Blood Lust: Vampires Get a Makeover

Blood Lust
Illustration by Michael Dunn

By Lauren Young

Move over Harry Potter. The vampires have arrived.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga about a heartthrob vampire has become the hottest book series and motion picture since J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard stole the hearts of adolescent girls. With Twilight‘s popularity comes an obsession with vampires that is replacing the craze for witches and wizards that has dominated popular culture since the late 1990s.

The Twilight series follows the star-crossed relationship between a girl, Bella Swan, and her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen. Breaking Dawn, the final installment, sold 1.3 million copies during the first 24 hours after its midnight release date in August. Twilight, the movie released in fall 2008, grossed $70 million in its first week.

“A lot more people like vampires now,” says Maribeth Perez, 19, a Bronx resident and self-identified “Twilighter” – or Twilight fan – who notes that, these days, vampire gear has even become a fashion statement. “I see it in the streets – people with fangs and everything,” says Perez.

Vampires are pale, scary, sensitive to light, and most of them drink blood. Yet, in recent years, vampires have gone from creepy to sexy and sometimes even cuddly.

“The idea of vampires is scary,” said James Howe, author of the Bunnicula books, a popular children’s series that follows a vampire bunny who feeds on carrots and peas, not on blood. “I think people find them appealing because it comes up against what they’re scared of – in a safe way.”

Bunnicula notwithstanding, the nocturnal bloodlust of the vampire has served as a sexual metaphor ever since Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, often mirroring the sexual mores of the times. The Victorian Dracula is sinister. His 21st century counterpart, Edward Cullen, is romantic and chivalrous.

A fascination with vampires dates to the ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. They all had tales of demons and spirits who came out at night and never saw daylight. The Persians were the first to tell tales of bloodthirsty demons; depictions of these stories have been found on pottery shards.

According to folklore, vampires were initially described as demonic, skinny and pale, with long fingernails. Descriptions of vampires who had fangs and were vulnerable to sunlight appeared over time in the 19th century.

Vampire fiction began with poems such as “Lenore” by Gottfried August Burger and “The Bride of
Corinth” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in the late 18th century. John Polidori’s short stories and James M. Rymer’s novel, Varney the Vampire, written during the same period, were peopled by vampires.

Before Stoker, another Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu, created Carmilla, the story of a young woman’s willing response to the attentions of a female vampire. That influenced Stoker, whose Dracula became the iconic vampire story that changed the image of the vampire forever. It also became the basis of the modern vampire legend of film, book and television.

Dracula introduced the Count as a predator, but his interaction with his victims was portrayed in a highly erotic manner. He was hypnotic in a highly sexual way. In the Victorian Age, Dracula warned of the dangers of sex. Sexual contact with the Count turned women into seductive baby killers – the antithesis of the Victorian ideal of nurturing womanhood.

“I think the fascination with vampires is that they transcend time,” says Carmel Jordan, a literature professor at Baruch College. “They offer us a sense of mystery in a technological age where everything moves so fast and time seems to control us.”

Jordan says her course, Mystery and Melodrama: Gothic Literature Revisited, draws on childhood
memories of Ireland and stories of her family’s ancestral castle, which is now in ruins.

The first film portrayal of a vampire was in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau, which was loosely based on Stoker’s story. In 1931, Bela Lugosi starred as the Count in Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, the first talking film to portray a vampire. The film became a cult classic.

In the mid-1960s, Dracula evolved into a romantic gothic character when Marilyn Ross wrote the Barnabas Collins series, loosely basing it on the popular television soap opera, Dark Shadows, which aired from 1966-1971 and portrayed the vampire as a loving and thoughtful creature.

Anne Rice’s novels have gone farther in that direction, with her vampire hero, Lestat de Lioncourt, a French nobleman who was turned into a vampire in the 18th century. Her Interview With the Vampire, made into a 1994 film, became a mega-hit starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

Now Robert Pattinson, who portrays Edward Cullen in Twilight and who also played Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, has captured teenage girls’ hearts with his good looks and chivalry, as he saves Bella from danger.

Twilight is different; it takes on Romeo and Juliet and expands on it,” says Cassie Snyder, 20. “Bella and Edward overcome” what Romeo and Juliet couldn’t; “every girl dreams of finding that perfect person.”

The success of Twilight has created something of a vampire industry. The notion of a romantic vampire was also adopted by Charlaine Harris in her The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which portrays Bill Compton as the perfect vampire gentleman. Last fall, HBO jumped on the chance to get on the vampire craze with a television series, True Blood, which focuses on Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic waitress who falls in love with a dashing vampire named Bill. The series is adapted from Harris’s books.

Recent films also have introduced a range of more diverse plotlines, such as the Blade film trilogy, which focuses on vampire hunters, and the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was turned into a television series in 1997. The long-running series spawned a spin-off about the character of Buffy’s vampire ex-boyfriend, Angel.

Vampires have even become a hot subject for the video game industry. BloodRayne, introduced in 2002, is a third-person video game that follows the assignments of a half-vampire huntress. In addition to a sequel, it spawned two movies and a comic book series.

The legend of the vampire is likely to remain a staple of popular culture for a long time to come.

“I really think there could be vampires,” says Snyder. “I wouldn’t mind becoming one.”

Of course, no parents would want their daughter to date a vampire. And surely that’s part of their appeal.