BBC News


Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

How vampires got all touchy-feely

Fanged teeth

By Brendan O'Neill

With the hit film Twilight, the transformation of vampires from terrifying, bloodsucking killers to sensitive, emotionally-intelligent, misunderstood souls, is complete. How was Bram Stoker's legacy so drastically betrayed?

When you hear the word "vampire", what image comes to mind? Men in black cloaks, with pasty faces, protruding fangs and an insatiable desire to feast on people's blood?

Strange Transylvanians who sleep in coffins by day and flap around like bats at night? Perhaps you think of gangs of the undead, who are scared of garlic and can only be killed by having a wooden stake driven through their hearts.

Well, think again. The vampire has had a makeover. He's no longer a weird, threatening foreigner, with a strange voice and even stranger dining habits - the vampire has become super-cool, lusted after by girls and envied by boys.

The movie Twilight, which topped the US box office earlier this year, and receives its UK release on Friday, is an adaptation of the first in a series of teenage vampire novels by American author Stephanie Meyer.

No garlic required in Twilight

It tells the story of a human girl, Bella (played by Kristen Stewart), who falls in love with a 108-year-old vampire who looks like a 17-year-old boy, Edward (played by rising Brit heartthrob and former Harry Potter star, Robert Pattinson).

Edward is no Dracula-style neck-chomper who devours the human girl and terrifies the cinema audience. He's a cool, handsome, trendy school student, and a "vegetarian vampire" - that is, he resists his inner desire to drink human blood and feasts only on animals instead.

This is a story, not of beastly excess, but of heroic restraint: Edward suppresses both his lust for blood and his physical desire for Bella, even refusing to kiss her in case he is tempted to "bite and drink".

It seems the vampire is no longer a marauding hunter of unsuspecting humans; instead he is a symbol of celibacy and common sense.

And unlike many other vampire films, the "victim" in this one - human teen Bella - is not scared of Edward and his family of cold-skinned, beautiful vampires. In fact, she wants to join them. The chase is reversed: the human pursues the vampire, and the vampire resists.

Pig's blood

On its US release last month, Twilight raked in $35.7m (24.36m) on its first day - the highest-ever opening-day gross for a non-sequel or non-summer movie. And judging by the screaming teenage fans at its London premiere this week, it will do very brisk business when it goes on general release in the UK on 19 December.

Count von Count of Sesame Street
Count von Count (Sesame Street)
Tom Cruise (Interview with the Vampire)
Kiefer Sutherland (The Lost Boys)
Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee (Dracula)
David Boreanaz (Angel in Buffy)
Wesley Snipes (Blade)
Richard E Grant (The Little Vampire)

So how did the vampire go from being the stuff of nightmares to the object of young girls' dreams - from a figure of evil to a desirable outsider?

Edward in Twilight is not really the first "vegetarian vampire", struggling to contain his dark desires.

In cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that began in the late 1990s, Angel, played by David Boreanaz, had a conscience and a soul, and resisted the desire to drink human blood, living on pig's blood instead. Angel is also an example of the decent, desirable vampire, who even assists (and flirts) with the vampire slayer.

For Milly Williamson, author of The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the changing cultural depictions of vampires reveals much about human society itself.

There has been a "general shift", she says, from the vampire as exotic foreigner - as depicted in Romantic poetry in the 19th Century and most famously in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula - to the vampire as edgy "outsider".

"From the 1970s, the vampire has achieved a cool, bad boy, exotic and sexy image", she says. "And he has become a sympathetic creature, someone we feel for."

This is not entirely new, she points out. Right from the Romantic period in the 19th Century, when there was widespread fascination with Eastern European "vampyrs", the vampire has been a "pathos-filled creature who has been at odds with his ontology and his innate desires, and who has struggled with them", says Williamson.

Yet it is significant, she says, that this aspect of vampire lore has risen to prominence since the 1970s.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
The most famous vampire of them all, Dracula

"The vampire is a rich and very flexible symbol of so many different things", she says. "He can be a threat to us and our everyday lives - or he can be an enticement away from our everyday lives.

"It is interesting that in the 1980s, in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, the vampire even became a kind of symbol of family values. The vampire films The Lost Boys and Near Dark [both released in 1987] are really about holding families together, whether it's the vampire family or the human family."

Yet, she points out, even in those movies the vampires retained the post-1970s outsider appeal. In The Lost Boys the vampires are cool indie kids with peroxide blonde hair; in Near Dark they are cowboy types who flirt, drink and play pool on the outskirts of Oklahoma.

For Williamson, the key to this shift in the depiction of vampires - from something threatening to something tantalising - lies in the social upheavals of the 1960s.

"The counterculture changed the way we view those who are 'outside' of traditional society", she says. "It celebrated 'outsider status' rather than denigrating it."


It is striking, she says, that after the rise of the counterculture, that "ultimate cultural outsider" - the vampire, who stalks and feasts on the ordinary humans of mainstream society - starts to look "more acceptable, even sympathetic".

Bruce McClelland agrees. "What changes is not so much the vampire, but rather our attitudes toward being outsiders, heretics," says the self-proclaimed "vampirologist" and author of Slayers and their Vampires: A History of the Killing the Dead.

