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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Twilight and the Western Vampire Tradition

Twilight and the Western Vampire Tradition

by Giovanna
(aka "SuccubaSuprema")

Prefatory Remarks:

What follows is a commentary which might be seen as sociological or an example of criticism (in the academic sense, like Literary Criticism, although I have not written this in academic style) or both, updated and collected from several posts I wrote and posted in a thread I started in a certain internet forum (the posts I'm collecting, into what I hope will be one more-or-less consistent piece, were made from 2010 to 2012, although I made some additional posts in that thread in 2013 which are not used for this blog post), with some further observations.  At the time of the first post, I had only seen the first movie in the series, but since then, and as I continued to post in the thread and time passed, I saw the penultimate movie offered in a special collector's DVD edition with a promotional price, and the others all available at the same time and in the same store, for reduced prices, so I decided to (ahem) bite the bullet and buy all of them (and then bought the final movie later, when it too came out), and so I eventually watched them all (the first time I watched the entire series was over a period of 24 hours or so).  In this connection, I should point out that I liked the first movie better on second viewing.

Be advised, if you have not read the novels or seen the movies, this post contains a few spoilers (not only for the Twilight saga, but also for the Underworld movies, which I discuss at the end of the post in connection with criticisms of the Twilight saga).


Those who know me well are aware that I'm a fan of Vampire literature, movies, and television shows.  Occasionally, the subject of the Twilight movies/books has been brought up, with people wanting to know my opinion of them.  I've spoken to some extent about these matters in the past, but there came a time when I found a comment on my profile from someone wanting to know if I'm "a fan" of the story, so I decided to respond in this way, and thereby be able to direct questioners to this discussion.  With the introduction out of the way, I shall proceed.

The Commentary:

I do not know that I would call myself "a fan" of Twilight, but at the same time, I do not believe that it's the worst vampire story ever written/filmed.  In fact, it was quite good, compared to some I've seen.   Indeed, I enjoyed the movies (I have yet to read any of the books).  I shall here respond to some criticisms I've seen and heard concerning the story.  I do not intend to comment much, if at all, on the criticisms I have seen and heard regarding the acting.

A lot of people claim to be annoyed primarily with the "sparkly vampire" aspect (I say "claim" intentionally, because I believe their genuine main objection is something else, and I'll come to that later), but, truth be told, in the movies, the sparkling was only barely noticeable, even when it was being emphasized.   It's an interesting twist on the vampire aversion to sunlight, and it doesn't merit the kind of hysterical criticism I've seen about it.   Part of why I say that is directly related to the next objection I will discuss.

The second thing people seem to be annoyed about is the idea that sunlight doesn't harm vampires, but most people don't realize that the concept of vampires being harmed/killed by the sun is a relatively new idea (less than 100 years old), and was first expressed in the 1922 silent movie Nosferatu:   eine Symphonie des Grauens (commonly known simply as Nosferatu, which was an unauthorized cinematic version of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and, being unauthorized, was only very loosely based on that novel (the novel, in fact, includes a scene of Dracula outside in the street during daylight, a scene that was part of the movie Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring Gary Oldman as the Count).  Arguably, the sound of the cock crowing was what overcame Count Orlok, rather than the light of the sun (I say this based on the captions in the silent movie), and this idea of a cock's crow affecting "supernatural" creatures is consistent with folklore from various places in Europe.  Prior to the 1922 movie, the idea is found in folklore of various "supernatural" creatures being hampered, harmed, or destroyed by sunlight, but this did not specifically pertain to vampires (you see the old folklore reflected, for example, in Tolkien's The Hobbit, in which Trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight, an idea found in Scottish and Norse legends of Trows and Trolls).  That's not to say that the older stories do not portray vampires as not particularly fond of daylight, because some do, but none of them contain the idea of sunlight causing harm or destruction to a vampire.  As such, those who reject the Twilight stories' "new" idea of vampires not being harmed by the sun are actually embracing a new idea about vampires, and rejecting the older idea.  I maintain, therefore, that they should all mellow out and get past the baggage of a mere 91 years of the new idea of vampires being vulnerable to the sun.  Perhaps then they would be able to enjoy the story for what it is.  I have to admit, that although I think the sparkly vampire thing is an interesting twist on explaining why vampires might be averse to sunlight (which, as I have pointed out above, is an idea that is only 91 years old), I'm not terribly fond of the idea, but that's merely personal preference and should not result in dismissal of the story in its entirety.

