Vampires in Literature: Opera Cloaks, Sparkles, and Prevailing Themes
Vampire fiction gained momentum in 2005 and after when Little, Brown and Company published the Young Adult supernatural romance Twilight, a story where the narrator, Bella Swan, falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen, and yearns to become a vampire herself. Though the craze has died down, out of the many mythological creatures known, vampires are an enduring, pervasive aspect of Western culture.
The prevalence of literary vampires did not begin with Twilight. Vampire-centric stories are perpetually told and retold. There is no absolute certainty where the line between “old” and “new” vampires should be drawn, though there is certainly a difference between the villainous Dracula and the vampire love interest Edward Cullen.
Ultimately, vampires persist because, regardless if they suck the essence from humans, deer, or carrots, they embody several recurring social conflicts, fears, and structures, as well as recurring themes and how the treatment of these themes alters—or doesn’t alter—over time. Vampires can represent vital, interwoven issues, and said issues include gender, class, religion, and more.
This article contains spoilers for several pieces of fiction, both older and recent. Works with especially detailed spoilers include The Vampyre, Carmilla, Dracula, Let the Right One In, and Twilight.
What is a Vampire?
Before examining the literature, seeing what constitutes as a vampire assists in seeing how versatile these folkloric creatures are. Many possible attributes come with the label “vampire,” from strengths to weaknesses. With this, there have been extensive liberties taken in both older and recent fiction. Here is a list of typical attributes concerning the positives and negatives of vampirism:
Possible strengths and abilities: super strength; mind control (of both animals and humans); shapeshifting into animals; teleportation; flying; self-healing and regeneration; telepathy or psychic abilities that induce a victim’s hallucinations; telekinesis; extraordinary beauty; immortality
Weaknesses and limitations: sensitivity or an outright aversion to sunlight; repelled by garlic; killed by a stake through the heart; burned by holy water and symbols; cannot enter residence unless invited in; cannot cross running water; cannot touch silver; cannot eat or drink anything besides blood; cannot conceive children; must sleep in coffins; needs to return to native soil before sunrise; no reflection
Despite these many possible traits, the Oxford English Dictionary only defines the “vampire” as “A preternatural being of a malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a reanimated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons; a man or woman abnormally endowed with similar habits. 1
The definition, in order to encompass nearly all instances of fictional vampirism, can perhaps be condensed to this: “A creature who needs to drink blood to live.” Vampires tend to be formerly human, but not in every instance. Fangs are not always present. A killed vampire may return to looking like a corpse, burst into flames, or crumble into ash. The requirements for drinking blood (whether animal blood is a proper substitute; if the victim needs to be drained and killed) and turning humans into vampires differ widely across various literary titles. Furthermore, the causes of vampirism range from undeath to a virus.
The origin of vampires can be just as murky as defining them. Creatures that resemble vampires burrow themselves in the earliest mythologies, such as the vrykolakas of Greek mythology or Lilitu of Sumerian mythology and Lilith of Jewish folklore and The Alphabet of Ben Sira. Suspicions of “revenants,” a person who returns from death, walking the earth caused the superstition-stirred desecration of bodies that were not decayed enough, such as in the case of Arnold Paul. 2 During the Romantic period, John Keats penned poems such as “Lamia” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which gave the eponymous threats (two ethereal women with the attributes of serpents and fairies) vampire-like attributes.
What is an “Old” or “New” Vampire?
When Meyer’s Twilight reached its height of popularity and gained more exposure with five film adaptations for the entire series, debate stirred on whether the Twilight-verse vampires constituted as “real” vampires. Some irritated with Meyer’s vampires claimed that “Vampires don’t sparkle” or “Real vampires burn in the sunlight.” (Vampires burning in the sunlight is an invention created largely by early twentieth century films, such as Nosferatu.)
Where does one vampire era “end” and another “begin”? Before asserting where to draw the line, it is helpful to view the staples of vampire literature to see how the genre has shifted over the decades.