From his extensive studies of the cult of the vampire, McClelland says that the word "vampir" emerged in Slavic societies around the 15th Century to describe those considered to be outside the Christian community.

Goths adopt vampire imagery

And in different times, for different reasons, this "outsider" status of the vampire has been feared or embraced in cultural depictions, he says.

He argues that for many Romantics and leftists in the 19th Century, the vampire became a symbol of industrial society sapping people's will. Dracula was first published during the Industrial Revolution, he notes.

More recently, the Goth movement adopted vampire imagery because they "identified with the scapegoat aspect of the vampire, who is always outside of society", says Mr McClelland.

The vampire has remained quite consistent, he says; it is our attitude to outsiders that shifts back and forth.

And now, with Twilight, we seem to have the ultimate mainstreaming of "outsider status". But not everyone is enamoured of the new vegetarian, celibate vampires that have usurped the terrifying figures of old. Nina Auerbach, author of Our Vampires, Ourselves plants herself firmly in the traditional camp.

"Books and movies directed at teenage girls, like Twilight, are always homogenous by definition," she says. "I vote for the scaries."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Surely Count Duckula was one of the first vegetarian vampires, revived from the dead with tomato juice instead of blood.
Claire, Edinburgh

Surely the whole notion of vampires as tortured outsiders weeping in the night, rather than pasty weirdoes who "vant to suck your blud" came from Ann Rice's Interview With The Vampire in 1976, predating Buffy and The Lost Boys by quite some years, and in 1985's The Vampire Lestat Rice re-cast her hero as the Vampire Rock star, edgy and cool. Twilight owes a huge debt to her. Even if she did go rubbish after Memnoch the Devil.
Marc Burrows, London

Ann Rice's vampires are celibate and described as being physically incapable of sexual intimacy due to the (perfectly obvious and logic) lack of a working circulatory system. That said, I'm just glad to see that an unconventional story for young people, that explores relationships and morality without lecturing, can cause such interest and engagement from the "grown-up" world.
BabbitCymru, Caerphilly, UK

The original Dracula had an element of pathos, lamenting his lost love.
Paul Astle, Lansdale, PA

There's nothing new about the idea of the vampire as an object of lust. This was a central theme in Stoker's Dracula.
Alice, Leeds

The important thing about vampires is how sexy they are - isn't it the whole transgression of the dark side of sexuality that makes the vampire so attractive and scary too. And yes it's much better if he is scary in a sexy way.
Louise Faustino, Aberdeen

Not forgetting that vampires' famed alluring quality is all down to Polidori, who based his vampire on Byron. Vampire are myths and as such, they have not only travelled the world over from their origin in Eastern Europe, but changed over time too. Before Polidori's vampire, they were mere bloodsuckers.
Kitty, London

It's not really fair to call Edward and others vegetarian vampires. That would imply that they're biting into a tomato or something in lieu of human blood instead of feasting on the blood of animals. The kindest vampire, Mick St John on last year's US TV series Moonlight, didn't attack poor animals - he got his drinks from a blood bank, but he was cancelled. Closer to vegetarian, but still not really one.
Susan, Houston, US

You've forgotten to mention the 70s film version of Dracula with Frank Langella, whose re-telling arguably re-launched the suave and sophisticated sexy vampire. This is of course not the only one, since popular culture cries out for so much more, but it certainly is most notable.
Ellie, Calgary, AB, Canada

I have been critical of Twilight for precisely that reason; the vampires are still evil even though stunningly handsome and softer around the edges. Edward is a stalker who effectively gets his prey to pursue him. Clever. Bella would give up everything she has, even her humanity for a cold date who endangers her life. What can she be thinking?
Leticia Velasquez, Canterbury, CT, US

We also have the "black ribboners" in the Pratchett books, including Otto Chriek , who has chosen an unfortunate career as a photo journalist and tends to, well, fall to pieces whilst doing his job. Still, nothing a little glass phial of blood around ones neck can't solve...
M Ross, Lancaster, UK

Vampires have always been a favourite subject of mine, from the pages of Bram Stoker and Poppy Z Brite, to the screen in Buffy, Lost Boys and Blood Ties. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about them. But tales made for a teenage audience aren't quite my cup of tea - they lack suspense, fear and the battle of wills that usually runs through adult-themed tales (and let's not forget the sexual aspects). Vampires are cool, mysterious, alluring, dangerous, tempting... all the things we wish we were but probably aren't. And yes, I would probably consider myself to be Goth, and I have on more than one occasion modelled my outfits on "vampire imagery". It's all just a grown-up way of playing dress-up and escaping into another persona. As long as it doesn't harm anyone, what's wrong in that?
Sarah, London, UK

The vampire was created as a male fantasy of female sexuality, changed into a veiled homosexual fantasy by Stoker, and that the clean-cut nice vampires of today are the fantasy of just-pubescent pleasant girls with money, who want to buy the feeling of associating with an outside that is liberating but safe. They're being offered to teenagers who are going to have to spend their lives being sensible - so they are given emotional proof that self-control is daring and romantic, and special. It's a whitewashed version of going off the rails, for kids whose parents give them enough space to grow safely. That's why it's not original, and just a copy of what's been done before. Teenage kicks analysed, cleaned up, and sold back to them in a safely packaged container.
Martin Cooper, Manchester

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific