Our Holiday Gothic series takes a look at the darker sides of celebrations throughout the year. In this Valentine’s Day post, Sophie Haywood investigates the recent trend of vampires as YA romantic heroes.
The vampire has long been a key figure in Gothic fiction, but its transformation into romantic hero is a fairly recent phenomenon. The past two decades have seen vampire boyfriends become staples of the YA fantasy genre, and these fanged heart-throbs hold a special place in the cultural landscape of the teenage girl. The meteoric popularity of the Twilight Saga highlighted the attraction of the undead romance; this was a genre-defining moment that forged the path for many of its successors, including TV adaptations of The Vampire Diaries and True Blood, where vampires were the central love interests. But what is so appealing about figures which are, technically, nothing more than reanimated corpses? What separates them from zombies, their obviously abhorrent undead kin? Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to attempt to understand our collective fascination with perpetual seventeen year olds.
A Brief History of the Vampire
Vampires originated in Eastern European folklore around the late seventeenth century, often described as disgusting corpses who fed on the essence of the living. They were usually bloated with blood, frightful to behold, and dealt with by a swift stake to the heart as they ‘slept’ in their coffins during the daylight hours. These walking corpses were reviled, omens of evil which were the least likely candidates for romance. Eventually these stories made their way to Germany and England, where they began to mutate. One of the first vampires to possess a certain allure was Lord Ruthven, created by John Polidori and based on Lord Byron. The Vampyre follows his sinister interactions with society women, who fall prey to his aristocratic charm and superficial good looks. But Polidori does not present him as sympathetic, and he retains vestiges of the monstrousness seen in earlier folklore. Perhaps one of the most famous vampires, Count Dracula, was penned by Bram Stoker a few decades later. His sharp fingernails and hairy hands were decidedly unsexy; he was also noticeably older, reminding readers he was indeed an ancient creature at home in his dusty castle. His relationships with women were entirely predatory, reliant on a trancelike state that they are horrified to learn about when in their right mind. None of the vampires thus far have been particularly attractive, certainly nothing to inspire the fervent clamouring of teenage girls.
The twentieth century saw a few iterations of ‘sexy’ vampires – Interview With a Vampire’s Lestat and Gary Oldman’s Dracula are two notable examples. Enter Edward Cullen. He is the quintessential vampire boyfriend: described as angelically beautiful and forever-seventeen, with the brooding, angst filled attitude to match. The tortured soul/perfect gentleman combo was a winner for young women, who were devoted in their love for him and made Stephenie Meyer a multimillionaire as they ardently followed his love story with Bella Swan, the Twilight Saga’s narrator. I was, and still am, a huge fan of the series – its romanticisation of these mythical creatures was ‘like my own personal brand of heroin’ as a teenager. Edward was a version of the Byronic Hero, a figure who possessed mystery and charm in equal measure. But there was something decidedly potent about mixing this particular literary archetype with the lethal vampire.
To be in love with a vampire was tantalising but, more importantly, to have that vampire be in love with you was powerful. The vampires of YA fantasy romance are presented as ultimate predators; their lethality is emphasised through feats of incredible strength and dizzying speed, marking them as physically superior to humans. These same vampires are nearly always at the mercy of the teenage girls they date, loving them so fiercely that they are willing to go against their very natures. Their love is usually supernaturally heightened by their mythical state, capable of enduring eternally because they are immortal, and driving them to protect their lover with an arsenal of superhuman gifts. These observations go some way to explaining the love story between young women and vampires. The promise of forever and the implication that the love of a mythical creature meant you were ‘special’ was a fantasy teenage girls could lose themselves in. It also offered the possibility to possess ultimate strength, being transformed by your inhuman, permanently gorgeous boyfriend. The vampire, like the teenage girl, occupies a liminal space; they are neither living nor dead, the teenage girl is neither child nor adult. But where the teenage girl may experience her subject position as uncomfortable, the vampire, in all their immortal superiority, offers a solution to this discomfort.
The Zombie Problem
The vampire can thus be read as the teenage girl’s kindred spirit, trapped as they are in a liminal space. Their status as ‘undead’ reads instead as ‘immortal’, eschewing the more unpleasant side effects of death. Zombies, on the other hand, are not granted this same privilege. Their decay is obvious; their bodies rot, they proclaim themselves as walking corpses who feast on flesh, not blood, devoid of anything like humanity. There is nothing romantic about a partner who cannot feel or think, who would effectively cannibalise you to sustain themselves. Blood drinking can be sensual, an exchange of bodily fluids which often codes for sex, and is usually depicted as rapturous for the recipient of the bite. Tearing chunks of flesh from your girlfriend hardly has the same appeal. The 2013 film Warm Bodies tried to position the zombie as romantic lead, but his whole arc relied on love returning his humanity and effectively curing his zombie affliction. The monster becomes mundane, and the flow of mortal life resumes.
Edward Cullen defined a genre, creating a new archetype for romance. It was not enough to love someone; that love must be supernaturally enhanced, overcome bloodlust, and promise forever. His desire to love Bella Swan overcame his desire to kill her and drink her blood, transforming the vampire from base monster to tortured anti-hero. Such a high-stakes, intense romance was a cultural phenomenon, proving that the perfect Valentine is one who can never die.
Sophie Haywood is a recent MA graduate from the University of Sheffield’s School of English. She plans to pursue a PhD focussing on femininity and the ‘Twilight Saga’, and hopes to affirm the importance of teenage girls and their desires. She is definitely Team Edward!