“We want you to tell us about vampires.”
Simon grinned. “What do you want to know? Scariest is Eli in Let the Right One In, cheesiest is late-era Lestat, most underrated is David Bowie in The Hunger. Sexiest is definitely Drusilla, though if you ask a girl, she’ll probably say Damon Salvatore or Edward Cullen. But . . .” He shrugged. “You know girls.”
Julie’s and Beatriz’s eyes were wide. “I didn’t think you’d know so many!” Beatriz exclaimed. “Are they … are they your friends?”
“Oh, sure, Count Dracula and I are like this,” Simon said, crossing his fingers to demonstrate. “Also Count Chocula. Oh, and my BFF Count Blintzula. He’s a real charmer …” He trailed off as he realized no one else was laughing. In fact, no one seemed to realize he was joking. “They’re from TV,” he prompted them. “Or, uh, cereal.”
(Clare and Wasserman, “The Lost Herondale”)
Recently on the show Shadowhunters, geeky comic-book reading Simon Lewis (above) was savagely killed and transformed into a vampire. “Nerdferatu,” he calls himself snarkily. Before this, he was the heroine Clary Fray’s best friend – no competition for the smoking demon fighter Jace Wayland. But now that he’s a supernatural creature himself, he’s shed the glasses and started to muscle up. It’s possible he’s finally in the running. (Granted, most series fans have likely read the books and know where the characters are heading.)
Vampires are a universal fear, a monster from every culture’s folklore that rises from the grave to drink the blood of the living. The Assyrian and Babylonian Ekimmu, buried without the proper offerings of food, would feed on villagers, leaving entire families to waste away. There’s the Adze in West Africa, Jiāngshī in China, Sigbin in the Philippines, the Aztec Cihuateteo to the Aztecs, and Viking Draugr. They’re ugly, grotesque, violent, terrifying. And that’s how they started in Western literature and lasted for centuries.
The Gothic movement in England embraced Romanian vampires as a cautionary tale. John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) offered the ladies of Britain all they’d ever wanted. His vampire was brooding, gorgeous, and irresistible (most believe he was based on Polidori’s real-life patient Lord Byron). “Byron was, in the early 1800s, the equivalent of a badly behaved rock star. A born aristocrat, he was a magnetic rebel who traveled with a menagerie of animals and led a life that scandalized Europe. His public readings were sold-out events. He appeared at society parties, pale and dressed in black” (Steiber 73). The women of England couldn’t get enough. Lord Ruthven, as Polidori called his creation, was attractive and a power of fascination over his victims. Women ran to him and were seduced and eventually transformed. The hot vampire had arrived.
Dracula (1897) was the second big British vampire novel (published during the second big gothic movement). Once again, Bram Stoker’s vision of the nasty bloodsucker preying on Victorian ladies was perfect for the repressed readership. For them, the heroine in her white nightgown opening her window to get bitten and swoon in the monster’s arms was all they wanted to read. Only bad bad women would have sex, and having it would turn them into fallen seductresses who would then try to corrupt their too-perfect fiancés (like victim Lucy Westenra in the novel). Fanning themselves heavily, readers couldn’t get enough.
In fact there was a big attraction at the time toward the savage or the monster – the Bronte sisters’ famed Catherine and Jane don’t want to marry the proper, stately gentlemen – they want “savage” Heathcliff or Rochester. Though the two heroines of Dracula ally themselves with nice gentlemen, there’s still the lure of the forbidden, savage monster who wants them far more carnally.
By modern standards, Stoker’s Dracula doesn’t seem that alluring. He’s described as being a “tall old man, clean shaven, save for a long white mustache and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of color about him anywhere.” He actually has a large, bushy Victorian mustache and head of dense, curly hair with a gaunt, thin body. Lord Ruthven was pale with a “dead grey eye.” This trend of ugly, nasty monsters appeared in the early films. Cassandra Clare, author of the books behind Shadowhunters, writes:
The depiction of vampires as elegant and charming on film is a fairly recent one—in the classic Nosferatu, probably the first vampire film ever made, the titular vampire has repulsive, ratlike features and long dirty fingernails. Also his ears are huge. He looks like a cross between a rodent and the World Cup. If he was the vampire clamoring for Bella’s affections, she wouldn’t have any problem picking the hot werewolf.
