Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Vampire awareness in October 2016

When Best Buy, the American multinational consumer electronics corporation, declared 30 October 2008 “National Vampire Awareness Day,” they were cannily exploiting a metaphor that, within Western culture at least, was over 200 years old. Here, though, the vampires to be arrested, staked, and vanquished were not the suave, velvet-cloaked aristocrats of Old-World Europe, but the electronics and electrical appliances of the ordinary, modern-American home: while suburbia relaxed, and slumbered in blissful ignorance, its computers, microwaves, plasma TVs, DVD players, cameras, and cell phones—all consumer goods peddled by the Best Buy corporation itself—were draining the nation of its electrical power. Silently infiltrating the domestic realm, these vampires had rendered the home “unhomely,” unleashing a dreadful force in suburban America that made “a trip to Transylvania” seem like a “tiptoe through the tulips.” The YouTube video has all the irony, and self-consciousness of a low-grade horror movie about it:

With electricity figured as the life-force, and the “standby-mode” as the sign of the undead, the campaign was a call to urgent action: to prevent these “creepy suckers” from “striking you where it hurts the most—your wallet,” appliances, and their chargers were to be unplugged, disconnected, and “defanged,” “phantom loads” carefully scrutinized, gauged, and conserved. As in so many fictional, and filmic vampire narratives, excessive consumption was the mark of monstrosity, economic prudence, and parsimony the sign of the human, but whereas, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), technology had proved the most reliable of vampiric deterrents, here it had turned alarmingly monstrous.

Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897 via Wikimedia Commons
Philip Burne-Jones, The Vampire, 1897. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Even in the support that it purported to offer for the conservation of electrical, and financial resource, Best Buy’s strategy ultimately remained one for the promotion of further consumption: “forget the garlic,” it urged, and visit your nearest store for further information, and advice— or at least another appliance, and a vampire-repellent Best Buy Power-Strip to accompany it! No “pesky fiend” but the naked monster of corporate capitalism, a bitterly ironic return of the vampire of bourgeois consumerism as metaphorically figured by Karl Marx in Capital: Critique of Political Economy (1867‒1883). Though well attuned to the irony, a number of fringe eco-awareness groups, including the online Green Living Guide, Ecorazzi, and Treehugger, welcomed the move.

Unsurprisingly, though, and despite calls for its reinstatement on Ecocentric, and in The Huffington Post in 2010, it is fair to say that National Vampire Awareness Day has not become the commemorative occasion that its devisers, in however playful a manner, intended it to be. Nonetheless, the very fact of its undead existence in the annals of consumer and internet history provokes what, at first glance, appears to be a very simple question: other than their centrality to the Halloween celebrations of the day after, “What does it mean to be aware of vampires on 30 October 2016?”

For the marketing team at Best Buy in 2008, vampiric awareness meant being mindful, vigilant, and forever on one’s guard against the draining effects of these unwelcome intruders. Here, the campaign deployed the cultural mythology of vampirism that, though of earlier provenance, had been popularized in the fictions of John Polidori, Sheridan Le Fanu, James Malcolm Rymer, Elizabeth Braddon, and Bram Stoker in nineteenth-century Britain, and tirelessly reiterated in global horror literature and cinema ever since.

Ernst Stöhr, Vampir, 1899, via WikiMedia Commons
Ernst Stöhr, Vampir, 1899. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A figure of absolute “Otherness,” be it the otherness of race, class, sexuality, nationality, or gender, the vampire was that which crossed the sacred threshold of the home, the body, the self, or the nation, wreaking havoc therein and contaminating all who dwelt there with its insatiable appetites, lusts, and desires. Although, like the electronic goods of Best Buy, the vampire was said to enter into these cherished spaces of the familiar only upon the acceptance of an invitation, the vampiric guest worked stealthily to undermine and displace the mastery of the human host, subjecting him or her to the part-painful, part-pleasurable consequences of parasitism. Vampirism in the Victorian period, as now, was primarily conceptualized as the perversion of the spirit of national hospitality. Such dangers, it was claimed, could only be eliminated by ruthless eradication: expelled, staked, burned, and decapitated, the monster was rendered functional in the reassertion of white, heteronormative, middle-class conservatism.

