Teens, Not Vamps: Why Twilight Can Never Be Seriously Accepted As A Vampire Tale
I could tell instantly what Twilight was about the very first time I saw a trailer
for the series. I could very easily demolish it bit by bit, but instead I am going
to try and concentrate on presenting to the reader my impression of what a vampire
movie should be merely because that seems to be a lot more constructive.
To begin with, let's examine where the icon of the vampire
came from. Essentially vampirism emerges from fundamentally European myths,
many of them very ancient. Overwhelmingly, vampire stories were of eastern European
origin until they became popular in western Europe from the 18th century
onwards. This inspired the commercial publication of vampire tales in the emergent
literature of the time, most notably in the guise of Bram Stoker's Dracula and
J. Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla. Both these novels belong to what is known as
the melodramatic form or 'Gothic' as it is popularly known.
Nevertheless, the myth, as previously stated, is far older than the 18th and 19th
century literature that popularized it. Belief in vampire-like spirits existed among
the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians and Hebrews, yet these
early beliefs cannot be accurately classified as 'vampire' tales in the form we know
today. Essentially, the classic vampire tale originated from one particular European
region, that of south-eastern Europe, during the 18th century, primarily Romania,
but also persisted in Croatia, Serbia and other Slavic
and Balkan nations. These areas were slow to adopt Christian beliefs and so the region
was gripped by pre-Roman, pre-Christian 'Pagan' beliefs with their accompanying traditions
of ancestor worship and household spirits.
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The standard motifs of these tales concern that of 'revenants', ghosts or spirits
that would emerge from graves to possess the bodies of the living. They were generally
dark red or purple in colour and appeared in a somewhat bloated form, due, it was
believed, to stem from the habitual drinking of blood. According to superstition,
vampires could be created in various ways, from the entering of an evil spirit through
an untreated wound to the action of a black cat or dog jumping across an unburied
corpse. Various practices were formed to prevent the onset of vampirism, that of burying
a corpse face down being a popular example. Vampires could be destroyed in various
ways, the most well known being that of staking the creature using an ash or thorn
stake. In Germany, the preferred method was decapitation while incineration and the
use of garlic were recommended elsewhere.
The first true vampire novel in western Europe was that written by Polidori in 1819
entitled The Vampyre. The story concerns Ianthe, a young Greek girl who describes
vampires as having to suck the blood of beautiful women in order to sustain themselves.
This in itself is an early example of the sexualisation of the genre since in the
original mythology, vampires are not particularly choosy about which gender they attack.
The novel also gives the vampire aristocratic status in the form of 'Lord Ruthven',
something that was to persist in later works, particularly that of Bram Stoker.
Polidori draws on accounts by travellers such as Pitton de Tourefort and Calmet. It
is clear from these early myths that the vampire is a creature linked to the devil
and Polidori's writing of The Vampyre was intended as a means of exposing the
existence of evil in society. LeFanu's novelette Carmilla was part of a series
of stories under the collective title In A Glass Darkly which adheres to the
Gothic tradition and is crafted in such a way to generate feelings of mysterious,
enigmatic and supernatural terror.
The most famous vampire novel is of course Bram Stoker's Dracula. This novel
may have emerged from stories told to Stoker by a friend, Armeniur Vanbery, who travelled
widely throughout south eastern Europe and was a professor of languages at Budapest.
Dracula himself is portrayed as a pale old man with "perculiarly sharp white teeth."
The vampire in this instance is particularly associated with howling wolves but, as
is now well known, also has the ability to transform himself into a bat or a dog,
casts no reflection in mirrors and retreats at cockcrow.
Much of this course again adheres to the Victorian Gothic style of the time. Consequently
it can be said that Stoker incorporated a romantic and sexualised overlay of existing
vampiric traditions into his novel. Fundamentally, an examination of the creature
at the heart of the vampire myth reveals the vampire to be undead, a spirit that walks
between the worlds, closely associated with graves and corpses, superstition, wild
creatures such as wolves that were widely feared among the peasantry of eastern and
Slavic Europe, a creature associated with hell and the devil.
If we jump forward in time, moving swiftly past the silent movies of the twenties
and the Hammer films of the sixties, we can see clearly that the modern vampire movie
mainly originates from the attempts by Hollywood to take control of the genre and
almost reinvent it. In most American vampire movies, the vampire is either a brutal
monster driven by bloodlust, a fantasy icon adhering to comic-book depictions of an
imagined legendary past or a teen icon with fangs, or a combination of the monster
and the teen idol. With regard to the first category, the vampire is emblematic of
a feral 'underclass' that revels in murder and gore and therefore is little different
from other movie depictions of psychotic killers or rapists. The second category portrays
the vampire as embroiled in an ancient war with werewolves or other inhabitants of
a lost world existing supposedly at some point before recorded history, rather like
a 'Nosferatu' version of Lord of the Rings. Finally, the third category is
designed purely to reflect the angst of modern teen culture together with its consumerist
obsession with fashion and celebrity. Twilight most definitely belongs to this
category, as does Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel from which it possibly
emerged in all honesty.
However, there are two notable exceptions to this, admittedly rather direct criticism
of the modern vampire tale. One of them is Anne Rice's Interview With A Vampire series
and the second is the 80's mini-series Salems Lot. Both these remain credible
as vampire tales fundamentally because both maintain connections with the European
tradition. One could also say that the Volturi in Twilight is a nod in this
direction, but from what I have seen so far the Volturi are kept firmly in the background,
much to the detriment of the series as a whole.
Rather than attempting to examine both Interview With A Vampire and Salems
Lot, I shall, for the sake of brevity only look at Salems Lot.
The first point to make here is that Salems Lot rests firmly upon the literary
device of the dysfunctional small town, a place in semi-permanent decline, with dark
memories of a community torn-apart by the all too human cost of the Vietnam War, only
just managing to survive in the face of economic adversity and subject to petty gossip
and rivalry. You can just imagine that such a place would be the ideal place for a
predatory vampire to visit first, adhering to the classic animalistic tendency of
predators to pick on the weakest first. Salems Lot is a town naturally hostile to
outsiders, even those who perhaps once had a connection with the town and seek to
revive it. Yet Salems Lot also works well because the most dangerous visitor
to the town is a seemingly harmless old man who at first sight appears to be only
interested in opening a quaint antiques shop. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact
that the old man in this case is of European origin and therefore adheres to the European,
particularly British, conventions of reserved aloofness and superiority. The old man,
Straker is undoubtedly in control. It is he who brings the 'master vampire' (Barlow)
to the town, it is he who coordinates events leading up to the point where the vampires
can take over the town.
The vampires themselves are hellish. They truly belong to the night, floating through
the mist with pale complexions, sparkling eyes and sharp fangs displayed prominently
in a blood-congealed mouth that makes them hiss like lizards as they talk. To my mind,
if vampires existed for real, this is the form they would take. They would be creatures
whose very appearance would be enough to turn one's blood to ice with utter dread
and terror. They are the classic 'undead' manifestation of those age old European
myths I discussed earlier.
And that is why Salems Lot works so well. It may be set in small town America,
but it captures the essence of vampirism excellently while maintaining the European
I read recently a description of the vampires in Twilight as being somewhat
'sissy-ish'. I personally think that is a very apt description. That to me is why Twilight doesn't
work as a vampire movie. And never will.
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