Abraham "Bram" Stoker (November 8, 1847 – April 20, 1912) was an Irish novelist and short story writer, best known today for his 1897 Gothic novel Dracula. During his lifetime, he was better known as personal assistant of actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned.

Maria Lindgren Leavenworth: “What are you?” Fear, desire, and disgust in the Southern Vampire Mysteries and True Blood


Maria Lindgren Leavenworth, Umeå University


Among the monsters that populate written pages, stages and large and small screens, the figure of the vampire, often both dashing and terrifying, most clearly evokes the emotions fear and desire. The two guiding emotions are particularly closely intertwined in the many contemporary vampire narratives which are based in the romance genre rather than in traditional horror. The intermingling of the emotions occurs on two levels: inside and outside the text itself. Focusing on the latter―the reader, viewer and listener’s affects―Jeffrey Cohen argues that the “escapist fantasies” the monster provides as well as the “fantasies of aggression, domination and inversion are allowed safe expression in a clearly delimited and permanently liminal space” (1996: 17). This space, then, is figured not as the monster itself, but as the audience’s temporary experience. Significantly, many discussions about vampire texts follow in this vein, with focus on what the monster represents to the listener, reader or viewer and seeing the experience of the text itself as a site of emotional meaning. In what follows, interest is rather in how fear and desire are mapped onto a liminal body, and how characters voice these emotions and act according to them.
Whereas vampire representations of earlier time periods may have provoked fear and repulsion simply because “vampirism as such was evil” (Carter 1999: 27), there is a noticeable trend in contemporary narratives to represent vampires as attractive, romantic heroes. These sympathetic vampires, rather than being based on the Dracula figure, are modeled on the early 19th-century Romantic instantiations created by John Polidori and Lord Byron, and they have ties to the glamorous vampires as envisaged by Anne Rice (Williamson 2005: 29-50). In contrast to Rice’s novels, however, romance and love between human and vampire (rather than between vampire and vampire) are now in focus. Such is the case in Charlaine Harris’ as yet unfinished Southern Vampire Mysteries series (2001 ―), and Alan Ball’s adaptation in the hitherto five seasons of the HBO-series True Blood (2008-2012). Despite Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 37 differences on the plot level, the adaptation is fairly faithful to the novels in terms of setting and, with a few exceptions, characterizations. In the following discussion written and visual text will often be seen as forming one, more or less cohesive, text world, which will be seen in relation to other, past and contemporary, narratives to tease out the vampire’s function, particularly in the depictions of fear and desire. Of interest is also how the emotion of disgust is figured in the text world, both in relation to the seeming paradox inherent in human attraction to the revenant, and to the vampires’ reaction to the prolonged contact wit humans in the supposedly multicultural society.



Rather than seeing the affects as automatic responses, thus reading
both vampires and human characters from a psychological angle, the
emotions will in what follows be approached from the political cultural
studies perspective as outlined by Sara Ahmed in The Cultural Politics of
Emotion. Ahmed maintains that “emotions should not be regarded as
psychological states, but as social and cultural practices” (2004: 9) and
that they are shaped by repetition. Rather than being biologically
unavoidable responses inherent in the subject, fear, desire and disgust
stem from the tradition with which the object (the vampire in this case)
has been represented within a culture. That is, emotions are “shaped by
contact with objects, rather than being caused by objects” (Ahmed 2004:
6). To apply highly political theories to popular culture is not intended to
in any way trivialize the important claims Ahmed makes regarding
racism, but rather to show how patterns reoccur and have similar effects
in the studied text world. Readings of how different forms of Othering
occur throughout the SVMs and True Blood thus illuminate how
emotions are evoked in the meeting between human and monster.
