Print 2021 Review

Desiring the Undead in the Twilight Era

Written by Sukhman Singh
Graphic by Harriet Sherlock

This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.

I remember sitting down with my friends during high school and eating a cake bought jointly in honour of Edward Cullen’s birthday. We were, quite simply, obsessed with Twilight. Vampires were all the rage in young adult fiction at the time. Twilight was a gateway to other series like Vampire Academy, Blue Bloods, and dozens of others that I have forgotten in the decade since. Vampires apparently tapped into something that teen girls like me felt we could understand and desire.

It wasn’t until I studied the gothic novella Carmilla that I really began to think about the appeal of the vampire figure. Before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, J. Sheridan Le Fanu wrote and published his story about a female vampire, Carmilla, who preys upon young women. Laura, the novella’s narrator and Carmilla’s present victim, often recounts her relationship with Carmilla in a highly erotic fashion: “Her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.’” Carmilla makes no attempt to hide her desire for Laura, actively pursuing both her body and blood. In one scene, Carmilla bites Laura’s breast in order to feed from her as she sleeps, representing a carnal desire for Laura that becomes a need she cannot control. Despite Laura’s more coded language, the reader can sense a reciprocal relationship building between the two women. Laura says to Carmilla, “There is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on”, establishing that despite the fact that Laura attempts to suppress her desire, she still feels a pull towards Carmilla. In Carmilla, we find one of the original stories that establishes vampires as desirable figures. Carmilla is alluring because of her status as a vampire, while still undeniably dangerous.

Carmilla got me thinking about the vampire craze in recent young adult fiction. When Le Fanu and later Bram Stoker wrote about vampires, they depicted them as monsters who tapped into societal fears, rather than intentional figures of desire. Vampires tended to be Eastern European, the racial Other; their hunger for blood represented unrestrained sexual desire, which highlighted their monstrosity. At the time these texts were written, venereal disease was rampant, and it was feared that unrestricted sex would spread illness. Additionally, during the Victorian era, women were not legally or socially considered capable of experiencing sexual desire, severely limiting the sexual expression of women. As a comment on these limitations, Carmilla’s overt desire for Laura demonstrates that she is unnatural and Other; meanwhile, Laura is caught between being viewed as equally ‘unnatural’ and being a proper English woman who has successfully suppressed her sexual desire.

As social attitudes towards sex shifted and as women gained more sexual autonomy through feminism and reproductive rights movements in the 20th century, representation of vampires in literature changed. They were no longer read simply as a warning against rampant sexual desire—rather, they became the objects of sexual desire: figures who could be lusted after by the reader because of their beauty and indulgent behaviour. Oftentimes, they were granted a tragic backstory so the reader would find them more sympathetic; no longer merely an unnatural Other. This is apparent in the portrayal of Louis in Interview with the Vampire and the redemption arc of Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The focus of the genre therefore shifted from a fear of the vampire figure to a deeper exploration of the vampire’s interactions with, and relatability, to humans, especially young women. Eventually, we reached the era of Twilight.

In young adult fiction, of which the main readers are often teenage girls still discovering their identity and desires, the vampire figure became one of romantic attraction. Teenage girls longed for vampires not just because they were sexy, but because they represented an all-encompassing and pined-after romance. The modern-day vampire figure in young adult fiction was portrayed as a romantic hero who usually loved an average young woman. This allowed teenage girls to imagine themselves as desirable, despite uncertainty about their bodies and emerging sexuality. There is no better example of this than the vampire Edward Cullen.

Edward is presented as a suave hero, dangerous enough to protect Bella from the multitude of forces attempting to hurt her, but romantic enough to take her out to dinner and care for her. It was this combination that led to my friends and I declaring ourselves as Team Edward. When we imagined fulfilling relationships, we imagined ones where our partners would be romantic and strong. As a vampire, Edward is part of a long literary tradition of a dangerous but desirable Other. However, Stephanie Meyer reimagined the legend of the vampire, making them less dangerous to humans and less sexual. Edward is depicted as a ‘good vampire’, a chivalrous protector. He can control his vampiric desires—his family only drink animal blood—and by extension, controls his desire for the human body and sex. Edward’s restraint presents him as safe and considerate, while still suggesting an ongoing tension between carnal desire and romantic love. This feeling may be something a teenager, in the midst of discovering their sexuality, can relate to.

In Twilight, Bella’s desire for Edward provides a space for teenage readers to explore ideas of sexual and romantic desire. The flatness of Bella’s first-person narration has often been criticised, but its strength lies in allowing readers to connect more closely with Edward, because we can cast ourselves as her. Just like the confusion Laura experiences regarding Carmilla, Edward is perceived by Bella as a paradox. He is gentle enough to be protective of her, yet dangerous enough to keep her safe. While Bella is on a shopping trip with her friends, Edward rescues her from two men attempting to attack her, and then takes her to dinner. The moment he rescues her, Bella states, “[It was] amazing how suddenly the feeling of security washed over me … as soon as I heard his voice.” Through the stylistic choices of first person and the continual description of Edward’s character as dangerous, protective, and attractive, a teenager might begin to shape their own conception of desirable traits in a partner. In retrospect, the unhealthy aspects of Edward and Bella’s overly dependent relationship are clear. Bella relies heavily on Edward to provide her with emotional security, leading to her breakdown in New Moon when he leaves. Additionally, Edward takes it upon himself to protect Bella without her knowledge, watching over her as she sleeps. However, at the time, heroes who represented a sexual desire that was previously unspoken and forbidden were endlessly fascinating.

Ultimately, vampires are paradoxes. They are both alive and dead, human and the Other, desirable and monstrous. And who in society understands paradox better than a teenager? Both adult and child, teenagers are trapped halfway between the two, struggling with expectations of both. In the Twilight era, teenage girls were given an opportunity to begin understanding and exploring their emerging sexual and romantic desires within the relatively safe scope of literature. For many of us, the emergence of our sexuality coincided with our growing awareness of feminism and society’s re-evaluation of sexual mores, something which has been explored in literature through the figure of the vampire for centuries. Texts like Carmilla and Dracula established the vampire figure as alluring, but ultimately dangerous. However, Twilight worked to portray vampires as complex individuals who readers willingly desire. The romantic trope of the undead allows for an exploration of desire that intrigues and engages teenage girls, who single-handedly revived the popularity of vampires in literature.

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