Vampires and Class Migration
This is part of a new #FridayFlashback series of rereleased, re-edited and sometimes extended essays. This one is the oldest essay on my blog and, unless I try and republish something truly ancient, will likely remain so: it hails back to the distant age of December 14 2011. Despite the fact that my reading and ideas have somewhat progressed, I nonetheless feel like it stands up to the test of time—much like its nightmare undead subject-matter.
One of our boogiemen has changed. Vampires were conceived as an evil aristocracy, but in new mythopoeia they are recast as morally ambiguous lumpenproletariat, Marx’s, ‘swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society’—more flatteringly describable as the opt-outs, bohemians, out-of-work intelligentsia… This is an understandable transition: the US, from which much vampire entertainment stems, does not (officially) have an aristocracy and our malignant rulers are far removed from evil counts living in Gothic castles; they are often incompetent, self-pitying CEOs (the upper-echelons of the managerial class) spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, in an age of cynical ‘post-ideology’ our (media directed) perceived threats do not always come from above.
We do not fear aristocrats, which are constitutionally impotent or govern marginalized countries with hard-to-remember names. These relics are too kitsch; Weber’s disenchantment, the process by which modernity replaces medievalist mysticism with bureaucratic rationalism, has made Bela Lugosi and Max Schreck more camp than frightening. We are no longer living in the world of Bram Stoker; his readers’ anxieties are historical (that is dead, rather than undead) curiosities. However, as Owen Jones contends in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, we are terrified by our social dregs, the victims of neoliberalism; by the chilling anecdotes we tell each other about a mass of unruly, drunken, hedonistic, drug-addled, NEET youth that graffiti, pickpocket, shoplift and engage in other such crimes against humanity. If horror is an expression of our anxieties (and sublimated desires) it can be argued that contemporary vampires have a lot to say about class.
In the eighties, Kathryn Bigelow’s cult classic Near Dark conceived vampires as drifters on a crime spree and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys depicted them as teenage hoodlums. The genre was reimagined so that while vampires were still alluring predators, they also stood-in for something as alien to monarchs as they always were to the middle-classes. Rather than enigmatically dominating our lives from the local mountain fort, they plague back alleys and cheap bars; the new haunts of fantastic nightmares. Films like these began a trend, shifting the way vampires are portrayed; no longer are they ancient entities of primordial terror, today they are urban myths about the evils (illicit freedoms) of the downtrodden. They retain only their fundamental character as parasites; they still feed on the innocent.
The trend is not universal; Francis Ford Coppola’s nineties adaptation of Dracula and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Låt den rätte komma in are examples of vampire stories that ignore the vogue in favor of tradition or unique subversions. Japanese anime and manga have also been relatively unaffected: Hellsing revamps Dracula (or ‘Alucard’) as an anti-hero working for a priem ostranenie fanatical Anglican Church, but otherwise leaves conventions intact. Black Blood Brothers is more mixed; depicting the old aristocratic vampires as heroes against evil gangster vamps and—somewhat in bad taste—Trinity Blood recounts conflicts between the human Vatican and the vampire Byzantium, a typical clash-of-civilizations replete with unfortunate stereotypes. Irrespective, it is narratives like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight, Underworld, Daybreakers et al. that defines these creatures for most anglosphere audiences. And they predominantly share the new model, albeit in different configurations.
Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer flattens evil, robbing if of its elusive Romantic dimension and remolding it as silly, tangible and postmodern. The ‘Big Bad’ of the first series, The Master, is an apocalyptic Nosferatu, visually reminiscent of the monster from F. W. Murnau’s German Expressionist silent movie. This creature is nostalgic, outmoded and conservative, comically juxtaposed (along with almost every threat from the early episodes) with the contemporary and titular heroine. Thereafter the arch-threat goes from demonic mayor to teenage geeks and finishes with a glibly witty reification of evil. However it is the transition from vampire to vampire in the second series that sets the trend and illustrates my thesis. The Master is defeated; replaced by his heir apparent The Anointed One, a regal vampire child (satirizing puer aeternus and messiah archetypes) who speaks in riddles and obsesses over ceremony. The Ancien Régime is here to stay, but then Spike and Drusilla enter the stage. Inspired by punk couple Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, these undead eccentrics are the epitome of the lumpenproletariat and quickly slide from irreverent mockery to unashamed regicide. It is not long before Spike exposes The Anointed One to sunlight, an act he follows up with the nonchalant suggestion, in self-referential parody, ‘Let’s see what’s on TV.’
