The vampire is tall and pale with a ruined quality to his once-beautiful face, as if from years of hard living. He carries the limp and bloodied young woman to a secluded place near the bayou, lays her down and, with his teeth, tears open a vein in his wrist. He lifts her head and holds his bleeding wrist to her mouth, saying, "Drink." She resists, and he tells her again to drink "if you want to live." She laps tentatively at first, and then sucks with an energy that is creepily reminiscent of a greedy infant. Like switchblades opening, the vampire's fangs drop into view. Blood drips over the young woman's lips, leaving dark smears on her chin and cheeks. Her body begins to move with more animation. She is coming back to life.
No, that was not a post from some goth porn site. It's a scene from HBO's current marquee Sunday night serial, True Blood, now running in the slot formerly occupied by such lauded shows as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
Vampire mania is sweeping American culture, from HBO to teen novels to movies and adult popular fiction. Vampires are now the bad guys and the good guys, and sexier than ever. What does it say about America, in the early years of this new millennium, that vampires are such a cultural obsession?
"There's a certain hopelessness in Bush America that seems to make us want fantasy," says Parrish Johnston, a local science fiction and fantasy aficionado and book club leader. "The more worried we are about the world, the more we tend to need to escape."
And dark times, apparently, call for the darkest fantasies.
Toma Longinovic, chair of the department of Slavic languages and literature at UW-Madison, sees the vampire as a violent image that matches our increasingly violent everyday: "As a society becomes more saturated with images of violence that we must essentially accept - wars, murder, genocides - then the vampire becomes more acceptable."
At the west side's Booked for Murder, a table of artfully displayed paperbacks bears the sign "Mysteries with a Paranormal Twist." Dark Harvest, randomly selected from a pile, centers around a Denver psychologist who doubles as vampire counselor and occult special investigator/liaison to the vampire community.
Another, When Twilight Burns, features 19th-century vampire hunter Lady Victoria Gardella, with a blurb on the back that likens the book to TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossed with Jane Austen.
Sara Barnes, owner and bookseller at Booked for Murder, was prompted to create the table by the number of customers coming in to ask sheepishly for stories that feature vampires.
"They seem sort of embarrassed," she says, "which is too bad, because people should be able to read what they enjoy without feeling bad about it."
And it's not like they're alone. According to The New York Times, the last installment in Stephenie Meyer's young-adult vampire series, Breaking Dawn, sold 1.3 million copies on its first day of release in August.
In Madison, both Borders and Barnes & Noble held Breaking Dawn midnight release parties at their east- and west-side locations. A fair estimate (neither bookseller is willing to give out actual sales numbers) based on ranges of attendance they were willing to share suggests that 1,400 to 1,600 copies of the book were sold in Madison between midnight and 1 a.m. The film made from the first book in Meyer's series, Twilight, opens Nov. 21, and it's expected to be a blockbuster.
Two years ago, Longinovic began teaching a course on the vampire in literature and film. There are always more students begging to get in than he has room for. When he teaches the course again next spring, it will be open to 200 students.
The undead as social allegory
In the genre-bending HBO series True Blood, which premiered in September, vampires are presented as an oppressed class: No one wants to serve them in the bars, and they're the first suspects for any crime of a violent nature. Enclaves of wild and depraved vampires do live in the shadows, yet they are reedeemed by the noble, conflicted vampire Bill Compton.
The vampires in small town Bon Temps, La., are dangerous in any number of ways, but the humans - with their bigotry, small-mindedness and self-justifying venality - look equally, if not more, dangerous.
In True Blood mythology, the blood of vampires is a life force - an illegal drug that creates heightened perceptions and sexual prowess, and can even restore the dying to life.
Longinovic says that the erotic transformation of the vampire began in the 19th-century British gothic, where the vampire represented fears about violence, sexuality and death. In the 20th century, vampires came also to represent "the other," he says, particularly the evil and cruel other, but also the other as in racial or sexual minorities.
But now, Longinovic sees Americans unconsciously identifying with vampires, as citizens of an imperialist nation that is "sucking the blood" out of the earth.
Or possibly the audience for True Blood feels like series creator Alan Ball, who's confessed that after years of depicting realistically "the depressing intricacies of humans trying to relate to each other," he was happy to be exploring the pulpy, fantasy side of danger, romance and death.
Tall, dark and handsome
The last five years have seen a dramatic increase in paranormal/romance novels involving vampires, many falling into a genre book-group leader Johnston jokingly refers to as "vampire porn" for its explicit sex and/or violence.
Women have always used romance novels to work out anxieties about sex, death and power, but after you've read a few "Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter" novels by Laurell K. Hamilton, you realize that the anxiety level has ratcheted up considerably.
Romances used to depend on difficult, dangerous, gorgeous men who, when tamed by ordinary yet meritorious heroines, are transformed into noble and perfect mates. Often there would be a murder mystery to solve, and sex beyond the first kiss happened offstage.
In new vampire romances, the dangerous potential lover has fangs - and struggles against his urge to murder the heroine and drain her of her blood. She must fight not only his supernatural strength, but his ability to invade and control her mind. She must also keep his fangs at bay while engaging in the more or less conventional varieties of courtship and sex.
