They drink blood, are awake at night and sometimes glitter. Sarah Shaffi takes a look at why we’ve been fascinated by vampires for decades.
They say you never forget your first… vampire, that is.
By the time I was introduced to the quintessential, and some would say OG, vampire in university, I was au fait with all the tropes that stemmed from him. Written in 1897, Dracula is the blueprint for all vampires that followed: he only appears at night, he’s secretive, he drinks blood, he’s seductive. But through the years, we’ve met all sorts of vampires and they all appeal, not just because of who they are, but because of what they represent.
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At their most obvious, vampires are about darkness, both theirs and our own. They are creatures of the night (most of the time), and so embody everything the nighttime brings: uncertainty, fear, danger, threat. But they can also be tantalising, and, like the darkness, offer protection and freedom, and allow us to be who we truly are. Vampires are beings that indulge in their needs without any thought for the consequences. In a vampire’s eternal life, they come first. All of those things speak to desires at the very heart of us all.
Vampires are also a symbol of otherness. They live apart from society, they are sometimes misunderstood, they have to hide their true identity for fear of persecution, and they can often be intensely lonely. It is no wonder that vampire stories – sometimes vampires are the other, sometimes they represent society spurning the other – often speak to people who feel they are rebels, or who are from marginalised groups, even though, until very, very recently, vampire stories have also largely excluded people from those very same underrepresented parts of society.
Rebellion was at the heart of The Lost Boys, a 1987 supernatural horror vampire film starring Kiefer Sutherland. The boys of the title are both a biker gang and a group of vampires: their punk rebel aesthetic railed against the corporate, capitalist, power-dressing hordes of the 1980s, and spoke to a rebellious, anarchic underground.
That changed slightly in the early 1990s, with two quite different vampire films: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Interview with a Vampire. The latter starred Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, both heartthrobs and on the rise in Hollywood, as well as a young Kirsten Dunst. This was a film that played into very traditional vampire tropes and was meant to show us the lure of vampires. It succeeded. I took myself to the local library to devour Rice’s novel. And then, for a while, I forgot about vampires, distracted by pop music and the shiny boybands and girl groups the 1990s ushered in.
The late 1990s were a relatively stable and optimistic time in the west: in the UK, Labour had swept into power in 1997, offering a new outlook and positivity, while in the US Bill Clinton was still president, and presiding over a fairly economically secure period. That optimism meant we didn’t need to look to vampires for insight into who we were, but that we loved picturing ourselves as defenders of the light, out for justice and peace and love and friendship.
And so, to answer all our needs came Buffy, again, this time in TV show format. The film largely sank without a trace, but it was part of a canon of vampire narratives that focused on the vampire hunter, rather than the vampire; Blade, who first appeared in Marvel’s comic books before showing up on screen, is another example of this, and one of the few vampire narratives to have included a person of colour (Wesley Snipes played the titular character in the 1998 film).
Buffy, in her TV guise, is perhaps the turning point for a lot of people when it comes to vampires; even those not previously “into” fantasy came on board. The series, which began in 1997, hit as the “girl power” movement exploded. And Buffy fit in: she was tough, she was independent, she was sassy and sarcastic, and she could fight off a horde of vampires and still look good doing it. For six years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – and her fellow slayers Faith (a bit tougher, a bit more rebellious) and Kendra (a Black woman killed off after a mere three episodes) – both offered us a new kind of female superhero and also doomed us to more than a decade of “strong female character” discussions.
Of course, the vampires in Buffy’s world were essential, but they were – for the first few series at least – more farcical than we’d seen previously. Spike and Drusilla were initially a sort of comic relief, constantly thwarted by Buffy whenever they tried to cause mischief. And Angel was brooding and handsome, until, suddenly, he wasn’t; upon experiencing a moment of ecstasy with Buffy, he turned into an evil vampire. And so, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, aware of its teen audience, gently hinted at it the link between vampires and sex.
Some vampire TV shows and films have chosen to largely ignore vampiric bloodlust, which often also involves real lust, while others have leant into it. One example of each soon filled the Buffy the Vampire Slayer gap in our lives: there was True Blood, most definitely for grown-ups, and Twilight, which took the vampire trope and moulded it into something almost innocent.
For every sex scene involving a vampire in True Blood (and there were a lot), there was a seductively staring but sexless vampire in Twilight. Where True Blood played up the seductiveness of its characters (who can forget the way in which Stephen Moyer’s Bill muttered “Sookie” or Alexander Skarsgard’s overtly sexual Eric?), Twilight did everything it could to make vampires the most anodyne things ever.
Twilight’s ridiculousness – its vampires GLITTERED if sunlight touched them – didn’t stop a legion of teenagers, and adults, turning Stephenie Meyer’s books and the subsequent film adaptations into huge hits. And True Blood also found a massive audience, running for multiple series.
Both the adaptations were inclusive, to an extent, which was unusual for vampire narratives; vampires, with their pale skin, have always been the preserve of white people. Twilight did little to change this, and its Native American characters in particular were stereotypes, while its one Black vampire died early on in the first film. True Blood was better; it showed us Black and LGBTQ+ characters (including vampires) who lived full lives and who desired and were allowed to desire, and it is part of a canon of vampire stories where vampires have been a stand in for marginalised groups.
Both Twilight and True Blood are cultural touchstones, but arguably those stories that have come since then have more in common with the latter than the former’s innocence. Part of that is due to the times we’re living in.
Like the election of Donald Trump was a pushback by certain sections of society to the election and eight-year term of Barack Obama, the vampires that appeared on our screen in the post-Twilight years were a rebellion. And they also helped us understand, or reflected, our problem-filled world.
Series like The Originals and Shadowhunters focused on the outcast nature of vampires and how they were a threat, echoing the ways in which society has alternatively seen, and continues to see, people who don’t fit a mainstream view – white, cis, het – as “other”. They also acted as a bridge between the fascination with vampires that both teens and adults have, and bring us to the now: 2021 is very much the year of the adult adult vampire show.
Netflix’s Midnight Mass takes on ideas of faith, grief and purpose, all things that seem especially relevant to us in this pandemic-laden existence. Who are we? What are we doing to make the world better? Is there a cure for our problems, from climate change to online abuse to inequality? Is what we need a miracle like the ones that appear in Midnight Mass? Or do we need to burn it all down and start again? To say too much more about Midnight Mass and its vampires would be spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but the show continues the tradition of using vampires to reflect and expose our ills.
Vampires are, regardless of the story, most often “bad”; their inherent violence, their ‘true’ natures, mean there’s always a dark undertone to stories about them. But isn’t that also very, very human? And isn’t that why we’ll continue to watch vampire stories for years to come?
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.