The effect of such progressive Anglo-American agendas as second-wave feminism, Gay Liberation, and the Civil Rights movement from the 1960s onwards was surely to challenge the firm distinctions between “self” and “monstrous Other” upon which the Western mythology of vampires had hitherto depended. In the work of writers such as Anne Rice, vampires became the objects of intense sentimental identification, melancholic, misunderstood Romantic outsiders who traversed a borderless world in search more of antidotes to their deep-felt sense of ennui than blood alone. Charged with delicious sexuality in the work of Angela Carter, Poppy Z. Brite and other writers and film-makers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, vampires were used to perform a range of queer desires, dismantling and rearticulating the heteronormative structures of the nuclear family as they did so. Our bodies, our desires, our selves: no longer as easily recuperable under the sign of monstrosity, racial difference and sexual deviance became in later vampire narratives the objects celebration, fascination, even fetish.

Francois Sagat in Blab La Zombie by Arno Roca, via WikiMedia Commons
Francois Sagat in Blab La Zombie by Arno Roca. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

To be aware of vampires in the late 1990s and early 2000s was thus in some senses to reflect on “how far we’d come,” believing, as Nina Auerbach did in 1995, that every age embraces the vampire it needs and deserves. Vampiric awareness, here, was barely distinguishable from self-congratulation, the smug paying of lip-service to the forces of modernization, progress, and liberalization. With rise of neoliberalism, national and economic boundaries, elements once so vital to the vampire myth, were gradually erased.

In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga (2005‒2008), vampires learned to sparkle, the once overly-sexualized figures of strange desires rendered functional of the interests of abstinence and control. In this, the post-millennial era, vampires have entered the boundless world of cyberspace, and thrive in the borderless literary-, filmic-, and media-worlds of globalization. And yet, for a moment at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seemed that the vampire’s ubiquity was in danger of being eclipsed by the swarming of another Gothic monster: in a post-9/11 world of global terrorism, it was the zombie, the vampire’s less sophisticated and attractive cousin, that seemed the most appropriate figure to condense and articulate Western culture’s fears of decline.

To return to our overriding question, though: what does it mean to be aware of vampires in late October 2016? The answer lies, partly, in all of the above. At its most fundamental level, to be aware of vampires is simply to acknowledge a figure that, of all species of Gothic monstrosity, has exerted the most powerful, and enduring grasp on the cultural imagination since the beginning of the nineteenth century. As mercurial as the bodies of those that it infects, the vampire has mutated effortlessly across time, space, and creative medium, and, as in the case of Best Buy, taken up metaphorical existence at the heart of language itself for anything that saps an entity of its resources.

But vampire awareness in 2016 is also, I would argue, the disquieting acknowledgment of the return in modern Western society of some of the conditions that made the Victorian mythology take effect, among them resurgent nationalism and the policing of the boundaries of the state and nation. What, for example, is Britain’s recent decision to cede from the European Union (“Brexit”) but a rearticulation of the same Europhobic anxieties over national purity and contamination that made Stoker’s Eastern European Count into the monster that he was? Are the Victorian period’s xenophobic fears of “reverse colonization” in any way different from the right-wing discourse on immigration today, or is it simply that the particular objects of those fears have changed? And the influx of migrants and the so-called “refugee crisis” in Western Europe: a replaying of that vampiric fear of old that, once they have been admitted, these guests are likely to pervert our hospitable gestures, making of us, their hosts, the victims of unspeakable hostility?

Building walls to keep the Other out, a relax in gun-control laws to make the Other more easily eradicable: though these and other signs of national anxieties over territory are all so familiar, contemporary politics is breeding a monster of an entirely different order. We watch in horror not as the shadow of the vampire appears on the screen, but as the new species of vampire-hunters sharpens its stakes, grimacing and gurning as it does so.

Featured image credit: ‘Vampire Children’ by Shawn Allen. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.