Recently, the Washington Post had a story on how vampires have become Hollywood’s new leading man characters. While the article has plenty of typical press-release hype over HBO’s “True Blood” the story does touch on the popularity of the current “romantic vampire.”
Which is scary. Because of what this particular form of vampire shows about what Hollywood is peddling as a romantic fantasy for women and girls, and the market for it. The problem is, the current vampire fantasy is a highly aggressive, violent, testosterone fueled man who will be meekly under the romantic and sexual power of the female lead. This is both a huge departure in the vampire fantasy as it formerly existed, and disturbing in the messages that inevitably push women and girls towards bad choices that they are already prone to make.
First, it’s time to review just what the vampire fantasy has been. Almost every culture has vampires as a folklore culture, fear of the undead is a common human fear. What jump started vampires into the modern media era was Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel.
The novel dealt with Victorian fears about the stability and endurance of the nuclear family under threat of foreign immigration and contact with the wider world. Fears that were not unfounded, as we can see with today’s Britain having 50% of births illegitimate, and not unreasonable either considering the history the Victorian reformers always had in mind. It was not unusual during the Georgian era to encounter 12 year old prostitutes in most major and many minor cities, including their fashionable districts. Most of the cities were hell-holes of drunken behavior, prostitution, thievery, and murder. Gin was the drink of the day, and most English were drunk most of the time. The same Christian reformers who formed the anti-Slavery movement, such as Wililam Wilberforce also endorsed attempts to reduce drunken behavior (encouraging beer consumption instead of gin, limited drinking hours, drinking in pubs instead of the streets, etc.) and public morality to reduce prostitution’s acceptability, and encourage the nuclear family, rather than debauchery and patronage of prostitutes.
Thus, when the novel’s proper Victorian middle class gentlemen Jonathan Harker, finds his fiancee menaced by Count Dracula, who seeks to turn her into a vampire and make her his bride, the novel’s concerns resonated with Victorian reformers who felt several generations of efforts could be undone by menacing foreigners with ways that could corrupt the English back into their old vices. It’s interesting that Dracula is presented as smooth, charismatic, attractive to women and able to influence men, but in the end is both revealed to be a monster in his behavior and appearance, and destroyed by a very middle class group who work together, in middle class cooperation and friendship: a doctor (Van Helsing), Harker the lawyer, an American, and a man of minor nobility. Dracula in the end is killed (really) with a Bowie Knife. The symbol of the American frontier. The novel ends with Mina Harker married to Jonathon, and with a child named after a friend who died fighting Dracula.
The stage versions of this novel was a smash, producing a number of films, including notably the 1922 silent German version by F.W. Murnau (name changed from Dracula due to a lawsuit by Stoker’s widow) and the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi. It established the Vampire as sexy, but monstrous underneath, though limitations in effects and the Hays Code meant violence and gore had to be implied rather than shown.
This portrayal of the Vampire as sexy but underneath, monstrous, soon changed into the Vampire as a joke. The deepening Depression, and subsequent War Years, led to audiences demanding comedy rather than horror — their own lives were filled with enough during that time, thank you very much. Films such as “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with Dracula and the Wolf Man along for the ride, and Lugosi once again playing Dracula, were common.
Hammer’s 1958 version of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, resurrected the Vampire as both sexy and monstrous, instead of a joke. This particular cycle saw the last “sexy but monstrous” version in 1979’s “Dracula” starring Frank Langella, who had also played the role to considerable acclaim on Broadway. The same year, the Vampire was once again, a joke with “Love at First Bite” starring noted champion tanner, George Hamilton.
This cycle has repeated many times: Vampire as monster (to be defeated, by a middle class man, and his wife/girlfriend saved), Vampire as sexy but a monster, Vampire as a joke (Count Chocula, Blackula, etc.). So it was that the somewhat mixed humor and horror versions of this treatment “Fright Night” (1985) and the “Lost Boys” (1987) were succeeded by “Near Dark,” a fairly brutal treatment of the Vampire, and 1992’s version by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Gary Oldman (“Dracula.”)
One thing has always remained the same: Vampires are either straight out monsters who menace middle class men’s girlfriends/wives (or, in “Fright Night” and “Lost Boys” their divorced mothers) and must be killed, or they are sexy rivals who are underneath, monstrous, and must be killed, or jokes for our amusement.
The Vampire took a new, somewhat scary turn, with 1997’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” While the movie (fairly unsuccessful) had vampires as somewhat icky jokes, the TV series had the Vampire presented as both monster, and romantic boyfriend, in the same package. Buffy’s sexy Vampires, both foreigners (keeping that part of the tradition), were preferable to the middle class, brave, nice, but “boring” men who sought her. Even though her Vampires kept, well slaughtering people, Buffy presented the disturbing fantasy that a beautiful and “special” young woman could, by power of her beauty and sexuality, control a testosterone-driven, violent, aggressive man and domesticate him into her lover and intimidator. Even after one Vampire boyfriend slaughters some of her friends, and another rapes her (“Spike”), the title character keeps coming back for more, even to the point of professing her love for “Spike” and having implied off-screen sex with him.
