The Ascent of the Vampire

Today’s post is by Laurence A. Rickels, professor of German and comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Devil Notebooks, The Vampire Lectures and the forthcoming I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick (Minnesota 2010). He talks with us about the ascent of the vampire in popular culture; the popularity of Twilight; and “psycho violence” in horror cinema.

Q: I enjoyed your Artforum article on HBO’s True Blood series. Why do you think so many films, TV series and mass-market books about vampires (True Blood, Twilight, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, and Vampire Diaries, to name a few) have been popping up lately? Perhaps in uncertain times like these, there’s likely to be a heightened interest in the posthuman human and/or the undead?

A: There are (at least) two developments supporting the return of the vampire. The first is that the vampire’s return displaces (from the screen) the dominance of zombie films we watched throughout the Bush years. The recent Zombieland is the diminishing return as farce of the tragedy that “Eight Years Later” we now must recognize: we thrilled to our survival through killing ambulatory corpses. It’s possible to argue that there was a generalized PTSD afflicting Americans during those years, with the actual cases back from Afghanistan and Iraq at the front of this line. The turn to vampires demonstrates a renewed capacity for affirmation of life as undeath rather than as zombie murder. It also means that identification with the dead or undead has again become possible (that one doesn’t identify with your average zombie is the point). This relationship to mourning or unmourning in vampirism was the main theme of my 1999 book The Vampire Lectures.

What remains in the background of the ascent of the vampire is the psycho killer, who returned to the screen during the zombie years. The psycho is the problem that current identifications with vampirism can’t get around. The vampire isn’t about killing but about extending life or unlife. Psycho killers are most closely related to the Devil’s clients; both might dismiss the investment in vampirism as immortality neurosis. What we have now, in a show like True Blood, is a portrait of human society deregulated by total integration, to which the vampire as minority gains admission. The included vampire is a positive portrait of humanity in which the bond between self and other is affirmed. Lurking in the shadows, however, are still the psychos who delight in killing the living, the undead, and the dead. The psycho killer like the client of the Devil does not mourn (or unmourn).

That a franchise like Saw applies an infernal frame to the killing as a kind of deranged preaching suggests that a renewed relationship to the Devil has accompanied the return of the psycho killer to movie culture. The Devil and his select clients, in contrast to vampirism, which blends boundaries, pursue an ideology of certainty that coincides with the current crime culture of DNA (which emerged out of paternity testing). A recent review of (my book) The Devil Notebooks in an Austrian journal of criminology astutely points to the current value of understanding the appeal of what I called in that book “Dad certainty” for students of crime and criminals. This summer I finished my horror trilogy with a volume on slasher and splatter cinema titled The Psycho Files. As you can see a series of contrasts and identifications interlaces my three subjects: the undead, the infernal, and the “psycho.”

Another major development supporting the current vampire boom concerns the raising to consciousness of the early teen “romance” market. The Twilight series managed to double the whammy by designing books that mothers and their pubescent daughters could share. Teens must protect their personal space. They can do that by engaging in cursory sex with group members to establish relations in which each party remains intact and separate. Or a romantic culture of “abstinence,” which in Twilight derives its support from the traditional absence of genital sex in vampirism, can guarantee the teen girl’s singular approach to ultimate couplification, which in the culture of vampirism need not be compromised by the ambivalent stamp of group approval.

The family value of couplification becomes a fantastic rather than out-of-touch option. That the canon is now being remixed with occult horror in remakes like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies shows that the teen, now that she can be caught where she reads (for the first time on her own, not as assigned, and thus as true consumer), is what’s new in the bestseller business. As good girl the protagonist of Twilight enjoys a relationship to canon works, even in the school setting, but as mediated by her favorite film adaptations. The discovery of the teen consumer of “mediated” books is a local counterpart to the global discovery of the Chinese consumer for all markets.

Isn’t the vampire a more affirmative model of consumerism than the zombie? Yes. However it is the “psycho” in our midst, who returned at the same time as the zombie to the screens of mass culture (largely through contact or contract with the Devil), who poses a problem that exceeds the inoculations that entertainment can administer. Indeed the “psycho” can be considered a failure of interpretation and understanding. In his or her case we remain cureless. And yet the psycho killer is so far away, really unthinkable, but also really close, too close. In the language of object-relations psychoanalysis one might say: “there but for the grace of the good object go I.” It is our relationship to psycho violence that will remain for the time to come the most serious issue passing before our eyes in horror cinema.


Laurence A. Rickels is professor of German and comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Devil Notebooks, The Vampire Lectures and I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick.

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