Interview With a Philosopher: On The Vampire

From gay rights, to domestic violence, to the morality of our food choices, vampires may after all have a lot to teach us about our humanity, as we see how we react to what we see them do.
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A few days ago, Stephenie Meyer released her new Twilight related book - Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. Next weekend, on Sunday, June 13th, we have the hotly anticipated third season of HBO's True Blood premiering, and just two weeks later, the third Twilight film release, Eclipse, happens. Yesterday, Rebecca Housel's new book on vampires and philosophy hit stores. We're in the midst of a perfect vampire-storm.

Rebecca Housel (at thinks and writes about vampires and philosophy, day and night - but especially at night - in two recent books from Wiley-Blackwell, Twilight & Philosophy: Vampires, Vegetarians and the Pursuit of Immortality (2009) and True Blood & Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You (just out). Housel's Twilight book has been published in seven languages to date, and she's voiced it for Amazon's, responding to the current vampire-mania. This of course raises an age-old philosophical question: Why? What's responsible for the sudden huge interest in vampire entertainment? And what are the main attractions for a philosopher? I recently had a chat with Rebecca about it.

Tom: Hi Rebecca. You've been very busy since writing an insightful essay for the book my son and I edited, Superheroes and Philosophy - and busy contemplating vampires, of all things. Why do you think vampires have had their recent meteoric rise in popularity?

Rebecca: Well, hi back, Tom. Good question. Similar to the post 9-11 surge in superhero films, people are looking for escapist entertainment that reclaims some sense of agency and power over the impermanence in life that's been so exaggerated in recent years with things like the situation in the Middle East, the uncertain global economy, and widespread unemployment in the States.

Tom: So you think vampires, with their distinctive immortality, have become symbols of power and control to many?

Rebecca: Yes, to some degree. The vampires of today, like Stephenie Meyer's vegetarian vamps who can live in the sunlight or L Jane Smith's characters who can do the same, make being one of the undead consequence-free, or at least free of the more awkward consequences of old. Dracula and older vampire counterparts, like Lestat de Lioncourt from Anne Rice's 1976 novel and the 1984 film adaptation starring Tom Cruise as Lestat, show a darker side to their immortal life that today's audiences have been spared.

Tom: Right, that's true. But some would ask, is it a bad thing? Philosophically speaking, coming to terms with all the consequences in life is extremely important, but this is entertainment, not a college class on existentialism. Some would ask: Why can't audiences have their cake and eat it, too?

Rebecca: They can. And they do. The problem really arises with what Jean Baudrillard called simulacra, artificial representations of reality that through pop culture mediums like television and film, begin to actually replace the real.

Tom: That's an interesting concept. Can you give us an example?

Rebecca: Edward Cullen. On paper, he's this romantic, protective boyfriend. But in reality, a good looking 100-year old guy digging on a 17-year old, who climbs through an unsecured window of her home to watch her sleep at night, is just a stalker of the worst sort. Vampires from Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries and Alan Ball's True Blood are equally deceptive. You have this young, pretty, blonde--26 years old--dating a guy from the Civil War era? Or, worse, in Harris's novels, a vamp who's a thousand years old? Not even Hugh Hefner could get away with that. I hope. And the violence in all these relationships too closely mimics domestic violence."

Tom: So you're saying that the recent obsession with vampires may feel empowering to some at a subliminal level, but might also be a kind of dangerous empowerment?

Rebecca: Exactly. Buddhists recommend accepting impermanence in life to get closer to enlightenment. But when the simulacra or artificial realities of pop culture get involved--we might begin to romanticize our own realities in a delusional way. Suddenly, nothing is impermanent when you're an immortal vampire, especially a vampire from today's pop culture. Maybe it becomes easier to excuse violent behavior. Maybe the idea of dying in order to live doesn't sound so crazy anymore....

Tom: That is indeed a scary thought. The value of human life with all its actual limits is something many philosophies discuss. Are the currently popular vampire stories playing any role in decreasing or degrading a sense of that value?

Rebecca: In my opinion, just like with rock music being blamed for suicides or video games being blamed for an increase in violence, vampires in pop culture today haven't had a causal role in the disregard for human life we see all over the world. But what is a concern is that some parts of the population are more susceptible to the simulacra than others--particularly the young girls who see Edward Cullen as the perfect boyfriend or life partner, or who see Bill Compton from True Blood as the ultimate Southern gentleman...with fangs."

Tom: So you see this particular fantasy as threatening to replace a robust sense of reality, then, in at least some readers and film viewers?

Rebecca: It's hard to resist. With True Blood, there are parallels between the vampires living as citizens after "coming out of the coffin" - which, of course, mimics the struggle for gay rights, like legalizing gay marriage. The difference is, vampires who are treated unfairly through legislation can act out against their oppressors with seemingly consequence-free violence via super-speed and strength. But what about the rest of us regular-folk? We can't exactly create a fake hurricane to cover up the murder of "bad" people who hurt us, and even if we could, what right would anyone ever have to make a judgment like that over another human life?"

Tom: Good point. So the fantasy of the vampire in popular culture has broader philosophical implications than just the problems of dating a really old stalker. It speaks to socio-political issues, too. Not to mention the more existential questions about the nature of the human condition. Being vulnerable is at the crux of our humanity. I'd imagine that as a vampire, vulnerability is practically non-existent, and that this has implications for behavior.

Rebecca: Exactly, Tom. In True Blood, there is a distinct difference between human morality and vampire codes of behavior. When you can live to be over 1,000 years old, where is the value in a human life of, say, 85 years? It seems, too often, there isn't. A good parallel might be how we feel about stepping on an ant or a spider. How many of us have existential angst over murdering a bug?

Tom: I, for one, tread carefully. But I get your point. And that's connected with the vegetarian issue, too. Why do we feel so qualitatively superior to all other species, even the highest "lower" mammals? To vampires, it seems, humans are "lower" mammals, too.

Rebecca: That's precisely it, Tom. The recent surge in vampires in popular culture is a great venue for studying a number of philosophical quandaries faced in the twenty-first century. Hopefully, we can learn a little something about ourselves while still enjoying the escapist entertainment of the undead.

Tom:From gay rights, to domestic violence, to the morality of our food choices, vampires may after all have a lot to teach us about our humanity, as we see how we react to what we see them do. Now that's something you can sink your philosophical fangs into. Well, not you Rebecca, but in the general sense, of course."

Rebecca: Of course.

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