By Madeline Perez
When I was 7, I wrote and illustrated a “book” about vampires. I know this because I was so proud of my book, in the post-coital haze of my creation, I thought other people would not believe a 7-year-old could possibly have written it, so I put my full name and age on the front in colored pencil. I love vampires. I love their cool teeth. I love vague Catholic gesturing. But this article isn’t about what I love. It’s about what I hate, and I hate what we as a culture have done to the vampire archetype: used and abused for decades, wrung this way and that, only to be discarded in disgust like when you sneeze into a tissue and you realize you must be sick because green came out (and yes, it did dance because you put a little boogie in it).
We have witnessed the rise and fall of many-a horror subtype empire; think back to the Zombie Craze (an apocalypse, if you will) from the late 2000s to the early 2010s… which is a fancy way of saying 7 solid years of virologist representation and 14-year-old girls fangirling over Norman Reedus’s “Daryl” even though he didn’t exist in the comics and is literally a Mary Sue (JK don’t send me death threats). All at once we had World War Z, I am Legend, and who could forget The Walking Dead and the communal experience we all felt watching something amazing die very, very slowly over the course of 12 years. (Dear 28 Days Later, you don’t fit into my time frame generalization, but you’re my favorite child.)
You have to ask, when we feared zombies, what were we really scared of? Um, I don’t know, maybe the fact that the first iPhone just came out and there was an underlying discomfort that the youth would forgo autonomy in lieu of becoming mindless drones who can’t stop playing Flappy Bird? Also, consumerism. Also, the fear of an upcoming global pandemic that would propel us into “unprecedented times,” which was a little too ‘on the money’ for my tastes. (I would be remiss not to mention the Planet of the Apes Reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which also played on collective fears of a viral pandemic during the same period the zombie movies were peaking. This is reminiscent of how the original 1968 Planet of the Apes played on collective fears of nuclear annihilation, a conflict respectively relevant to that decade. YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! God damn you. GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!) But I’m not actually here to talk about zombies, though my Walking Dead Comic Analysis will eventually be written on the subway walls (and tenement halls). Let’s get back to the program.
Okay, so what the hell does any of this mean? Long story short, if you want to know what a country fears, look into their horror; the plot of Godzilla doesn’t just walk out of the ocean, it drops on you like some sort of nuclear bomb. Vampires used to carry much more cultural weight and I’d argue that we saw our most popular “vampires as horror” movies during the late 80’s, early 90’s, with The Lost Boys, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and, of course, Interview with a Vampire. There are tons of movies I haven’t seen that I’m sure you’re screaming at me through this article, but frankly, I can’t hear you. What’s important is that, like how zombies were used to reflect fears of losing one’s intellectual identity, vampires have been historically used to reflect fears of losing one’s humanity and giving in to “overindulgence.” For those of you who haven’t gotten it yet, that’s why vampires hate the sign of the cross, charity, and Joan Osborne’s sentiment, “What if God were one of us?” This also explains why Vampires going from “scary” to being “smexy” (comparative: smexier, superlative smexiest) (colloquial, slang) was not only trendy, it was the natural progression of their character.
Speaking of vampires being smexy, let’s unpack the Twilight series. In 2008, the first movie hit theaters and there was a huge cultural shift resulting in the deaths of millions, I think. Very quickly, vampires as a concept were not taken seriously at all. This is often a trend when pre-teen girls commit the crime of “liking things.” Not even a year later, The Vampire Diaries premiered and, while not nearly as influential as Twilight, still gets props for jumping on that bandwagon. The “overindulgence” of vampires, so long a wealth and class allegory, was now the perfect template for a strained premarital sex metaphor: “I want to so bad… but I can’t, or else God will be mad at me… does this make me a monster?” I can’t begin to highlight all the similarities. Struggling to resist biting (penetrating) someone’s neck(…) and risking releasing your “venom,” which would lead to some permanent consequence that would simply be disastrous for the bitee. But that risk is exciting, isn’t it? (I’m sincerely asking, I was too busy re-reading Twilight to do any normal teenage shit). (Also, biting necks is already a sexual thing, sorry if I’m the first person to tell you.)
Sooo… that brings us to around the mid-2010s. Vampires are now widely hated for being sparkly and having brooding teenage horny angst. And what do you do when something is widely hated…? That’s right, you make fun of it. And this was during some of the golden age of parody content, mind you. (Do you have any idea just how many Call Me Maybe parody songs were on YouTube in 2012? DO YOU??) Parody movies came out, books were published, MAD was going HAM with Twigh School Musical and The Big Fang Theory, and “still a better love story than Twilight” was captioned in impact font on every picture of OJ Simpson and his ex-wife. Finally, in 2014, the What We Do in the Shadows mockumentary was released and really solidified the idea that vampires were no longer scary or sexy, they were a joke. Even years later, when Morbius kept trying to come out of the serious-vampire-movie closet, everyone kept taunting “It’s Morbin’ time,” until the movie was delayed 6 times! Shame on you! (This may be false information as reviewed by many fact-checkers.) In one last ball-check to the vampire genre, the horror-comedy Renfield came out half a year ago and was neither a horror nor comedy. It just was.
With no more monsters to be taken seriously, where has that left the horror/thriller genre? Well, it’s suffering, to say the least. And let me be clear, I am talking mainly about horror that’s been popular in America, as a lot of Asian horror remains at the top of the game even in recent years, with Incantation and The Call to name a few goodies. Sure, there are good movies that come out here and there, but where is the cultural shifter? The most well-known horror movies of the last decade do not deal with monsters, they deal with concepts instead. The Babadook is a metaphor for dealing with grief and depression. (Also, he’s gay?) It Follows is a metaphor for dealing with sexual assault. And those are both almost 10 years old at this point. The best recent horror movie I can think of was Smile, and again, another monster made from a thinly-veiled metaphor for mental illness. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Right now society would like to talk about mental health instead of creating a monster that’s scary in its own sense.)
Get Out is probably the most popular recent psychological horror I can name. Again, the “monster” is a concept, but this time the concept is more nuanced than just “dealing with mental illness is scary.” Themes of racism, control, and manipulation under the veil of benevolence were explored in just an incredible way. Faster than you can say “class conflict”, social issues were at the forefront of horror once again as Parasite became intensely popular. One pandemic later, and we cannot stop the flow of horror movies whose main concern is to satirize the rich, but there is one huge problem. When the victims of your movie are hateable rich people, it stops being scary and is instead satisfying, which is just great for the black comedy genre, I’m happy for her, but isn’t really adding anything to help the horror genre grow. How am I seriously supposed to identify with the terror of The Menu when I don’t even own a yacht? If only there was a way to combine class struggle and horror!!
That’s right! Full circle babey!! There IS a way to combine class struggle and horror! Think of those overindulgent yuppies doing coke off their Teslas, literally sucking the life out of the lower class. Those self-image-obsessed women with their small, rat-like dogs, seemingly only concerned with preserving their youth. Think of those huge, castle-like mansions—their men, rotting away, never a day of labor in their life, hoarding their wealth! Old money! Pale skin! The abuse of virgins! (That one is a little too real.) For centuries, the vampire was a metaphor for injustice and exploitation, and now, in the POST-COVID SOCIETAL RIPTIDE that is capitalism critique, no one wants to talk about vampires! Except me, right now!