Following TV’s “Buffy,” the 2001 “Sookie Stackhouse” series, by Charlaine Harris, and 2005’s “Twilight” by Stephanie Meyer, continued in that mode, i.e. a beautiful young woman controls a violent, dangerous man, by virtue of her beauty and sexiness, in novel form. The former is now an HBO series, by openly gay writer-producer Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) called “True Blood.” The latter series has sold 7 million books in the US, and reportedly 50 million world wide. Of course, a gay man understanding, let alone having anything meaningful to say, about the ways in which men and women interact romantically, is about the same probability of my winning the lottery next week.
The success of this type of Vampire character is disturbing. For obvious reasons, the Vampire only appeals to women (and well, gay men). The Vampire is stronger, more violent, more aggressive, older, and longer lived than the “boring” ordinary middle class men he’s compared to. He promises immortality, eternal youth and beauty (which has a power, a definite power for women, but does not last). The idea that a woman might extend (even forever) her beauty, sex appeal, power over men, is certainly understandable. The trillion dollar beauty industry caters to this desire, among women, and anyone who’s seen an “invisible” woman, i.e. one over age 50, ignored by waiters, waitresses, clerks, and so on knows how cruel a youth-obsessed society can be when women lose their youth and beauty.
[Only “Near Dark” out of all the Vampire Films explores the “relationship” of a female vampire and young man. And there, it’s reversed. The young man rejects vampirism, saves his family, and “rescues” the girl from vampirism, restoring her to humanity. Obviously, men only value beauty, intelligence, character, and compassion in women as love-interest fantasies. They don’t need power, aggression, and violence in their fantasy partners as women do. They’d also rather be the heroes themselves, and don’t see themselves as monsters. For obvious reasons (no children, love, marriage) a female vampire is useless as a romantic fantasy for men, since there is no happily ever after.]
However, this fantasy of young women “controlling” aggressive, violent, hyper-testosterone men, through the power of their beauty comes at a price. While women might like this fantasy, in real life men filled with high levels of testosterone and aggression generally lack control, unless it is directed in careful competition such as football, Mixed Martial Arts competitions, and the like. Which in turn are the result of literally years of training and control. Real life analogues of “Edward” from “Twilight” or “William” from “Dead Until Dark” would resemble Johan Van Der Sloot (suspected by some of killing American tourist Natalee Holloway in Aruba) or Scott Peterson.
If Pornography is bad for men, giving them wildly unrealistic ideas about women, their bodies, and sex, these Vampire fantasies are just as bad for women. Power, status, and above all violent aggression in a fantasy where the woman controls the Byronic Vampire? It’s as puerile as the nerdy guy fantasy of the super-heroine who likes blowing up stuff too (see any movie with Milla Jojovich or Kate Beckinsale in black leather). However, that fantasy won’t lead to nerdy guys making disastrous choices. At worst they’ll waste money on the Special Edition DVD, and the video game.
For women, and particularly younger women, something has been lost. Good judgment about men, including the natural trade-off between intelligence and testosterone. It’s true, that there is a correlation between higher IQ and lower levels of testosterone and aggression. Making smarter men who are less aggressive less sexually and romantically desireable for women. But women far too often, in our politically correct society, overestimate their ability to exert control over men with high levels of testosterone and aggression. Writer “Theodore Dalrymple” (his pen name) in “Life at the Bottom” recounts a conversation with one of his patients, in the hospital in London where he worked. A girl of 17, who had her arm broken by her boyfriend. He questioned her, and she admitted she knew the boyfriend was violent and prone to abuse when she started dating him. That was the attraction, the danger, and the excitement. Dalrymple’s question was what if that aggression was turned on herself? Her response was that she could look after herself. Dalrymple’s reply that men are stronger than women (as her broken arm indicated) produced the retort that such words were “sexist.”
This pattern persisted even with Dalrymple’s educated, professional nurses. Who chose men who abused them, even at work. They confessed to Dalrymple that they knew the men were violent, they could see it at a glance from the scars from fighting, the tattoos proclaiming a love of violence, and their behavior, dress, and friends. Still they chose them, because ordinary, decent men were in their words, “boring.”
These Vampire fantasies are disturbing, because they are both a cultural marker (women have responded to the fantasy of testosterone laden men, with violent pasts and tendencies, as fantasy figures, with sales figures for the books through the roof) and a cultural shaper — it encourages young women to indulge in this fantasy even more. At best this will produce more alienation and distrust between the sexes. The number of men who can meet the criteria of the sexy, brutal, strength and testosterone filled, but controlled, figure of the Vampire is approximately two: Mixed Martial Arts Champion Randy Couture, and Chicago Bears Linebacker Brian Urlacher. No others need apply. At worst, more young women will end up like Natalee Holloway, overestimating their ability to control the aggressive young men around them.
Can’t we just move to the Joke phase of vampires now?