For decades, storytellers used the bloodsucking undead to portray sexual deviancy. But Stephenie Meyer changed all that. After Breaking Dawn—Part 2, will chaste and sparkly remain the new norm?
If Dracula wrote the book on the modern vampire fiction, Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer's four Twilight books (and their five film adaptations) have given it an enormously unfaithful, enormously successful rewrite. Even before the release of Breaking Dawn—Part 2 this past weekend, the Twilight franchise had earned $2.5 billion dollars at the worldwide box-office, and Breaking Dawn—Part 2 is on track to make hundreds of millions more. By the time the final film finishes its theatrical run, the five Twilight movies will be the five top-grossing vampire movies of all time.
But while the last stake has been driven into the heart of the Twilight franchise, Stephenie Meyer hasn't left vampire fiction in the same place she found it. The bloodsucking creatures of the night that dominated horror films for decades have been all but replaced by the soulful, sparkly vampires of the Twilight saga. Today's teens and young adults have been weaned on a different kind of vampire—as Hollywood has surely noted, a far more profitable vampire—and the genre may never be the same.
Though vampires can be found in the folklore of virtually every culture in the world, almost all contemporary fiction about them can be traced to two sources: Bram Stoker's 1892 novel Dracula and its the 1931 film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi. Count Dracula may be Bram Stoker's most famous creation, but the dignified version played by Lugosi in 1931 hardly resembles Stoker's description of the Count in the novel, which includes pointed ears, sharpened teeth, and a long white mustache. And though the book is more than 300 pages long, Dracula hardly appears in it.
In fact, in the long scope of vampire fiction, the most important character in Dracula isn't Dracula; it's Lucy Westenra, a beautiful 19-year-old deciding between three marriage proposals at the start of the novel. "Why can't they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?" she says in a letter to her chaste friend Mina. But before the novel's end, Stoker ensures that she violently pays for even flirting with the idea of being with multiple men. Lucy becomes Dracula's victim and eventually an undead monster in her own right, until she's staked in the heart and beheaded by her three former suitors, who stuff her mouth full of garlic to ensure that she stays dead. The moral is less than subtle.
Dracula may be forceful in its message of chastity, but it's far from the only piece of vampire lore to crash against the boundaries of human sexuality. Sheridan Le Fanu's short story "Carmilla," which was published 25 years before Dracula, uses vampires as a stand-in for lesbianism, and, unfortunately, gives its title character an equally violent death. Interview With the Vampire novelist Anne Rice wrote numerous books about bisexual vampires in the 1970s. Even 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula—which is, ironically enough, itself an enormously unfaithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula—pushes the story's sexual boundaries to its limits, as Dracula rapes Lucy and romances Mina. Today, TV series like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries have built seasons of television by making vampires explicitly sexual.
And then there are Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, which—much like its lead character, Bella Swan—are most defined by their own lack of definition. Meyer didn't invent noble, seductive vampires; Anne Rice had been writing about them for decades. She didn't invent high-school vampires; Buffy the Vampire Slayer cornered that market in the '90s. She didn't even invent the rivalry between vampires and werewolves; the Kate Beckinsale-starring Underworld, which spawned an entire franchise based on that premise, came out two years before the first Twilight book was published. So what separates Twilight from the pack? Unlike virtually every writer since Bram Stoker, Meyer's innovation was to use the vampire not to push the limits of human sexuality, but to scale them back. By defanging the vampire, she shifted its target demographic to teenage girls—one of the most commonly neglected but lucrative audiences in entertainment.
Appropriately enough, Meyer's explanation for the genesis of Twilight begins like a fairytale: It came to her in a dream. Her dewy-eyed protagonist Bella Swan and her brooding, sparkly male vampire Edward Cullen have a romance deliberately modeled on the kind written by Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen more than 200 years earlier; their courtship is characterized by obsessive devotion and physical chastity.
The uncomfortable sexual transgression is just under the surface, as it always is in vampire fiction: The 104-year-old Edward falls for the 17-year-old Bella, and teenaged supporting character Jacob Black is "destined" to be with their baby daughter from the moment she's born. But Meyer's gooey Victorian romance and blustery mythology helps hide the creepiness that most authors of vampire fiction embrace.
So where does the vampire go from here? Is there any room left in Hollywood for non-sparkly vampires, or is Twilight the new status quo? The road from Forks, Washington branches a number of ways, but each of Hollywood's tentative attempts to forge a post-Twilight path for the vampire has fizzled. Dark Shadows, which made Johnny Depp's Barnabas Collins even less threatening than Twilight's Edward Cullen, was a flop. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which reduced vampires back to the soulless one-note villains of Bram Stoker's Dracula, was a major box-office disappointment. And last year's Fright Night, which attempted to marry the seductive vampirism of Twilight with the gorier, edgier roots of the genre, resonated with critics but failed to find an audience.
Filmmakers haven't given up on the vampire entirely, but for the moment, they seem to be playing it pretty safe: The two biggest vampire movies on the horizon are an adaptation of the video game Castlevania and a remake of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—neither of which sounds likely to revolutionize the genre. What the vampire needs now is a creative mind like Christopher Nolan, who employed weighty philosophical ideas to revive Batman after the notorious lows of the 1990s, or a J.J. Abrams, who brought Star Trek back to its basics, pleasing old and new fans in the process.
So it may be some time before the imprint left by the newly temperate vampires of Twilight can be fully wiped away by the creative minds in Hollywood. But both vampire fiction and genre history show us that there's always an audience for blood-sucking tales. And while it's no surprise that horror fans have been horrified by the Twilight saga's hostile takeover of vampire fiction, they should take heart. Vampires, after all, are tough to kill.