John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819)
Polidori worked as Byron’s personal physician, much to his chagrin. However, his stint in this position allowed him the experience of spending three days at Villa Diodati, where a famous storytelling session took place. The company there consisted of Lord Byron, John Polidori, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Claire Clairmont. From the storytelling, Mary Shelley later created a story that would ultimately become her magnum opus, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. As well as that, Polidori created a lesser known Gothic novel called The Vampyre.
The Vampyre occurs in England. Aubrey, a young man, meets a nobleman named Lord Ruthven. Ruthven, inspired by Lord Byron, is a charismatic vampire who seduces women before draining them of blood. Ultimately, Ruthven marries the protagonist’s sister and kills her on their wedding night.
Lord Ruthven, while initially seeming appealing, is a decadent vampire who finds pleasure in remorseless predation; he kills his lovers and wives. In Polidori’s text, a vampire as not only a villain, but an aristocrat who utilizes his supernatural and economic power to harm those with less means than himself.
The wife-killing bears similarities to the story of Bluebeard, a tale by Charles Perrault that allegedly originated from Gilles de Rais, a wealthy veteran of the Hundred-Year War who returned home after Joan of Arc’s death and began sexually assaulting and murdering children for years before he was caught, executed by hanging, and burned.
Allegedly, de Rais committed these atrocities because he drove his estate into the ground with his ostentatious spending and summoned a demon for assistance. As sacrifice, he murdered children; the children he preyed upon were often of a much poorer status. Gilles de Rais, along with Elizabeth Bathory, represent aristocrats who inspired fiction that revolves around wealth and depravity, such as the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, written during imprisonment in the Bastille, and later vampire fiction.
The Vampyre, while not as well-known as Stoker’s Dracula, sets up many themes that are recurrent in Gothic vampire fiction.
James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847)
Scholars like A. Asbjørn Jøn credit Varney the Vampire for influencing later vampire fiction, such as Stoker’s Dracula. 3 Varney the Vampire is a penny dreadful, which is defined as cheap serial literature that, back in Victorian times, contained lurid content and literally cost a penny. Interestingly enough, it portrayed Varney in a somewhat sympathetic manner, though perhaps not as potently as later fiction. Varney also displays no vulnerability toward sunlight, garlic, or crosses.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872)
Le Fanu’s Carmilla occurs in Styria, which is located in southeast Austria. A young, lonely woman named Laura lives with her father in a solitary castle. She suffers sleep troubles and longs for a friend. After another young woman’s mysterious death, Laura meets Carmilla, whom she’s dreamed about as a child.
Carmilla starts forcing unwanted romantic advances on Laura. Carmilla is known for its strong homoerotic element when it comes to Carmilla’s obsession with the main character. Carmilla is actually Countess Mircalla Karnstein, a vampire who stalks, feeds upon, and slays female victims. Throughout the story, she manipulates Laura and preys upon her until her identity is revealed and she is staked and decapitated in her tomb.
The character of Carmilla is potentially inspired by Elizabeth Bathory, a highly wealthy and educated countess with an attraction to her sex who was convicted and immured for the torture and deaths of several women. According to legend, Bathory, sometimes referred to as the Blood Countess or Bloody Lady, consulted with occult practices, as Gilles de Rais supposedly did.
Alongside that, after injuring a female servant, she discovered that virgin blood helped her retain her youth, so she bathed in her victims’ blood. While little can be confirmed, Bathory is said to have tortured and killed women far below her station before also killing young upperclass women who came to Bathory’s castle for tutelage, which brought far more risk.
Due to her vampiric fixation on blood, Elizabeth Bathory inspires stories of aristocratic sadism and bloodletting. Regarding Bathory as a possible influence on Carmilla’s character, Matthew Gibson writes,
This work drew attention to Wagener’s earlier researches into Erszebet Bathory, the Hungarian Countess who killed her female servants in order to rejuvenate herself with their blood, but who, in Wagener’s account, clearly drew pleasure from inflicting sadistic sexual humiliation on her victims, ‘especially if they were of her own sex’. The newly current story of Countess Bathory therefore helps to explain why Le Fanu’s vampire is a lesbian as well as a Hungarian Countess. 4
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)
Dracula, the character of Irish-born author Bram Stoker, is the second most-shown character in Western films (the first being Sherlock Holmes). His conception comes from an established depiction of vampires as aristocratic predators and continues Carmilla’s trend of the villain being of Eastern European origin. The Count’s character is inspired by Vlad Tepes (or Vlad Dracula), a Romanian national hero who fought against Sultan Mehmed II and the Ottoman Empire (including his brother Radu, who became Mehmed’s voivode, or war commander) and impaled his victims. Whether Dracula is meant to actually be an immortal Vlad the Impaler is up for debate.
