Bite me

Mark A. Hadley

"God kills indiscriminately and so shall we. For no creatures under God are as we are, none so like him as ourselves,"
- The vampire Lestat, Interview with the Vampire

There was a time when the vampire was the most feared denizen of darkness. Now it seems we have lived long enough to see it become the most desired. In centuries passed, the folklore surrounding these undead beings served to underline, and in part explain, the physical and spiritual terrors associated with death. However in the 21st century the fear is dropping away to be replaced by a sense of longing. The vampire is emerging as a symbol of another age-old human desire - to grasp hold of eternity.

Parents asking themselves if they really need to know about vampires, might just as well ask if they needed to consider Star Wars or Harry Potter. The answer is, of course, 'No' - but each has played a significant role in shaping the beliefs of the community their children inhabit. Particularly, and most recently, vampires.

The best selling author for 2008, with 22 million sales, was not writing about a boy-wizard but the romance between a teenage girl and a vampire boy.  In fact Stephenie Meyer did something that JK Rowling never managed, finishing with all four top positions in the year's top 100 books.  There are no less than 32 vampire-centred film and television productions currently aiming for release dates in the next three years.  And a simple Google search for vampire web sites will net you 8.5 million pages to choose from - chat rooms, adventures and dating services included.

However disturbing the idea, the vampire is undergoing something of a renaissance in modern entertainment. It is to the 21st century what the cowboy was to the 20th or the sailor to the 19th - a daring outsider living on the edge of the known world. Attempting to understand its particular attraction to young minds is, in a very real sense, an attempt to understand the spirit of the age.

Most adult Christians view the vampire in terms of classic European folklore. To our minds the term naturally conjures up the demonic being or demonised human from 19th century literature. John Polidori's 1819 novel The Vampyre was the first modern publication to assemble the picture of the blood-drinking vampire from scraps of mythology concerning undead spirits; Bram Stoker's Dracula completed the portrait of an aristocratic lord of darkness. But Stoker's bloodsucker is as much removed from today's vampire as a Rolls Royce is from a Ferrari. Recent decades have seen a serious degree of shape-shifting - socially, artistically and spiritually.

Socially, vampires were little more than animated corpses when tales of their terrible deeds were first told around flickering firesides. Philosophers have suggested they emerged simultaneously in many cultures to provide an explanation for the strange transformations bodies would undergo after death - the drawing back of flesh from the teeth, the paleness of skin without apparent decomposition etc. Probably their most important social identifier, though, was that they represented the damned. They were bodies that refused death - God's judgment - or even individuals, like Dracula, who had struck deals with the Devil for power on earth. This view of vampires persisted well into the 20th century in series' like Buffy the Vampire Slayer but had already begun to undergo a slow transition from the 1950's.

In 1954 Richard Matheson penned the novel I am Legend that presented vampirism as the result of an unknown plague afflicting humanity. Vampires were still killers, but more sociopaths than murderers. They were no more morally at fault than a great white shark; they did only what their natures dictated. As the century progressed, though, writers added consciences to these creatures so that we eventually ended up with conflicted, morally sensitive characters like Anne Rice's Louis in Interview with the Vampire (1994) or Joss Whedon's Angel (1999). What in fact emerged was not a vampire, but often a supremely aware human being, struggling with the desires of the flesh. However, by the time films like Twilight (2008) arrived, the struggle was all but over. More modern presentations show them at peace, or at least accepting what they are: the top of the food chain, even the peak of creation. Inside a century the perception of the vampire has successfully changed from 'damned' through 'aberration', and 'tortured soul' to 'super human'.

A similar transformation was taking place in the vampire's outer appearance. Did you spend any of your youth watching spine-chilling films with your friends? Cast your mind back to the earliest horror movies you can remember. The vampire in the classic Nosferatu (1922) is an inhuman beast, befitting his damned status. Similar creatures populate Salem's Lot (1979) and other films of the period. But the elevation of the vampire from demon to human resulted in a much more urbane presentation, befitting their moral struggle. Vampires were becoming more sympathetic, and their horrible features often dropped away so that the only difference became a pair of pointy teeth. In The Hunger (1983) David Bowie even dispensed with the fangs altogether.

However the vampire's assumption of 'rebel' status in films like The Lost Boys (1987) - swaggering along the dim line between our world and outer darkness - has recently resulted in a more attractive work-over. In the Blade (1998-), Underworld (2003-) and Night Watch (2004-) franchises the vampires have come to look more like cast members from The Matrix with their uber cool penchant for flowing black leather and expensive sunglasses. Being around forever has naturally made them wealthy beyond imagination. In Twilight they look more like teenagers freshly arrived from the mall than the grave.

But it is the spiritual transformation of the vampire that makes this character so hard to understand to adults, and yet so attractive to tweens and teens. Current vampire tales are all about redeeming the damned. Rising from the grave to stand with humans isn't enough; they have set their eyes on Heaven or at least heaven on earth. The vampire began as the opponent of God, an antichrist that took the blood of the living rather than lay it down in their service. Now, though, they are perceived as part of the created order and as such their damnation depends not on their nature, but the deeds they do.

It's worth noting that the religious 'defences' against vampires have largely been dropped in popular culture, or ridiculed as myths. In some stories it is because vampire philosophers, who have seen both sides of death, have concluded that there is no God. As Anne Rice's ancient Armand puts it:

"I know nothing of God, or the Devil. I have never seen a vision nor learned a secret that will damn or save my soul. And as far as I know, after 400 years, I am the oldest living vampire in the world.”

In other modern tales vampires are on the same spiritual journey as you and I, and crosses hold no more fear for them than they do for us. Stephenie Meyer's 'vegetarian' vampire Carlisle Cullen acknowledges the existence of God but wonders that there could not be a place in the Almighty's great plan for his good son.

"Edward's with me up to a point. God and heaven exist . and so does hell. But he doesn't believe there is an afterlife for our kind . [However] I look at my son. His strength, his goodness, the brightness that shines out of him - and it only fuels that hope, that faith, more than ever. How could there not be more for one such as Edward?"

Indeed, how can a person be blamed for being the very creature God made them to be? It's a familiar argument that has been marshalled to defend the gay community. In the television series True Blood vampires have achieved the status and rights of a social minority. Discriminating against them because of the behaviour of some violent individuals is wrong, and perpetuating religious stereotypes about vampires is as prejudiced as concluding that 'all black are lazy' or 'Jews have horns'. "I don't think that Jesus would mind if someone was a vampire," says the heroine Sookie. "I don't think so either, honey," her saintly grandmother agrees.

The attraction of the vampire in this present age, though, is not that they are also struggling for eternity, but that they have grasped hold of it without giving up anything. Once God's damnation is removed, or at least distanced, the vampire enters into an everlasting life on earth that is wholly attractive to the modern teen. They are the undying princes and princesses of the earth. Certainly their eternity continues to contain the potential for pain, loneliness and destruction, but these are compensated for with power, attraction and wealth.

"You can be cool, you can be rich, you can be beautiful - you can be physically and morally superior for all of eternity," the vampire tells them. "And you never have to deal with God because you are never going to die." It's all fantasy, of course, but dangerous nonetheless. Without knowing, admiring youths dream of entering into the same bargain that Jesus rejected: they bow down and worship powers other than God's in exchange for dominion over the kingdoms of this world.