“Twilight” grossed $138 million worldwide as of this past weekend and HBO’s True Blood has become the network’s biggest hit since The Sopranos. It may be time to shroud the TV in garlic–vampires are back in a big way.
Vampires are a Rorschach test for our sexual sensibilities—”[N]o writer, from Bram Stocker on, has captured so precisely what sex and longing mean for a young girl,” Caitlin Flanagan writes of novelist Stephanie Meyer, on whose series of books the film “Twlight” is based. But the comely undead have also historically represented a rejection of faith – as religious outsiders, as evil spirits, and even as the devil incarnate in some cultures. Modern-day vampires have evolved with the times, though, representing a struggle with faith rather than a rejection of it.
They have always been “extraordinarily elastic metaphors” Adam Sternbergh observes in a recent New York magazine article.
“A werewolf represents our subdued animal instincts,” Sternbergh writes. “Zombies stand in for mob psychosis. Frankenstein gets trotted out to represent technology versus mortality. And vampires — well, they can represent pretty much everything else.”
Considering that they’re trying to hit this moving target, it’s no surprise that the media continue to miss the mark on the current vampire zeitgeist. But by simply musing about the kaleidoscopic qualities of modern-day vampires, critics are missing a chance to sink their teeth into some serious writing about how an age in spiritual flux deals with its aspirations and anxieties.
Of all the recent vampire narratives, HBO’s True Blood, based on the “Southern Vampire” series of books by Charlaine Harris, most clearly illuminates the connection between our fascination with the undead and the current religious climate in this country. The opening credits in the show makes an explicit link to religion, with a montage that pans from a woman being baptized in a lake in one shot, to a burning cross, to a woman half-naked in lingerie in another.
In the hands of True Blood’s creator, “American Beauty” auteur Alan Ball, the toothy trope takes shape as an allegory on contemporary queerness–vampires “come out of the coffin” and push for a “vampire rights” amendment that causes uproar among Christian rights groups.
In a recent New York Times article, Alan Ball explicitly ties the resurgence of the vampire to contemporary shifts in attitudes around homosexuality: “Certainly it’s very easy to look at the vampires as metaphors for gays and lesbians…But it’s very easy to see them as metaphors for all kinds of things. If this story had been done 50 years ago, it would be a metaphor for racial equality.”
Importantly, Ball isn’t choosing to imagine a world without faith; instead he creates a troubled world awash with equally troubled expressions of faith – a clear parallel to modern-day America – and ratchets up the tension between religious groups and the vampires in the show.
With all of this primal emotion in play, it’s no surprise that True Blood can be shocking, and Ball works to keep his storytelling graphic and visceral. In one episode, a character undergoes an exorcism and is freed from her “demons” as she writhes and convulses next to a spiritual healer in the back woods of Bon Temps, Louisiana.
A recent Beliefnet blog post describes the hyperventilating storylines in the show as “bordering on the depraved,” yet these dramatic religious themes are inevitable at a time when millions are eager to de-mystify the occult and former “fringe practices” like Pentecostalism are now at the cultural and political center of society.
In one response to the show, Salon.com TV writer Heather Havrilesky has no patience for what she sees as overworked religious themes lurking in the shadows of Ball’s creation. She finds a better representation of current religious sensibilities in the vampires and the misfits that than in the holy-rolling antics of the characters who oppose them.
“Enduring the terrible Southern accents on this show is bad enough,” Havrilesky writes, “without a clichéd herd of Bible-thumping fundamentalists to drag us through every worn-out stereotype in the book. The nice thing about Sookie and Sam and Tara and Bill, after all, is that they’re new to us. We’re not sure what drives them or what they’re capable of just yet. In contrast, those old familiar saccharine smiles and cries of ‘Praise Jesus!’ are just a few clicks away on TBN at all times. To most of us in this country, evangelical Christian shenanigans are old news. When it comes to the second season of this sultry, suspenseful vampire tale, let’s hope Alan Ball sticks to some fresh blood.”
But it is precisely Ball’s coupling of left-coast curiosities and square-state fervor that makes True Blood such a useful mirror for our times.
Ball has found something revelatory in vampires – a potent kind of magic that Anne Rice, that most famous chronicler of vampires, has now rejected. Rice, who describes her rediscovery of conventional faith in Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, decided that there’s no room for her old friends in her new life.
“[Vampires] represent a world without faith,” Rice declares in New York magazine, “a world in which alienated souls are wandering in the darkness, and that’s how I felt all those years when I was without faith. And I don’t feel lost anymore.”
Though Rice seems to believe she was faced with a choice between a heretic’s sense of alienation and the feeling of security that often comes with an assent to orthodoxy, Ball succeeds at depicting a world of spiritual ferment where entirely new configurations of belief can emerge. That’s what makes his show so satisfying—and that’s also why the metaphor of the vampire is a good pointer for cultural observers who are eager to know which way religious trends are heading.