Though I would never characterize myself as being vampire obsessed, I have to admit that for some reason, tv, movies, and books about the bloodsucking undead have caught my attention. Within the last year and a half, without particularly meaning to, I’ve immersed myself in the vampire genre. I’ve watched Nosferatu, read Kostova’s The Historian, watched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, read the first Twilight book and watched the first movie, and just finished reading Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. As anyone will tell you, vampires are “in.” It’s easy to write off the trend. All it takes is a few dismissive haters overly belligerent in their Twilight hate, and suddenly the whole genre of vampire fiction is reduced into something infantile – something for preteen and teen female readers (and soccer moms) who are sexually repressed and find subversive but harmless pleasure and release in the eroticism of vampires.
But that explanation of why vampires have caught the public imagination is far too limited, and, quite often, misogynist. The the assumption that only horny women, and more definitively, girls, find vampires interesting genders the genre, allowing it to be swept to the periphery of art and culture. It threatens to make vampire fiction the same as chick lit, setting it aside with its own constraints as if readers interested in vampires require a little playpen to keep them both contained and safely left to their own devices.
Yes, vampires and eroticism go hand in hand, but eroticism is only really a subset in the service of a larger theme, one that seems impossible to divorce completely from the vampire genre: existentialism. Every bit of art within the vampire genre looks at creatures who are immortal and asks the most mortal question of all — what makes life worth living?
Vampires become the perfect test subjects for how a person finds meaning in life. Why?
1) They can conceivably live forever, so they can explore the subject forever;
2) They are cut off from any god (can’t touch crosses, are unholy, etc.) and so have to come up with their own code of living;
3) They have an insider’s view of evil and must therefore question the constructs of morality; and,
4) Without fear of death, they cannot fall back on the idea that their death will inherently give their lives meaning.
Thanks to these characteristics, the vampire, a supremely supernatural creature, basically becomes like the uber-mortal. A vampire has to battle with the same existential questions we all do, but forever and with more potential for despair since a vampire lives long enough to keep being disillusioned. Without the mortal idea that we should make the most of life because we’re fated to die soon anyway, for vampires, living cannot be just going through the motions, but must become a deliberate choice. They must find a worthwhile reason for living in the face of the absurdity of life and justify their existence.
Two vampires who exemplify the existential nature of the vampire genre are Louis from Rice’s Interview and Angel from Wedon’s TV show. Louis utters one of his most memorable quotes when he’s trying to justify why he lives the way he does – with a conscience, though he is supposedly damned and has no need of one. He says:
“What constitutes evil, real evil, is the taking of a single human life. Whether a man would die tomorrow or the day after or eventually… it doesn’t matter. Because if God does not exist, then life… every second of it… Is all we have.”
What does this mean? That if there is no afterlife and no god, than there is no greater purpose than ourselves. Without gods, we are our own gods making our own individual religions, so it follows that killing someone is like killing a god in itself: it’s deicide. We make our own meaning – kill someone or yourself and you’re killing a whole worldview – snuffing out the god, the adherents, and the priests all at once. That’s pretty serious.
Angel explores the same idea in Epiphany and repeats it throughout the show when he says, “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” Again, the idea is that if you strip away the idea of an afterlife and god, all that’s left is the life we live on earth. Our lives become supremely important because there is nothing after. The mundane becomes the divine.
The eroticism present in vampire fiction that people like to make fun of is part of this idea. If there is no divinity and nothing sacred, then the temporal becomes both divine and sacred. Beauty, art, human emotions, nature…these fleeting things take on more importance when one takes away the idea of a ‘greater purpose.’ As Existentialism for Dummies cleverly puts in when explaining how Anne Rice’s vampire novel fits with the philosophy, for a vampire who will not die, “there is nothing beyond the temporal, the eternal is the temporal, only longer.” Therefore the common theme in vampire art of the erotic – momentary attraction, beauty, and physical desire – which is quintessentially temporal, is not something to be dismissed as trashy chick lit “garbage.” It’s part of the philosophical conundrum that existentialism explores. When there is no greater timeless meaning, the things we experience in our everyday time on earth are the best we’re going to get.
Is this post an apology for the vampire genre or its alleged hordes of insipid fangirls? No. I’m not saying that people obsessed with vampires are drawn to them because they bring up existential questions and promote self-reflection. Far be it from me to tell people why they like things they like, but I take umbrage with the blanket dismissal of all things vampire and the sexist assumption that it’s “just girl stuff.” Perhaps it’s not wrong to call the genre angsty, but not in a dismissive way; instead the term should be used in all its existential context. Angsty with all the force behind it of Nietzche, Kafka, Kierkegaard, and Sartre.