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Why All The Vampires?

Above: Bela Lugosi as the 1930's Dracula.

Audio

Aired 11/18/09

This Friday marks the start of a new surge in the popularity of vampires. The latest movie installment of the "Twilight" series, based on Stephanie Meyer's popular books, opens in area theaters. "New Moon" now joins "True Blood," "Vampire Diaries," and "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" in feeding our seemingly endless fascination with vampires. We want to know why we care so much about vampires.

The werewolf contingent from the film New Moon, opening at 12:01am in theaters across the nation.
Enlarge this image

Above: The werewolf contingent from the film New Moon, opening at 12:01am in theaters across the nation.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We were all introduced to him as he opened the creaking door of his dilapidated castle in Transylvania. We made out his face by the light of a torch through a veil of cobwebs. (audio clip of trailer from a Dracula film) He is the classic vampire of the Western world. But boy, how he has changed. Now there seem to be vampires everywhere you turn, in movies, books, and on TV, and they are lot more normal than they used to be. They keep their blood in the fridge and daylight just makes them sparkle. Our culture is in the middle of a rampaging vampire epidemic and it's time for red-blooded Americans to find out what this craze may be telling us about ourselves. I’d like to welcome my guests. Lisa Lampert-Weisseg is a literature professor at UCSD and is currently developing an entire course on vampires. Lisa, welcome to These Days.

LISA LAMPERT-WEISSEG (Professor of Literature, University of California San Diego): Thanks.

CAVANAUGH: And William Pat Day is a professor of English and Cinema Studies at Oberlin College. He’s the author of “Vampire Legends in Contemporary American Culture.” Pat, welcome to These Days.

WILLIAM PATRICK DAY (Professor of English and Cinema Studies, Oberlin College): Hi.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Are you or is someone you know part of this vampire craze? Tell us why you think vampires are so popular in America right now. Give us a call with your questions and comments. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Lisa, why do you think vampires are so popular right now? What’s happening in culture that makes it ripe for a vampire craze?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Well, I think there’s lots of possible explanations but the one that’s been the most compelling to me is thinking that we’re living in rather bad times right now. And it’s been posited earlier on when the vampire legend sort of came into being that people were responding to the French Revolution and the terror, and we’re living in an age where we have the shadow of 9/11, the war on terror, a war on two fronts, and, you know, to use a vampire term, things kind of suck right now. So it’s, you know, especially – maybe especially if you’re a young person and you’re looking at the future, if people think that this vampire craze is especially something, you know, “Twilight” or something for younger people, younger women in particular, some people think that “Dracula,” the 1931 movie was a response to the crash in ’29, to World War I. So I don’t think that’s a, you know, a explanation that you can give to every vampire craze but for me, personally, that’s a compelling set of reasons to be thinking about what’s going on right now.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Pat, give us, if you would, a range of this vampire craze because there are fans and then there are pretty hardcore fans.

DAY: Well, part of the thing is there are lots of different kinds of vampires. I mean, you have romance vampires and then you have like an underworld movies, you have kind of like gangster vampire stories, and a lot of different ones so they have a lot of different subcultures of vampire fans. But I think there’s basically two kinds of things that go into fandom. I mean, one is there are people who – it’s a kind of play, I mean, and you get to play with something imaginary, vampires, and you can either just sort of want it as something to slip into as a kind of other world and that’s one level of fandom and I think the other level of fandom are people who genuinely find in the vampire an image of something that’s self-expression, that they really have some part of themselves that they don’t feel gets articulated in the ordinary, day to day life they live and the vampire’s a useful image for them to think about. And the other thing is, if you like vampires or if you like kind of vampire stories, it’s a basis for community. I mean, you get to interact with other people and who have a similar set of views. So in one way the vampire story just functions as a way of identifying people who are willing to say, hey, I think we’re alike in some way. And if this is kind of about things that make us anxious, getting into a community is something that you really want to do.

CAVANAUGH: You know, Pat, zombies have been giving vampires a run for their money over the past ten years…

DAY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …but you believe that vampires will prevail. Make the vampire trumps zombie argument, if you would.

