Jan 24, 2009

The Good Vampire Archetype

I offer this post in response to a comment left last night on my post titled "A Thinking Woman's Guide to Twilight." The earlier post discusses the archetypal themes running through the Twilight series of books by Stephanie Meyer. The comment was left by my 16-year-old niece, Andrea, who astutely cited other archetypes in the books, most notably the vampire archetype, the “damsel in distress” (rescue fantasy?), and star-crossed lovers. She asked if I agreed with her assessment.

She wrote, in part: “I think vampires themselves are something that intrigues humans. Ever since the beginning of man, there have been stories about vampires, as you of course know. Whether it's the power or sexuality of them, we humans are fascinated by them. I think it is because as far as monster’s go, they are the most human. Also, there is a part of us that wants to be that perfect and masterful.”

I agree with all your observations, Andrea. But let's start with the vampire archetype, which I believe holds a more powerful attraction for humans than sexual seduction or immortality (although, admittedly, those are pretty powerful allures).

(Warning: the following contains spoilers for the Twilight series!)

On a dark and stormy night in 1816, Lord Byron invited a handful of friends to his Swiss villa. Among the guests were Percy Shelley and his wife, Mary, and a Dr. Polidori. Lord Byron had the idea that, just for fun, each should write a supernatural tale. Out of this evening’s entertainment was born one famous work, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and one forgotten work, Dr. Polidori’s The Vampyre.

The main characters in each were moral opposites. Dr. Frankenstein is a well-meaning yet misguided scientist whose thirst for knowledge gets out of hand and creates a monster. Polidori’s vampire, on the other hand, is a monster who hides behind the image of a well-meaning man. Like Count Dracula, who came later, Lord Ruthven appears to be a refined, magnetic and mesmerizing gentleman. Yet he is in truth a predatory vampire who feeds on the living.

Lord Ruthven may be the earliest example of the vampire archetype in literature, but the myths and legends from which the archetype sprung go back centuries.

The first recorded description of vampires appears in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, published in 2000 B.C. Gilgamesh tells of the Ekimmu, or Departed Spirit--the soul of a dead person who eternally wanders the earth to prey on the living. The Ekimmu, who enjoy a peculiar psychic connection with their victims, can walk through solid doors and walls, take up residence in a house, and feed on its inhabitants.

Although there are cultural variations in the various legends, there is always one defining trait of a vampire: he drinks blood, consuming another’s life to sustain his own. Blood symbolizes life, life energy and the soul. Thus, vampires consume the life energy or soul of their victims. Yet he does so seductively, while his victim swoons in an intimate embrace and offers her neck—the source of her jugular vein—for his “kiss.”

Deeply sourced in religion, the vampire myth reverses the symbolism of the Eucharist. In literature, as well as in Jung’s collective unconscious, the Vampire archetype is undeniably a villain -- the polar opposite of the Redeemer hero. This is beautifully illustrated in the climactic scene in Dracula. The count rips open a vein above his own heart and forces Mina to drink blood from his breast. As she does, he says triumphantly: “Now you shall be flesh of my flesh, and blood of my blood.” The struggle between Eucharist and Vampire represents the age-old struggle between good and evil, Most powerfully, both archetypes speak of the surrender of the soul.

As our society has become more secularized and sexualized, so has the vampire archetype. But he did not grow a conscience until Anne Rice’s Louis Pointe du Lac bares his immortal struggle against the evils of his preternatural curse in Interview with the Vampire.

“The method Rice chose to tell her tale--with Louis' first-person confession to a skeptical boy--transformed the vampire from a hideous predator into a highly sympathetic, seductive, and all-too-human figure,” writes Patrick O’Kelley for Amazon.com.

We see the archetype of “the good vampire” appear again in Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in the character of Angel in Buffy and the Vampire Slayer and in Edward Cullen in Twilight.