Bodies that fear
Through its literary and cultural history, the figure of the vampire has
reflected various anxieties and fears connected to the invasion of either
bodily or geographical space (or commonly, both). In the contemporary
“post-colonial, post- or trans-national world,” such as the one depicted in
the text world, the vampire is increasingly useful in reflecting “anxieties
[which] focus on the struggles of integration rather than expulsion”
(Muth 2011: 76). No longer threatening the outside borders of the nation,
the vampire is figured as already part of it, which entails, on the part of
Maria Lindgren 38 Leavenworth
humans, different, albeit still fearful, forms of encounters. One of
Ahmed’s central arguments is that both individual and collective surfaces
are made in the meeting between bodies; meetings which create rather
than enforce already existing boundaries. She suggests that we “think of
the skin as a surface that is felt only in the event of being ‘impressed
upon’ in the encounters we have with others” (Ahmed 2004: 25). It is
only when surfaces are felt that a distinction can be made between self
and Other. In contrast to the majority of traditional vampire narratives,
where the nature of the beast is initially unknown and only gradually
revealed to the human protagonists, intermittent meetings between
humans and vampires strongly emphasise the difference between an
individual self and an Other, but it is seldom the case that humanity at
large becomes aware of the supernatural existence.1 That is, the body of
the community as such is rarely impressed upon by the body of the
vampire group. In contrast, vampires in the Southern Vampire Mysteries
and True Blood are a known reality: the “legally recognized undead”
(Harris 2001: 1). The outing of the new minority is a fairly recent, global
event, the “announcement … made in hundreds of different languages,
by hundreds of carefully picked personable vampires” (Harris 2003: 5).
The temporal contact between humans and vampires is limited, but it still
entails an ontological shift by which surfaces of bodies are strongly felt,
and boundaries between self and Other erected.
In the meeting between bodies in the text world, differences abound,
but vampires also attempt to emphasize potential similarities, both
positive and negative, to forge links between themselves and humans.
The new minority group insists on vampirism as being brought on by a
virus, which aligns them with other groups whose conditions are
involuntary. Issues of free will and choice, rather than traditional
vampiric determinism, forge another link and are predominantly
1 In these types of narratives, the process of uncovering the vampire’s true
nature often constitutes the main plot, and there are many contemporary texts
which reiterate it. Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) and Joel Shumacher’s
film The Lost Boys (1987) can be mentioned as examples of texts which dwell at
length on the identification of the monster and its weaknesses and strengths. In
narratives contemporaneous with the text world considered here, and with a
similar focus on romance, such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight-saga and L. J.
Smith’s Vampire Diaries, the human protagonists have an awareness of
vampires, but the supernatural element is kept secret from the larger community.
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 39
connected to the possibility of mainstreaming: subsisting on the
synthetically produced Tru Blood. The blood substitute radically
decreases the vampiric threat, and comparisons with human atrocities
further the image of the unharmful Other. In True Blood, vampire
spokesperson Nan Flanagan appears on Real Time with Bill Maher and
when asked about vampires’ alleged “sordid history of exploiting and
feeding off innocent people,” turns the tables to human history. “We
never owned slaves, Bill, or ... detonated nuclear weapons” (2008: 1.1
“Strange Love”). These moves align the text world with other narratives
in which the “‘good vampire’ is defined as such by his or her interaction
with humanity,” and in which fear and hate caused by the human
characters’ meeting with the Other is “called into question by measuring
vampiric ‘evil’ against the evil perpetrated by humanity” (Carter 1999:
165-66). In the text world there is thus a conscious strategy on the part of
the vampires to on the one hand downplay the threat they pose and
represent themselves as victims, on the other to relativize the threat they
do pose.
The global community has reacted in various ways to vampires
coming out and illustrated different levels of tolerance of the new
minority. Sookie Stackhouse, the (initially) human protagonist and
narrator in the novels, reports that the US has “adopted a more tolerant
attitude” than many other nations, but it is also established that regional
differences play a part in what reactions are seen as permissible (Harris
2003: 6). The sociocultural Othering of the vampire in the American
South, and then particularly the small Louisiana town of Bon Temps,
plays into the long, although by no means unique, history of segregation
of various minority groups.2 Reading vampire texts through the lens of
regional fiction, Evangelia Kindinger suggests that the “deviance” of the
regional setting, seen in relation to the supposedly heteronormative and
cohesive larger American nation, “is enhanced and elaborated on through
the presence of supernatural and monstrous characters” (2011: 17).
Vampire presence in the regional setting, and the emotion of fear evoked
2 Maria Holmgren Troy reads True Blood in conjunction with Jewelle Gomez’s
The Gilda Stories (1991), parts of which are also set in the American South,
arguing that very particular aspects of the past, such as slavery, are usefully
illuminated through the vampire protagonists’ position “between memory and
history: [they are] remembering subjects as well as embodiments and
transmitters of the past” (2010: 71).