DAY: Well, I mean, there’s several good things about vampires. They dress well. They can go to nice restaurants. They’ve traveled the world. They can talk about Shakespeare and Freud. I mean, they probably knew Shakespeare and Freud. And, yeah, they can be violent and dangerous but they’re complicated or, I mean, they can be. Zombies, well, as the sheriff in “Night of the Living Dead” says, they’re all messed up.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

DAY: They’re just a bunch of rotting corpses who want to eat your brains, that’s it. No conversation. No interesting past. No sex. You really do not want to have sex with a zombie. So all a zombie is, death coming to get you. You can’t actually interact with them and you can interact with a vampire. And zombies always come in a mass. I mean, there’s always a bunch of them, and you can’t identify with that. Vampires will prevail because each vampire can be an individual so they can be a version of us whereas the zombie is a version of the sort of not us and so they can scare you but you can’t want to actually live with one.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with William Patrick Day and Lisa Lampert-Weisseg, two respected academics, and we are talking about zombies and vampires, mainly vampires. And we’re asking for you to join the conversation, if you would. Have you noticed that there is a vampire craze going on in our culture? What if – Do you know someone who’s a “Twilight” fan? 1-888-895-5727 is our number. Pat, let me ask you about when we first see vampires developing in literature in the western world. Where did this legend come from?

DAY: Well, the legends that we’re most aware of mostly come from Eastern Europe. And they were sort of revived in the early 17th century. I mean, sort of put aside for a long time and the sort of official culture didn’t pay much attention to them but then people started kind of investigating because they wanted to actually – these were would-be scientists who wanted to find out in the 1730s and ‘40s if vampires were real. So people started talking about them, they started publishing scientific treaties – treatises on vampires. And then there was this kind of moment where it starts to enter into literature and particularly in German literature in the late 18th century, they start writing stories about vampires. And then it makes its real transition into – from pure folklore to literature, usually the date is 1819 with John Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre.”

CAVANAUGH: I want to save that for a minute and ask Lisa, what, if anything, do you like about these very early folkloric vampires? The ancient vampires, if you would.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Well, what I find interesting about them, especially in the light of what Pat has been saying, is that they’re so related to family and to community, that it’s often a relative that comes back from the grave. It’s your uncle, you know, something or it’s someone who’s maybe done something wrong or broken a rule but if we’re talking about a vampire community, now originally these myths were about community, community standards, and also about life and death and family so maybe perhaps also about grief as well. And so that’s something I found very interesting in learning about the folklore, and it may have more of a connection to what’s going on now than I had thought about before based on this idea of modern vampire communities.

CAVANAUGH: But then as Pat was saying, we get a switch. The vampire that we’re familiar with, at least in the classic sense, is – your term is the hero vampire. What does that term mean?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Well, I guess a vampire you can relate to, maybe a kind of anti-hero. And the model for me is Satan in “Paradise Lost.” I’m really interested in looking at these vampire narratives in relation to this figure because if the vampires come to us through the romantic poets, the romantic poets really learned a lot about their anti-heroes from Satan and if – “Paradise Lost” was just an incredible poem and you know you’re not supposed to like Satan but he’s so compelling and he dominates that poem. And so this hero vampire is I guess when you’re perhaps reluctantly but nevertheless on the side of the vampire or you can relate to him in some way. It’s very different than that idea of a zombie death coming to get you or some of these earlier vampires that are really much more like monsters in the sense of grotesque and, you know, you couldn’t have a conversation about Freud with them or something like that.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And, Pat, now I guess we’re ready for John Polidori and the emergence of this Byronic vampyre.

DAY: Yeah, John Polidori was Byron’s doctor actually, and he traveled with him. And he wrote the story in Italy where Byron and Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley were living at this villa together and they made a bet that they would all write a horror story. And Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein,” and Polidori wrote “The Vampyre” and Percy Shelley and Byron never wrote their stories. But when “The Vampyre” was first published, because people knew about the connection between Polidori and Byron, they thought Byron had written it. And then they thought, oh, maybe it’s about him. And in the early 19th century, there was just enough – not about anything, nothing that people wouldn’t believe about Byron, including that maybe he was a vampire because he wasn’t just a heroic figure, although I think Lisa’s right about that connection to satan, but he was a celebrity. I mean, he was a nobleman, poet and controversial and notorious, and people started associating this figure of Lord Ruthven, the vampyre in Polidori’s story, with the actual real life figure of Byron. And this kind of jump started the interest in the vampire at that particular point because it was connected to somebody that people had actually heard about and it seemed somehow very much not just a literary thing but somehow part of their immediate culture.

CAVANAUGH: And is there any kind of a direct line that you can see, Pat, between this Byronic figure of the vampire and Edward, the character of Edward, in “Twilight?”

DAY: Oh, yeah. I mean, he’s a more kind of like calmed-down, chastened version of that Byronic hero. I mean, he’s tormented by his nature but he’s actually a tremendously romantic figure who produces fascination and longing. I mean, the romantic vampire stories in all of those versions are really directly related to this idea of the Byronic figure.

