Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Messages From the Coffin

At this point, it's no secret vampires have again recaptured the imagination of the public. The phenomenal success two book series, the Twilight Saga and the Southern Vampire Mysteries have planted vampires firmly back into our collective consciousness. I was planning on writing an article about the recent revival of vampires in popular culture at some point down the road, but Entertainment Weekly beat me to the punch and did a cover feature on the subject for their August 7 issue.
Twilight was adapted into a feature film last year, and it's soon be followed by the first of three sequels, New Moon, in November. Southern Vampire Mysteries, also known as the Sookie Stackhouse novels, was turned into an HBO series by Alan Ball called True Blood. The stars of the Twilight films have been all over the tabloids for months and True Blood has been gradually winning over an audience since its inception.

But while the Twilight and True Blood phenomenon has raised popular vampire mythology to new heights, it had never really disappeared. What the screaming Twilight fans might not realize is that vampires, even sexy vampires, are nothing new. Before Twilight's Edward Cullen and Sookie's Bill Compton, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles spawned the feature films Interview With The Vampire and Queen of the Damned. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a feature film that was later adapted into the campy TV series and its spin-off Angel. Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez brought us From Dusk Till Dawn and Kate Beckinsale in a tight leather outfit starred in the Underworld films. And let's not forget Wesley Snipes in the Blade trilogy, which also crossed over into a TV series.

Vampires have long been a strangely alluring subject, and have always appealed to a strong female audience. It could be because vampires are such a good narrative device through which to explore so many themes. They are outsiders, dark, mysterious, immortal, and have an ancient history and acquired wisdom. Forbidden vampire-human sexual desire far pre-dates Edward and Bella, going back to the days of Dracula in 1897. But vampires are capable of more than playing off your deepest fantasies.

Take True Blood for example. In my mind, the most compelling aspect of the show is how vampires are used to illuminate society's social issues, such as gay rights. It's no accident that the church is in that story to point out how dangerous narrow-minded bigotry can be. Sometimes it's more effective to get a message across when you're expressing it through parallels and symbolism, and since vampires aren't exactly human the possibilities for social satire are endless.

It's in this area that Twilight seems to fall short, as it doesn't seem to have much social conscience or underlying message beyond love overcoming obstacles. Many believe that perhaps Bella is a bad role model for women because her entire existence becomes defined by Edward. I don't know if I completely agree with that sentiment, but it would have been nice, considering how popular the story is among the youth, if Stephenie Meyer had more fully realized the potential vampire stories have for social relevance.

History has proven that vampires are here to stay. Right now they just happen to be en vogue with a teenage audience, which has heightened the hysteria which has long existed. Let's just hope that while vampires have the collective attention of the youth, as they swoon over Edward and Bella or Bill and Sookie, they also happen to notice a few of the deeper themes just below the surface, or learn to see when the story is lacking in that area.

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