One summer in my late teens, I fell in love with a vampire. Not just any vampire — mine was Count Dracula himself, embodied by the then-youthful Frank Langella. Weekend after weekend, my friends and I
returned to the drive-in to swoon over his silk shirt, his accent, his tragic demeanor.
I was a late bloomer, and in many ways Dracula was my first crush. I studied him as I later studied the boys who interested me, trying to discern his likes (blood, young women, evening wear) and dislikes (sunlight, mirrors, garlic). He was too old for me, but he was elegant, sophisticated, experienced, even world-weary — a far cry from the prep school boys I knew at the time. Nothing is new to Dracula except the necks of the women he preys on; intrigued by his tragedy, they willingly offer him their life-blood.
The summer ended and with it, my Dracula-crush. The Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel — whom I met much later, in graduate school — held no particular attraction for me; the vampire hunters are the heroes of that tale, scientific rationalists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural and risk their lives to protect the souls of their loved ones. Now that I’m a mother, those heroes make sense to me: they are willing to die for their loved ones, unlike Dracula, who can only promise a compromised eternity. Stoker’s vampire is a force of ancient evil, vanquished by the modern, even progressive, forces of good. In the contest between vampire and vampire slayer, I have by now cast my lot fairly firmly with the slayers.
Or I had, until I read Twilight. I remembered my youthful crush immediately when a young friend asked me if I’d read Twilight yet. When I said no, she was horrified. “You have to,” she said. “You have to read these books. They are the best.” Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and its sequels, New Moon and Eclipse, are among the most popular novels out there right now for tween girls — as you already know, if you’re the parent of one. And they put the vampire squarely back in his position as the dangerous and tormented object of desire.
Stephenie Meyer claims not to have been a big vampire fan before the characters of Twilight came to her in a dream. Nonetheless the three books of the Twilight saga fulfill many of my expectations of vampire novels: the vampires are dangerous but sad, stay out of the light, and exercise an irresistible appeal to at least one lonely teenage girl. Bella Swan, the heroine and narrator of all three novels, has moved to Forks, WA — the rainiest place in the country — to live with her father when her mother remarries. Klutzy and not particularly popular at home in Phoenix, she surprisingly becomes the attractive “new girl” when she enters Forks High School for her junior year. Edward Cullen is her lab partner, and she is both attracted to his model-handsome looks and bewildered by his instantaneous dislike of her.
You see where this is going. As in so many teen romances, instantaneous dislike masks a deeper, more powerful attraction. But Edward is a vampire, one of a rare coven who have sworn not to feed on humans. His “adoptive father and mother,” Carlisle and Esme Cullen, lead the group, which also includes Alice, Jasper, Emmet, and Rosalie, all — like Edward — seemingly in their late teens.
While Bella negotiates the usual trials of late adolescence–making new friends, starting to plan for the future, dealing with her divorced parents — she does so within the context of her forbidden love for the vampire Edward. Their growing relationship alienates him from his “family” and separates her from her friends — recipe, of course, for a disaster, though a familiar one even in teen romances of the non-vampire sort. It’s not quite that Bella’s friends don’t like Edward, though — it’s more that they have nothing in common. He is perfectly elegant, drives an expensive car, and stays home from school on sunny days, while they drive beaters and work on the weekends. He doesn’t join their beach outings; they don’t know that he never sleeps. This is their first (and, they expect, only) time through high school; he’s been through it before, so often that he could teach all the classes he’s ostensibly taking.