CAVANAUGH: Now that I think of it, Lisa, actually the – Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward, actually looks a little like Lord Byron, doesn’t he?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Perhaps, yeah, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: You know, as you mentioned that the vampire is a sort of repository for our cultural anxieties but it seems that it can take on different shapes as our cultural anxieties change. Have you noticed that in your studies?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Yeah, I have and a lot of other people have noticed it, too. Nina Auerbach, who’s written a really nice book called “Our Vampires Ourselves,” a great title. She talks about the flexibility of the vampire figure and the way that it can take on our anxieties. It goes where power is, it goes where fear is. I think that’s one of the reasons why the figure is so powerful because it’s so flexible. Vampires are dead and alive, they’re human and not human. They’re immortal so they have, you know, time and history on their side, but they’re really good to think with because they, you know, allow you to transcend a lot of boundaries and do a lot of things that ordinary humans can’t do but they’ve had human lives and so they have that possibility for connection with the reader and with the audience.

CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break. When we return, we will continue talking about vampires, continue inviting your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and start talking about perhaps the most famous Dracula – vampire of all, and his name is Dracula. We will return on These Days in just a moment here on KPBS.

(audio of introductory clip from a Dracula film)

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of Dracula, there he was. Welcome back. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. I’m here with my guests, Lisa Lampert-Weisseg. She’s a literature professor at UCSD. And William Patrick Day, a professor of English and Cinema Studies at Oberlin College. We’re talking about the vampire myth and also the vampire craze that’s going on in American culture at this time. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. So we were talking about the vampire as this repository of all kinds of cultural anxiety and when we speak about what I guess we consider the classic vampire, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” Pat, what was Bram Stoker’s Dracula like? What does he embody?

DAY: The thing that’s important to remember about Dracula in the novel is that he’s in no way really a romantic figure. He’s a conqueror. He says right at the beginning he is a prince looking to reestablish his kingdom. And so he isn’t a seducer, he isn’t somebody you actually want to have much of a conversation with. He’s kind of an invading, one man army, and he’s all about conquest.

CAVANAUGH: And so how did he morph into this Count Dracula, this seductive presence that we know in the movies?

DAY: Well, actually after Stoker died, the novel was turned into a play and the play really romanticized him as a seducer and makes him a figure of the drawing room rather than the battlefield. And the 1933 film stars Bela Lugosi who starred in a version of the play in New York in the early ‘30s. And although we think of Lugosi now as kind of campy, in the 1930s he was considered a very sexy guy. And so it really – Dracula becomes a romantic figure because of the movie from Universal Studios in 1933.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Lisa, it seems that since that time at least, sex and vampires have really gone hand in hand. Why is that?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Well, maybe because vampires are human, they’ve had human lives, and perhaps because of the popularity of Lugosi as well. I mean, sex sells and it – There’s also the Hammer films that came out in the fifties that really amplified that and had a commercial success as well. Maybe Freud would tell us that sex and death are linked. And so I think vampires are about death, first and foremost, and maybe sex afterwards or maybe not all the time. But there’s definitely a element of danger that they add to that. And then finally that fundamental humanity that they have so people are drawn to them. Human beings are drawn to vampires and there seems to be a sexual element to that.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think, Lisa, part of the allure of vampires for at least the female audience is the idea that they are no longer responsible for sexual conduct, that they have no more will to say no, no, no. They’re just – absolutely can’t resist. And therefore they’re drawn in without having that responsibility all the time that really society does still place on women.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Maybe for some women. I mean, I’ve been thinking about “Twilight” and why “Twilight” is so popular with women. I like Bella. I think Bella does have a voice and she does have a will. And she has desire but she seems in many ways to be in control of herself. She says no to things. And I don’t desire Edward—and that might be a function of my age or my social position—but I wouldn’t mind being Bella. I, you know, or at least when I was younger, I wouldn’t have minded being her. She’s very strong. So I don’t – Maybe for some there’s an excuse there but I don’t think we can say that for all women.

CAVANAUGH: And, Pat, there – as Lisa was saying, there’s this quality of a dangerous sexual being when we talk about the vampire. Why do you think that quality has lasted?

DAY: Well, I think that – I mean, I tend to see the vampire as basically a figure related to Lisa’s idea about death as a predator and that that combination of sexuality and predation is really, really very powerful because it combines two different kinds of desires and that the sort of idea of the vampire as an aristocratic figure, which is very strong in the 19th, and well into the 20th century, also hands them over to the notion of, well, they’re what we all desire, what we all want anyway. We want to be powerful. We want to be rich. We want to be well known. And so they fit into a kind of image of desirability that the culture also tends to endorse or at least be very interested in as well.