He lives a fantasy version of the life of a lumpenproletariat, playing a Carnivalesque Lord of Misrule.
Spike’s philosophy is expounded during his initial alliance with Buffy (in what becomes a redemptive-romantic subplot), in which he helps save the world because ‘We like to talk big, vampires do. “I’m going to destroy the world.” It’s just tough-guy talk. Struttin’ around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got… dog racing, Manchester United, and you’ve got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It’s all right here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real… passion for destruction.’
He is not evil for its own sake, Kant’s ‘demonic evil’; for Spike if it’s not entertaining, pleasurable or liberating, there’s no point. Spike is a slave to the Lacanian Superego injunction to ‘Enjoy!’ He is not propelled by any ideas or agenda; he is a substanceless menace. So when he takes power Spike proclaims, ‘From now on, we’re gonna have a little less ritual… and a little more fun around here.’ Spike is scary not because he is a monster, but because he is—to borrow Nietzsche’s words—all too human. He lives a fantasy version of the life of a lumpenproletariat, playing a Carnivalesque Lord of Misrule—he even used to be an unsuccessful high-society poet. And perhaps Spike is redeemed because that way we can simultaneously revile and embrace his attractive, but taboo, bohemianism.
Angel, the other redemptive/sociopathic vampire of the series (and eventually his own), begins life as a drunken libertine, becomes a monster and is then cursed by gypsies with a soul, which he occasionally looses like the proverbial car keys. A less convincing Byronic hero than Spike, he is motivated by ideals of either extreme nobility or aestheticized ruination. The duality of his evil (Angelus) and good (Angel) sides lends him a Jekyll and Hyde motif, but in both incarnations he is still a social outcast more than a dictatorial power—even when he believes otherwise.
Appropriately, he evolves into an existentialist noir detective beset by shadowy conspiracies and nefarious machinations, seedy criminals and desperate poverty, forever realizing that his struggle is worthwhile despite being unwinnable. He becomes an adherent of the Beckettian logic of, ‘Ever tired. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Most importantly, he spends his time helping the dispossessed, battling against authority in aid of the impoverished, hated and forgotten.
Alan Ball’s Southern Gothic series True Blood (adapted from Charlaine Harris’ books The Southern Vampire Mysteries) is even more overt in the way that it uses vampires as a metaphor for social inequality; here they are coded gay (‘God hates Fangs’), the criminal underclass (they operate in gangs, cooperate with drug dealers, manage strip clubs, resort to terrorism) and as a fading monarchy that has sunken into debauchery from desperation. The dichotomy between Spike and The Anointed One is now the dichotomy between the bureaucratic Authority (again, see Weber) and the antagonist Russell Edgington, the vampire king of Mississippi. It is not so much that lumpenproletariat vampires usurp the sovereign as that the aristocrat becomes the lumpenproletariat, which Marx did describe as a ‘refuse of all classes’. Edgington wages war against the human status quo and a new Kafkaesque vampire overclass; liberal, public relations experts who enjoy TV debates with televangelists, defer responsibility and poorly comprehend social realities. Even Edgington’s foot soldiers fit this analysis; they are a blood-addict gang of werewolves (a monster that has always been at home at the bottom of society) with past ties to the SS and a penchant for Dionysian overindulgence.
