Since its inception, vampire fiction has incurred a great deal of criticism. Like any category of genre fiction, vampire fiction has been derided as not “real” literature and nothing more than sensational pulp. The genre has been characterized as immoral and rife with sexual eroticism, containing nothing of literary merit.
Although I myself have never been a huge fan of vampire fiction, I can appreciate it for its ability to communicate ideas about the society in which it was produced. In particular, we can use vampire fiction to read ideas about sexuality. Vampires in English and American literature have almost always carried some kind of sexual weight. As a subgenre of supernatural fiction, vampire fiction is also known for exploring what is and is not socially acceptable. However, not all iterations of vampire fiction push social boundaries, as we see with Stephanie Meyer’s popular Twilight series.
A foundational text in the vampire fiction genre is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula explores many Victorian era social norms, including sexuality. In the Victorian era in the United States and England, sexuality (especially female sexuality) was something to be repressed and hidden behind closed doors. Female sexuality was so feared, in fact, that women in the Victorian Era who were perceived as sexually forward were diagnosed with hysteria, as if sexual desire in women was some kind of ailment. As such, a number of novels, including Dracula, explored this theme.
Dracula both defined traditional Victorian sexual norms and pressed on anxieties and fears with regard to alternative sexuality. Dracula defines “normal” Victorian sexuality with men taking the active role and protecting fragile, innocent women. Women were not expected to have knowledge of sex, nor were they supposed to take any actions with regard to meeting their own sexual desires. (In fact, women who had sexual desire outside of marriage were considered to be unwell.) We see these norms represented in several places in Dracula. First, the men of the novel take the active role to defend the women (Lucy and Mina) from Dracula, a social outcast and “other” figure. In the novel, the women who make sexual advances toward men are vampires who are also coded as “other” for this deviant sexual activity. We also know that these women’s behavior goes against societal norms because of the reaction of the man who receives their attention: Jonathan Harker is terrified. However, we can also see an exploration of nontraditional sexuality in the novel as well. When the vampire women attempt to seduce Harker, he is not only afraid but also filled with a “wicked, burning desire” at seeing such forward women. There are implications of oral sex—“the fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me”—yet another example of nontraditional sexuality. These anxieties about sexually knowledgeable and independent women may also be code for a fear of homosexuality. As Marjorie Howes writes, “Because the fundamental ambivalences motivating the novel revolve around…male homosexuality, Dracula uses the feminine to displace and mediate the anxiety-causing elements of masculine character.” Although Dracula does not necessarily condone alternative sexualities, it does use the genre of vampire fiction to explore them.
Another more modern vampire novel that deals with the theme of sexuality is the popular young adult romance series Twilight. Twilight’s vampires are young and attractive—unlike the pale, deathly Dracula—and attempt to coexist with humans rather than conquer them. The book itself is also categorized as a romance, which contains a number of other genre conventions, mainly concerning sexuality. This overlap, then, might breed a contemporary exploration of sexual norms, especially considering it was published in the early 2000s when the policing of sexuality was not as harsh as it was in Bram Stoker’s time. However, this is not the case.
Twilight, in contrast to Dracula, more strictly adheres to traditional norms of sexuality and gender. The main character Bella is extremely dependent on her vampire boyfriend Edward and is given very little personality outside of her feelings and relationship with him. As Melissa Ames writes, “Bella is consistently depicted as the damsel in distress forever in need of rescue by a male.” Ames continues that “sex is sinful and off-limits” in Twilight. Edward refuses Bella’s sexual advances until after they are married in the fourth book, and when they do have sex, Edward hurts her due to his hard, cold body. Even within the typically-acceptable confines of marriage, sex is dangerous.
So why might Twilight, a book series that for the most part conforms to traditional norms of gender and sexuality, be so popular in our modern age? Kristine Moruzi argues that, for one, “the ability of the gothic to provide a strong, postfeminist heroine is constrained by traditional romantic conventions.” Since the romance genre is predominantly interested in heterosexuality, little room is left for Bella or any other character in Twilight to explore an alternative. Another reason for the popularity of the series might be that, despite living in a more gender-neutral society, teen girls may have been drawn to Twilight because of its strict adherence to traditional sexuality. In the same way that Victorian readers may have been drawn to Dracula because of its exploration of nontraditional sexualities, readers of Twilight may have found the series appealing because it offered a portrayal of sexuality that was, to some degree or another, being discouraged.
There’s certainly an irony here. Of course, the genre of vampire fiction is much wider than the two books I’ve examined here, and they all have their own takes on sexuality. However, as Melissa Ames writes, “it is also clear that the vampire narratives have the potential to develop subversive storylines that can question these very notions [about sexuality].” While we’ve seen many different portrayals of the vampire—from the pale and terrifying to the “wicked” and sexy to the brooding and sparkly—the link between the vampire genre and sexuality is one that cannot be ignored.
Ames, Melissa A., “Vamping up Sex: Audience, Age, & Portrayals of Sexuality in Vampire Narratives.” Faculty Research & Creative Activity, 12, 2010. http://thekeep.eiu.edu/eng_fac/12
Howes, Marjorie. “The Mediation of the Feminine: Bisexuality, Homoerotic Desire, and Self-Expression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 30, no. 1, 1988, pp. 104–119. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40754849.
Moruzi, Kristine. “Postfeminist Fantasies: Sexuality and Femininity in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ Series.” Genre, Reception, and Adaptation in the ‘Twilight’ Series, edited by Anne Morey, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp. 47-64.
Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Edited by Nina Auerbach and David J. Skal, Norton Critical Editions, 1997.