(“Dear Aunt Charlotte” 124)
The famous Dracula film of 1931 made the character far more attractive. Bela Lugosi’s character was the exotic stranger, alluring and dangerous, a threat to all the maidens’ virtue. Once again, he sparked with viewers, this time in a time of financial bleakness when escape fantasies were paramount. He was the draw for moral women shut up in safe, proper families. Ellen Steiber reflects in her own essay on vampire evolution, “Tall, Dark, and … Thirsty?”
Dracula was on some level a reaction to traditional religious taboos against sex. That is, if you have sex before or outside marriage, you’re committing a sin. But if you have sex with a mysterious stranger who is literally irresistible and entrances you with supernatural powers, you can’t possibly be blamed for wrongdoing. You’re not responsible for your acts; you’re an innocent victim. While the nineteenth-century vampire might not have been handsome or what we think of as romantic, he enabled guilt-free fantasies of desire. (76)
Almost a century later, Anne Rice’s series introduced beautiful, angst-filled vampires. “The vampires of Interview are stylish bad boys who haunt the nights of antebellum New Orleans, feeding on the beautiful and lost. Oceans of lace spill from their wrists and they have attractive, pearly fangs. You get the sense they’re more afraid of leaving the house without perfect hair than they are of sunlight or crosses” (Clare, “Dear Aunt Charlotte” 125-126). Fearing damnation as they do, there’s some angst and certainly some romance – usually with the wrong person. Thus they evoke sympathy from readers through their brooding and lust for their very untouchability. Many were old-fashioned, emphasizing the repression and gentlemanly behavior of the Victorian and Gothic eras, with all desires and bloodlust locked severely away.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed, with gorgeous, brooding Angel and Spike, both of whom vowed never to murder innocents after their souls were returned to them and tortured themselves over the crimes they once committed. Their vampire forms are ugly with furrowed monster-brows and fangs, but they usually maintain their gorgeous human appearances, especially around their adored Buffy. She chooses neither of them, but they both appear the great loves of her life – far more than the angry human super soldier she dates between them.
Twilight for many teens was the culmination of the hot, repressed vampire. Edward is beautiful – his vampire form must be kept hidden because he is so dazzlingly sparkly, not monstrous at all. “Edward also happens to be so morally good that he verges on angelic. Yes, he certainly has his dangerous side, but Meyer keeps him so carefully reined in that he is, in fact, safer than any human teenage boyfriend could ever be” (Steiber 80). As another Victorian (or nearly so), he’s completely repressed, determined to never make the moves on the human heroine but devotedly keep chaste and run away before his desperate attraction to her and hunger for her overwhelm him. Stephen King explains:
In the case of Stephanie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up a safe kind of joining of love and sex in these books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”
(“Exclusive: Stephen King”)
Of course, Twilight saw Bella torn between stifled Edward and savage, angry Jacob, the teen werewolf. She motorcycles and behaves recklessly with Jacob, but Edward is the voice of caution within her, counseling her not to risk her life. “Werewolves are generally seen as masculine, testosterone-fueled figures, unlike their more foppish cousins, the vampires,” Cassandra Clare explains. Jacob is the forest dweller, the one who’s too passionate, too savage. He too is the product of centuries of literary evolution, from monsters to heartthrobs.
Before the European legends, Romans, Celts, and Norse each had their versions of werewolves, as did the Native Americans. In the French and Germanic traditions, lycanthropy was a type of reviled witchcraft, in which the magician would transform himself with a special belt or with ointments and become a wolf-human hybrid.From 1520 to 1630 in France, there were 30,000 court cases dealing with werewolves and witchcraft (Konstantinos 49). These trials, often recorded, all follow a pattern: children would disappear from a town and the murderer would claim he’d been killing and possibly eating them, while he was transformed into a wolf. The court would execute him, though as with the women executed in witch trials, there would be no real proof of the supernatural, only confession or hearsay.
The concepts that a werewolf bite could transform a person into a werewolf at the full moon mostly originate in the popular 1941 horror movie, The Wolf Man. This film also introduced the use of silver to repel the beasts as well as the half-wolf, half-man form seen in some popularized werewolves. Suddenly, doomed romance was also an essential element: “The Wolf Man presents the wolf as a tormented hero. He’s a human being who knows he can’t control his transformations into a monster,” Clare notes (“Dear Aunt Charlotte” 119). Larry, the Wolf Man, is transformed, thus dooming his love for the lovely Gwen until it kills him.