CAVANAUGH: Because some of the old vampires really had severe hygiene issues, didn’t they, Lisa?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Yeah. No, I mean, I think now the vampires smell the humans. You know, they’re attracted to their blood…

DAY: Umm-hmm.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: …in “True Blood” or…

DAY: Yeah.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: …”Twilight.” In the old days, you smelled them. Dracula, when they break into his lair in Stoker’s Dracula, they – it smells like old Jerusalem, which – whatever that smells like. There’s a…

DAY: Yeah.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: …bad smell associated with them. And even there’s the new movie “Let the Right One In.”

DAY: Right.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: In the novel, the vampire girl smells.

DAY: Umm-hmm.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Ellie, our vampire girl. I don’t want to give away that novel because it’s good.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: But it’s some – there’s different – different vampires, I think, the ones that smell bad and the ones that smell humans as predators. I mean, they are hunters.

DAY: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your phone calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s take a call right now from Katherine in Del Mar. Good morning, Katherine, and welcome to These Days.

KATHERINE (Caller, Del Mar): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

KATHERINE: Hi. I just wanted to comment about a vampire show that I used to watch a long time ago called “Dark Shadows.”

CAVANAUGH: Yes, uh-huh.

DAY: Oh, yeah.

KATHERINE: It was a soap opera. And I just wanted to hear your speakers talk a little bit about how that fits into this cultural discussion.

CAVANAUGH: Pat, do you remember the show?

DAY: This is where actually my interest in vampires started when I discovered “Dark Shadows.” And it – Barnabas Collins, the vampire on that show, is very much a Byronic vampire figure and he’s lonely, he’s looking for love. He’s lost his love and been in a coffin for a number of years and then is brought back in the 20th century. And what’s interesting is, he just doesn’t want love, he actually wants to be part of his family again because he hangs around, just like the folklore vampires did, with his family. And he can never quite decide whether he wants to protect them or bite them. And…

CAVANAUGH: A dilemma.

DAY: Yeah, and – but he really doesn’t want to be a vampire. That was, I think, the really interesting thing that introduced this level of torment about his vampireness into that character, which was not something that, for instance, the Hammer film, “Dracula” particularly had. He was – he really didn’t want to be a vampire but he also recognized it gave him a lot of power and so he was a really fascinating figure. They introduced him in the show because the ratings were going down and they sort of went supernatural, as they said, just to try to save the series and it worked for another about four years.

CAVANAUGH: We’re talking about vampires on These Days during this hour. And joining us now is another guest, Stephen Marche. He’s a columnist for Esquire magazine and he recently wrote an article called “What’s Really Going on With All These Vampires?” He joins us by phone from Toronto, and welcome, Stephen.

STEPHEN MARCHE (Writer, Esquire): Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Very well, thank you. Now, in your opinion, are we in the most rabid vampire craze yet? And if so, give us some examples to support that.

MARCHE: Well, I think we are probably in the most prolific vampire pop culture explosion ever. I mean, it never really goes away entirely but it goes through these huge waves of, you know, like in the thirties and in the early 19th century and then again it happened in 1984. But now, I mean, it’s strictly a question of bulk. I mean, “New Moon” is going to be absolutely huge. There’s – I mean, there’s more vampire shows than you can – You know, I think you can only have one vampire show at a time going on in your life, so there’s more vampire shows than you can watch on TV. Novels are all over the bestseller list. It’s just everywhere.

CAVANAUGH: And if you have more than one vampire show going on at a time, you’re in trouble?

MARCHE: Yeah, well, I think so. I, you know, I – you have to find time for zombie movies, too, so…

CAVANAUGH: That’s very true.

MARCHE: …I mean, you have – you can’t do vampires all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Stephen, you have a simple explanation for the current popularity of vampires. Tell us what it is.

MARCHE: Well, my explanation actually, you know, is – to sort of disagree with your other panelists, is that vampires return whenever there’s a sexual crisis in society at large. I mean, this is a mass cultural movement. And, you know, the first vampire story was John Polidori, who had this sexual obsession with Lord Byron and the sort of earliest experience of Eros and the romantic period that we’re taking, you know, a new turn. And, you know, to me, what is happening right now is that there is this new freakiness, this quiet sexual revolution that is going on in the heart – the absolute mainstream of American life, that explains all of these vampires. That people – You know, it used to be that a shameful sex life was that you did certain things that other people were unwilling to do, now it’s the opposite. A shameful sex life is having a boring sex life. And I think that that is filtering into pop culture through vampires.

CAVANAUGH: And you also equate the rise in popularity of vampire movies, especially with young women, to an attraction to the unattainable gay man.

