IF YOU’VE EVEN casually watched TV in the past five years, seen a movie with coming attractions, driven past billboards and fast food restaurants, or walked into a Barnes & Noble, you can’t avoid the onslaught of vampires in popular culture. As the summer draws to a close, so does the fourth season of HBO’s vampire comedy-drama True Blood. This summer’s vampire big screen attractions—the movie remake of the 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows and the movie adaptation of the young adult novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (it is, improbably, exactly what it sounds like)—have come and gone. The fourth season of CW network’s young adult vampire melodrama The Vampire Diaries begins in September. And the publicity blitz for the final Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn-Part 2, (coming to theaters in mid-November) is about to colonize fast-food merchandise, billboards, and magazine covers.
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Ever since John Polidori wrote “The Vampyre” as part of a bet with his good friend Mary Shelley and since Bram Stoker gave us Dracula, the vampire has never exactly gone out of fashion. Vampires are often the horizon on which we project our fears and anxieties, and, like other supernatural fantasy creatures, they help us take stock of our own humanness. If, as Nina Auerbach has argued in her book Our Vampires, Ourselves, we can learn a lot about different epochs of Western culture by the kind of vampires that are in vogue, what do we make of this current crop of blood suckers? What might they teach us about our humanity and our theological response to the world we live in?
If you sink your teeth into these contemporary vampire mythologies, the first thing that is likely to strike you is how attractive these vampires are. In the three vampire mythologies most popular right now, the Twilight series (originally young adult novels, now also movies), The Vampire Diaries (also originally YA fiction from the early 1990s, revived as a TV show in 2009), and True Blood (HBO’s most-watched series, based on adult supernatural romance novels), it is often hard to imagine a good reason why one wouldn’t want to be a vampire oneself. They are super-fast, super-strong, super-sensory beings, who also happen to be astonishingly attractive. And let’s not forget how many amazing skills one could learn—much less all the books one could read, languages one could speak, art one could appreciate—if one lived forever.
Better still, these new vampires show an uncommon distaste for the very blood that keeps them alive, bashfully proclaiming themselves “vegetarian”—which usually means they subsist off animal blood alone—or only taking blood from willing humans, and never too much. Without the downside of soulless damnation or crazed bloodlust, what’s not to love? In each mythology, in fact, at least one human character does become a vampire, with no significant repercussions to his or her personality or moral character.
These new noble vampires—the gentleman vampire, the vegetarian vampire, the existential-lost-soul-on-a-path-toward-redemption vampire—are not the first of their kind in American popular culture. In terms of mainstream television, they are preceded most prominently by Angel, the vampire with a soul from the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and his own eponymous spinoff series (1999-2004).
Re-ensouled by gypsies who devise this as a punishment for his cruel murder of one of their kin, Angel remembers every victim and feels remorse for every kill and repugnance for his persistent desire for human blood. His soul is what allows him to fight against his vampire nature. Angel teaches us what is at stake in having a soul in the first place: the kind of moral choices it both makes possible and demands of us at all times. Having a soul is not just about moral struggle, however. It is also what allows Angel to love other humans, to become vulnerable with them and dependent on them, and to develop real community and friendship. The vampire with a soul becomes a horizon for the human characters in the show, and for us as viewers, to size up our own humanity, defined by love and commitment to community.
It is hard to say if the new vampires have souls or not because having or not having a soul isn’t what defines a vampire in these stories. What defines them is desire. Most fundamentally, desire for blood. Everything else about them is determined by how they respond to, realize, resist, or give into that desire. “Good” vampires resist the desire for human blood. Or they at least channel it into more appropriate avenues, like taking blood from a willing partner (True Blood) or stealing from a blood bank in the worst-case scenario (The Vampire Diaries). Their “goodness” consists in their self-control.
Because these good vampires are defined not in terms of their desire, nor presence or absence of soul, they are stripped of their capacity to serve as a transcendent standard against which the human characters in the story can compare themselves. In these cases, the opposite of soulless vampirism is not ensouled humanity. It is just controlled vampirism. In these fantasies, there is no principle—like the work the soul did for Angel—by which desires are differentiated or judged. There is no moral center to pull the vampires out of solipsistic craving, however seemingly controlled, into community, vulnerability, or dependence on others.
There is a long tradition of reading vampirism as a metaphor for illicit sexual desire, but in these fantasies sex, so long as it is accompanied by love, often saves these vampires from their worst impulses. The better metaphor, and the more prescient one, is probably consumption: desire unmoored from any particular object. Marx once described capital as dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives on by sucking living labor and lives the more the more labor it sucks. In our post-industrial consumer economy, desire itself functions vampirically—it breeds a frenzy for consumption that is only increased the more we consume. A consumer economy, which we have been told is our own role to play in the global economic order, depends on everyone aspiring to buy more and better objects. It doesn’t particularly matter what we consume—one car vs. another—so long as we keep consuming. The principle that drives the machine is desire itself, a desire to keep desiring, to keep wanting, regardless of the costs to ourselves, our communities, or our planet. What we wouldn’t give for a little dead capital to suck on our labor, we might say, as the unemployment rate climbs and all we are offered is the injunction to keep consuming.
Now more than ever, as the consumerism that forms the glossy surface of our common life is cracking under our weight, we know that not all desires are created equal. We are offered competing narratives in which our economic salvation depends on stimulating growth, namely increased buying power, and shifting the burden of blame for any failures of this economic model to the individual who hasn’t learned enough self-control. In terms of unregulated consumption fueled by unending desire, individual self-control is a fiction that ignores the larger systems of consumption that drive a planet toward ruin and the majority of the population into poverty.
The myth of “goodness as self-control” breaks down in these economic vampire fantasies too. In the midst of careful blood consumption, the human corpses pile up. The vampire falls off the wagon. With no moral center in the fantasy, there is also no condemnation of their failure of self-control. These vampires are urged to reform, seek rehab, try harder next time. Of course, next time is eventually the same. Under the veneer of self-control, these vampires are bottomless pits of consumption, even as they embody the violence and death unchecked desire leaves in its wake.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that zombies have made their own resurgence in popular culture as well. Zombies, unlike vampires, have no agency left at all, not even a chance at self-control. They don’t even count as “selves.” Reanimated corpses, they are walking, devouring embodiments of ceaseless desire gone out of control. In the zombie apocalypse—such as the one chronicled in AMC’s The Walking Dead—there is no question of wanting to be a zombie. All one wants is not to be eaten by one. But in that context our human characters once again can take the measure of what makes them human. What bonds of connection, friendship, dependence, and love will survive when all vestiges of human life have been consumed out of existence? It is a much bleaker fantasy world. But perhaps a more accurate horizon against which to measure what we fear and what we ought to want in this particular moment.
Kathryn Reklis is assistant professor of modern Protestant theology at Fordham University. She writes regularly on religion and pop culture at www.themothchase.com.