The Vampires’ Journey Part VII. Girl meets vampire boy

SPOILER ALERT: Twilight saga, books and movies

While some current horror films like 30 Days of Night show vampires as monsters who will rip your throat out and massacre entire towns, “ensouled” or other “good” vampires have taken to hanging round with high school girls and sulkily seducing them.

In the early 1990s The Vampire Diaries appeared. These novels by L J Smith featured an American teenager, Elena, who falls for the new boy at school, Stefan. He turns out to be a 162 year old “good” vampire who does not feed on or harm humans, unlike his brother Damon. In an echo of the 1970s development of the Dracula narrative, Elena looks uncannily like Stefan and Damon’s past love, Katherine. There are elements where The Vampire Diaries could be seen as a forerunner for the Twilight series, sharing not only the central plot element of the schoolboy vampire but equally the melodramatic style. Here’s a typical quote from The Vampire Dairies: “Being away from him was like being separated from her own flesh.”[1] Eewww!

Perhaps this is run of the mill for teenage romance, and I have discussed in previous posts how romance had become the norm in vampire fiction since the 1970s. However The Vampire Diaries may be the first example of a work where specifically teenage romance met vampire mythology. Someone please correct me if I am wrong! The series was reinvigorated in recent years, with new novels written in 2007 and a TV show launched in 2009. The market for this material is now considerably greater than in the early 1990s. The TV series is only based on the novels with considerable plot divergences. Elena is played as less shallow than in the novels, where she was more like an early Cordelia Chase type, a popular girl who rules the school. Stefan is less hostile and moody than in the novel. The latter is perhaps an attempt to distance The Vampire Diaries from comparison to Twilight. But overall the show feels more like a glossy teenage drama like the OC or Beverley Hills 90210 than a supernatural show.

Talking of such teen dramas, back in the 1990s TV networks, publishers and merchandisers began to notice the buying power (current and future) of young teenagers, especially girls. They set about securing this lucrative audience that advertisers and merchandisers would want to hone in on. [2]

90s Teen drama Dawson’s Creek

Mary Celeste Kearney has written on how network’s such as the WB poured resources into “teen” shows like BtVS and Dawson’s Creek in the 1990s. In doing so they looked to the Fox networks success with Beverly Hills 90210, a series that “prominently featured female teenagers and privileged girls’ friendships alongside heterosexual relationships”.[3] This model is repeated in much teenage vampire fiction capitalising on the way in which viewers identify with characters who are similar to them in age and circumstances. Many vampire narratives tell the story in the first person perspective of the young female lead character making them even more identifiable to young female readers.

Kearney notes that “The WB executives’ decision to focus on female tweens as one of its initial target audiences must be considered part of this unique cultural moment” (the birth of girl power).[4] The WB decision to commission BtVS was an important step in setting the tone for marketing vampire fiction towards teenage girls. This firmly ensured vampires a place outside action and horror. It meant going further than simply rehashing and characterising Dracula as seductive, but creating new love interests for more dynamic female lead characters that the audience could identify with.

Occasionally creepy

This trend is the closest to the early 19th century “friend” vampire that we have seen since. But reflecting the target audience, presumptions about them and their tendency to identify with lead characters, the focus is now mainly on heterosexual relationships between male vampires and young female humans.

The rule that has developed in the genre, that vampires will remain physically as young as at the time they were turned conveniently serves the needs of this brand of vampire fiction. That a much older (and emotionally mature) man can inhabit the body of an attractive teenager is a great (although occasionally creepy) prospect for romantic fiction aimed at teenage girls and young women. However many older viewers also enjoy these works, and this is not something that networks and publishers would be surprised at, but is also a result of their marketing strategies.

Buffy, another teen drama or so much more?

Kearney notes that the WB did not focus solely on teens but also worked to gain a “youthful” crossover audience and that BtVS did this, so that the audience diversified in age.[5] Kearney identifies the way in which BtVS appealed to viewers of different age groups because they could identify with the shifting identities that the characters experience. Particularly older women identified with the character of Buffy’s “constant problem of balancing her personal desires and professional responsibilities”.[6] Kearney quotes one woman in her forties who said, “I empathise with her constant struggle to keep it all in balance and remain in control.”[7]

In the UK however, the show suffered from being screened first on terrestrial channels in the children’s TV teatime slot, (the UK channels don’t seem to know what to do with science fiction shows and treat them all like Dr Who). The show was intended for a 16 plus audience and so contained violent and sexual scenes. But in this time slot anything very scary, violent or suggestive had to be edited out. [8]

Like many fans (of many American science fiction shows) I opted to buy videos of the new episodes to see them first. To many of us the fact that we had become part of a supposedly teen viewing experience in our 20s and 30s seemed irrelevant. The show addressed serious issues, characters were well written and developed throughout the run and long-term viewers were rewarded with progressing story arcs.

But while its ability to foster crossover audiences was useful in building its fan and marketing base, BtVS went further than some may consider acceptable for a teen show. There was challenging material, such as shootings on school campus, sexual violence and gay kisses. For these reasons it regularly fell foul of censors and incensed the conservative right.

