewolf of London and The Wolfman, which invented some crucial components of contemporary werewolf lore from whole cloth.

      It’s also interesting that most modern depictions describe both werewolves and vampires (and zombies for that matter) as unwitting victims of a sort of viral infection (which was not necessarily the way to become a werewolf or vampire before the 19th century). But even though they have been created in the same way, due to being bitten by another werewolf/vampire, the werewolves have been portrayed as tragic victims rather than villains earlier than the vampires (though both usually died until fairly recently). And modern Romero type zombies, though as much victim of their condition as vampires and werewolves, are still portrayed as creatures to be killed on sight rather than pities.

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