MARCHE: Yes, now, okay, I’m just going to explain this in two parts just so it’s really clear.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

MARCHE: I got attacked a lot about this. If you watch “True Blood,” I mean, the opening credits of “True Blood” have ‘God hates fangs’ on a big sign going by, the language of it – I mean, I would be shocked if the writers of that show did not think that they were playing with gay – comparing vampires to gay people.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, they are, straight out.

MARCHE: Yeah, straight up, right?

DAY: Yeah.

MARCHE: I mean, there can be no – You know, I didn’t do that. John Polidori did it. “True Blood” did it. I also think that Edward and Bella have a – you know, Edward and Bella have a very – you know, Edward particularly has these certain gay signifiers that are really – you know, I don’t think it’s really maybe conscious on the part of Stephanie Meyer but certainly in the movies it comes out more clearly. And I think when I say that women are attracted to gay men, it’s sort of like the way straight men are attracted to lesbians. It’s not in the – it’s not actually real, it’s not like they’re attracted to real gay men, they’re attracted to the idea of it for exactly same reasons that straight men are attracted to lesbian women, because it has that combination of danger, of sexual illicitness and extreme – like this feeling of extreme, you know, living on the edge of your body and total safety, that you’re completely safe because it can’t actually happen.

CAVANAUGH: I want to get Lisa and Pat into this conversation. First of all, Pat, I want to ask you, the “True Blood” with its storyline that basically brings vampires into the mainstream, is that something new in the vampire genre?

DAY: It’s not completely new. You see it in a novel called “Anno Dracula” by Kim Newman and Dan Simmons’ “Children of the Night.” But they – the show has certainly given it a particular kind of spin and a particular way of combining sort of mystery, southern gothic and contemporary American culture and I think it’s a very imaginative combination that they’ve come up with. But mostly vampire stories work by combining a lot of different elements from other kinds of stories and other kinds of situations rather than actually doing something radically innovative with it.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And, Lisa, Stephen says he’s gotten a lot of flack from this idea that, indeed, this current craze in vampires, especially the “Twilight” series and “True Blood” has a lot to do with perhaps the – this attraction that straight women might have for gay men. Do you see that in…?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: I don’t want to discount anyone’s theories or, you know, hammer on for that. I’m going to be interested to give that article to my young female students next year and see what they do with that in the summer. The first line of the book “Twilight” is ‘I’d never given much thought to how I would die.’ And this is in Bella’s voice. And, I mean, I think sex and death are linked but I – again, I’m not – I think Bella is also flirting with danger in a way. If you’re thinking about the unattainable gay male, I don’t know if that’s dangerous or not. It sounds very safe. And I just think there’s a little bit more there and I’d like to give young women a little bit more credit as well for this idea of not just a carnal crisis but a bigger crisis. And they could be related if there is this quiet sexual revolution going on, and I’m willing to explore that. I think there’s a lot of other very difficult things going on in the culture right now like maybe not getting a job when you get out of college if you’re a young person. So that’s working with – in their minds as well.

CAVANAUGH: I want to remind our listeners we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from Manny in San Diego. Good morning, Manny, and welcome to These Days.

MANNY (Caller, San Diego): Thanks for taking my call. I kind of agree with the earlier caller. I think in today’s sexual climate with young people today having to live with AIDS and other illnesses that are, you know, no laughing matter whatsoever that that might explain part of the resurgence of the vampire storyline. And I was wondering, on another point, have the authors ever read the works of Brian Lumley? I mean, I find myself fascinated by the way he depicts vampires because in his works his vampires are more like raw forces of nature and they’re very primal. And there’s an evilness associated with them but it’s also like – it’s an inherent part of their nature and there isn’t anything deliberately – I don’t know how to explain it but…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Manny, let me find out if anybody’s familiar with them. Pat? Lisa? Stephen?

MARCHE: I’ve never read Brian Lumley but I certainly agree with that caller’s point of view. I just would also remind him of “The Hunger” from ’84.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I do remember that.

MARCHE: It’s my favorite vampire film.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

MARCHE: And is completely about apes.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

MARCHE: You know, it opens with a chimpanzee who’s got a disease and that is a – just a completely brilliant film.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, before we have to let you go, I want to ask you, why do you think you’ve gotten so much flack for this particular notion of yours, your theory about gay men and vampires.