Dracula rests as a centerpiece of vampire fiction with the Count as an aristocratic being with a sweeping opera cloak, “peculiarly sharp white teeth,” and “extraordinary pallor.” 5
Written as an epistolary novel, Dracula starts when Jonathan Harker, a solicitor’s clerk, goes to Dracula’s castle for a legal real estate transaction. After he suffers a traumatic stay at Dracula’s abode, Jonathan flees and suffers a nervous breakdown.
One of the protagonists, Mina Murray, a schoolmistress who marries Jonathan and is best known for her compassion, wit, and fondness of train schedules. Ultimately, rather than focusing on the eponymous character, the novel has a hefty amount of positive companionship. The protagonists consist of a vampire-fighting group willing to sacrifice their lives for each other.
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954)
As the recipient of the Horror Writers Association’s Vampire Novel of the Century Award in April 2012 6, Matheson’s novel occupies an acclaimed but odd spot in the vampire genre.
Unlike earlier stories where vampires were typically revenants, Matheson’s vampires are the product of a pandemic similar to the flu or the bubonic plague. Here, vampirism is a disease spread through war and a plentiful mosquito population. The effectiveness of folkloric vampire propellants varies depending on the infected person involved. For example, a cross only affects vampires who were Christian before the plague struck.
Matheson’s novel is more of a science fiction novel than a Gothic tale, but the protagonist, Robert Neville, the only human allegedly unaffected by the sickness, attempts to research and cure the disease.
Indeed, the vampires in I Am Legend bear little resemblance to the literary vampire’s Gothic roots. In fact, Matheson’s work heavily influenced the zombie genre that would form in film. George A. Romero constantly cited I Am Legend as a prominent influence on his cinematic undead 7. Not only that, but Matheson’s novel has influenced apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction as well.
Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976)
Rice’s novel offers a new gimmick: a vampire protagonist, Louis, narrates his own story of how he grieved the death of his pious brother—an incident that sent him into a spiral of self-blame—and Lestat then turned Louis into a vampire. In earlier fiction, vampires embody the roles of antagonists, creatures to be defeated, but Interview with the Vampire situates the titular vampire as the main character.
In this way, Louis’ viewpoint is unique as he tells his story to a reporter and allows an unheard perspective to be exposed. The vampire is no longer the monstrous entity meant to be defeated by mortal protagonists. There is no longer a clear divide between human heroes versus vampiric villains. (Granted, the vampires in this novel are still murderers.)
Interestingly enough, Rice’s vampires, while sexualized, typically do not engage in sex. Still, Louis experiences homoerotic chemistry when interacting with Lestat and Armand. The novel also engages the topic of vampires never aging and not changing in appearance with Claudia, a six-year-old Louis turns who grows more jaded and knowledgeable, but her appearance never matures, which causes her a significant amount of anguish.
Interview with the Vampire initiates the pattern of primary vampire characters transitioning from antagonists to objects of affection. Because of its place as the “transitional novel” for vampire fiction, it opens the gateway for “ethical vampirism” or the “vegetarian vampires” found in fiction such as The Vampire Diaries and Twilight. Also, it is worth noting that this entry is the first work composed by a female author. Beyond this novel, the crafting of vampire stories contains a significant influence from women.
L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries (1991)
Smith’s Young Adult series further cemented vampires as love interests. Though the TV adaptation was accused of stealing from Twilight, it is worth nothing that Smith’s novel predates Twilight by fourteen years. (However, a Young Adult romance between a male vampire and (initially) human female with a largely female audience getting an adaptation at the peak of Twilight‘s popularity is likely not a coincidence.)