As an aside, I would like to also point out that the idea of garlic having an adverse effect on vampires is the result of ignorance and superstition (although dismissing this as the result of "superstition" may seem ironic in connection with the idea of vampires in the first place!).  The belief derives from the practice of opening graves of suspected vampires in order to "vanquish" them, with those opening the graves wearing wreaths of garlic around their necks to ward off the arising effluvia of a decaying corpse (or, more accurately, as an attempt to cover the unpleasant scent with the supposedly stronger smell of garlic).  Over time, the original import of this practice was forgotten, and that ignorance, coupled with superstition, led to the idea of garlic repelling and/or harming vampires.  Since then, the idea has become fairly firmly ensconced within the Western Vampire Tradition, although instances of this idea being rejected have also been seen in the tradition.

The third objection which some have to the stories is the popular opinion that they are intended for an audience of teenage girls.  It is this reputation which I believe to be the genuine main objection of most who protest their disdain for the saga (and most of these people in my experience have been male), but these people are ignoring the Vampire Tradition itself, in favor of more recent depictions of vampires in film as "monstrous," savage, and wholly incorrigible (indeed, usually they're depicted as totally depraved homicidal maniacs, often extremely sadistic, and frequently nihilistic -- in short, completely ignoble and without any redeeming value).  These more recent films typically contain a lot of gratuitous violence and gore.

The Twilight movies (since more people are familiar with them than they are with the books) are, according to the popular reputation, allegedly "chick flicks," but the same "noble vampire" motif and/or "vampire love story" idea (whether romantic or erotic, or both) is found in earlier stories, television series, and movies, and few if any of them are dismissed out of hand as "chick flicks" or "chick lit."  A few examples include the television series Moonlight, the television series Forever Knight, the 1960s soap opera Dark Shadows (and Marilyn Ross' novels based on the show), and even, to some extent, other movies based on Stoker's work (the Bela Lugosi films, obviously, but also the more recent version starring Gary Oldman), to say nothing of older novels, novelettes, and short stories of vampires like Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and "The Vampyre," by John William Polidori.  Earlier than those are various poems expressing the same notions.

I've also seen some people claim that Edward Cullen is a "copy" of Anne Rice's Lestat.  I would not view Edward as a copy of Lestat, however.  In some ways, Edward is more like Mick St. John of the Moonlight television series (although I like Mick, and Moonlight, much, much better than Edward and Twilight), or Nick Knight of the series Forever Knight, both of whom probably owe more to Barnabas Collins of Dark Shadows than any other inspiration (indeed, I suspect that the use by Stephanie Meyer of the name "Cullen" in her work is a direct nod to the name "Collins" in Dark Shadows).

Now there was a vampire!  Barnabas Collins, tragic, unfortunate victim, often violent to excess, mysterious, brooding, lonely, charming, romantic, not afraid to get his fangs bloody (although not desensitized to it nor blasé about it, either), dark, tormented, etc.

Thus, the Twilight series is soundly within an established "canon" of Vampire Tradition involving romance, eroticism, "noble" vampires (both literally, as in the case of Count Dracula -- or Prince Vlad, and figuratively, in the sense of "possessed of noble virtues"), the idea of "vampirism as curse" (literal, as with Barnabas Collins, or figurative, as with Nick Knight) from which the vampire wishes to escape, etc.  If these concepts are "adolescent" and/or "girly," then a lot of adult men who profess disdain for the Twilight saga and are infected with the disease known as "machismo" have to explain why they enjoy these other stories I have mentioned.  Although I am female, I have not been a teenager in a looooong time, and while I haven't read the Twilight books, and probably would not consider myself "a fan" (per se) of the movies, I have read and viewed quite a lot of vampire literature/films/TV shows, I did enjoy the Twilight movies, and wouldn't exclude the series from my DVD collection or my book library.  Indeed, I now have all the movies on DVD.

