You could be forgiven for wondering what has happened to vampires over the last few decades. They who walk by night, who were once among our most reliably terrifying monsters, seem to have evolved into something weirdly ordinary. They who once inspired horror – real, sick-to-the-stomach horror – now stare broodingly down from glossy posters in the bedrooms of teenage girls. This trend has not gone unremarked, nor unlamented. Finding new and progressively more creative ways to pour scorn on Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight franchise has been a common pastime for many years now, and the most common point of criticism – besides the general awfulness of the writing and the patent talentlessness of the film stars – is the Twilight take on vampirism. There are indeed a great many very solid grounds for complaint here. Meyer’s failure to understand that beings with fantastic powers are only interesting if those powers also come with limitations (like burning in the sunlight, for example) has prevented her from offering us a version of the vampire legend that might endure. But there is also something else going on. Edward Cullen and his kin are not just unfrightening because Stephanie Meyer has a poor imagination. They are unfrightening because of what they symbolise in the culture that produced them.
Consider the evolution of the modern vampire legend. The original vampire was, of course, Dracula; and in Bram Stoker’s novel, he was a terrifying, freakish monster of the night, an evil, repulsive creature. When Stoker’s creation was first brought to the screen as Nosferatu in 1922, he was depicted as almost more animal than human. He had teeth like a rat, reptilian skin, batlike ears, and his movements were those of a rodent – a rat surprised in the night. More significantly, viewers were expected to respond to him as an inhuman, bestial monster, and to feel not just relieved but somehow cleansed and purified when the sun’s rays finally wiped him out. And for the next fifty years or so, things stayed that way. When vampires cropped up – in comic books, in the British Hammer studio’s low-budget horror flicks – they remained evil and they remained gruesome. The idea of asking the public to sympathise or even to identify with a vampire would have seemed bizarre and possibly even perverse.
The turning point came in 1976 when Anne Rice published her novel Interview with the Vampire, and the mythology devised by Stoker was deeply and permanently altered. Rice’s radical idea was to make the vampire the protagonist and portray him as an attractive and sympathetic figure. Her character, Louis, is sensitive, troubled, and romantic, and constantly struggles against his craving for human blood. The book itself is sadly rather vapid and dull, but that didn’t matter: by humanising the vampire, Anne Rice changed the way the public looked at the legend. And there has been no going back. Since the ‘70s, vampires have steadily grown less and less repulsive and more and more sympathetic. Tragic romanticism has broadly become the order of the day, and with a few exceptions, most 21st-century vampires are a lot cooler and a lot sexier than would have been conceivable fifty years ago. The HBO series True Blood, the cast of which appears to be entirely composed of unbelievably gorgeous people, is actually set in a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin” and live openly alongside us. That is a fine metaphor for the transformation the legend has undergone.
Why has this happened? Why the trend for the attractive, admirable vampire? The answer lies in the symbolism at the heart of the vampire legend, and it doesn’t take much insight to recognise what this is. Most of our classic monsters have retained their popularity – and their scare power – because they stand for real-life horrors. Werewolves symbolise the animal forces in human nature; zombies represent the slow, inevitable advance of death itself; we remain scared by them because they tap into our fear of the genuine terrors that we do have to confront in our lives. The crucial difference with the vampire, however, is that vampires represent something that we simply don’t find very scary anymore. The vampire is a symbol of sexuality.
This basic fact is now quite widely acknowledged, and yet most of us have failed to recognise that the evolution of the vampire legend has therefore reflected the evolution of our attitudes to sexuality itself. The vampire, if this needs spelling out, comes out at night, transmits itself by blood, and is driven by hunger for human flesh. One of the most powerful passages in Dracula describes the male hero’s encounter with the Count’s daughters, who materialise in his bedroom at night and whose craving for his blood definitely has undertones far beyond the desire to feed. They argue in excited whispers over which of them will go first – “He is young and strong; there are kisses for us all” – and the man pretending to be asleep is aroused to the point that he almost surrenders willingly and without a fight. But Dracula was published in 1897, when Victorian attitudes to sex still prevailed: the vampire is a creeping, hideous thing in the night, something to be repressed, fought off and ideally eradicated. Nineteenth-century readers were scared by Dracula because the thing he symbolised scared them too.
Thus it makes perfect sense that the vampire should have been humanised and made sympathetic in the 1970s, when sexual liberalism was making real inroads into the repressive conservatism that hitherto had paralysed the sexuality of so many people in the Western mainstream. The transformation of the vampire has gone hand in hand with the transformation of our sexual norms. For young people in the 21st century, sex is treated as a normal and unfrightening aspect of life that ought to be accepted without fear or superstition. Small wonder that the old-school vampires of the half-century after Stoker can no longer inspire much fear. As the nineteenth-century imagination produced Dracula, so the modern imagination produces Edward Cullen, who can come out in the sunlight, who interacts positively with a human heroine, and whose function in the Twilight stories rests almost entirely on his sex appeal.
And if he is a fundamentally tedious creation – if he lacks charisma, if there is zero complexity or nuance to his personality, if nothing about him is genuinely exciting, mysterious, or compelling – then perhaps this too reflects something about the sexual attitudes of the culture that produced him.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Woroni on 16 May 2013.