Vampire stories are, of course, perfect for teenagers. Vampires stay out all night, scare the respectable citizens, take crazy risks, and live, seemingly, forever. And they’re both sexy and dangerous. Their feasting is intimate, and it’s transformative: the first time matters. Vampire stories come and go, but they’ve been particularly popular among teenagers, it seems to me, during the age of AIDS: they titillate with their suggestion of a sweet fatality borne in the blood, but they also — in the Twilight series especially — carry a strong message of abstinence. For Bella to give in to her desire for Edward could, he repeatedly warns, literally kill her. According to a friend of mine, Edward’s the perfect “tween” fantasy boyfriend: older and more experienced, he protects and guides her but is nonetheless sexually restrained. Of course many readers find this unnerving, even anti-feminist: they see in the Bella/Edward pairing an atypical May-December romance, with the dangerous older man “protecting” the accident-prone younger woman, keeping her from making her own mistakes, even from owning her own desires. When Edward worries about Bella, he acts without consulting her, making plans without her, sabotaging her car and, finally, leaving her, in the name of her own safety.
Yet Bella is hardly the shrinking violet this description might suggest. She repeatedly defies Edward, rejecting his protection to make her own way. While many critics of the romance genre decry the passive heroines, masterful heroes, and retrograde sexual politics of the novels, others have suggested that reading romance does in fact authorize female desire — so often denied, repressed, or denounced in both literature and popular culture. Bella’s desire is certainly central to the books — a healthy seventeen-year-old at the beginning of the series, she yearns for intimacy with Edward, imagining what she cannot experience. And indeed, her growing desire throughout the series to join Edward as a vampire — which, again, some critics have derided as an antifeminist fantasy of abandoning one’s identity for a man — is in fact as much a desire for equality as it is for deathless love (though it is that, too). As a vampire, Bella can potentially become Edward’s equal in strength and in wisdom. In a funny twist on contemporary sexual politics, their debate over whether she should become a vampire makes her the aggressor, him the spokesperson for abstinence. When he finally agrees to “turn” her, he becomes a parody of a ’50s girlfriend, repeating the classic refrain, “Not until we’re married.” Bella, eager for equality, balks at the idea of teen marriage, and the issue remains unresolved in the series so far. It’s probably worth noting here, too, that while in general these books try to avoid the masochism inherent in the usual human-vampire romance, it’s the threat of real pain on “conversion” that gives Bella pause — as it should. The disturbingly sado-masochistic relationships between werewolves and their human mates suggested in the second and third books of the series ultimately offer little improvement on the human-vampire pairing for this very reason.
There’s a fundamental difference between the Twilight series and Stoker’s Dracula in their attitudes towards modernity: while in Stoker’s version the modern (typewriters, wax cylinder recording devices, and cameras) finally defeats the ancient, Meyer’s novels seem anxious about modern life. Bella’s Internet connection is slow, she doesn’t carry a cell phone, and she’s in love with a man who was born in 1901. Hers is a world seemingly untouched by IM-ing and Facebook, let alone by keg parties or hooking up. While the vampires in the Twilight series can manipulate technology for their own purposes (Edward seems to be particularly good with cars, but he can also record his own CDs for Bella), they are superior to it. Edward reads thoughts (except Bella’s), Alice sees the future, and all are superhumanly strong and fast. Small wonder that modernity loses its appeal in this context. So it’s no surprise that Edward seems to represent an older sexual ethic as well, urging marriage to a teenager eager just to get it on. These books seem to me to reflect an anxiety their tween readers may not even be able to articulate, about the pace of change in the world around them — and, of course, in their own bodies — and their readiness to face it. How much simpler would it be to face the future as a vampire, unchanged and relatively unchanging?
My crush on Dracula passed with the summer and the advent of a “real” boyfriend. He disappointed me in the end, of course, as most early boyfriends (yes, and girlfriends!) do. He didn’t offer me eternal life or even swoony silk shirts, but he was at least the same species as me. Just sharing a species, though, doesn’t guarantee shared values, ideals, goals. The deathless love promised in novels like Dracula (in its way) and Twilight suggests to readers that they deserve better than just a shared world. I — romantically — held out for more. I hope Bella and her tween readers will, too.
Thanks to the members of the child_lit listserv, whose spirited discussion of the Twilight series last winter piqued my interest and sparked this column.