But BtVS continued for seven glorious seasons on TV, coming to a close in 2003, though it lives on. Fans re-watch on DVD, discuss on forums, and read season eight in comic form. The darker spin-off Angel had five great seasons before being killed off by its network, so where did vampires and teenagers go from there?

Bring on the sparklers

Cut to Twilight. Stephenie Meyer started writing Twilight in 2003 after having a vivid dream about an average girl and a sparkly vampire conversing in a meadow.[9] The first novel was released in 2005 and has sold over 100 million copies. Meyer says she hasn’t watched BtVS. She probably hasn’t, Twilight is very different. Though the main character is in love with a vampire as was Buffy, the similarity ends there. For BtVS the love story was a sub-plot threaded among many larger, more complex stories. For Twilight the love story is the plot. Putting romance at the centre of the narrative means that Twilight has more in common with lucrative romantic fiction traditionally aimed at married women over 30. A happy ending is a must in the genre. Romance author Michele Callahan observes that, “Twilight brought in younger readers who are discovering what we’ve been reading for years.”[10]

Déja vu anyone?

I don’t think that Meyer set out to take over where BtVS left off, but I do think Twilight benefited from the notion that vampires are popular with the teen female demographic. It was marketed very successfully to said audience. Like BtVS, Twilight was quickly established as a brand, with T-shirts, memorabilia and dolls aplenty. Unlike BtVS, Twilight is clean. BtVS got messy, and that made it a lot of challenging fun. It’s not just the absolutely no-sex before marriage message of Twilight. The books manage to dissolve all moral ambiguities as well. Meyer’s mystical universe is clear-cut, there are good vampires and there are bad vampires. The good ones rarely misbehave and the bad ones rarely help out. These kinds of crossovers would regularly occur in BtVS and Angel, with “good” characters often straying to their dark side and “bad” characters such as Spike occasionally taking sides with the good guys and having room to develop and change. This explored the unfixed nature of good and evil and the endless possibilities for characters to move between the two.

Another big difference between Twilight and BtVS is that although some violence occurs in Twilight, incredibly NO KEY CHARACTER EVER DIES. It is harsh but true that death is a reality that we all have to deal with. So it has been one of the strengths of BtVS and other shows by creator Joss Whedon that death has been dealt with head on. Whedon has not been afraid to kill off regularly recurring key characters in his shows and is prepared to make viewers really feel the pain of this.[11]

In some ways Twilight is the perfect teenage vampire novel, taking away all the adult messiness and questioning of absolutes that we got with BtVS. Though isn’t it good for teenagers to be questioning? I think so. The films have so far been rated as 12 but let’s not forget that many older people enjoy them too. I wonder if that is because they offer a level of escapism from the complexity of our lives and a simple feel good factor without any real challenge or risk.

On the other side of the coin we have the Sookie Stackhouse novels and the TV series True Blood based on them. These are decidedly adult in content and “make Twilight look like Lazy Town” as the DVD box of Season Three proudly states. This show and books follow the model of teen vampire fiction in that heterosexual relationships are at the core. But they put more bite and messiness back into vampire fiction and have more mature strong female characters who are a breath of fresh air compared to fainting Bella. I will be writing more on True Blood and the Sookie Stackhouse novels soon.

I have gone on quite a long discursive exercise to get to grips with how the current focus in mainstream vampire fiction came to be on girl meets vampire boy. It has been fun for me and I hope you found it interesting too. I can’t get enough of watching old vampire films so if you have more you can recommend please chip in.

In following posts I don’t intend to follow such a grand sweep. I will be picking up on ideas and influences as they pop up. Stay tuned.

Please note this was the final  part of a series of articles called The Vampires’ Journey. If you feel you are missing something please check out the earlier posts.

Text © Angela S

 


[1] L J Smith, The Vampire Diaries, p196.

[2] “…Youth marketing research indicated that, in comparison to boys, girls shop more frequently, adopt consumer trends earlier, spend larger amounts of their parents’ money, stay at home to a greater degree and watch more television…” Mary Celeste Kearney, ‘The Changing Face of Teen Television, or Why We We All Love Buffy’ in Undead TV, pp17-41, p27.

[3] Kearney, p27.

[4] Kearney, p28.

[5] Kearney, p19.

[6] Kearney, p34.

[7] Kearney, p34.

[8] Annette Hill and Ian Calcutt, ‘Vampire Hunters: The Scheduling and Reception of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel in the United Kingdom’, Undead TV. Pp56-73.

[9] Stephenie Meyer, ‘The Story Behind Twilight’, http://www.stepheniemeyer.com/twilight.html

[10] Claire Martin, ‘RomCon 2011: Authors, fans celebrate romance novels at convention in Denver this weekend’, The Denver Post. 08/03/2011 http://www.denverpost.com/lifestyles/ci_18611486

[11] An excellent article on Popmatters by Chris Canton, ‘Joss Whedon: Pioneer of the Body Count’ discusses this further.
http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/139152-joss-whedon-grim-reaper/


 

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One thought on “The Vampires’ Journey Part VII. Girl meets vampire boy

  1. “However The Vampire Diaries may be the first example of a work where specifically teenage romance met vampire mythology.”

    I believe that would be The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause, first published in 1990.

    Like

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