Including The Vampire Diaries, many of the Young Adult series still contain vampiric antagonists and vampires such as Damon who are villainous at first but become love interests later.
Charlaine Harris’ Dead until Dark (2001)
Harris’ novels in the “The Southern Vampire Mysteries” series continue the trend of vampires as love interests. The main character is Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress who can read human minds. A notable facet of Harris’ books is the role of vampires as a marginalized group. She inverts the power dynamic between vampires and humans on a social level. This book and the series it belongs to ultimately inspired the HBO TV series True Blood.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2004)
A bit different from its early 21st century companions, Let the Right One In is a Swedish horror story and a pre-adolescent love story. The title derives itself from the Morrissey song “Let the Right One Slip In,” as well as the belief that vampires can only enter a dwelling if a resident invites them inside.
The story occurs in a snowy, isolated setting, which creates an eerie atmosphere. The protagonist is Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and experiences relentless bullying, which propels him into serial killer fantasies. He meets Eli, someone he takes for a young woman, though they vehemently deny being a girl. They strike up an odd friendship while a series of deaths occur where the victims are drained of blood.
The influence of vampire folklore pervades the novel, such as the vampires being unable to enter a residence without an invitation. However, opposed to sadism, the story emphasizes the need for blood to survive. As the primary vampire character, Eli does not enjoy killing, but it is a part of survival. Vampires thrive off blood, and if Eli doesn’t fully drain a victim, they turn into vampires as well.
On another macabre note, Eli possesses the assistance of Hakan, a pedophile who admires Eli because they can never age. It is also revealed that, centuries ago, Eli was a male child castrated by a nobleman in a dark ritual, and therefore the novel contains both queerness and the question of gender identity.
Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2005)
On her website, Meyer speaks about how she normally wrote very little before she wrote Twilight because of real life obligations. She then states:
I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately. 8
Thus, a phenomenon formed.
Twilight entails a romance between Bella Swan, an adolescent young women who moves from Arizona to Forks, Washington and encounters Edward Cullen, a vampire she falls in love with. The entire series deals with the conflicts they endure before and after the consummation of their love, such as Bella’s desire to be turned into a vampire as well, as well as facing the Volturi, a coven of red-eyed vampires who enforce laws on the vampire world.
The supporting characters consist of Jacob Black, a werewolf with romantic feelings for Bella, and Edward’s foster family (the “Olympic coven”), including Dr. Carlisle Cullen, Esme Cullen, and some foster siblings.
To reinforce the place of vampires of romantic interests, Meyer stated one of her major influences was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Barring the unfortunate circumstances of Romeo and Juliet’s fates, this establishes love as the focal point of Meyer’s intended themes. Interestingly enough, her influences also include Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and other Shakespearean plays. Austen and Bronte are intriguing because they go back to the Gothic influence on the vampire myth.
And indeed, Meyer’s vampires sparkle in the sunlight, and therefore do their best to avoid it because they risk exposure if they begin glittering in a crowd.
Twilight stands as a past cultural phenomenon, not just for the intended audience of adolescent girls, but crossing the generational boundaries to women beyond that age group, such as the girls’ mothers and aunts.
Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy (2007)
Vampire Academy is the first novel in a seven-book romance-adventure series dealing with a vampire society with its own government. The mythology revolves around vampire folklore’s heavy Slavic roots and features two vampire types: the Strigoi (bad) and Moroi (not as bad). There are also dhampirs, half-human, half-vampire individuals.
The Moroi vampires are concealed from most of the human population with the assistance of humans known as the Alchemists. The Moroi also possess their own government. There also exists a class of humans who allow vampires to feed on them, and the feeding takes those bitten into a pleasure-induced state
Rose Hathaway, a proactive, strong-headed, biracial female protagonist who is a dhampir training to protect Lissa, an upper class vampire noble and Rose’s best friend.
Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain (2009)
Similar to Matheson’s I Am Legend, The Strain, a 2009 horror novel, revolves around a vampire virus that starts infesting New York. The vampires lose humanity the longer they live.
