Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fangtastic: My Evolving Perception of Vampires

In case you haven't noticed, vampires are kind of a thing right now. The media is so saturated with them that I suspect our TVs will start dripping blood any day now. And then the vampires will come and eat the blood up (as they do). In recent history, vampires have transformed from absolute monsters with nasty teeth to misunderstood hotties with brooding eyebrows. It's been a confusing journey for me. When I was born, vampires were bad. Now, they're sexy. How's a girl supposed to keep her facts straight?

Vampire myths have been around for a looonnngg time. So long that some dude from ancient Rome could probably unearth his scrolls about whatever monster-of-the-week they used to scare the peons and accuse Anne Rice of copyright infringement. But let's get one thing straight here. Vampires are not real. This isn't a negotiable thing. Vampires are fake, imaginary, non-existant, or as the French would say, faux. The supernatural vampires, that is. I'm not referring to the modern human beings who actually eat each other's blood. While the definition of vampire, essentially a being that feasts on the blood or life essence of living things, technically includes the scary people who are not to be trusted at a blood drive, I'm a happier person when I forget that they exist.

Back in the day, vampires were supposed to be terrifying. Demonic, evil, and bloated with blood, the vampires of folklore were an abomination. You know, the way you'd expect people to perceive a zombie that comes back from the grave and feasts on human life essence. But at some point in our history, our perceptions went slightly ... askew. And by askew, I mean balls-out insane.

So I was thinking to myself, "Self, it's Halloween. Why not chronicle your own experiences with the vampire myth? It's only reasonable to assume that your thoughts are representative of any person born in the 80s." That brings us here. First, allow me to make some generalizing assumptions about vampires. It's for the sake of science, you see.

  • Were dead once
  • Drink blood
  • Sleep in coffins
  • Burst into flames in the sunlight
  • Despise garlic
  • Die by a stake in the heart
  • Look like corpses
  • Burned by crosses
  • Also: capes - Vampires like to wear capes.
Bloodsuckers: The Era of Terror
When I was in elementary school, my main informants about vampires were scary library books ("More Soul-Destroying Scary Ghost Stories Part 5!"), cheesy TV movies, and that classic arbiter of horror "Are You Afraid of the Dark?". Now the books were bad enough. Not only was I afraid of vampires because of them, but I was also terrified of some lady ghost without a face who haunted a house in England. I don't even live in England. For several years, I slept facing the wall because I was terrified of waking up to behold the non-face by my bed. But that damn "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" is probably responsible for 75% of my generation's common phobias. Good god, Nickelodeon, I was just a baby! "Are You Afraid of the Dark's" Nosferatu (#5 of the Creepiest Characters) did a full-on creepy girl from the ring routine in a movie theater. The trauma was swift and immediate.

Needless to say, I developed a tiny vampire phobia as a kid. And by "tiny," I mean that I cried sometimes and lived in constant fear of being chomped on by Bela Lugosi. My terror grew to such great heights that I tucked my bed blankets around my neck at night specifically to protect it from Dracula's canines. This ritual lasted for about two years. To this day, I still have no idea how the thin barrier of a blanket would have protected me from a vampire attack. Perhaps I thought vamps were allergic to cotton? My child's mind focused a lot more on the "Golly gee willickers, a vampire! I need a shield!" style of reaction than the "Let's reason this out like a logical person" one. Young Me was a dumbass.

It didn't matter that vampires weren't real. I didn't know that for sure. All I knew was that I needed to safe-guard against all possibilities of night intrusion. "Face the wall and cover your neck, Rachel," I'd say. "It's the only way to guarantee you'll survive until the morning." Sure, I was a gullible kid. Sylvia Brown used to creep me the hell out on Montel, and she's a fraud. Of course, my fear of Sylvia Brown probably had more to do with her demon voice than her fake psychic readings. Is she still living? She is? Damn!

Eventually, my fears gave way to adolescence, at which point I was introduced to a fairly recent concept - Vampire as Sex Symbol.

Interview With a Misunderstood Hunk: The Anne Rice Years
In the 90s, if there was one way to improve Vampire PR, it was by casting Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Antonio Banderas to emulate them. "Interview With a Vampire" taught me three things:
  1. It's okay for young Kirsten Dunst to lust after Brad Pitt because she's just an old vampire woman trapped in a girl's body. Ick.
  2. Brad Pitt has a lot of feelings, and Tom Cruise has always been trapped on the wrong side of Sane River.
  3. Vampires can be kind of hot ... and stuff. Like, when they suck your blood, they're kind of almost ... like, kissing your neck ... and stuff. I mean, if I have to go, at least Brad Pitt's taking me there. There are worse ways to die ...
Readers, meet my good friend named Slippery Slope. Slippery Slope, meet America! Granted, it was only a matter of time. Who wanted to watch movies about immortal decaying corpses with bad hygiene when they could be watching immortal sex symbols who made death look like something that should be done in the bedroom? See, Rachel? Hollywood said to me. It's okay if they kill people because they're hot. And hot things, by definition, can't be evil.

And then came the show that made vampires fun again.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Conflicted Age
Sarah Michelle Gellar played Buffy, a normal (gorgeous) teenage (mid-20s) girl (woman) chosen by the higher powers to slay vampires and kick ass. Aw, a role model for my generation! Now, you may not know the story, so I'll make it brief for you. Buffy had a problem. As the Chosen One, she was obligated to kill all the demons and vampires she met. They were monsters, and Buffy wasn't kosher with evil beings terrorizing Sunnydale High School. Then Buffy met Angel, a vampire with - wait for it - a soul. That's right! Angel used to be all evil and ruthless, but then he ended up cursed with humanity. Angst ensued.

So now we were asked to make a distinction between the monsters we'd grown to know ...