As befits an authentic gothic, the tone of True Blood is decidedly Romantic; a celebration of libertinage, radical subjectivity, mortality, aesthetes, transgression and kink. Nobody is entirely innocent (passionate loves, hatreds, fears and desires forbids them to be so blandly Christian), but sin is not entirely ‘evil’ either. As much trouble is caused by puritanical repression (the anti-vampire church Fellowship of the Sun) as the excesses of the unrestrained id. Sex, torture and general decadence are prominent features of every episode as the characters try to find meaning amidst an eternal orgy—meaning that is attained though new heights of pleasure, of reciprocally destructive affairs, of pagan suicide, etc. If Spike mitigates the middle-class’s taboo obsession with the lumpenproletariat, then True Blood simply ignores any cognitive dissonance and directly reprimands its audience’s puritanical reservations.
On the surface Stephenie Meyer’s phenomenon Twilight contrasts sharply with True Blood. Dubbed ‘abstinence porn’ by culture critic Christine Seifert, the ‘teen’ romance between Bella and Edward is framed by implacable restraint, fetishized guilt and repression, but it is cleverly exploiting a lack of sexual material for young women in the entertainment industry. The central dynamic is Christianized delayed gratification and self-sacrifice with sadly misogynistic overtones—Bella eventually gives up her humanity to save her monstrous vampire-human progeny and finds that she quite enjoys masochistic sex with her true love, presumably because it breaks up the monotony. Restrained desire, however, is still desire; as Jean Baudrillard once put it, ‘There is no aphrodisiac like innocence.’ And, again, Vampires straddle (pardon all punning) the divide between their old manifestation as aristocrats (The Volturi) and their new, more humble station as the threatening lower-class hoards; James’s Coven in general and Victoria’s army of Seatle vampires in particular. Yet again the supernatural are symbolic of the marginalized.
The interplay of old aesthetics with new roles and contexts is pure camp.
The Underworld movie franchise takes another approach to the new manifestation of vampires; it blends the roles together as if to suggest that there is not much separating a parasitical overclass from an underclass. Vampires are led by an aristocracy, live in gothic mansions and have a medieval lineage, but they also (as the title hints) exist in their own underground world (so hermetically sealed it barely references humanity) and fight urban gang wars against werewolves. There’s plenty hubristic science, but it is folksy—that is, not at all modernist. The interplay of old aesthetics with new roles and contexts is pure camp, which becomes palpable in the ye olde days prequel Underworld: Rise of the Lycans—a Spartacusesque fable of lycan revolt against feudal vamps. The latest instalment, to be released next year, follows more closely the progression of vampires from sinister conspirators to subjugated minority, ‘Kate Beckinsale, star of the first two films, returns in her lead role as the vampire warrioress Selene, who escapes imprisonment to find herself in a world where humans have discovered the existence of both Vampire and Lycan clans, and are conducting an all-out war to eradicate both immortal species.’
Another film that plays with the developing function of the vampire, but does not lie so comfortably in my Procrustean bed, is the Spierig brothers’ Daybreakers. This inverts the contemporary trend by imagining a dystopic society in which almost everyone has become a vampire and the surviving humans are farmed by corporations for their blood; a Malthusian dystopia in which us mortals are reduced to terrorists or food in a war against an evil establishment that is (in opposition to Underworld) not at all aristocratic, but entirely disenchanted. These vampires are like True Blood’s Authority; an elite struggling to retain power over a lower order that they poorly understand. The film has a radical dimension in unproblematically aligning audience sympathies with a group of oppressed terrorists against an unjust social order that is analogous to capitalism. And the metaphor of undeath is most direct; a Juvenalian look at Fukuyama’s end of history qua an eternity of sterile, monotonous misery.
It is worth being mindful that an epoch’s monsters have a lot to say about its humanity.
Vampires are a symbol of many things and like all fictions they are not neatly consistent. However, a general pattern emerges from the way they are increasingly perceived; a class migration that speaks to, or even helps shape, the attitudes of contemporary audiences. They have lost the legitimacy of their old power and discarded the pretense of radical conservativism; they have adapted. And as vampires continue to be remolded to emerging contexts, it is worth being mindful that an epoch’s monsters have a lot to say about its humanity.
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