Monday, July 12, 2010

The Bats Have Left the Belltower; the Victims Have Been Bled.

[ Full disclosure: work has kicked up again—another summer spent combatting attention deficits with Photoshop & camp songs from 8-4 daily—which means that I have significantly less time to spend perusing the web for news, pop or otherwise, to expound upon. As a result, my beloved Blogling has gone neglected as of late, & may very well again in the coming weeks. For now, though, let me at least keep the embers alive with a quickly compiled pondering.

&, before we begin, in the theme of full disclosure, I will just say this: I do not like vampires very much. In fact, I was actively terrified of them as a child, sleeping with my blanket tucked up around my neck until I was far too old. Every one of my recurring nightmares somehow involved vampires, who usually appeared on escalators for whatever reason, chasing me as I struggled in vain to run—stuck in time-molasses, as you so often are in dreams. Even today, I have a hard time appreciating Ye Olde Vampire Films (Bela Lugosi & all), uninterested by their bodice-ripping, their simplistic plot. I mean, what good is a villain you already know how to beat? Sunlight, stake through the heart, cross, holy water, garlic, & on & on—Eddie Izzard does a particularly hilarious routine on the subject. The one potential exception is The Hunger, but it includes Bowie—& besides, how could anyone cast off so brilliant an opening sequence? Of course, all of this is subjective, personal, Freudian, what have you; I apologize for my inherent bias, but that said, let's continue with our more relatable Big & Important Cultural Pronouncements. ]

While computering about in the open dining room/kitchen of our new apartment, I was accidentally treated to the last 10 or so minutes of True Blood, HBO's stab at this ubiquitous vampire craze—a show that my stepsister deems "brain candy," but nevertheless watches religiously. (I can relate: L Word, anyone?) Bearing in mind that I've only witnessed these scant few moments; that I've been watching (& writing about—coming soon to a Blog post near you...) The West Wing, which is like a macrobiotic diet for the synapses; &, moreover, that I'm particularly disinclined to enjoy this whole vampire thing in the first place, my preliminary take on the show goes something like this: Um, what the fuck—?

To put this into perspective, here is what I saw:

1) Anna Paquin with a jet black bob—which should just not happen.

2) This guy sprouting fangs, biting into his own arm, then slowly moving it over multiple trays of shot glasses, letting the blood pump freely from his open wound into serving-size portions.

3) A ritualistic maiming, in which a near-naked woman—cloaked only in a large fur coat—gets voluntarily burn-branded, howling in pain while about 100 Central Casting Redneck Men cheer. (These men went on, of course, to morph into wolves—because what is derivative vampire fiction without derivative werewolves? Though I'm told in the modern idiom, they're actually more like Limited Shape-Shifters; their transformations are voluntary, not lunar. & so is the mythology castrated once more...)

This latter parenthetical grumbling—which was unfortunately not so parenthetical when I confronted my stepsister & her friend about how entirely bizarre I found what I had just seen—sparked a train of thought that's been unravelling in my head for some time now, ever since Twilight fandom reached its impossible fervor:

Why vampires?

As exhibited by my previous dissection of werewolves, I'm of a mind that most cultural phenomena—or, at the very least, mass-fanatic devotion to a particular mythical creature—stems from something inherent in its backstory, some basic kernel that folk of a certain place & time find alluring or cathartic or helpful. So, with mind open in full, I ask: what is it about vampires that sells so well?

First, I think it is important to outline the key features of the vampire: He is undead—like a zombie who retains mental status—& in order to stay even half-alive, he must drink the blood of the living by biting them in the neck with his pronounced fangs. Those on whom he preys—traditionally, helpless, swooning women—are thereafter doomed to a similar fate. Moreover, he can't go out in the sun, nor can he touch holy things, & is bummed out by garlic (why, no one is quite sure); in days of yore, he had a proclivity for big black capes, hailed from Transylvania, & was bested only by a stake through the heart.

Though these current popular iterations of the myth are sufficiently modernized—including sparkly daytime excursions & use of the Unholy to advance a Christian agenda—the basic tenets of our Count Dracula still remain, spattered across every media outlet: the bloodlust, the swooning, the fangs. In my mind, there are three main reasons as to why; they are as follows:

1) Zexy, Zexy Bad Boys.

This is the answer my stepsister gave when prodded: that vampires are the ultimate Bad Boys. & I agree: unlike the (original—none of this animagus whatnot) werewolf, the vampire is always fully conscious of his actions. He doesn't black out or transform somehow in order to conduct his specific brand of violence: he just can't help himself. Bad Boys have been around since the beginning of time, & unfailingly, no matter what form they take, they are always the hottest—rebels alluring with or without their cause. It's Jess over Dean, J.D. & his murderous agenda: people who knowingly flout the law are desirable, intriguing, strong—sexy.

In the case of vampires, though, there are two sides to this most attractive of coins: On the one hand, the vampire can be a powerful symbol of Lust—dangerous, wrong, but fundamentally uncontrollable. In this way, he's almost like a porn protagonist; regardless of flimsy, extraneous plot, he will succumb; it's inevitable; it's in his ravenous nature. Even the act of biting an exposed jugular is unfathomably intimate; when one shucks away age, death, & garlic, the vampire can be read as a profoundly sexual figure.