I would also contend that teen boys (and adult boys) who believe that blood and guts splattered all over the screen is what makes a vampire movie "good" and/or "authentic" actually have no concept of the Western Vampire Tradition.  They would be just as happy with a slasher pic, which is hardly the same thing as a vampire movie, and also a recent phenomenon.  I also consider most of these more recent "Horror" movies to be much more disgusting than frightening, due to this tendency to focus on gratuitous violence and gore, and thus unworthy of being given the "Horror" label.

If someone has a mere aesthetic preference that vampires should be "dark bloodsucking monsters in human form," I have no problem with that;  if, on the other hand, a contention is made that the noble/romantic vampire, who remains attractive (theoretically, at least, and I add this qualification because I do not find the boy who portrayed Edward Cullen to be all that attractive) even when she/he "vamps out," is somehow "inconsistent" with the Western Vampire Tradition, then even Bram Stoker himself would rise up and bite the person making such an assertion.   I might have preferred a different actor for Edward, but honestly, Robert Pattinson isn't that bad (he isn't gorgeous like Alex O'Loughlin as Mick St. John in Moonlight, but then again, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and his acting seemed better to me in the subsequent movies than it did in the first).

From the earliest stories in the Western Folklorismus Vampire Tradition (by the use of "Folklorismus," I intend the folkloric idea of Vampires removed from its culturally-specific, Slavic, Folklore and Legend context and the beginning of the Western Literary Vampire Tradition -- although it should be noted that similar beings are recorded in the myths, legends, and authentic culturally-based folklore of other cultures, including, for one major example, the Leannán Sidhe of Irish, Scottish, and Manx Tradition) and the Western Literary Vampire Tradition (which grew out of the Western Folklorismus Vampire Tradition and includes, more or less, or at least gave birth to, the Western Cinematographic Vampire Tradition), the Vampire was both appealing and appalling simultaneously.  The appealing aspects included being magnetic in a romantic and/or erotic sense, and being attractive in terms of visual appearance, as well as offering the lure of a form of immortality, eternal youth, and superhuman power (indeed, one of these powers is often used as an explanation of the lure of the vampire, the hold which she/he has over living beings, and that is a power described as "hypnosis" or, in some cases, "mesmerism").  The appalling aspects were primarily summed up in one idea: this being is a corpse -- a "living" corpse, perhaps, but nevertheless a corpse, who is cold to the touch, who rests in a coffin, but also, a corpse who feeds parasitically upon the living beings of his/her own species, etc.

As far as being "200 year old high schoolers with adolescent problems" (another objection I've seen), that is also hardly a new theme in the Western Vampire Tradition; indeed, in Anne Rice's celebrated Lestat stories, the reader encounters the child vampire Claudia, with her prepubescent problems.  What may be new (or at least perhaps atypical) in this "young vampire" motif is the concept that a person remains stuck at the physical (and emotional) age he/she was "turned" at;  earlier stories often (but not always) include a motif in which the vampire ages unless she/he feeds on blood.

Personally, I have been put off by the relatively recent depiction of vampires as changing in physical appearance when they "vamp out" to such an extent that they do not merely have fangs and glowing and/or red eyes, but also have some bizarre ridge in their foreheads as if they have alien ancestry or something, or have a reptilian appearance (although I did rather enjoy the first From Dusk till Dawn movie in spite of this, and in spite of the gratuitous blood and gore, because it had a good plot, and because Salma Hayek and George Clooney are exceptional actors), or otherwise appear distinctly non-human.  The idea that vampires can transform into fog or wolves or a swarm of rats or other things (or at least the idea that their "hypnotic" power is so great as to induce a mortal to perceive that they have so transformed) is old enough (although the vampire-into-bat transformation is also relatively new, but hardly inconsistent with the Tradition), but aside from the hairless, long-nailed, ghoulish-looking Count Orlok of Nosferatu (and the "noferatu-type" vampires inspired by that depiction), which (as I have already pointed out) is less than 100 years old, such an idea is far less consistent with the Vampire Tradition than the idea of attractive, noble (even heroic at times), romantic vampire.