The characters fighting against the vampires consist of Abraham Setrakian—a Holocaust survivor and history professor—and Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, a man who works at one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wants to save his wife and son.
Where is the line drawn between “old” and “new”?
Vampires largely found a place in 19th century Gothic literature. Gothic horror existed as the original “shock genre” with erotic subtext, supernatural villains, and a haunted nostalgia for medievalism.
Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire acts as the transitional novel, the hybrid of old and new vampire fiction motifs. With a vampire as the subject rather than the antagonistic object, her fiction sets up the basis for vampires as sympathetic. It stands unique as a novel where the vampire is the tragic narrator, and though there is some romanticization, the vampires are still largely murderous; as well as that, Interview with the Vampire starts the shift between vampires as an antagonistic force to vampires as potential love interests.
Alongside that, certain themes and subjects likely considered taboo prior to the late 20th century were better accepted. For example, erotic subtext became erotica. Though authors in periods such of the Victorian era did publish erotica, the literature produced was unlikely to gain the popularity of works produced by authors like Sherrilyn Kenyon and L.K. Hamilton, and it was unlikely, in a time when one could be jailed for suspected sodomy based on homoerotic male-on-male literature, authors could be so open about writing and publishing sexually explicit works without fear of lawful consequences.
When comparing old and new vampire literature, it is important to not that the themes do not intend to frame whether either old or new vampires are “better,” but to see how the recurring issues change over time—or don’t.
The target audience for vampire novels is perhaps where the shift from “old” vampires to “new” vampires occurred.
Older works about vampires often contain adult themes such as eroticism and murder. They are often gruesome, gory, and sensual—blood and thunder literature. 9
Current popular vampire fiction is often penned by female authors for a (typically) younger female audience. Even so, the erotic nature of the vampire becomes more apparent in works such as Laurell K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” series and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s expansive “Dark Hunter” series. For even younger audiences, there are some of the Goosebumps tales, some of the tales in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (“The Window”), and the adventures of Bunnicula, a bunny who drinks the “blood” from vegetables.
Barring Carmilla, with its female protagonist and female antagonist, the 19th century works about vampires often had male vampires as the antagonists and women as the victims. Despite that, unlike his predecessors, Dracula is not a solitary vampire; he has brides who accost Jonathan Harker and obey his orders. Stoker’s Dracula features Mina as a proactive character who is pivotal in defeating Dracula, as well as a positive female relationship between Mina and her childhood friend Lucy.
A good deal of contemporary vampire stories have female protagonists. Vampire Academy has a forthright protagonist with a strong friendship with another female character. Twilight has the question of Bella’s agency. Many vampire novels portray the common romantic pairing of human cis women and vampire cis men.
However, Let the Right One In contains the queering of the gender lines and sexual identity. The vampire Eli is read, much to their chagrin, as female by Oskar and the text refers to Eli by female pronouns or more ambiguous terms depending on the translation. Because Oskar views Eli as a girl, the readers codes them as such for a heavy portion of the novel. Eli rebukes being referred to as a girl.
Then, it is revealed that, as a mortal, Eli was part of a sadistic 1700s lord’s nonconsensual ritual that involved their castration and change into a vampire—one of the few of their kind. The gender identity ambiguity not only blurs a stark male/female binary, but it makes Eli’s relationship with Oskar queer.
Because of the prevalence of male vampire-female human relationships in romantic vampire fiction, the power disparity between the supernatural male love interest and the female character can be a point of contention, despite the large female readership.
Sexuality and the Body
With events such as a wife finding herself dead on wedding night, the relationship between sex and death in vampire fiction is close. Death acts as consummation. There is an innate physicality of feeding, which can lead to death, bodily transformation, new senses, and increased bloodlust. In stories such as Vampire Academy, feeding causes the one being fed upon extreme elation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “die” in Early Modern English meant to climax; no wonder another name for an orgasm is the little death.
Carmilla comes to Laura in sleep, invades her consciousness while she dreams and becomes vulnerable; night creature, like incubi and succubi, attacking and feeding on their victims at night, sometimes when they are asleep. Dracula’s abuse and manipulation also give way to physical attacks that can be construed as metaphorical sexual assaults. He and his brides torment Jonathan Harker, Lucy Westenra, and Mina Harker.
