Friday, December 28, 2012

All Things Vampire, the Pop Culture Obsession

Throughout the year people have clamored around different popular culture icons, from princesses (Disney) to super hero space fighters (Star Wars and Star Trek), but no figure has reached the heightened popularity and hysteria of today's vampire.  

My friend Alex informed me I had to watch The Vampire Diaries, this has honestly, up until now, been the only vampire television series I have not watched.  My hesitancy with adding this show to my list has to do with the way in which this trend has caught on so rapidly.  Most of major vampire fiends are young teenage girls (or adult women) who fall for the beautiful boys cast in the lead roles.  In the current gamut of shows and films, the young girls are waiting for Edward Cullen or Damon Salvatore to consume their life blood, and posses their mind body, and soul.  An incredibly unhealthy metaphor that young women seem to be sinking their teeth into too easily.

Before I lambaste a whole group or even roast a television series, or film series' popularity it's time to explore the origin of vampires. Within the Vampire Encyclopedia (yes there is an Encyclopedia for everything)  Silver and Ursini stated "The notion of vampirism has existed for millennia; cultures such as the MesopotamiansHebrewsAncient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits which are considered precursors to modern vampires. However, despite the occurrence of vampire-like creatures in these ancient civilizations, the folklore for the entity we know today as the vampire originates almost exclusively from early-18th-century southeastern Europe."Based on research the modern vampire (originally entitled vampyre) did not exist until the late 18th Century in Eastern Europe.  

To boil down then when, where, and why of the origin of vampires could be told in anthologies of books.  Mythologies have existed all over the world, but their true birth in "popularity" came in 1897 with the publication of Bram Stoker's "Dracula."  Stoker's book portrays vampires, specifically Dracula's vampirism as a disease or possession of the human body.  The books undertones of sex, blood lust, and disease were seen as metaphors for tuberculosis and syphilis during the Victorian Era. Stoker's tale was based on a mixture of different mythologies, but this book is the birth of the modern vampire in film and television.  Dracula is so popular, the character has been used in more than any other character except, Sherlock Holmes.

To chronicle each and every Dracula reference would be another time consuming task, but the first was the silent German film Nosferatu (1922).  Although the film changes or alters the name of the character the vampire in the film is meant to be Dracula.  A film chronicling the making of Nosferatu entitled Shadow of the Vampire (2000) chronicles the actors own thoughts on himself as a vampire and his evolution into being consumed with the vampire myth.  The most popular old Hollywood film was Dracula (1931) which starred Bela Lugosi, with Dracula in his first speaking role.

While Dracula has seen many incarnations there have been other different vampiric characters who brought about an evolution of the vampire myths.  Dark Shadows, a Daytime drama (1967-1971) portrayed lead vampire Barnabis Collins as poetic tortured soul.  Like the way the Victorian Era inspired Bram Stoker, the late 60s and early 70s laid the ground work for a new vampire story.  During this time, many did not trust the government, and this concept of this evil vampire sucking the blood (or life) out of folks was the government.  No doubt that this show, and the books from Marilyn Ross challenged this trend.

The same can be said for Ann Rice's "Vampire Chronicles" which spanned from 1976 until 2003, and included such popular titles as "Interview with the Vampire" and "Queen of of the Damned" (both were made into films).  The best way to explain the evolutionary understanding of Rice's work is to look at her book/the film Interview with a Vampire.  In both telling there are two main vampires Lestat and Louie.  Louie (who was played by Pitt in the film) can be seen as the tragic vampire who while living it up at one point, and enjoying his life, finally realizes his own tragic journey; he tries to break off from the evil and blood lusting Lestat, the more traditionally dark vampire.  While vampires do not have a soul in many of these modern adaptations there is something within many of them which has made them more kind or poetic.  They find love, although they are still seen as the living dead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the next step.  There was a film in 1992, but the more popular version is the television series, and eventual comic book (1997-2003) starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as well, a vampire slayer.  The show from creator Joss Whedon is the best interpretation of the vampire myth.  While the show focuses on the vampire huntress Buffy, and her group of friends, the show uses the different mythical beings to represent the different difficulties of being a teenager.  Of course Buffy falls for two different vampires, Angel and Spike (team Angel all the way).  Within the series Buffy is also a kick ass independent female who while her killing Angel shatters her, she is one of the strongest female characters of all time.