The ’80s offered werewolves consumed by human feelings. Their haunting portrayals in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Teen Wolf, The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and The Company of Wolves emphasized how handsome, virile, and angst-filled werewolves could be. These perpetuated the werewolf tropes from The Wolf Man until they became part of the lore. An American Werewolf in London has the hero transforming at night, losing his mind, and murdering innocents, all beyond his control. This is a film of torment for the helpless protagonist. Though he falls in love, he has no chance with his terrible disease. The Company of Wolves has the dark, compelling wolf teaching Red Riding Hood to devour Grandma and discover her own savagery.
The Howling, released in 1981, is notable not only for its advanced special effects but also for presenting werewolves as sexy and sexual beings. …But while they’re sexual, they’re not precisely romantic. One gets the sense that these werewolves aren’t much with the giving of flowers, or the long walks on the beach. Their sexuality may be natural, but it’s also brutal and abrupt, and one gets the sense that they’d be just as comfortable eating the heroine as making love to her. In fact, they may have some trouble telling the difference.
(Clare, “Dear Aunt Charlotte” 120-121)
In the film, the heroine Karen White flees a serial killer and finds herself among a band of werewolves. The story is a horror film, filled with savage violence, but also sensuality as the werewolves thrive far from civilization.
Becoming a werewolf was an adolescence metaphor – hair growth, emotional instability, new strength. Werewolves need repress nothing as their passions burst out of them. Thus as the fictional young man copes to adapt, many viewers fell in love. Teen Wolf starring Michael J. Fox is a more fun film as the hero, born a werewolf, is wonderfully delightful and attractive. “Lycanthropy in this version of events seems to have no actual drawbacks. It doesn’t make you bloodthirsty, savage, or driven to eat rabbits by the light of the moon. It just makes you hairier, zippier, and better at basketball and dancing to ’80s synth pop” (Clare, “Dear Aunt Charlotte” 122).
Thus the world of fantasy becomes split between angry rebel werewolves and effete, repressed vampires. Many modern series – Being Human, Underworld, True Blood – brought in both species, generally both smoldering with sexual heat. More interestingly, the vampires win. Twilight is the famous example, but the werewolves in Buffy and The Mortal Instruments go to the best friend rather than the central heroine.
The metaphor hasn’t always swung this way. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita chooses the passionate Spanish boy next door over the wealthy European doctor who offers to rescue her from her cruel family. Jane Eyre chooses dark, brooding, savage Rochester, not her well-mannered cousin. And who could forget Cathy’s passion for swarthy Heathcliff over repressed Linton?
In the days of Victorian repression and before, women confined to their homes dreamed of the smoldering gothic hero, dark and melancholy, who would tear them from their dull, safe princes. He might be the mysterious sheik, the evil vampire, the dark foreigner. Today, however, teens see too much brutality. The savage, all around us in our lives and on the news, has lost his savor. Girls are retreating to the safer Cinderella fantasy of their childhood. Fairytale adaptations are overwhelmingly popular right now, with a resurgence in young adult novelizations, movies, and television shows.
Each time, the heroine chooses the repressed princely good boy, the cultured cold vampire over the hot-blooded savage. Several recent young adult fairytale retellings echo this love triangle pattern. The Vampire Diaries, another series of angst-filled, attractive teens, has repressed, soulful Stefan fall for Elena Gilbert yet fall into competition with his malevolent older brother Damon. She transfers affection to the latter, but this relationship becomes truly destructive. Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) sees the Huntsman and Duke’s son competing for the heroine. One is a wild, unlettered son of the forest, the other polished and sophisticated. Snow White seems compelled by the duke’s son…though the Huntsman is the one to kiss her awake, muddling the triangle further.
Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck and its sequels (2010-2012) echo Twilight. Kelsey Hayes, a frustrated foster teen, finds a prince enchanted into the form of a white tiger. Together, she and Prince Ren quest through India to break the curse. The 300-year-old gentle prince Ren falls completely in love with Kelsey, though he competes with his savage brother Kishan, a black tiger. Kelsey relates:
Ren was like a fantastic jungle waterfall – sparkling and shimmering in the sunlight. He was an exotic paradise waiting to be discovered. Kishan was different. Kishan was a raging, grade six whitewater river – fast, unpredictable, and un-navigable to even the most skilled thrill-seekers.
Prince Ren dresses in white, with a carelessly buttoned shirt revealing “a smooth, well-built golden-brown chest” (86). Kishan “was very handsome, but in a darker, more swarthy way then Ren. His skin was antique-bronze, and his hair was ink black, swept away from his face and slightly curled” (194).
