published Monday, September 28th, 2009

Bloodthirsty: Audiences drink up vampirism in pop culture

Academics say vampires represent death, sexuality and cultural uncertainty, but Bess Helton just thinks they're cool.

"I like it because it's got a lot of fantasy stuff and a love story," said Bess, 14, a self-proclaimed "Twilight"-ophile. "It's fun to read about vampires."

From best-selling teen romance series "Twilight" to HBO's "True Blood," vampirism is sinking its teeth into pop-culture audiences. The CW television network premiered "The Vampire Diaries" earlier this month. "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant," based on a novel by author Darren Shan, hits theaters next month.

So why are vampires so bloody interesting?

"Vampire narratives are adaptable to periods of anxiety," said Donovan Gwinner, who teaches a class called "Got Blood? Vampires in Literature, Film and Pop Culture" at Aurora University in Aurora, Ill.

Indeed Bela Lugosi earned immortality playing Dracula in the original film adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel at the height of the Great Depression. Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire" fueled sales in the 1980s when readers saw the bloodletting story as a metaphor for the AIDS crisis. Some have linked the current vampire phenomenon to economic uncertainty. The "Twilight" series also has been viewed as allegorical toward abstinence.

"We live in a sexual generation," said Jenny Mitchell, 30. "People are more willing to do things that they normally wouldn't do, and now you have a book out where a guy is saying 'I want to wait until we're married.' "

"Part of the appeal of 'Twilight,' " said Dr. Gwinner, "is the chivalric, courtly romance. It reads in a lot of ways like a Jane Austen novel, where the sexuality is very suppressed."

Historically however, he said, vampiric feeding has been a "sexualized exchange and assault." Sensual vampirism relates to the oral stage -- "an overt form of consumption" (bloodsucking), also a form of bodily penetration.

Phyllis Roth, an English professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said fascination with vampirism has always been related to fascination with death.

"We are the only creature that knows we are going to die, and there are those who argue that everything in culture is a way of trying to establish our immortality," she said. "But most of the vampire figures wind up bemoaning living for that long. It's a way of demonstrating that death is necessary. There is not immortality without sadness."

It remains to be seen whether writers like Meyer and Charlaine Harris (the "Southern Vampire" series upon which "True Blood" is based) will gain their own immortality. At this time, however, the undead have a strong heartbeat.

Two months before its opening, the movie adaptation of Meyer's second novel, "New Moon," has sold out more than 60 theaters.

Bess Helton, her mother said, already has tickets.

about Holly Leber ...

Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...

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