Our Fascination with Vampires Really Bites

When the Twilight Saga was at its heyday, I made the decision to read all the books and watch all the films to help me connect with a pop culture phenomenon. At the time, a lot of my patients – both young and old – were immersed in the Saga and my knowledge of it did enhance my therapeutic relationship with them. Plus, I was curious what all the fuss was about. However, I refused to pay a lot of money to watch Breaking Dawn Part II (the last movie) in the theatre and I waited until I could see it with fast-forward capability. So now I have finally seen it and, let me tell you, I was seriously underwhelmed.

Like many of its critics, I am appalled by a lot of the messages inherent in the Twilight Saga. There are overtones of racism, sexism, classism and religious ideology in addition to unhealthy relationship dynamics and ridiculous mythology (sparkling, really?) but I will leave the analyses of and complaints about these issues to others. Instead, what I am pondering more at the moment is the underlying glamorization of youth and the subsequent fear of mortality that the Saga and other shows and movies about vampires depict. I find these themes and our fascination with vampires kind of dangerous (heh) due to their broader implications.

In the Twilight Saga, Bella Swan longs to be made into a vampire so she can halt her aging and live forever with her boyfriend, Edward Cullen. Every birthday is met with dread and Bella has nightmares about becoming an old woman. Bella is deeply jealous that even werewolves can arrest their aging when they are in wolf form. The anti-aging theme is so heavily stressed that I just want to scream, “I get it! Aging is bad!” The anti-aging emphasis is not exclusive to Twilight of course. If you take a look at other vampire based shows that abound on television – Being Human, Dracula, Lost Girl, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals – none of them contain many older people either. With very few exceptions, all of the vampires we meet are young, gorgeous and powerful because most of them “turned” while in their late teens and 20s.

I get why these stories underscore youth and the avoidance of true death (becoming a vampire doesn’t count as death because you’re still alive in some form). Growing older is tough. Your body isn’t as strong, flexible, resilient or as youthfully beautiful as it used to be. You have to face illness and injury. You realize that you will never accomplish all of the things you want to do. And, of course, you are closer to the end of your life which is, for most people, a pretty scary thought.

I also understand that these shows, movies and books are not precursors but instead reflections of the larger youth-oriented culture in which we live. Youth is key and we are all exhorted to look and feel younger. One of the biggest compliments you can receive is someone telling you that they never would have guessed how old you actually are. Vampires subvert this challenge of aging because while they are chronologically old, they always look young. No one would ever believe that Edward Cullen is actually over 100 years old instead of the 17 he appears to be.

The problem with the emphasis on youth and immortality is that it keeps us stuck in a place we don’t need to be. The spotlight we place on youth provides an unattainable ideal and promotes dissatisfaction with who we are. No one can stay young forever. Thus, if I focus on mourning my lost youth, I cannot concentrate on what’s good about today. If I’m so busy wishing I still look 25, I cannot appreciate the beauty I have in the present.

Nowhere is the damage of the obsession with youth more obvious than in the beautiful celebrities (primarily women) of my younger years who now clearly indulge in plastic surgery. Many of them go from attractive to looking kind of scary or, at the very least, unnatural. While I understand the pressures they face to look young, I wish they had the courage to allow themselves to age normally. Really, how bad could it be?

The focus on youth also ignores the fact that age brings with it a lot of benefits. Sometimes these are difficult to pinpoint but whenever I get frustrated with the aging process, all I have to do is think about friends of mine who died young. Then I feel sad because I realize all the things they missed. They never got the chance to have long-term romantic relationships, children, hard-won careers, pets, new friends, accumulated knowledge or other longed-for experiences. They never got to go through the developmental changes of middle and later life nor did they gain the wisdom age can bring. All they got was the emotional roller coaster of youth.

While some of the current crop of vampires do get to experience some of the things that go with age (but not a lot because their difference isolates them from most people), they never get to appreciate the true beauty of mortality: the ability to savor and cherish life. When things occur in limited quantities, they become highly valued. Time for most people is precious but if you have an infinite amount of it, then it loses its luster. Life is meant to be lived but for vampires who remain forever unchanged, it must eventually get dull. This is never brought up.

And then there is the part of living forever where all the people you love get older and die. To its credit, the Saga does mention this but Bella seems to shrug it off like it is nothing. No, she didn’t want to abandon her parents or her best friend Jacob but the thought of the pain she would feel in losing them forever was not going to deter her in the slightest from becoming Undead. This message – that watching those you love age and die is pretty unimportant – is at best intellectually dishonest and at most morally corrupt.

The relationships that we build with other people are what define us. They give our lives meaning, purpose and, most of all, joy. They keep us grounded so that we maintain the best aspect of our humanity: care for others. Part of what makes relationships so special is that we all experience the same things together. That’s why we have generations, the age-mates who know what we’re talking about when we mention historical events, popular culture or the personal transformations that occur with age.

To wit: people my age will understand when I write that when I started thinking about this essay, I kept hearing Queen’s song Who Wants to Live Forever in my head. This naturally led me to thinking about 1986’s film Highlander because the song was the movie’s anthem. That film dealt with immortality at least somewhat realistically. The Highlander could not age or die (unless he was beheaded), so he had to live his life on the fringes of society. Anyone he loved would age and die, thus he had no true companion. He could never stay in one place for very long lest his continual youth be noticed.

For the Highlander, immortality was boredom, loss and isolation and he hated it. In his long experience, quantity was not better than quality. That is why his reward at the end of the movie (among other things) was that he could age and die. He could finally have it all. It was also why Queen’s song was chosen. Their haunting lyrics explained why immortality is what you make it:

This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us
But touch my tears with your lips
Touch my world with your fingertips
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today.

And this is truly where our fascination with vampires should lead us. Youth is great but it is just a moment in time. We must appreciate all arcs that make up the circle of life so that we can revel in the age we are today. Mortality is a gift that encourages us to make the most of the life we are lucky enough to have. Let immortality be about the love you share with others. After all, it is better to live than to just exist.

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