MARCHE: You know, I have no idea.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

MARCHE: But then I never know why I – when I enrage people why I’m doing it. I mean, I will say that, you know, Bella is the really key case because, you know, first of all, she’s the most popular character alive right now – or, not alive, but in print right now. But she also is very, very normal. I mean, in the book she is – you know, she cooks a lot, she, you know, she’s a product of divorce that her feelings about the divorce that it’s pretty much the same as, you know, being orphaned. And then to have that to, you know, not to—spoiler alert—but, you know, to have like a man’s baby then try and eat it – the baby eat its way out of you…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, no.

MARCHE: …you know, this is – like this is the crux of the problem. This is what people are watching. They’re watching this extreme – extreme safety and extreme normalcy combined with extreme danger, and that’s – that is, I think, what’s so appealing about vampires.

CAVANAUGH: We need to take a break right now. When we come back we will continue talking about vampires. Vampire conventions, and that is not necessarily a group of vampires but how vampires operate in our world. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we will – These Days will return in just a few moments.

(audio of clip from the film “Twlight”)

CAVANAUGH: Bella is onto something in that “Twilight” clip. I’m back with Pat Day and Lisa Lampert-Weisseg and Stephen Marche, and we’re talking about the popularity of vampires. And, of course, that will reach a new level this Friday when the second movie installment of the “Twilight” series comes to theaters. It’s called “New Moon,” and teenage girls and even adult women are very excited about this. Lisa, why do you think “Twilight” in particular is so popular?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: Well, again, I think it has something to do with this figure of Bella and her relationship to Edward. And it’s – Stephanie Meyer captures the American high school experience so well in that novel and then brings it into this fantastic realm. I mean, I would have loved it if there had been something behind high school and the horror that is high school and it had, indeed, actually been this family of these very interesting vampires instead of just what it was. And I think she somehow manages to, in Bella’s voice, and what Stephen was saying about her profound normalness, she brings you into this fantastic world but in a way that is maybe comfortable or, you know, easier to believe through Bella’s voice. So that’s my attraction to it and I’m guessing it’s also an attraction for others.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear from James in La Mesa. Good morning, James. Welcome to These Days.

JAMES (Caller, La Mesa): Thank you. Good morning. A little while back, the Union-Tribune touched on a subject that I wanted to get your guests’ opinion on. They were saying how the vampires in pop culture seem to be more prevalent during Democratic presidential administrations. You know, back in the Clinton administration, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a popular movie and the Anne Rice books, and the “Interview with the Vampire” movie was popular. And then during the Bush presidency, you know, W, the zombie movies, the “28 Days Later” and those kind of movies were really popular. And now with the Obama presidency, we’re seeing all this current crop of vampire pop culture, and I just wanted to see if your guests had an opinion on that, and then I can take my answer off the air.

CAVANAUGH: And, Stephen, also in the nineties there was that “Forever Night” show that took place in Toronto where you are.

MARCHE: Oh, right.

CAVANAUGH: Remember that?

MARCHE: Yeah. I have a theory that is so about Democrats versus Republicans.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

MARCHE: A Guardian columnist said that vampires are teenage girls, i.e. dramatic, etcetera, hyperblown – hyperbolic emotions and so on. And zombies are teenage boys.

CAVANAUGH: Ohh…

MARCHE: You know, they’re either out of control and they’re totally enslaved to their bodily desires that makes them go out and do things without thinking about it. And that’s not actually a bad way of thinking about Democrats and Republicans. Right? I mean…

CAVANAUGH: Well…

MARCHE: …they – I think the answer is that, you know, Democrats are just freakier. You know, they’re more open, they’re more, you know, they’re more open to the – to liberal – to liberalist – to liberal sexuality.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen, I have to say goodbye to you now. I will – But you went out on a high note. Thank you so much.

MARCHE: Thanks very much.

CAVANAUGH: Stephen Marche, columnist for Esquire magazine, and he wrote the column "What's Really Going on With All These Vampires?" Pat, I want to give you a chance to respond both to that Democratic-Republican question and also why “Twilight” is so popular.

DAY: Well, I think – On the idea of the Democrats and Republicans, I’m not sure the correlations work quite as neatly as they might initially seem. But I do think that any kind of explanation of a vampire story or vampire stories and how they work is actually just another vampire story. And, you know, we use vampires to tell stories about stuff we need to tell stories about and it does, in fact, help us to sort of create one that maybe helps us explain Republicans and Democrats. Whether there’s an actual correlation in some sort of causal way between those two things, I don’t really know but, you know, as Stephen suggested, it’s a good story about what Democrats and Republicans are like and so it kind of works that way. As to “Twilight” I tend to agree with Lisa, that it’s that kind of – I mean, everything goes better with vampires, particularly high school. I mean, Buffy taught us that. And…

CAVANAUGH: It’s very true.

