Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Is the latest vampire fad still going?

Almost two months ago (yes, I really need to clear my desk) Noah Berlatsky wrote something that caught my interest.

In his book Forbidden Partners: The Incest Taboo In Modern Culture, James B. Twitchell argues that the gothic romance, and particularly the vampire story, is built upon the fascination/titillation/horror of the incest taboo. Twitchell points out that the vampire is typically an older, powerful man who attacks a younger, often virginal woman, forcing upon her an intimate encounter which involves a sex-like, perverted mingling of blood. Twitchell also reminds us that:

    The most startling aspect of the folkloric vampire is that he must first attack members of his own family. This prerequisite has been lost in our modern versions, but it is clear in almost every early story in almost every culture. We may have neglected this because we find it too dull and predictable, but it may also be…because this familial tie makes all too clear the vampire’s specific sexual design.

The most popular current version of the vampire story is, of course, Twilight. Twilight differs from Dracula in many ways — but it definitively retains the gothic fascination with inbred family structures. Bella, notably, calls her father “Charlie” — his first name — and when she moves back in with him, she cooks for and takes care of him more like a wife than like a daughter. Bella’s surrogate vampire family is even more flagrantly incestuous; Carlyle’s “children”, turned vampire by him, all live together as brothers and sisters — and, at the same time, as paired husbands and wives. Even Carlyle himself, and his wife appear no older than their “kids” — who they create not by having sex with each other, but by having sex with the children themselves. Father/mother/brother/sister — the familial roles are all, for the vampires, arbitrary, interchangeable, and interpenetrated with sex.

The vampire thing has been a sexual thing perhaps from the beginning. I never caught the possible incest connection, however.
At the same time, Twitchell notes that the gothic — incest and all — has long appealed strongly to young women. Why should this be? Twitchell doesn’t have any very good explanation — he mutters something vaguely about false consciousness, stammers about symbolic representations of hymens breaking, waves his hands, and scurries on by.

Gale Swiontkowski in Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life With Daddy provides a somewhat more convincing explanation of the appeal of incest narratives for young women (if not of vampires per se.) Looking at American women poets, Swiontkowski argues that for daughters incest with the father can be a kind of symbolic grasping of patriarchal power — a repudiation of passivity in favor of the phallus. Obviously, this is a fraught and potentially damaging transaction, especially in the not-nearly-infrequent-enough-cases where there is actual incest and abuse. Still, Swiontkowski argues:

    An advocacy of incest by men, as in pornography, is a regressive move toward social and psychological hoarding that enslaves women to men’s desires, especially if it is taken as a literal enactment of the right of males in patriarchy. The advocacy of symbolic incest by women is an enlightening and advancing move because it breaches the social restrictions on women that determine their subservience in a patriarchy.
"The Hunger Games" is tied in to all of this, too.

It is sometimes more accepted and even artistically enhanced to present things in metaphor rather than in starkly direct terms. What do you think?
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