However, for those still told by their family/religious community that sexual impulses are shameful & dirty, the vampire becomes the ultimate masochistic guilt-rehash: the sympathetic undead protagonist does everything in his power to keep from biting the woman he loves, but in the end, he just can't help it. He perpetrates violence, ruins lives, all because he failed to control his urges. There's often something very sexy to be gleaned from the Wrong, but it is, of course, always easier to read it as is; without nuance, without willingness to partake in the dark, vampires remain the villains—lurking just around the corner, waiting to prey on our latent desires.

& this is why I think Twilight works so magnificently in the razor-thin venn diagram between Unholy Smut & Mormon Morality Tale: because while the very act of vampirism is sexy, it also lends itself brilliantly to cautioning against Unbridled Passion. (Or even sex before marriage: keep in mind, once you're bitten, you can never go back.)

2) Lady Masochism.

More potent, even, than the sexual shaming that these vampire tales can inspire is the bizarre brand of male-to-female nonconsensual S&M that seems to be at the core of the concept. While there are, of course, plenty of lady bloodsuckers stalking the fictional streets, the basis of the myth is in Sir Vlad the Impaler, & the predominantly male cast of True Blood, as well as the predominantly male Edward Cullen—& his predominantly male-attracted fan base—allow me to feel comfortable claiming that the Platonic incident of vampirism is between a male aggressor & a female who may or may not be wearing a flowing white nightgown.

Yes, indeed: the bodice has ripped, the fear-crazed maiden has fainted into the arms of the beast, he plunges his fangs into her lily-white neck—& somehow, she ends up satisfied, vampirized herself. She is quite literally converted into finding this previously undesired act pleasurable, left wanting to do it again & again. I don't mean to sound alarmist, but the traditional vampire myth reads not unlike those creepy, rape-y manga stories (or Ayn Rand novels), in which a woman is bound & forced to have sex, only to find that she Really, Really Likes It.

So, why on earth would such a story structure ever be so popular, you ask? Well, as far as I can tell, it provides assurance for the gentleman that his ladyfriend doesn't really mean it when she says no; those who fantasize about aggression can indulge more & more in the notion that they don't need to go through the song & dance of finding a consenting partner—that either way, once it's all over, she'll have enjoyed herself. Meanwhile, in a sexual culture that tends to count Unilateral Man-Pleasing as a basic foot in the door to any kind of relationship, sexual or otherwise, it's not too hard to believe that women would draw some comfort, some hope from watching a woman converted into enjoying a fundamentally unenjoyable act. It's the perpetuation of one of the great sexual myths, wrapped in a fun, gory package.

3) Mass-Produced Freaks.

Sex & violence aside, there is, I believe, a third piece to the puzzle—one that manages, of course, to trammel up Gaga in its wake: that vampires are freakish beings of counterculture, & that's currently seen as cool. As far as I can tell (having been a bit too young to process for much of the time to which I refer), there was a surge in the late-80s-through-90s of what I like to call the Paint-Splattered Revolution, in which Underdog Stories of Weird Kids Triumphing were a dominant part of young adult media. I can confidently say, at least, that after partaking in My So-Called Life, She's All That, Empire Records, Cry Baby, Pretty In Pink, Go—& who could forget Buffy the Vampire Slayer?—it became clear to me that having all of the attributes society told you were right was a fool's errand, that being blond & toting pompoms would only lead to a humiliating downfall; the goal became to Stand Out & Make Art—or, in a pinch, an Empowering Speech About Standing Out & Making Art. There is an extent to which, at least in the eyes of a generation raised on Freaks & Geeks & Mean Girls, the desirable state is now that of the Outcast—only in name, of course.

The only problem with this Everyone Is a Freak movement is that, quite simply, not everyone is; not everyone feels organically compelled to express themselves through bizarre clothes or artistic pursuits, & of those who do, only a small (& fiercely proud) percentage choose to appropriate the occult as part of their identity. I tend to think of a particularly excellent South Park episode, in which all four members of South Park Elementary's goth population express their utter horror at the stupidity of Hot Topic-slathered "vampire kids" who drink tomato juice like it's blood & come up with foreign-sounding names for each other. They recognize the hypocrisy—the commercialization, the trendiness—of this mainstream dip into their cultural niche & spend the episode being rightfully indignant when mistaken for the various poseurs.

& it's here that the inherent paradox reveals itself: once something becomes popular, it can't rightly be called Counterculture. As with the vampire/werewolf myths themselves, the very Otherness that makes vampirism so alluring falls away in its massification, leaving only bloodless rehash, empty symbols emptily miming.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Bela Lugosi's Dead—Bauhaus (as seen in The Hunger).

I'm sorry. I can't not. It's just such a damn good song—& this sequence is truly incredible. When I grow up to be a famous music video director, my first act shall be to make an homage.

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