Kiera Cass’s The Selection (2012) retells Cinderella in a dystopian future. In something of a cross with The Bachelor, the pale prince chooses one special young lady from a chosen few. He adores feisty America Singer, the first lower class woman he’s met. While she once gave her heart to her impetuous childhood sweetheart, she finds herself preferring the noble prince over her old friend, who soon turns soldier. The Hunger Games too has Katniss prefer upper class, gentle Peeta over rebellious olive-skinned coal worker Gale. John Granger, like many literary critics, notes the similarities between Bella’s and Katniss’s boyfriends:
One of these guys is other-worldly handsome, intelligent, sensitive, artistic, sacrificial, and devoted. And chaste! The guy is a virgin and has never loved anyone the way he loves our heroine. He’s given to phrases like “always” and “forever” in statements of his love.
The other guy is a mensch, the out-doorsy type. No rocket scientist or saint, he can be a bore sometimes and say off-the-wall unkind things but you know he has your back in a fight and he lives for family and community.
– Gale is the body and the passions; he equates with the World and “how men think.”
– Katniss is the seeking heart, the animating life-force or soul;
– Peeta is the Divine Mind or spiritual reality; he equates with the Word and “how God thinks.”
Together they are a triptych of the human person – body, soul, and spirit.
Darker skin suggests the less-privileged race but also a tendency towards the outdoors and more active pursuits. The indoor prince is more sophisticated, more in touch with the spiritual and higher thought. The fact that every fictional teen is choosing the repressed, shut-in prince, not the rougher friend and neighbor suggests a desire for the man to whisk her into a finer world of sophistication and elegance – a Cinderella fantasy.
Sadly, returning to the Shadowhunters series, this means best-friend Simon is doomed, even if he has become a hot teen vampire. As the best friend who grew up with heroine Clary, who share her comics and classes, he can only offer her familiar fun. Her new boyfriend Jace, however, is devastatingly handsome with old-world charm. He plays the piano expertly and speaks dead languages, bows to her and gives her magical gifts. Jace is one of the Nephilim – an angel blooded demon fighter more repressed and aristocratic even than vampires. Simon with his manga and garage band doesn’t stand a chance. When Clary dreams of dancing with both of them at a ball, the imagery of the other series repeats. Simon is dressed in black, with “dark hair” and “lightly browned skin” while Jace is in white “and his hair and eyes looked more gold than ever” (Clare, City of Bones 161). Clary regards Simon as the good boy and Jace as the alluring bad one:
[Simon] looked like the sort of boy who’d come over to your house to pick you up for a date and be polite to your parents and nice to your pets. Jace, on the other hand, looked like the sort of boy who’d come over to your house and burn it down for kicks.
(Clare, City of Bones 213)
Jace has learned from a young age that “to love is to destroy.” Confronted with teen angst, a bad boy attitude, a pent-up refusal to fall in love, and gorgeous brooding, the teen heroine is captivated once again.
At the same time, after Simon’s transformation, the secondary heroine, Isabelle, seems much more interested. She’s already from the Shadowhunters’ world, and to her, Jace offers everything she already knows, a best friend and brother as Simon is for Clary. For Isabelle, it’s Simon who’s from another culture and now a vampire to boot. It seems the best friend may finally get the girl…
Want more articles like this? Check out Valerie Estelle Frankel’s book Shadowhunters & Myths: Discovering the Legends behind The Mortal Instruments here.
Clare, Cassandra. City of Bones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.
Clare, Cassandra. “Dear Aunt Charlotte.” A New Dawn: Your Favorite Authors on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series. Ed. Ellen Hopkins. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008. 117-128.
Clare, Cassandra and Robin Wasserman. “The Lost Herondale.” Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy. Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman. USA: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013. Kindle Edition.
“Exclusive: Stephen King on J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer.” USA Weekend 2 Feb. 2009. http://whosnews.usaweekend.com/2009/02/exclusive-stephen-king-on-jk-rowling-stephenie-meyer.
Frankel, Valerie Estelle. The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of The Hunger Games. USA: Zossima Press, 2013.
Granger, John. “Mockingjay Discussion 19: Shadows of Twilight.” Hogwarts Professor: Thoughts for Serious Readers. August 27, 2010. Blog Post. http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com.
Houck, Colleen. Tiger’s Curse. USA: Splinter, 2011.
Konstantinos. Werewolves: The Occult Truth. USA: Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd, 2010.
Steiber, Ellen. “Tall, Dark, and … Thirsty?” A New Dawn: Your Favorite Authors on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series. Ed. Ellen Hopkins. Dallas, TX: BenBella, 2008. 69-90.