Culture  Lady and the vamp

Myth and meaning in teen fiction

Anyone who has walked near a bookstore or a television set over the last five years can tell you vampires are back, and bigger than ever. We’re not talking fake blood and horrific sci-fi movies, we’re talking Edward Cullen and Sookie or whoever Anna Paquin plays in True Blood (she was awful in X-Men, so I refuse to watch the show). They’re romantic heroes, overtly sexualized (even if their sexual activity ranges from Mormon-chaste to HBO-raunchy), and hysterically attractive. The romanticization of vampires is nothing new; it’s a pretty stock plot device, with some seedy implications of a helpless woman’s body being consumed by an uncontrollable otherworldly being. Vampires ravish the living, though the way we understand living changes depending on our cultural context.

But vampires are disgusting.  Why would anyone want to get with “a bloated, blood-filled corpse which leaves its tomb, bringing disease and death,” to quote the Oxford dictionary of English folklore. What is sexy about the undead? More than that, what is attractive about the forfeiture of our bodies? Why is there a section in American bookstores called “Teen Paranormal Romance”? Why does my 13-year-old cousin dream of a boyfriend who wants nothing more than to suck out her life force and leave her a broken shell of a human being?

Vampires assign some value to life, as an abstract principle.  To have our blood, our life force, coveted by someone, indicates that it’s something worth having. I imagine that I wouldn’t have framed that in such bald existential principles at 13. But craving a crush at that age, craving a secret admirer, is in a very microcosmic way, seeking affirmation of your life – that is your social life, the most potent definition of life to an insecure teenage girl. (For example, when my eighth grade crush went out with my rival, I wrote “MY LIFE IS OVER” in enormous tear-stained letters in my diary). To be wanted for what makes us human, and what makes us alive, is an affirmation of our existence. To frame it in a cheesy chaste romance, like Twilight author Stephenie Meyer does, means that young girls are able to engage with that truth on a level that means something to them. Plus, there is the fact that Kristen Stewart is such a boring Bella, not particularly special or specific in any way, that her abstract and universal applications can stand out all the more. She’s alive, but only nominally. I would hesitate to say that that was the intention of the director, but one can hope that it was an artistic decision.

Second, the idea of vampires carries within it the defeat of death. A classic way to insult religion is to say that it’s merely a coping mechanism to help people deal with the reality of their impending doom. This is far too reductionist, but it is fair to say that much of mythology deals with the transcendence of death. Religion scholar Joseph Campbell boils all mythology down to this basic framework, in his construction of the “monomyth.” Think about the ending of The Twilight Saga, when Bella’s mortal body is superseded by her more-attractive, more-powerful vampire self. Within death, there is the possibility for life. Within sorrow, there is the possibility for love. Within a terrible series of books, there is the possibility for meaning. Mythology is everywhere, you’ve just gotta look for it.

Disclaimer: I’ve seen all the movies. Deal with it.