Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where Have All the Vampires Gone?

The other night, I finally got around to watching the 1922 silent horror film Nosferatu. This has been on my to-do list for some time now (at the recommendation of my film buff brother), but I’ve been putting it off because I anticipated having to watch it with a certain amount of self-discipline, akin to that required for sticking with a Victorian novel. So I was pretty surprised when I found the movie completely mesmerizing—beautiful yet macabre, true to its subtitle: “A Symphony of Horror.”

I was even more surprised that it actually frightened me. I mean, as much as I avoid modern disasters like Saw IV and The Hills Have Eyes, I’ve become inured to the shock tactics they employ as much as everyone else in these unfortunate days. So I didn’t quite expect the black-and-white vistas of a 1920’s silent classic to be so unsettling. After doing some research (er, reading my Netflix mailer slip) I found that, in fact, “many horror-film fanatics call F.W. Murnau’s silent German classic…the scariest Dracula adaptation ever.” Thank you, horror-film fanatics, for making me feel less like a total lame-o.

However, I’ve been thinking about it, and I disagree with their assessment. Assuming it’s safe to say that most North American vampire lore comes from the Dracula legend in some fashion, I’d postulate instead that the modern-day Twilight saga is actually its most frightening adaptation to date.

Of course, I’m working with a different definition of “scary” here—I’m thinking more along the lines of cultural implications than hair-raising fun. Basically, the fact that vampires on the silver screen have somehow gone from looking like Nosferatu to Edward Cullen scares me because it says something about the culture in which we live: a dishonest culture, which has little sense of real mystery left. Real mystery is frightening, and an honest look at life means acknowledging the mysteriously monstrous for what it is. Twilight is supposed to be about monsters, vampires (not to mention werewolves)…but these guys look more like androgynous runway models from Milan. I mean, take a good look at our boy Edward here. I don’t care if sunlight doesn’t kill him (I’ll not mention the awkward fact that he glitters under UV exposure), or how fast he can run a baseball diamond; he looks like a light hors d’oeuvre for Nosferatu.

So while half of America overexposes itself to violence so much that the only thing that satisfies its average horror movie-goer is quite literally “torture porn,” the rest of us make monsters sexy and romantic, and feel good about ourselves because we’re not lining up for Eli Roth films. But at the end of the day it seems like we’re all playing with fire. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: just because I’m a half-closeted culture snob doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate a guilty pleasure as much as the next gal, and all of my friends who enjoy Twilight tend to label it as such. Plus, people LOVE this stuff, and it’s hard for me to tell people to stop reading. Though I’ve not read the books, I have suffered through the first two movies. When I went to the theater to see the first installment, there was an entire row of giggling 6th graders sitting behind me, each with an open Twilight book in her lap, eagerly absorbing the last detail of Edward and Bella’s affair before the lights dimmed. Seeing that I literally used to read the latest Babysitter’s Club book while walking behind my mother at the grocery store, who am I to deny them their pre-teen literary addictions?

In the end, what scares me about Twilight is not the lowbrow culture it creates (we all have our indulgences). It’s not the false concepts of romantic love the story encourages (although far less cheesy, is Jane Austen really that much more realistic?); it’s not even the gender stereotypes it enforces (though I do find them vapidly cliché, not to mention a potential setback for those who want young women to strive to be more than objects of desire). What actually scares me is that there are hardly any real monsters left in our cultural mass productions. While torture porn numbs its viewers to the fragility of our incarnation and its close ties with the spirit, the Twilight culture takes what used to be mythic semblances of death and makes them easy on the eyes and cheap to the imagination. And I suspect that Western culture’s vampires have gradually evolved from Nosferatu to Edward because we’re increasingly so obsessed with youth, progress, and happiness that we’re de facto more and more obsessed with denying the slow reality of decay and the empty darkness that is woven into the fabric of our existence. The natural dénouement is that we throw some hair gel and a top-40 soundtrack at it and sweep the rest under the rug.   

Why do I wish someone would preach on this from the pulpit, you might ask? Because I believe that people who profess belief in the sacred ought not try to escape reality for too long or too often. Shouldn’t Christians most heartily endorse art that will equip us to embrace life more deeply, rather than avoid it? And the monstrous nihil of existence just isn’t sexy in real life.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to go out and burn his or her “Team Jacob” t-shirt and rent some lesser-known Hitchcock (though I’d be supremely okay with that). I’m just saying that of all people, Christians, who ascribe such power to the movement of death and resurrection, should get comfortable with the mysteriously macabre, truly frightening aspects of life—which I believe are intertwined but ultimately redeemed by that which is mysteriously beautiful and life-giving.  

Watching F.W. Murnau’s silent German classic, the “scariest Dracula adaptation ever,” may be as good a starting place as any.