Another thing I've seen criticized about the Twilight saga is that the vampires in the story are "vegetarians."  That term is often bandied about as if it means that the Cullens munch on lettuce and fruit, but those who use the term to dismiss the stories are either ignorant of its significance in the stories, or intentionally twisting the use of the term in the stories.  In the first movie (which I admit I finally watched only because people kept asking me what I thought of the series, it came on one of the Encore channels to which I had a subscription at the time, and I didn't want to continue to have to reply "I have no real opinion, because I've never read any of the books and never watched any of the movies"), the boy Edward explains that the Cullens refer to themselves as "vegetarians" because they refuse to feed on humans, but instead feed on animals (this is also not a new idea in the Western Vampire Tradition, although the use of "vegetarian" to describe such a diet may be new -- it's also ironic, and I appreciated that irony). 

Moving on to other criticisms, I've been told that the books are poorly written. I haven't read any of them, so I can't speak to that assessment.

I found the films enjoyable, but I wouldn't call the saga the "best vampire movie(s)," and I'm far from sure that I would even put it in the top ten.  However, when compared with movies in which "Dracula" beats his chest like an ape (I don't even remember which movie that was, and it may have otherwise been good, but that one scene was enough to cause my ex-housemate to leave the room in disgust, and I was also rather repulsed by the scene), yeah, it's superior.  Even some of the Christopher Lee movies have less-than-brilliant scenes, in which Dracula crouches in the corner and hisses.

I've also seen the character of Bella Swann (later Bella Cullen) criticized as one-dimensional or insufficiently developed.  A few aspects of the first movie, on first impression, seemed to portray that character in a way that I did not find pleasing, such as what I initially regarded as an almost neurotic reaction to Edward's intention to leave for her safety.  We get that the girl is "crazy" about him;  she doesn't have to be depicted as if she is literally crazy, with an unhealthy obsession over the boy.  She also should not be conceived as if she be merely a shadow to his supposed light.  However, after re-watching the movie along with the entire series once I had the final movie, I reconsidered this first impression in light of the fact that her parents were divorced, and I get that now;  she comes from a family that has been split asunder by divorce, which would be a bit of emotional facticity for Bella, and which baggage would explain her reaction to Edward informing her that he would be leaving for her safety.  Also, in the final movie, Bella is far more than a shadow to Edward;  indeed, she has become a force to be reckoned with, and every bit his equal (maybe even more powerful than he).  I will also, very briefly, touch upon criticisms of Kristen Stewart's acting, to say that I personally did not find her performance to be as bad as some have suggested.  She might not have as wide a range of facial expressions as Jim Carey (but who besides him does have a face that sometimes seems as if it's made of rubber?), but that's hardly sufficient cause to write her off as a "bad actress."

The plot is simple, granted, but that's the general plot for many "classic" vampire stories:   immortal, brooding, lonely, vampire guy meets beautiful, young, mortal girl, romance blossoms, some crisis occurs, vampire guy saves mortal girl (or, in a few cases, vice-versa), and they all live (or "un-die") happily ever after (presumably, although in some cases, such as the Twilight saga, there may be more than a single crisis).  The alternative plot in the "classic" tale is:  immortal, somewhat creepy, lonely vampire guy meets beautiful, young, mortal girl, attempts to seduce her, she is taken with him but already has a beau, nevertheless she gradually falls under his spell, her previously-existing beau (often with help from a "wise old man" archetypal character) then "rescues" her by "slaying" the vampire, and they all live happily ever after (except for the poor vampire, of course!).  There are certainly other variations on these tales -- Le Fanu's Carmilla, for example, which is older than Stoker's Dracula, and which depicts the apparently lesbian (or perhaps bisexual, since her sexuality was never explicitly defined in the story) Countess Mircalla Karnstein seducing a beautiful, young mortal girl, only to be thwarted by the girl's father (not beau), who has teamed up with a wise old warrior and the heroic descendant of a previous vampire-slayer hero.  The alternative plot (charming-vampire-as-somewhat-sinister-but-nevertheless-unfortunate-victim, although probably more frequently encountered than the charming-vampire-as-hero motif) I have given above is that which both Le Fanu and Stoker followed, and it was out of this plot that the hideous and repulsive, dark and monstrous, nosferatu-type vampire was developed by Henrik Galeen and F.W. Murnau in 1922.