The television True Blood is based on the Sookie Stackhouse Series, and while I have only read the first book, the television series has far surpassed the popularity of the books.  While vampires are at the center of the show, there are also witches, werewolves, and shifters, oh my!  True Blood's mythical creatures are the modern answer to what it means to be different in today's society.  True Blood explores the concept of a world where synthetic blood exists, and vampires are part of the manstream culture, a regular minority group like being gay.  The show takes on that deep meaning of what it means to be different using the myth to help tell the story.

Twilight from Stephanie Meyer represent the most popular book/film series about the subject matter, and have evolved in a different way.  People fight over Jacob or Edward for Bella Swan.   Twilight represents the common vampire lore the least, while making Bella and empty shell of a human being who clings to a man with whom she hopes he will drain the life out of her and make her into a vampire.  I am not going to lay into theTwilight series completely, but the popularity of these books, along with the films have further pushed the vampire to the next level in popular culture, leading to even more television shows, books, and film.

While I am new to The Vampire Diaries, the show seems similar to the Twilight concept with a lot more edge, and better characters.  The lead character Elena is caught between two brothers who are vampires, Stefan and Damon.  In the third episode Stefan  writes in his journal "I am looking for a shred of humanity in my brother."  This episode and the beginnings of this show prove the yearning for the male vampire to be something different, although this brother relationship feels similar to the relationship between Lestat and Louie in "Interview with a Vampire."  Even in the fourth episode Damon is reading Twilight pokes fun at it and states Ann Rice had it right.  The show (at the moment) proves there is a battle to find the soul within these lifeless creatures.

Where does this heart and soul come from?  Why do people find such an intense connection, with character who still the life and soul of their victims? The goal for authors and creators of these many different vampiric characters is to provide a deeper context for who they are, and where they came from.  In the past many have tried to paint characters as villains without giving a back story, and sometimes that works for the sake of art, but villainy is complex.  There are numerous examples, in which "evil" is given a back story, and changes the opinion of the past.

Look at the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz.  In the 1939 film and book from L, Frank Baum she was truly just an evil woman. In the book "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West" from Gregory Maguire (which eventually became the musical Wicked) we see the story from another perspective, which humanizes this once vilified character.  People flock to read the book, and see the musical, maybe because they want to believe there is even in the darkest people there is still good.  There is also the thought that people want to connect with something familiar, and by changing up the origin story (ever so slightly) you help connect people to their youth, nostalgia.  

For me the questions up above are a bit complex.  The quote from Vampire Diaries about vampires is the connection most people have.  They want to find the heart and soul in these "dead" men.  Luckily producers no longer cast ugly older men, but hot young guys to allow people to be able to connect with or fall in love with and find the soul in the vampires.  Lead vampire characters are typically men, Bill, Lestat, Louis, Barnabis, Edward, Angel, Spike, Eric Northman, Stefan, Damon, and many more, proving at the end of the day these dark brooding characters while after blood and "life" can be changed by the a young pretty girl. I must add I am guilty of this trend, Eric Northman is hot, the same can be said for Angel from Buffy and Angel.  These once dark and brooding characters have "souls" and make their once dark pasts forgettable.  These vampires are the bad boys who have had hundreds of years to evolve because they are tired of the same old thing.

Bill and Eric Glare
There is more than just the brooding attractive male vampire, although I can see the appeal. Many shows have social undertones, which make the shows even more important.   Buffy was funny, and as a teenager at the time I connected with the mores Joss Whedon used. Alan Ball's True Blood I watch because most of the undertones are about vampires as the "others" and for Ball the othered member are LGBT folks.   Vampires are being used as a metaphor for many different things, which helps the masses get a better understanding of the issues today.

Looking at this one mythical creature and their pop culture evolution is fascinating minus Twilight vampires who shine like glitter in the sunlight, really?  There is something about these mythical creatures which has people fascinated, or maybe we have all just been glamoured.

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