Our Fascination With Vampire Stories

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Vampires throughout the centuries have represented the fears that society has had at the time.
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"Vampires Are Us" by Margot Adler explores the fascination with vampire stories in popular culture.

Vampires Are Us(Weiser Books, March 2014), by the late Margot Adler, examines how vampire stories have become the vehicle that lets us play with the question of mortality. Why is Hollywood spending billions on vampire films and television series every year? This question led Adler to explore issues of power, politics, morality, identity, and even the fate of the planet. The following excerpt, from the section “The Persecuted Other,” describes Adler’s fascination with novels about outsiders, particularly those about vampires.

When I was a child I spent hours daydreaming. Almost any historical or science fiction novel could transport me to another time and place. I probably spent at least two hours a day in strange, confabulated worlds—no, let’s be honest, perhaps four, even six. I often returned to the current fantasy of the week or month while riding the subway to school. In fact, I often had no idea how I ended up at the entrance to my high school, which involved climbing some ten or twelve flights of steps through a park in Harlem. I was totally in another world, oblivious.

I was an only child, with a number of good friends, but not particularly popular. I was certainly not part of any “in” clique. Social events spelled anxiety; the fantasy worlds I created and controlled were, like food, much more comforting.

Although I was enchanted by the worlds depicted by Tolkien, and the romances of King Arthur’s court, there was really only one basic fantasy for me, something I have come to call the “Persecuted Other.”

As a child of the political left, during the Cold War, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a “pink diaper baby” at the very least, one of those Persecuted Other fantasies involved being the daughter of the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko. I am not kidding! And even telling you this makes me cringe!

In the fantasy, I was looked upon as strange and different, speaking a different language, trying to win friends despite the distrust of everyone around me. I drew pictures in my diary of Yvonne Gromyko, a character I created. Now, this was during the height of the Cold War and anti-communist hysteria. My family’s views were definitely socialist. Although no one in my family was a member of the Communist Party—in fact, my mother had been told she was too much of an anarchist to be allowed to join—we were definitely “Reds.” When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, instead of weeping, my family quaked in terror, since, like Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s presumed and accused killer, my mother was a member of an organization called Fair Play for Cuba. So, as I listened to my high school social studies teacher’s patriotic and anti-communist views and looked at the headlines in the newspapers, it was easy to believe I was an alien in a hostile world. Those feelings were clearly part of the inspiration for the Gromyko fantasy.

Another fantasy was having special powers that made me odd and unusual: telepathic abilities, for example, which I may have taken from a John Brunner science fiction novel, or the ability to fly. Science fiction novels are filled with stories of people who are persecuted for their abilities or ideas, or who are strangers in a strange land. One of my favorite novels is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, in which the protagonist comes down to a somewhat fascistic Earth from a gentler, egalitarian, and more anarchist society and tries to comprehend the world around him.

By the time I entered college in the tumultuous year 1964, much of my fantasizing had abated, although it would rise again more than forty years later as vampire fantasies during my husband’s illness and death.

But as I watched the power, popularity, and general attraction of superheroes in both comics and films who are persecuted, like the X-Men or Harry Potter, and as I watched the fervor for The Hunger Games as well as recent remakes of Spider-Man and Batman, I realized that my own fantasies were not so different from the feelings of so many young people: the sense of being different, an outsider. Like them, I was exactly that “other,” seeking friendship but also thinking I had deep secrets that had to be hidden. For many young people, thinking you have such dark secrets, whether true or not, is really about a feeling that you are different down to your core and that your own inner life marks you as being something other than what the expectations of society and family might dictate.

Go to a site like Amazon, and read the citizen reviews of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. Although written back in 1956 when Wilson was only twenty-four, you will find current reviews by young people who say over and over, “This is the book that changed my life.” The Outsider, Wilson writes, feels more deeply, has awakened to chaos, has a sense of strangeness. Most people keep up a pretense “to themselves, to others; their respectability, their philosophy, their religion, are all attempts to gloss over, to make look civilized and rational something that is savage, unorganized, irrational. He is an Outsider,” Wilson writes, “because he stands for Truth.”

If you look at Young Adult fiction, so many of the themes are about fighting persecution, gaining confidence, and winning a place of security and happiness, despite being complex and different. Whether it’s The Hunger Games or Twilight, gaining one’s sense of power and identity is paramount.

The Allure of Vampire Stories

Vampires, like other superheroes we read about or see in films, are often both powerful and persecuted. Vampires are one current incarnation of the Persecuted Other. They are outsiders and dark rebels with enormous strengths. They are strong and agile, have heightened senses and the ability to heal fast, and they defeat death with a near immortality. They also have the kind of power to take on the world that we can only fantasize about. If we feel disempowered, vampires represent power. Yet they are not accepted by the culture; they are persecuted monsters. That’s one of the clear attractions of television series like Buffy, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Forever Knight, and Being Human.

I have now read more than 260 vampire novels over the last three and a half years. And when my husband became ill with cancer and I sat by his bedside while he slept, I not only read, but also began fantasizing again, almost as powerfully as I had in my youth.

I don’t think I would ever have dared to talk publicly about these daydreams when I was in my teens or twenties. How embarrassed I was in those teen years; how I would cringe when I thought about what people were thinking about me, how they would judge the way I looked or dressed. And of course, those hundreds of thousands riding on the subway with me could have cared less; their thoughts were their own. They had no interest in whether my armpits smelled or my hair was combed. Now, in my late sixties, I still cringe a bit, when writing about these fantasies, but age, and the confidence that comes with it, means I don’t have to care so much about what people think about my guilty pleasures, obsessions, and the totally crazy and stupid things I have done over the years. Example: I once walked into a hair salon with a picture of Alice Cullen from the first Twilight movie and said, “I would like something pixie-ish like that.” “You would need a lot of hair spray to achieve that effect,” was the reply. We laughed.

As I said, the vampire fantasy that took hold of me after I read Twilight and all the Charlaine Harris novels (the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, now immortalized on television as True Blood) was clearly in the Persecuted Other tradition—a total reimagining of the Cullen family in Twilight. I easily changed names, locations, and professions but kept the idea in Twilight of a scientist vampire who creates a family of choice through rescue. The characters change and grow as vampires “come out” into the world, just as they do in the True Blood world, except, unlike Louisiana’s Bon Temps, it’s more my world: an intellectual, academic, and coastal world. In my version, as the legal situation for vampires changes, and they “come out,” they are desperate to discover their true life work, which, of course, includes social activism and actual professions, with driver’s licenses and passports to prove their real age.

Many adventures arise from all this, but, as I said, every time I have tried to write them down, I have hated the results. Perhaps, after so many years of journalism and some crazy belief on my part about the power of facts, fiction does not come easily to me.

But here’s the thing. All these things I have told you still didn’t answer my most basic question: why do vampires have such traction in our culture now? I was still perplexed. As I thought about all these issues—power and identity and the outsider as persecuted rebel, the fear of mortality and the desire to defeat death—none of them gave me the answer I was looking for; none of them really explained why vampires are so popular right now. So one day, I simply took all the most popular vampires on television and film and wrote their names in a line on a piece of paper: Bill Compton and Eric Northman of True Blood, Stefan and Damon of The Vampire Diaries, Angel and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mitchell and Aidan in the English and American versions of Being Human, Mick St. John in Moonlight, Henry Fitzroy in Tanya Huff’s Blood Ties series, Nicholas Knight in Forever Knight, and of course the Cullen family in Twilight. And a light bulb went off.

Reprinted with permission fromVampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair With the Immortal Dark Side by Margot Adler and published by Weiser Books, 2014.

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