The Coffin Is Closing On Vampires, At Least For Now

The recent renaissance has waned, but, as experts explain, the undead always reemerge when we need them most.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Alamy/Getty Images

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Vampires: mysterious, manipulative, bloodthirsty, cold creatures of the night or — as the last decade illustrated — our pretty teenage boyfriends. 

Throughout the late 2000s and 2010s, sparkly, “vegetarian” bloodsuckers made their way into the zeitgeist in the form of morally conscious “manpires” like Edward Cullen of “Twilight,” Bill Compton of “True Blood” and Stefan Salvatore of “The Vampire Diaries.” But how could a monster once seen as repulsive morph into something so beautiful?

According to experts, particular adaptations of the undead are conjured up as a way to address public needs and process not only current events but also social injustices. Whereas the 1980s and ’90s vampire craze — consisting of everything from “The Lost Boys” (1987) and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) to “Interview With the Vampire” (1994) and “Blade” (1998) — was thought to be fueled by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and “the forbiddenness of blood,” as podcaster and author Eric Nuzum noted to HuffPost, real-life crises led to this decade’s initiation of a more liberated vampire.

Nuzum, who studied vampire lore for his 2007 book, “The Dead Travel Fast,” said updated versions of these monsters cycle in when we don’t know how to confront something as a society or when we need to find a metaphor to help us understand a situation. In his view, the recent vampire trend was ignited by the financial crisis and perhaps sustained by the divisive nature of our political and social environments.

“In 2007 and 2008, we’re finding out about all this fiscal malfeasance and the inability of the government to protect us. The world was becoming a very scary place, filled with people who’ve done bad things. So we kind of leaned into the vampire ... a fantastical creature with supernatural powers who can confront the forces of reality,” Nuzum said. “Sometimes the most telling parts of the vampire story aren’t the vampire. It’s everything that happens around them. That’s where you really see the cultural knitting happening between reality and fiction.”

Since the literary phenomenon of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in 1897, vampires have been a fixture in popular culture. But as the 1931 “Dracula” film or the 1922 classic “Nosferatu” presented gothic horror tales about murderous nocturnal fanged monsters, the adaptations of the 2010s relied on relatable, humane vampires — who lounge in meadows and sparkle in the sun — to propel the genre. These iterations speak directly to people who feel like an outsider — be it through their sexuality, economic status, race or gender — and give them a character to relate to. 

John Edgar Browning, a vampire theory scholar and professor of liberal arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, told HuffPost “the vampires we saw with, and since, the Vampire Renaissance were, and are, more free to be.”

“I’m not saying that vampires today are gayer or more sexually liberated; it just matters less to us where they are putting their fangs,” Browning said. “Vampires are us, in a manner of speaking, so how we regulate them is how we regulate ourselves. Freer vampires ― and monsters ― are a sign of a healthier culture.”

When the HBO series “True Blood,” based on the “Sookie Stackhouse” books, premiered in 2008, for example, audiences were introduced to the progressive world of Bon Temps, Louisiana, where vampires attempted to exist peacefully among mortals thanks to a synthetic blood concoction called TruBlood. The vampire-human romance between Bill (Stephen Moyer) and telepathic waitress Sookie (Anna Paquin) explored abstinence and indulgence, while other relationships on the series dissected themes of sexuality, exclusion and intolerance. The show became somewhat of a fantasy allegory for the queer rights movement before it ended in August 2014, less than a year before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. 

“It took fiction to make the vampire palatable,” Browning said. “Whereas centuries ago vampires served as conduits through which we could express fear, in fiction they assumed the twofold role of fear and desire ― a different conduit for a different time. Today we’re still using vampires to help us express fears and forbidden desires, only now, more often than not, vampires are helping us fight fear and prejudice and liberate in others a host of desires that greater society is finally willing to accept.” 

If “True Blood” made the vampire digestible for mature audiences, “Twilight” gave young adults an outlet to express their own wants and needs. When Stephenie Meyer’s book series began in 2005, a mascot for the vampire boyfriends was born in Edward Cullen, a “fantastically beautiful” member of the undead who lives on animal blood and has the porcelain skin of a 17-year-old Nicole Kidman. “These are the vampires you can take home to meet your parents,” Taekia Blackwell, the chief operating officer of fan convention organization Mischief Management, told HuffPost.

Edward further entranced the adolescent demographic when the five-part film series premiered in 2008, starring Robert Pattinson as the stand-in for the pleasures and perils of teenage desire, a vampire who adamantly fights the urge to kill, and be intimate with, the one mortal he’s in love with, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Unlike “True Blood,” virginity is paramount in this made-for-tweens tale, but despite its conservative approach to sex, Nuzum noted that “Twilight” made that mix of fear and desire accessible to young girls who were “confronting the world as adult women for the first time and all the bullshit that comes along with it.”

“Real life is scary,” he said. “And you want to live in a fantasy place, even for a moment, that shows there’s a way above it and through it.” 

Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) of The CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” was another manpire who not only captured the attention of the YA audience but illustrated the drive to be and do better. Stefan, a character from L.J. Smith’s 1990s book series, fought every day to follow a moral code in light of his indelible lust for blood. He gravitates toward Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), a high school student grieving the loss of her parents, but his dark past as a “ripper” and “blood-a-holic” makes it difficult for him to maintain self-control. Although he tries to live on animal blood, he eventually steals blood bags from the hospital and spirals back into addiction. Still, his desire to protect Elena and her friends from his race ultimately outlasts his thirst for blood, making him one of the “redeemable” vampires of the 2010s.

“I think our modern pop-culture vampire just makes it a little less intense and more relatable,” Blackwell said of the allure of the ethical vampire and its rise to prominence. “The danger is lessened by the conscience.”

Illustration of Damon Salvatore, Elena Gilbert and Stefan Salvatore of "The Vampire Diaries." 
Illustration of Damon Salvatore, Elena Gilbert and Stefan Salvatore of "The Vampire Diaries." 

These stories clearly resonated with viewers, who were not only escaping the daily grind but also ingesting material that spoke to the larger themes of discrimination, hate and love. “True Blood” ran for seven seasons while “The Vampire Diaries” aired for eight. And moviegoers flocked to the theaters to see Edward and Bella fight for and defend their fanged family in dreary Forks, Washington. The final installment of the “Twilight” saga, “Breaking Dawn - Part 2,” made almost $830 million worldwide, and the film series as a whole garnered $3.3 billion. 

And we’d be remiss not to mention the countless vampire movies that came out in the 2010s, including “Let Me In” (2010), “Fright Night” (2011), Byzantium” (2012), “The Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013) and “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014). By mid-decade, audiences seemed to lose interest in the genre, with the Johnny Depp-fronted “Dark Shadows” (2012) and “Dracula Untold” (2014), starring Luke Evans, failing to get high marks at the domestic box office. The zombies of “The Walking Dead” and the dragons of “Game of Thrones” soon took over. Now witches are having their moment with shows like “Sabrina” and “Charmed.”

“Hot vampires are kind of like the skinny jeans of monsters. I wouldn’t say they’ve dwindled or disappeared, but they’re definitely not at the forefront of fashion or as talked about as they once were,” said Shanyce Lora, the senior marketing manager of Mischief. “Monsters really have cycles in pop culture.” 

Ian Somerhalder, who played Stefan’s morally conflicted vampire brother Damon Salvatore on “The Vampire Diaries,” is not giving up on the lore just yet. His new Netflix series fits into the overcrowded genre, but instead of focusing on glittery, wrinkle-free undead beings, “V Wars” addresses vampirism through climate change and revives scary, toothed fiends. Based on the comics by Jonathan Maberry, the series follows scientist Dr. Luther Swann (Somerhalder), whose best friend (Adrian Holmes) is a victim of a fast-spreading genetic mutation after a millennia-old bacterium is unknowingly exhumed in Antarctica. As far-fetched as it sounds, “V Wars” drops the romantic, kindhearted vampires ― or “bloods,” as they’re known in the show ― and focuses in on the social and environmental effects that exacerbate an epidemic. 

“Having done 171 episodes of ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ I acquired some skill sets that allow me to understand the genre in a really profound way,” Somerhalder told HuffPost during a recent Build Series interview. “This genre is amazing. It stands the test of time; it transcends generations and demographics, and it can be quite a lesson because, at the end of the day, vampires are the story of the outsider, the ostracized, the alone.” 

Similar to experts’ comments about international crises and their connection to on-screen iterations of vampire stories, Somerhalder explained that cancer is an allegory for his new project, which addresses tentpole topics such as diversity, disease and border control. If he had it his way, the actor, director and executive producer would want “V Wars” to come off as ”‘28 Days Later’ meets ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by way of ‘Walking Dead.’” 

“What happens when there are so many bloods that airlines can’t fly anymore?” Somerhalder said. “What happens when there’s a new mortgage crisis because the banking world is starting to fall apart because millions of people are sick? What happens when telecommunication companies can’t function? When society starts to fracture? These are all big, amazing thematics we can’t wait to tell.” 

The series premiered on Dec. 5, and audiences are responding well to its premise, but time will tell if it ushers in another wave of vampirism. 

No matter how oversaturated our cultural landscape may be with monsters today, they’ll never truly go away. Vampires will just rip those stakes out of their hearts, steer clear of holy water and adapt for a new time. Over the last 120 years, audiences have seen these beings go from pointy-eared goblins to chiseled Adonises. They have murdered innocent bystanders and tackled deer for nourishment. But again, these stories are not necessarily about the vampire itself ― they address larger themes that relate to the current struggles of today’s world. And that’s what keeps them relevant. 

“Vampires and zombies belong to that class of monster we call ‘the undead,’ and whoever could keep the undead down, for very long anyway?” Browning said. “A resurgence of fang and decaying matter is, I suspect, on the horizon ― who better to help fight bigotry.”

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