From the Twilight series to works like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, we find ourselves surrounded by a new generation of vampires who in many respects are more or less just like us. Except that they are vampires.
In Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach observes that, “every age embraces the vampire it needs.” What, then, are our age’s current needs, and how does the latest vampire craze help satisfy them?
Actually, the apparent normalcy of these contemporary vampires isn’t new. In John Polidori’s seminal 1819 short story “The Vampyre” (a work, incidentally, that originated from an informal ghost story competition that also yielded Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), for instance, the vampiric protagonist is initially described as a nobleman whose “peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him.” Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 homoerotic novella Carmilla presents the eponymous vampire as a beautiful “young lady” with a taste for female companionship, while twenty-five years later Bram Stoker introduced Dracula as a gracious host and a charming conversationalist (albeit one who smelled disconcertingly of rotting flesh).
Underlying the seductive charisma of these nineteenth century vampires, however, is the shadow of disease. After the human protagonist of Polidori’s story first encounters a victim of a “vampyre,” he immediately falls into “a most violent fever, and was often delirious.” When Le Fanu’s young lady vampire is not delicately seducing the female narrator, she is ravaging the countryside and leaving in her wake a plague of deaths the townspeople attribute to a “mysterious disease” they call “oupire.” Dracula himself, meanwhile, is described in Stoker’s novel as someone “who can flourish in the midst of diseases that kill off whole peoples.”
These associations of vampirism with infectious disease have continued to haunt the genre up to the present day, and reach their apotheosis in recent films such as Danny Boyle’s vampire/zombie thriller 28 Days Later (2002) and the latest (2007) cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic 1954 vampire novel, I am Legend. Both works feature a scientifically-created virus that goes rogue, transforming its victims into crazed, bloodthirsty creatures hell-bent on annihilating humanity as we know it. These viruses are perniciously infectious, capable of being transmitted, vampire-like, by a bite, or even, as in 28 Days Later, by as little as “a single drop of blood.”
We find a rather different perspective on the link between (social) vampirism and (viral) infection, meanwhile, in recent Chinese works about rural blood-selling. In Zhou Xiaowen’s 1994 film Ermo, for instance, the eponymous protagonist is a rural woman who compulsively sells her own blood in an attempt to buy the largest color television in her village. In Yu Hua’s 1995 novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, the rural protagonist Xu Sanguan similarly begins selling his blood for the sake of his family, and continues doing so over the course of three decades, even as his understanding of his family is radically and repeatedly transformed.
When these latter two works were released, China was anxiously policing its borders against the threat of AIDS, even as the epidemic was already raging within the nation’s heartland. This domestic epidemic, furthermore, was driven primarily by rural blood-selling operations that pooled the blood of multiple donors, separated out the plasma, and then retransfused the remainder back into the veins of the original donors. The epidemic, therefore, was the product of a sort of social vampirism, though at that point neither the extent nor the mechanics of the epidemic was well-known.
In using representations of blood circulation to reflect on shifting attitudes toward both Western modernization and the nuclear Chinese family, Ermo and Chronicle unwittingly reveal the degree to which the “Western” threat of AIDS had already insinuated itself, vampire-like, into the heart of the Chinese “family.”
In light of these three perspectives on the relationship between vampires and infection, we may agains ask what, then, does our own enthusiastic embrace of the vampires of Twilight and True Blood tell us about ourselves?
For an age haunted by the specter of viral epidemics ranging from AIDS to SARS and H1N1, the superficial “normality” of these vampires reflects the general impossibility of knowing for certain who amongst us is potentially contagious. Similarly, the sublimated eroticism of the Twilight series and the commoditized blood of True Blood bespeak our own complicated negotiation of anxieties about sexual contact in the post-AIDS era.
Our embrace of these vampires, in other words, reflects our reflects our complicated ambivalence toward the very significance of a physical embrace.