The vampire could be a figure of released repression in a time where homosexuality was enough to have a man serve a prison sentence and endure societal ostracization (just ask Oscar Wilde) and transgressing against Victorian society’s rigid (though potentially not as rigid as it’s stereotyped) sexual mores could prove daunting. Even so, there are negative implications to stating that Dracula’s allegorical rapes “liberate” his victims. Rather, characters like Mina, Jonathan, and Lucy prove dynamic and transgressive by themselves in a narrative where a vampire is the primary antagonist.
The penetration of the teeth and the stake may be construed as allegorical with the phallic imagery involved, a substitution for sexual intercourse when it could typically not be made explicit. However, in Stoker’s Dracula, the metaphor of blood drinking=sexual intercourse likely cannot extend to all circumstances, such as the vampire bats biting Quincey Morris’ horse, Dracula’s brides feeding on babies, and Lucy feeding on children.
Concerning the body, vampires also have a place in the topic of disability, especially considering that “imperfect” babies were considered more prone to becoming vampires after death.
As mentioned before, L.K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” series contains vampires (and other supernatural entities) as erotic companions, as does Sherrilyn Kenyon’s “Dark Hunter” series.
Interview with the Vampire contains heavy eroticism with Louis’ relationships with Lestat and Armand. Louis and Lestat even raise a surrogate daughter together. The vampires’ beauty remains emphasized, good or evil, thus subverting beauty=good.
Let the Right One In contains castration, sexual violence, and pedophilia, making the sexual content especially grim and emphasizing the chaste nature of Eli and Oskar’s relationship. Their relationship transcends physicality and primarily deals with the intense emotional bond of two lonely outcasts.
Young Adult novels tend to display consensual, heterosexual sex acts as graphic as allowed by intended audience constraints. In Twilight, Bella’s desire for vampirism parallels the promise of her relationship’s sexual consummation with the wait acting as foreplay. While abstaining from sex, Bella repeatedly insists that Edward turn her into a vampire, while Edward resists. Eventually, Bella receives her wish in the fourth installment, as well as bruise-inducing, pillow-ripping wedding consummation.
In I Am Legend, vampirism treated as a virus rather than a supernatural, mystical issue. In Dracula, the process of vampirism weakens the victim like an ailment, making them (Lucy and Mina) anemic.
Because of the transmission of fluids and blood-drinking, vampirism tends to coincide, typically on an allegorical level, with AIDS. The “Southern Vampires Mysteries” ever-so-subtly has a transmitted, vampire-affecting disease called Sino-Aids. In The Strain, the vampire plague comes by crossing the sea like Dracula on the boat.
The spread of vampirism as a disease acts on humans’ fear of losing bodily autonomy through biological causes. The bubonic plague killed roughly fifty million people worldwide, and AIDS, which is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood and semen, has devastated several communities across the world. The fear of epidemics sometimes treads alongside sexuality. In Raymond McNally’s In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires 10, the author states,
“The AIDS epidemic is also alluded to in both [of] Coppola’s movies, with shots of blood under the microscope, and in Rice’s most recent novel, in which the vampire Lestat puts on a condom when he engages in genital sex. The ultimate fascination is with the erotic reality of blood disease and death. Many people may be ambivalent in the face of death, but all fear loss of blood and infections such as AIDS. Just as in Nosferatu Murnau presented a powerful parallel between the prolonged effects of vampire attacks and AIDS. The element of danger, mystery, and even death associated with sex is thus recreated and preserved in an intelligible contemporary context” (180).
Older vampire works contain multiple instances of vampire-on-human stalking and assault. Dracula assumes an inviting, charismatic presence to make Jonathan comfortable before he and his brides perform predatory behavior and intimate violence. Carmilla assumes the same facade when targeting Laura.
Concerning newer works, in Samantha Amber Oakley’s scholarly thesis “‘I Could Kill You Quite Easily, Bella, Simply by Accident’: Violence and Romance in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga” 11, Oakley asserts that Twilight “exemplifies rape culture, promotes heteronormative ideologies, and glorifies traditional gender roles” (2).