DAY: Yeah, and that it’s this way of introducing something that you have to figure out, that you have to try to understand and that maybe even looks like an explanation, into a normal world which is both, you know, dull maybe and kind of dangerous but not in an interesting or fun way, you know, because high school can be pretty oppressive. And so I think that this idea that you can enter into somebody who – like Bella who can have adventures and deal with those adventures and cope with those things and yet be like a real person is a really powerful allure.

CAVANAUGH: You know, one of the things that sort of long-time vampire fans don’t like about the “Twilight” movies is the fact that it kind of plays around with what we expect a vampire to be like, there’s all that twinkling in the sunlight deal. And one of the people we have on the line right now, someone who can talk to us a little bit about vampire conventions and how they change from one movie and one book to another. Joining us now is Chris Beam. He’s political reporter for Slate.com and he’s talking to us about the rules and myths in vampire dramas today. Chris, thanks for joining us.

CHRISTOPHER BEAM (Reporter, Slate.com): Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it seems like in every movie the rules for being a vampire change. How is that possible?

BEAM: Well, it’s funny. There’s – Not only do they change but they seem to go out of their way to make it as sort of dramatic a myth-busting scene as possible. There’s always this exchange between either the vampire, some vampire expert, and the protagonist about how everything you know about vampires is wrong. So in the “Twilight” movie, I think there’s a line from Edward the vampire that says – Bella’s walking into his house and it looks normal. He says, what did you expect? Coffees and – coffins and dungeons and moats?

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

BEAM: And then, you know, it turns out that he can come out in the daytime. He’s not burned by the sun. And every movie, every vampire book, has this particular scene. And the variations are different. You know, in the movie “Blade,” for example, crosses and holy water can’t kill a vampire but stakes and silver and sunlight can. In “True Blood” there’s – well, there’s usually a myth that vampires are invisible in mirrors but you can see them in mirrors in “True Blood” and the reason, the vampire explains, is that it helped vampires prove to other human beings that they were not vampires. So it was sort of a cover-up for them being vampires. And it’s just funny the way that they always do this is a really sort of snarky, everything you know is wrong, kind of way.

CAVANAUGH: They do. Now, we’re talking today about the fact that there seems to be a craze about vampires right now but you say that vampires have always been pretty popular. Give us some of the reasons you – for that opinion.

BEAM: Yeah, well, always might be a little strong but since the sixties, certainly. A colleague of mine and I did a sort of informal survey of vampire movies, books, TV shows, dating back to 1960 and what you see is that at least in terms of the sheer numbers, we’ve really always been, or at least since then, we’ve always been in one vampire craze or another. In fact, the years when we are in a vampire craze outnumber the years when we haven’t been in a vampire craze. There are a few brief periods which we call the garlic years where vampires are – there are not a lot of movies or TV shows being produced…

CAVANAUGH: Good.

BEAM: …one in the mid-seventies, the mid-eighties, and then very briefly in the mid-nineties. But, really, if you look at the numbers, there are – there’ve always been a lot of vampires because as everyone has said on this show, there’s just so many different ways and variations that they can be used for. And right now, 2009 isn’t over. It might be an especially big year but so far the biggest year has been 2006 by far.

CAVANAUGH: Really? Let’s take a call. Nissan is calling from Grossmont College. Good morning, Nissan. Welcome to These Days.

NISSAN (Caller, Grossmont College): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

NISSAN: Well, first of all, I have to say thank you for talking about that on PBS because I listen to you guys all the time, and I always think I’m crazy because I’m a Twilaholic. I admit it. I’m a really bad case as well.

CAVANAUGH: Why? What attracts you to the “Twilight” series?

NISSAN: To tell you the truth, I’m a new generation Twilighter, meaning I saw the movie first and then I read the books. But, you know what, the books literally changed my life. I haven’t stopped reading since. I’m learning disabled and reading books, and four books in a week, should be impossible for me but I still managed to do it. And since then I haven’t stopped reading so I’ve read like the Black Dagger Brother series, and the Riley Jensen Guardian series and Anne Rice and “The Vampire Diaries” of all things. And I just – the vampires, I don’t know, something in the books just attracts me like crazy and it’s wonderful and it’s a different world and it lets me escape from my world and from being a full time student and working two jobs and living my life. And it just kind of like lets me get away from everything, and I love it. I can’t get enough of it.

CAVANAUGH: Hey, Nissan, thank you so much for calling and have a good time at “New Moon” this weekend.