His supernatural vampiric powers are sexy all right, but his desire to control them for her turns out to be even more alluring. Some authors in this genre still close the curtain on the sexual act, but many describe it in graphic, even gruesome detail.
Kelsey Beckman, a 19-year-old MATC student, is a self-proclaimed "sci-fi junkie" who admits she loves vampire fiction and vampire movies like Van Helsing, Underworld and Blade because she likes "to escape into a world that's so completely different" from her own. She reads other genres as well, but the book she goes back to read again and again is one of Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, Blue Moon.
The violence in these entertainments "isn't that far off from our world," insists Beckmann, though by its fantastical nature it is somewhat defanged. She cites the recent local murders of young women in Madison, adding that she finds it "comforting" to see good and evil fought out by supernatural, super-powered creatures that don't live with the encumbrances of schoolwork, day jobs and doctor appointments.
"I like Anita Blake," she says, referring to the vampire hunter who packs guns and knives, brings the undead back to life, and has lots of primal sex with vampires and werewolves. "She doesn't need anyone to care for her."
Vampire hunters like Buffy and Anita Blake are usually the heroes in these tales, with the vampires playing supervillain. But sometimes vampires get to perform the good deeds for humanity - superheroes, as it were, for our conflicted times. For instance Angel, Buffy's vampire love, no longer wanted to be a monster after centuries of carnage. Last season, CBS ran a series called Moonlight about a vampire detective who helped the police solve murders committed by his kind. It didn't find its audience early enough - the writers' strike may have been the culprit - and was canceled.
And then there's the beautiful, nearly perfect Edward Cullen of the Twilight books, who regularly saves Bella, his human girlfriend, from evil vampires who have not sworn off the taking of human life. In the final book of the series, Bella, clumsy and ordinary as a human, finally becomes a vampire herself. She not only revels in her new superpowers, but uses them to save her family and friends from destruction.
Many of these same themes are also evident in the hugely popular and growing genre of young-adult vampire novels.
Lilia Mendoza, a 16-year old West High School student, loves the beautiful vampire heroes of young-adult novels like Twilight and The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause. She's also attracted to the Blue Blood series by Melissa de la Cruz, where a clique of ancient vampires controls the social scene at a Manhattan high school. And Uninvited by Amanda Marrone centers on a suburban teenager, neglected by her parents and struggling to escape her pattern of drinking and promiscuous sex, whose jock former boyfriend starts showing up at her window, a vampire begging to be let in.
Sex and danger are very much in evidence in these stories, but with an additional element of belonging and social standing, with the vampires often representing the forces of high school malaise, cronyism and abuse.
Mendoza also recommends the recent, very violent horror film 30 Days of Night, in which vampires brutally murder the citizens of an Alaska town. She found herself moved to tears at the end by a vampire who accepts death by sunlight rather than continue on as a monster. "Some things you can't control in life," Mendoza says. "Sometimes a scary story can be a comfort thing. Especially if everything turns out in the end."
Your vampire cheat sheet
An incomplete selection of works with bite
- Interview With the Vampire (1994)
Based on the 1976 Anne Rice novel; Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are vampires with existential angst.
- Underworld (2003)
Vampires and werewolves at war for underworld dominance/liberation, continued in a second installment, Underworld Evolution (2006).
- Blade (1998)
A vampire/human hybrid protects mortals and slays evil vampires. Two sequels: Blade II (2002) and Blade Trinity (2004).
- 30 Days of Night (2007)
Horrific vampires prey on an Alaska town during a winter month when there is no sunlight.
- Van Helsing (2004)
Famous monster hunter goes to Transylvania to thwart Count Dracula's evil plans.
- Premieres Nov. 21, based on the Stephenie Meyer novel described below.
A vampire helps the police solve murders committed by his kind. CBS canceled it after its first season.
- True Blood
HBO series about the doings of vampires and their possibly more depraved human neighbors.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
The trials of a teenage vampire slayer, her friends and (vampire) lovers.
- Angel (1999-2004)
Vampire with a conscience (and Buffy's first love) gets his own show.
Young Adult Fiction
- The Twilight Saga
Stephenie Meyer's four-book series chronicles the romance of Bella, a normal human teen, and her supernaturally beautiful classmate Edward, a vampire with morals.
- The Silver Kiss
Annette Curtis Klause's exceptionally deep and well-written story of a lonely teen who falls for a vampire.
- The Blue Blood Series
A two-book (so far) series by Melissa de la Cruz that centers on a girl who learns that a clique of ancient vampires control Manhattan's power social scene.
Amanda Marrone's emotionally floundering teen is stalked by her jock former boyfriend, who has become a vampire.
- Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter
Laurell K. Hamilton's series is a gritty blend of horror, mystery and fantasy romance. The first novel of 15, Guilty Pleasures, has also been reworked as a graphic novel.
- The Sookie Stackhouse Novels
Charlaine Harris' fantasy romance/thriller series inspired HBO's True Blood. The first novel of eight is Dead Until Dark.
The granddaddy of the tortured soul vampire stories, by Bram Stoker, was originally published in 1897.
- Dark Harvest
Lynda Hiburn's paranormal mystery/thriller.
- When Twilight Burns
Paranormal mystery/thriller by Coleen Cleason about the adventures of a 19th-century vampire hunter.
- Vampire Nation
Real-life accounts of people who identify as vampires, by Arlene Russo.