Pop Culture

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We turn our attention now to bloodsuckers.

(Soundbite of film clips)

Unidentified Man #1: I am Dracula.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm afraid I'm not as warm as the men that you must be accustomed to.

Unidentified Man #3: Do you still want that or have you tasted it enough? Without me, Transylvania will be as exciting as Bucharest.

BLOCK: For decades Americans have been fascinated with vampires on TV, the big screen and in books. They're enjoying a particular resurgence these days, thanks to the HBO series "True Blood" and the wildly popular "Twilight" books and movies. But look closely.

SIEGEL: Look closely and you'll notice that our vampires now are very different from, say, the vampires of the 1980s or even the 1990s. That's because they reflect who we are as a culture and have changed with us over the years. So, what is it about the spirit of the times that's making bloodsuckers so popular these days? NPR's Margot Adler has read 75 vampire novels in the last seven months, and she was ready to take this one on.

MARGOT ADLER: I'll get to why I ended up reading 75 vampire novels later, but let's back up. First of all, while vampires have been a constant of folklore, our modern notion of the vampire came out of a particular cultural moment in a chalet in Switzerland in 1816. There, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori were doing a kind of literary exercise. Whitley Strieber, the author of three vampire novels, including "The Hunger," says out of that moment came two things.

Mr. WHITLEY STRIEBER (Author, "The Hunger"): "Frankenstein" the novel and John Polidori's "Vampyre," which is the first vampire story in the English language, there's a reason that this happened. A shocking thing was occurring. Science was beginning to seem to be able to challenge the very nature of life itself.

ADLER: Since then, vampires have been used again and again as a way to speak of things people fear.

Mr. ERIC NUZUM (Author, "The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula"): It's almost this perfect empty vessel.

ADLER: Eric Nuzum is the author of "The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula." He's also NPR's director of programming and acquisitions.

Mr. NUZUM: If you want to understand any moment in time or cultural moment, just look at their vampires and that really tells you a lot about them.

ADLER: So, for example, take Bram Stocker's "Dracula." It was written at the end of the 19th century at a time when England had some of the largest ports in the world. And here you have a ship that's arriving from Eastern Europe bearing soil from another country and a plague-like person who's going to bring death and destruction.

Benita Blessing teaches modern European history at Ohio University. At that time, she says, people were concerned with foreign illnesses.

Professor BENITA BLESSING (Modern European History, Ohio University): With issues like unwanted immigrants. So, anything that might come into one of the world's largest ports is all of a sudden a big fear. This is exactly what Dracula is all about. It's all about the fear of what we might today call globalization.

ADLER: The famous Bela Lugosi film "Dracula" came out during the Great Depression in a time of great chaos.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dracula")

Mr. BELA LUGOSI (Actor): (As Count Dracula) There are far worse things awaiting man than death.

ADLER: Just as the surge of interest in vampires during the 1980s is usually attributed to the Cold War and spread of AIDS. That was the time of Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire" and Strieber's "The Hunger." Strieber says it was a period when people were waiting for something to go wrong as the Soviet empire was collapsing.

Mr. STRIEBER: Would they push the button in a desperate attempt to survive? And this kind of entered the unconscious.

ADLER: In fact, there were about four times as many vampire movies made in 1980 as 1990. It's almost as if when the Berlin Wall came down, there was just a lot less fear to write and think about.

But what about now? Kimberly Pauley has written an incredibly funny vampire book for teens that turns the genre on its head. It's called "It Sucks to be Me." She believes vampires are attractive right now because we're in a time somewhat similar to the Depression.

Ms. KIMBERLY PAULEY (Author, "It Sucks to be Me"): We're in a time of chaos. You know, vampires are immortal; they're not hurt by the, you know, goings-on of everyday life. They kind of stand above it. And I think that's probably the most appealing factor about a vampire is that no matter what's going on in the world around you, you're going to make it through.

ADLER: And full disclosure, that's probably why I ended up reading 75 vampire novels. I have a seriously ill loved one. And I've been spending a lot of time thinking deeply about issues of mortality - and even fantasizing what it would be like not to have to think about that.

But what I started noticing as I read all these novels and looked at all the recent shows is that the near-immortality of vampires is not the most interesting thing going on. Almost all of them are struggling to be moral. And while it's conventional to talk about vampires as sexual - drinking blood and so forth - most of these modern vampires are not talking as much about sex as they are about power.

Take this scene from the CBS show "Moonlight," which aired for only one season, ending in 2008. Mick St. John is a very moral vampire private eye. You know the basic American notion that we have laws to keep our baser instincts in check? Well, here Mick St. John is unsuccessfully trying to reason with a new violent rogue vampire by telling him...

(Soundbite of TV show, "Moonlight")

Mr. ALEX O'LOUGHLIN (Actor): (As Mick St. John) We have rules.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: There are no rules. I'm top of the food chain.

Mr. O'LOUGHLIN: (As Mick St. John) These are people. They're human beings. You used to be a human, remember?

Professor AMY SMITH (English, University of the Pacific): You know, we're at the top of the food chain. We get to do what we want versus, you know, we were human, how can you just treat humans as if they're cattle?

ADLER: Amy Smith is a professor of English at the University of the Pacific. Along with courses on Jane Austen and the literature of war, she teaches a course on vampires.

Prof. SMITH: For me the central question of so many vampire films and novels is: If you had power over other people, how would you use it? Which is why I think is why people keep going back to them, because that's the tension we have in life. If you earn more money than other people, suddenly you find that you have power. How will you use it?

ADLER: Power is a personal as well as global issue, says Smith. How do you treat someone you love?

Prof. SMITH: We're always asking ourselves: How should we behave? The core question stays the same: Does might make right?

ADLER: In "True Blood," the HBO series based on the "Sookie Stackhouse" novels by Charlaine Harris, vampires have become legal citizens drinking a form of synthetic blood. But that doesn't solve everything.

(Soundbite of TV show, "True Blood")

Ms. ANNA PAQUIN (Actor): (As Sookie Stackhouse) You don't like vampires even though you are one.

Mr. STEPHEN MOYER (Actor): (As Bill Compton) I am a vampire. I am supposed to be tormented.

ADLER: In this scene, Bill Compton, who was turned into a vampire after the Civil War, envies a young vampire teenager who does not have to confront an evil and violent past.

(Soundbite of TV show, "True Blood")

Mr. MOYER: (As Bill Compton) It's so different for her. When I was made, one had no choice but to live completely outside the human world as an outlaw, a hunter.

ADLER: Whether it's Bill Compton wanting to embrace his humanity in "True Blood," or the entire Cullen family in the "Twilight" saga, they're all struggling to be moral even though they are by nature predators. And who are we? Author Whitley Strieber says we humans are just a different kind of predator.

Mr. STRIEBER: Our prey is our planet.

ADLER: Today, he says the main fear isn't the Cold War or AIDS, it's ecological catastrophe.

Mr. STRIEBER: We sense that there's something wrong with the environment, that the planet itself may not be able to sustain us very long, and we are beginning to romance death once again.

ADLER: The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote recently: We are beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

Exactly. Maybe that's why vampires aren't really a fad, because except for that near-immortality bit, they really are us.

Margot Adler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can find an annotated list of the 75 vampire books that Margot read at our Web site, NPR.org.

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