NISSAN: Oh, you know I will.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Lisa, that – what Nissan says there kind of validates what you were saying about the fact that this craze might have something to do with life outside the book and the movie house is a little daunting.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: I think so, and I do think that the vampire frame sort of – it provides a way, a pleasurable way to think about a lot of big questions, about death, about mortality, about danger, about your fears. And, I mean, this is a profoundly religious country but there are a lot of people that don’t necessarily have a set belief system. We certainly don’t have a unified one. And vampire fiction, I wouldn’t call it a religion or anything like that but it allows you to explore those questions. Some very – the same kind of questions that theology explores, and to do it in this pleasing fictional way.

CAVANAUGH: Now I have to ask these two questions rather quickly because we’re running out of time. Pat, I wonder, “New Moon,” the “Twilight” series is going to be introducing werewolves into the picture. Now do you think werewolves are going to give vampires a run for their money? Or do you think vampires are still going to win, Pat?

DAY: Well, I, you know, my guess in “Twilight” is the vampires will win but there’ll probably be some good werewolves that they’ll sort of get to know and like because it’s always more interesting when things get complicated. And this werewolf, vampire battle’s being going on for a little while now. It’s in “Underground.” So it seems like – and actually in Laurel Hamilton’s novels about vampires, so this is something that werewolves and vampires have been squaring off for about a decade or so now.

CAVANAUGH: And, Chris, are we going to be talking about werewolves next year? Or is Edward still going to be the star of the “Twilight” series?

BEAM: Yeah, my guess is there will not be a werewolf spinoff quite yet. As Pat said, there’s always this sort of vampires versus werewolves mythology but what he didn’t say is that vampires almost always win. And, really, there – werewolves have sort of ended up being an accessory to vampire stories, at least in the last couple of decades.

CAVANAUGH: Some vampire arm-candy. Chris, if you could tell us quickly, your favorite vampire and why?

BEAM: Oh, yeah, well, there’s a vampire in the comic book series called “Preacher,” named Cassidy, who’s a sort of hard-drinking, Irish vampire who, as he likes to say, he’d rather drink a pint of whiskey than a pint of blood. And the reason I like him so much is not just that he’s foul-mouthed and sort of anti the vampire stereotype but he hates the sort of Anne Rice style effete like southern vampires. And there’s a whole storyline where he goes and has this big argument with them about how they’re – vampires are really supposed to live and behave.

CAVANAUGH: Lisa and Pat, could I ask you quickly the same question? Lisa, do you have a favorite vampire?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: I like Lestat a lot. Vampire Lestat…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yes.

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: …in Anne Rice’s – he’s just – I like his voice in the novels and he’s outrageous. If I had to meet a vampire, I think I’d at least, you know, want to meet someone who was dangerous but really interesting. He’s a rock star.

CAVANAUGH: And Pat.

DAY: Spike from “Buffy.” Best sense of humor.

CAVANAUGH: It’s wonderful that you should say that because we will leave with a clip from “Buffy, The Vampire Killer.” (sic) Just a quick yes or no, anybody seeing “New Moon” this weekend?

LAMPERT-WEISSEG: I need a babysitter but I want to.

DAY: Not this weekend.

BEAM: It’s on my list.

CAVANAUGH: All right. Thank you so much. I want to thank so much Chris Beam, reporter from Slate.com. And I want to thank my guests Lisa Lampert-Weisseg and Pat Day. Thank you so much for talking with us about vampires. If you’d like to respond online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. And you’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

(audio of clip from “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer”)

Comments

Avatar for user 'KeiMari'

KeiMari | November 18, 2009 at 11:10 a.m. ― 5 years ago

Being a young twenty-something, I have to say that as much as I like vampire myth and stories, I find nothing "attractive" about Twilight's Bella who, to me, just seems to swoon when she's hauled over a highly possessive, jealous man's shoulder and is stalked and abandoned over and over. As such, I wish there were a little more discussion on the part of women (and more frequently, men) in vampire lore. There's something to be said as to the victims of vampires as much as the creatures themselves, especially when gender appears to play such a strong role.

That aside, I found the discussion a really wonderful change from the norm, especially the brief talk about the ever changing image and rules regarding vampires. Going from bursting in firey blaze to "sparkling" in the sunlight is quite the change over time. I'm certainly a bigger fan of the former, but I have to say the conversation was very... enlightening

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Avatar for user 'terraveda'

terraveda | November 20, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. ― 5 years ago

I was never really a fan of vampire lore. Then I saw the Swedish movie "Let the Right One In". What I find refreshing is that the vampire is a "young" girl who befriends a socially awkward boy who is bullied at school.

It's an interesting dynamic and seems to follow a pattern of the vampire as hero, even though he/she is a bloodthirsty monster who is ruled by pure hunting instinct.

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