Loving the Undead

July 30, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but, if you’re a woman, loving someone who also happens to be undead has become quite the rage. Recent articles in The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly and, yes, even AskMen.com have written about this strange trend in popular culture and fascination (or, as the Twilight soundtrack would have it for no apparent reason, “phasination”) with vampires, zombies, werewolves, and even reborn mummies. Clearly, much has been said about this from the cultural perspective, but what about from the literary perspective? If nothing else, surely loving the undead is a literary transgression!

Examples abound of this trend, going back to Dracula and spreading through Ann Rice, Harry Potter (see Lupin and Tonks), some books I just discovered called the Casa Dracula books (combining two obnoxious trends: chick lit and vampires!), and most obviously the Twilight Saga. (Sidebar: Can anyone explain why those Stephanie Meyer books became a “saga” instead of simply a “series”? “Saga” seems so needlessly grandiose for them. If Lord of the Rings doesn’t use the word “saga,” and it is certainly a group of books that could rightfully do so, then I think all others should lay off. Especially if your books are about teenage/vampire angst.) So what is it about this theme that makes it so appealing to authors and, perhaps more importantly, to readers? Is it really so very appealing to have your lover be a) undead, b) immortal and c) constantly tempted to kill you?

I recently read a book about mistresses and their married lovers that made the argument that it takes a particular personality to carry on an affair. According to the book, the chief characteristic of this personality was its need for thrills and its love of gambling a little, taking some risks in life. While the book itself was more than a little ridiculous, I think this argument is valid and very relevant to the trend at hand here. In everyone there are various levels of adventure-seeking and desire to take a few risks. While some are willing to actually act on these desires by entering into a risky affair, gambling large funds at casinos, or going sky-diving, I think the majority of people are entirely more inclined to read about people who do those things. And reading about loving the undead is a perfect example of this.

As the Times article argues, there are things that are undeniably attractive and sexy about vampires (their beauty, their power, etc.). But no sane person would want to be with someone who could at any moment succumb and kill you. But the idea itself–the risk of being in love with a vampire, in that dangerous and unpredictable situation–can be very appealing and serve as some form of escapism. People who would not ordinarily embark on a dangerous relationship conversely love to read about doing so. Reading about people who fall in love with dangerous beings like werewolves and vampires can be a pleasantly vicarious experience and I think this sort of wish on the part of the reader that s/he were perhaps a little more risky in his/her life can account in large part for this sudden surge in books about loving the undead.

So what do you think? Is it just, as the Times put it, the “decadent sexuality” of vampires that makes people love them or is it something more escapist? I personally think people like to be private literary transgressors, by which I mean they like the read about doing transgressive things rather than doing them. Loving the undead has the double plus that you can’t feel guilty about preferring to read rather than do (unlike some real-world risky thing like sky-diving). Where is one to find a real vampire to love anyway? You won’t and you wouldn’t want to anyway, so you don’t have to worry about not doing it. It’s the perfect literary transgression and escape from the boring old non-vampire world.


Entry filed under: Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy, Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  July 30, 2009 at 8:33 am

    Oooooh, ‘decadent sexuality’! Excellent phrase!

    I have to say, I did not see the appeal of Dracula as an undead lover, but I suppose the vampiric women were really the sexual creatures in that novel (though not nearly in such a positive light as recent vampires).

    Escapism sounds about right as a reason for the odd surge of immortal lovers in literature recently, but as escapism is such a broad term, it seems like there would be some more specific reason, doesn’t it? Not that I have any idea what it is that’s causing this sudden necrophiliac urge, but I’m sure it has something to do with the economy or some other societal factor. Or we can blame that, anyway.

    Love this post!

    • 2. Corey  |  July 30, 2009 at 9:15 am

      Yeah, Dracula. So not dreamy! ;)

      And you right that there must be some reason for the recent and sudden love of vampires/zombies/etc beyond mere escapism. Perhaps you are correct that because of the recession, people want more escape and fantasy than they would were the economy doing well and that accounts for it. It certainly sounds right! Sadly, none of those articles I linked really cared to posit why now of all times, but focused on the fact that the trend is upon us and who is on board.


  • 3. agirlcalledpurls  |  July 30, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Vampires–like the example of Dracula–have been a fascination forever and ever. Historically, the suppressed sexuality of Western culture was a huge motivator for Gothic/Vampiric literature to be written. It was (and is) a way to explore our sexuality in an impossible way–which makes it less personal, less obvious and, well, less embarrassing.

    Whenever I think of the surge of Vampiric fascination, I automatically think of Victorian Sensation Fiction–a short-lived “smutty” genre that was unique to the 1860’s and 1870’s… included in this genre are the books _Woman In White_ (Wilkie Collins) and, though surfacing later, I’d includ Marie Belloc’s _The Lodger_ (a fictional account of Jack the Ripper). Also, _The Mystery of Edwin Drood_, Dickens’unfinished novel, could be lumped into the genre… also, by lesser knowns, _Lady Audley’s Secret_, _East Lynne_, and… ANYwho, I’m sorry to digress, but this is all to say: you raise some great points about our book-fantasies and my point is only to agree with you, and reiterate that, yes, it’s been a literary transgression–along with other impossible and tantalizing scandalous acts–what better place to escape than into the page? :)

    • 4. Corey  |  July 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

      I’m so glad you commented like this! My original intent was to do more of a tracing of the origins of literary loving of vampires, etc., but I sadly don’t have your background! Thank you for providing this.

      And I totally agree about the page being the best place to run off to or try something new without really doing so!

      • 5. agirlcalledpurls  |  July 30, 2009 at 11:44 am

        Yeah… I’m not really literary ;) but I have a strange affinity for this particular aspect of literature… hrm. What’s that say about me? ;) Seriously, though, I’m becoming a regular reader of this blog! Thanks so much.

    • 6. KT  |  July 30, 2009 at 9:58 am

      SUPPRESSED SEXUALITY! I cannot believe I forgot about this whole aspect — thanks for pointing it out and giving us some background, Purls!

      Incidentally, that coincides with the abstinence aspect of Twilight rather well, and also clarifies why Dracula is, as Corey said, not at all dreamy.

  • 7. LT Archives: Vampires! « Literary Transgressions  |  April 18, 2010 at 12:04 am

    […] Aside from Twilight, another notable LT look at vampires came in July 2009 when Corey posted about the trendiness of loving vampires: Loving the Undead […]

  • 8. Mish  |  June 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Paranormal romance is an ancient theme. Zeus had a string of maidens. I don’t know if I would necessarily describe the latest trend as “decadent sexuality” so much as part human nature and part escapism. There’s a thrill of associating with the unknown and someone grander, beyond mortality. It’s exotic. Reading about such beings is a way of leaving behind the mundane, earthly existence and, yes, living vicariously through characters.


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