I would like to hope that this puts an end to some of the pretense of the Twilight saga being somehow a radical departure from the Western Vampire Tradition in Literature and Film, and results in people examining their reaction to the saga honestly. More importantly, I would like to hope that this encourages some actual investigation of the authentic Vampire Tradition, rather than swallowing the more recent "insane, ugly monster" idea of vampires as if that be the genuine tradition. The references which I have provided here demonstrate clearly that the authentic Tradition is far more diverse and dynamic than that. If we go beyond the "Western" Vampire Tradition (primarily inspired/influenced by Slavic Folklore and Legend), the diversity increases significantly, but that's a topic for another time (and another author).

In conclusion, while I'm still not sure I would call myself a "fan" of the series (but rather, a fan of Vampire folklore, literature, and movies/television shows in general, with a few that I reject as heinous and/or ludicrous in one or more particulars), the Twilight movies have found a place in my DVD collection, and I'm not ashamed of their presence there.  I still regard them as soundly within the Western Vampire Tradition, and at least good representations of that genre.  I suppose that, eventually, I shall get the books and read them, and decide if I like them better than the films.

As a sort of postscript to all of this, I would like to touch upon another Vampire movie series here, namely, the Underworld movies (which I most certainly do rank among my favorite vampire movies).  According to some critics of the Twilight series, this was "the" inspiration for the Vampire versus Werewolf feud in the latter.  In fact, however, that motif goes back some distance in time.  There were even "classic" B&W movies in which "Dracula" and "the Wolfman" appeared to be enemies with some history between them, and fought to the death.  I found the Underworld movies very enjoyable (and I have all four in my DVD collection -- and rumor has it that a fifth installment will be forthcoming sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, so I naturally plan to get that on DVD as well), and perhaps better suited for a more mature audience than the Twilight movies, but I've seen them criticized as well.  In particular, I have seen the character of Selene criticized for not being "scary" enough.  Some of the critics have pointed out that (in the first two movies) she does not feed (except for the situation in which she takes the blood of Alexander Corvinus in order to learn from the memories contained in his blood and, seemingly, mutate or evolve to some extent) nor "Turn" others (except for the necessity of saving Michael from death), at least not on camera, but instead relies on more-or-less conventional weaponry (firearms, although often with modified rounds used as ammunition, and swords), and those same critics have suggested that this makes her, somehow, less than satisfactory as a vampiress.  Some have even offered what I view as chauvinistic criticisms, namely, that she "looks good" in a corset and leather catsuit, but doesn't inspire fear like a vampire "should."  Vampires and vampiresses in other stories and movies, however, have not always relied on their fangs and/or claws to kill, and have at times used more conventional weapons.  Further, I suspect that this pontification that vampires and vampiresses "should" inspire fear has more to do with the more recent portrayals of Vampires as homicidal maniacs without any control over their passions and appetites (and maybe, in the same [ahem] vein, with the fact that she doesn't become an unattractive alien-looking creature when she "vamps out") than it does with the earlier Vampire Tradition.  Nevertheless, Selene as a "Death Dealer" certainly has the right amount of "cold-blooded killer" attitude to be intimidating to most mortal opponents.  Skilled not only with fang and claw, but also with bladed weapons, firearms, and ordinary hand-to-hand combat, Selene is undeniably a formidable foe, and hardly unsatisfactory as a vampiress.

So there you have it, my response to many of the criticisms of, and my opinion of, the Twilight saga, based on my knowledge of the Western Vampire Tradition (which, if I do say so myself, is not exactly unsubstantial).  I'll also apologize here at the end for the bad puns in the post.  And now that the sun has sunk into the west, it's time for me to go out for the hunt, and slake my thirst.  Just kidding.  Or am I?  Muahahahaha!

This is an original work, and it belongs to me, regardless of where I first posted the material which I have gathered, revised, and rearranged to make this post, and regardless of any claims by the company which owns that website.
© Copyright 2013 by SuccubaSuprema (the owner of this blog, known more mundanely as "Gigi" and Giovanna).
All Rights Reserved.

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