Ultimately, the uneven power dynamic between mortals and vampires creates unhealthy relationships. In terms of heterosexual romance, the “Twilight” series also deals with Bella’s relationship with Jacob, a werewolf who participates in the saga’s love triangle until he “imprints” on Bella’s newborn daughter Renesmee—making Renesmee and Jacob bound for life (though not necessarily in a romantic sense).
According to Oakley, Edward and Jacob’s fighting over Bella, as well as her indecision, is less about Bella’s choice in the matter of her romantic life, but “rather it is about who gets rights over her sexuality and reproductive power” (16). She speaks about “vampirism’s function in literature as metaphor for social taboos, patriarchal fears, and sexual violence,” as well as how vampire literature “has changed to reflect Western culture’s shifting morals, fears, and concepts of sexuality” (19).
Privilege, Classism, and Economic Dominance
Elitism and exploiting wealth often come with the vampire’s status. Like Elizabeth Bathory initially murdered peasant women, Carmilla feeds on peasant women. When Laura expresses pity for one of Carmilla’s victims, Carmilla states that she does not “trouble her head about peasants” 12 Aristocratic vampires wield their elite statuses and societal privilege to stall justice and engage in rampant libertinism—excessive sadism for pleasure. This stems from power dynamics between the empowered, rich vampire and their normally not-as-well-off victims.
Vampire Academy deals with very stark classes within vampire/dhampir society with clear power imbalances between the Moroi elite, the dhampirs who tend to act as guardians or have an extremely hard life, and the human feeders.
In Twilight, Edward has attended Ivy League universities and the Cullens are wealthy. Though the vampires are not all malevolent and violent against mortals, they still possess an elite status and maintain a status quo assisted by their immortality. In The Modern Vampire and Human Identity, Deborah Mutch writes,
As well as class associations, there is a racial dimension to the vampire’s privilege emerging as it does from their ontological superiority to humans through their ability to read minds, manipulate emotions, glamour humans, as well as heightened strength, speed, physical endurance and senses. Moreover, the White privilege vampires enjoy is accrued through means largely associated with White operations of power. As a result of their longevity, vampires manage to maintain and build upon their original family capital, inherited wealth and status being a significant preserve of the White upper class (104) 13.
Furthermore, Mutch goes on to give examples of how Bill from Charlaine Harris’ novels benefits from the exploitation of enslaved people on Southern plantations. Even as the humanized love interests, vampires exude societal privilege.
Race, Xenophobia, and the Other
Many of the older, cruel literary vampires have an Eastern European origin. Dracula’s physical features are heavily emphasized to depict him as a degenerate, someone more animalistic and without restraint. The vampires often reside in isolated estates, away from the general populace.
In Western Europe, there was a heavy xenophobia toward Eastern Europeans. Pseudo-scientific racism dealt with studies such as phrenology, the study of cranium size, and physiognomy, the study of facial features to “explain” the inferiority of non-white races and white people thought of as “less than white,” such as the Irish or Eastern Europeans. Dracula also contains the problematic treatment of the Romani as the vampire antagonist’s expendable henchmen.
In I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the sole plague survivor attempting to conquer overwhelming odds—one against many.
In “The Southern Vampire Mysteries,” the vampires, despite their physical prowess over humans, are depicted as second-class after they “come out of the coffin.”
The characters also tend to represent ostracized sexual and gender identities, such as Carmilla and Let the Right One In’s Eli. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster, the vampiric metaphor can apply to one without firm connections with humanity or deal with dehumanization made literal. This is augmented by vampirism often being made a necessary dark secret.
Junot Diaz on the plight of being an author and reader of color:
“You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror?” the Pulitzer Prize-winning author asked. “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.
“And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me?’ That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me was this deep desire, that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors, so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” 14
Bella considers herself an outsider, marks herself with the flaw of clumsiness. Ironically, the attributes meant to make her unique render her as a protagonist many readers saw themselves in, thus negating and highlighting the paradoxical rarity of a “normal girl.”