Suddenly, the vampire archetype isn’t inherently evil. No longer the polar opposite of the Eucharist, he now embodies the internal struggle of good vs. evil – a struggle we all face to overcome the primal monstrousness of our own natures. This newfound struggle makes the vampire a sympathetic character, elevating the archetype from one-dimensional villain to multi-dimensional hero. Like the archetypal heroes in so many fairy tales, the vampire seeks deliverance from his curse – the evil side of his nature that was forced upon him involuntarily – through no fault of his own. The same is true of us, only we seek deliverance from our inborn evil tendencies rather than curses and enchantments.

In Twilight, author Stephanie Meyer offers literary references as archetypal clues (not surprising, since she was an English major). When Bella and Edward meet, Bella is reading a well-worn copy of Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's symbolic vampire story. Ironically, Edward detests the book, claiming that the self-possessed characters of Cathy and Heathcliff are without any redeeming qualities (Edward does not consciously relate to the characters but subconsciously considers himself a monster without a soul who is beyond redemption). Bella defends the ill-fated pair, claiming that their love for each other is what redeems them. This strongly hints at the key to their mutual transformations in the Twilight series.

New Moon, the second book, opens with Bella and Edward watching Romeo and Juliet – another clue to the archetypal plot of the star-crossed lovers whose attachment is so strong, they would rather die than live without one another. This clue also foreshadows the book's ending: Edward, erroneously believing Bella to be dead, seeks to destroy himself rather than live without her. “I can’t live in a world where you don’t exist,” he says more than once.

In the fourth and (allegedly) final book, Alice leaves a clue for Bella in Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s play about a young man who risks a pound of flesh to court his true love. It is not insignificant that Bella burns the book in secret, symbolically freeing Edward from the debt he feels he owes for her love.

What does the vampire myth have in common with all these tales? The unexplainable psychic power of possession. Love, after all, is vampiric. As D.H. Lawrence wrote: “It is easy to see why each man kills the thing he loves. To know a living thing is to kill it. To try to know a living being is to try to suck the life out of that being. The temptation of the vampire fiend is this knowledge. The desirous consciousness, the spirit, is a vampire.

Andrea, I don't think it's the desire to be powerful and masterful that attracts us to good vampires like Edward Cullen. I think it's the desire to possess and be possessed by a love that transforms ordinary human experience into something extraordinary.

And that's where the trouble begins ....

Aunt Nina


The Burlap Owl said...


Anonymous said...

Hi nina-I love your dolls-they are beautiful. I also love your writing. I found you from the Twilight Moms website-I responded to your newborn posting. I have somewhat similar feelings regarding my sudden fascination with these books-like what am I doing gazing at Robert Pattinson's photos?? I look forward to reading more of your vampire philosophy.
Jill (fellow 50 year old!)
Sherwood, OR

Britten said...

Hi! I'm Britten (EndlessTwilight from TwilightMOMS.com. I love your post "A Thinking Woman's Guide to Twilight" and I just might put it as news on our blog. Would that be okay with you? You can respond to me at my blog: http://feyavanyasthoughts.blogspot.com/

Nina Mason said...

Hi Britten:

Thanks for posting a comment. I'm happy for you to share any of my stuff within the blogosphere. I'm glad you enjoy my ramblings.


Miss Apprehension said...

I found this today after Googling "Jungian archetype" and "Edward Cullen," wondering if anyone out there had the same theories I do. And here you are! Oh, it's so nice to not be alone.

IrishSkye said...

You made one error in this article when you said that the vampire did not gain a conscience until Louis in "Interview." I must humbly disagree and cite the earlier character of Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows" TV series), created in the mid-1960's. Barnabas, cursed by a witch and turned into a vampire, very quickly came to despise the existence of a vampire and turned in a sympathetic anti-hero that audiences came to care about. I have always believed that Anne Rice, who was a twenty-something in the 60's and part of the demographic "Dark Shadows" was aimed at, was likely influenced at least in some small way (which she may or may not have ever admitted to) by the character of Barnabas and his increasing distaste of the Vamp (Un)Life. Barnabas set the stage for Louis, Nicholas Knight, Angel, Spike, Blade, and all other "vamp with soul/conscience" types that have followed.