Grrrr! I eat you at first light!

... with their sweet alter egos ...

"You're pretty and I'm older than Charles Dickens, but I love you and stuff ... Have you seen my abs lately?"

Granted, let it not be forgotten that when Angel finally had sex with Buffy in Season 2, he ended up losing his soul and spent the rest of the season trying to kill her. And you thought your first time was bad.

Angel's tortured soul routine was so popular that he ended up with his own show, aptly titled Angel. To this day, thousands of women pine for a man who wrestles with his true nature to eat them for dinner and loves them instead. For argument's sake, let's imagine that Angel looked like Quentin Tarantino instead of David Boreanaz. Would this still be an issue? Soul or not, wouldn't you be tempted to stake the living shit out of that guy when he shows his vamp face? Or just his regular face? (Okay, that was mean.) Just saying.

So up until now, we've seen vampires as monsters, vampires as sexy monsters, and one sexy vampire with a soul that helps him fight his killer insticts and stake other vampires instead. It was only a matter of time, then, until a very, very sick woman would vomit up a story so heinous, so tedious, so mortifying ... that it would change the course of vampires in popular culture forever.

Twilight Abducts the Word Vampire: The Emo Years
Meet Edward Cullen, a 100-year-old "vampire" virgin who writes piano music, loves (read: stalks and abuses) his human girlfriend, coifs his hair like a champ, and eats animals instead of people. He's like a vegetarian - only not a vegetarian at all. Also: Edward Cullen sparkles in the sunlight. Like a diamond. A skinny, pasty, British, effeminate diamond with major self-image issues.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

The vampires in Twilight don't even fit the definition of a real vampire. They're imposters. They sparkle, they can't die by staking, crosses don't hurt them, they're pretty much impossible to kill. Instead of writing about vampires, I think Stephanie Meyer got confused and turned them into Greek gods, only with 10% of the balls. Her vampires were an embarrassment, really. But then, unexpectedly, vampire mythology exploded! Now, countless pre-teens and their mothers think it's romantic for a girl to fall in love with a boy because he doesn't eat her like he wants to. Who needs feminism when Edward Cullen's around to keep you from seeing your friends and family, pressure you into teenage marriage, cause you to miss out on college, impregnate you with his demon baby, and ultimately kill you in the most gruesome birthing scene of all time?

You're in love, aren't you? Yes, I know. It's tough to resist this.

Arrrggghhh! Stop the sparkling! This picture IS birth control!

So Twilight bothered me, and for more reasons than just its neutered vampires. And for a year or two, I was very angry and frustrated with the direction vampirism had taken. How had a horror story become a cheesy Hot Topic fad? Why did women find Edward Cullen sexy? Why does Kristen Stewart blink so much? The bastardization of vampire folklore through Twilight was thorough and cutting, but I couldn't hold on to my anger forever. Eventually, I would have to let go and start to appreciate the silly fiction for what it was. Fiction.

That's right, folks. Twilight is a lame story, yes, but it's just a story, not a social commentary on our times. Vampire as Emo Boyfriend is annoying, but it isn't set in stone. Oh, no. People can do all kinds of fun things with vampires. And that brings me to the final point of my evolution.

The Vampire Diaries: The Golden Years
I adore The Vampire Diaries in ways that should probably embarrass a married 26-year-old. Every Thursday evening, I bound into my house after choir, power up the DVR, and then have the following conversation with my husband:
Me: (fumbling excitedly with the remote) Guess what time it is?
Husband: (Sighing with the knowledge of a man who has done this too many times) Vampire Diaries time?
Me: Yes! You know me so well!
(10 minutes later)
Husband: Wait, I don't get it. Why did that one guy just - ?
Husband: Geez, calm down. I'm going out to the garage.
Me: (Silence)
Husband: Did you hear me? I said -

We love each other, though. Later, after the show, I'm totally civilized when he asks me reasonable questions.

A brief glance at The Vampire Diaries suggests that it's a lot of the same stuff I wrote about before. It focuses on a brooding vampire (and his brooding eyebrows) who falls in love with a human teenage girl and eats animal blood instead of people blood. And when you think of it that way, TVD sounds a whole lot like Twilight. But trust me, the similarities end there.

TVD is the best paced show I've ever watched. It's this ridiculous teen soap with 20-something hardbodies pretending to be young, but the writers keep the story so engaging that it's impossible to stop watching. Every week, mythology is revealed, or someone dies, or a major character does something major. Oh, and the main characters look like this:

Let's all just admire our beauty for a minute.

... and this ...

Vampire and werewolf love

... and this ...

Human and witch love

... and, oh okay, this ...

More vampire brothers

You see? Everybody's gorgeous! And it doesn't end with those 8 characters. Even the guest characters look like that. Not a pasty sparkle-chest in sight, thank god. Every week, I follow TVD's characters through supernatural intrigue, doppelganger hijinks, intense sibling rivalry, love triangles, parent / child relationships, ghost girlfriends, murder, mayhem, blood-sucking, double-crossing, redemption, etc. Every. Damn. Week. The story just keeps building, and it keeps getting better.

So how do I feel about vampires now? I still think they're fakity fake-fake fakesters. That won't change. But after my evolution, I'm starting to think it's okay for vampires to be sexy as long as the story is told well. And maybe someday, Hollywood will make bloodsuckers ugly again. When that day comes, maybe we'll revolt. Maybe we'll say that vampires are supposed to be hot tortured souls who sometimes like to drink blood. Anything's possible. Seriously. If this:

Nosferatu: Making smelling your pillows look creepy since the beginning of time.

... can make a flying leap to this:

A blood diet is really good for muscle definition.

... then by golly, vampires can become just about anything. Cover your necks at night, friends. We're totally doomed.