In Let the Right One In, Oskar, bullied relentlessly and suffering from incontinence to the point that homicidal ideation becomes a coping mechanism, finds a protector in Eli, who encourages him to fight and saves him by intervening in life-threatening situations. His loneliness—and Eli’s as well—is alleviated by the novel’s end.
Vampire lore possesses both Abrahamic and pagan influences. It is worth noting that, in real life, vampirism is itself a religion in the real world, i.e. Temple of the Vampire. In Anglo-Saxon times, in a period rife with bleakness and bloodiness, community and religion proved to be prevailing ways to find hope while reminiscing in harsh climes. Exile was worse than death. In folklore, the vampire is typically not only isolated, a lone predator, but is also averse to religious symbols such as the cross.
In Dracula, there is mention of the protagonists being Anglican when Mina and Jonathan marry in a Catholic church while Jonathan is recovering from his torment at Dracula’s estate. Later in the novel, a communion wafer burns Mina’s forehead after Dracula assaults her.
The victims of the vampire virus in I Am Legend—Christian vampires react when faced with a cross, but vampires of other beliefs do not have significant reactions.
Newer novels seem to intermingle vampires with divinity, emphasizing their more-than-human status.
In Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles,” she establishes that the vampires’ genealogy stems from Isis and Osiris.
In Let the Right One In, the word “Eli” means “God,” which is directly pointed out by a police officer investigating the town’s mysterious murders. Essentially, Eli acts as Oskar’s immortal savior.
Twilight deals with Meyer’s Mormon faith, even from the first cover, which alludes to the Temptation of Adam and Eve. As such, both Edward and Bella face temptation because of her desire for him and his acknowledgment that her blood smells enticing. However, an aspect that occurs prominently in the narrative is the belief that LDS followers can ascend into godhood.
From The Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that all resurrected and perfected mortals become gods (cf. Gen. 3:22; Matt. 5:48). They will dwell again with God the Father, and live and act like him in endless worlds of happiness, power, love, glory, and knowledge; above all, they will have the power of procreating endless lives. Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus Christ attained godhood (see Christology) and that he marked the path and led the way for others likewise to become exalted divine beings by following him (cf. John 14:3).
Finding godhood post-death connects to Bella’s yearning more than anything to reach her ultimate perfection by becoming a vampire, a creature with fantastic power and beauty. It makes sense that she compares Edward to Adonis, the Greek god of beauty.
Not only that, but Bella’s story of transcending her mortality has other deep mythical roots. In Greek mythology, Ariadne, a princess, assists Theseus, a demigod she loves, in slaying the Minotaur and escaping a labyrinth. When they leave together, he thanks Ariadne by abandoning her on the shore of Naxos. Despite that, Dionysus, god of fertility, wine, and the theatre, finds her, falls in love with her, and she becomes a goddess when they marry. Similarly, Psyche, a mortal princess renowned for her beauty, undergoes several of Aphrodite’s trials to eventually become Eros’ immortal bride. Psyche and Eros went on to have a child called Hedone, who represents the union of sexuality and the soul (hedonism).
Both the stories of Ariadne and Psyche entail mortal women facing challenges and achieving godhood after finding the love of a god, and this encapsulates Bella’s romance with Edward, whose beauty and strength are elevated and constantly idealized. “Apotheosis” is the zenith of something, and this is ultimately what Bella seeks: the zenith of herself, from humanity to divinity.
Why do the above themes matter? They matter because they display why the vampire myth has longevity. Issues such as death, a reprieve from death, and societal injustice are both ubiquitous and have no expiration date. This is even if, like the vampire, they transform and take on different attributes over time.
The future of vampire literature remains unclear, especially given that it has currently been exhausted. The popularity of paranormal Young Adult lit without anything genre-breaking has both waned and given way to dystopian fiction because of the success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Traditional or re-imagined, the beating heart of the genre rests on the many prevailing themes present in vampire-inclusive fiction. Vampires ultimately stand as villains, allies, lovers, and persistent metaphors. For now, one can only infer when vampires will rise again in literature and what social problems their creators will dissect.
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