Maria Lindgren 40 Leavenworth
in human/vampire contact, highlight a long history in which differences
between individuals have been enforced. Bon Temps, where inhabitants
keep close tabs on each other and have a shared history which locks
people into roles,3 is represented as “less tolerant” of sexual and ethnic
minorities than cosmopolitan cities (Harris 2002: 9). Ignorance and
homophobia have free reins when customers at Merlotte’s bar accuse the
gay cook Lafayette of contaminating their food with AIDS (2008: 1.5
“Sparks Fly Out”). When African American Tara suggests to policemen
that she is in a relationship with a white man, she reflects that: “Race is
still a button you can push” and that “mixed couples” are frowned upon
despite the changing times which see an increasing number of
vampire/human relationships (2008: 1.4 “Escape from Dragon House”).
Discourses of racial segregation and sexual prejudice thus work as a
backdrop to fearful feelings towards vampires. Reactions to the new
minority group in many ways mirror previous structures, evoked by long
histories of contact between bodies, and reiterated by those who have
something to gain from hate and fear.
Despite these tensions and prejudices, human inhabitants come
together in the face of approaching disruption from the outside. As
Ahmed discusses in relation to the emotion hate, the creation of a
cohesive community is dependent on individuals’ love for something (a
nation, an idea) in relation to which other subjects’ “‘unlikeness’ from
‘us’” identifies Others (2004: 44). Despite differences in sexuality and
skin colour, the common denominator in the text world becomes
humanity and a sharp contrast forms in relation to the non-human (or
used to be human). The threat to the temporarily cohesive community,
the shared space, is often figured “as a border anxiety: fear speaks the
language of ‘floods’ and ‘swamps’, of being invaded by inappropriate
others against whom the nation must defend itself” (Ahmed 2004: 76). In
Dead Until Dark this anxiety is verbalized by a lawyer who states the
necessity of “a wall between us and the so-called virus-infected. I think
God intended that wall to be there, and I for one, will hold up my
section” (Harris 2001: 264-265). The metaphorical wall is intended to
shield self from Other, same from different, and to avoid the vampiric
3 See for example Detective Andy Bellefleur’s struggle with his professional
role due to “the old connections, the shared high school, the knowledge of each
other’s family” (Harris 2001: 87-88).
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 41
body impressing upon the human. The stress on sections being upheld by
individuals also works towards the idea that the protection of the human
community is a joint effort.
The fear of the Other articulated on collective levels in the text world
is aptly illustrated through attitudes expressed by members of the
Fellowship of the Sun, an organization which consistently stresses an
oncoming threat and consequently “works to secure the relationship
between [the] bodies” of self and Other (Ahmed 2004: 63). Focusing on
killings allegedly perpetrated by vampires, the Fellowship maintains and
kindles the image of the vampire as a “bloodsucking abomination” (1:12
“You’ll Be the Death of Me”) and it is described as being to vampires,
“[w]hat the Klan was to African Americans” (Harris 2002: 104).4 Its
leader uses a Christian rhetoric arguing that “hating evil is really loving
good” (2009: 2.3 “Scratches”) and repeatedly comes back to this binary
with good, predictably, connected to light and the sun, and evil to
darkness and night. The military approach of the Fellowship’s boot
camps and the stress on obedience emphasize the border anxiety and in
time develops into a full out war scenario, exposing the hypocrisy of an
organization which on the surface stresses peace and the importance of
doing God’s work.
Through both individual and collective reactions, characters in the
text world illustrate the social and cultural practices which produce and
reproduce a fear of the Other. The human characters have previously, in
Ahmed’s terminology, felt their skin as a surface in relation to other
minority groups, but their past, shared history has also meant that their
attitudes because of the sociopolitical climate need to be hidden. The
character Maxine Fortenberry provides a succinct example as, even
though full of contempt for a whimsical array of demographics, such as
Methodists, Catholics and ladies who wear red shoes, she is also hateful
towards African Americans. Racism is the only form of hate she tries to
hide, with the line “hush, that’s a secret,” and her reason for her emotions
is age-old: “That’s how I was raised up.” The personal history cited here
is illustrative of the social and cultural practice by which she has been
instructed to hate African Americans, but she is not ignorant of the
4 In the fifth season of True Blood, the KKK, which here functions as an
analogy, takes concrete shape. In response to increasingly violent vampire
attacks, a local Bon Temps Chapter forms.
Maria Lindgren 42 Leavenworth
changing times making statements to this effect impermissible. Her view
of vampires, that they are “wrong, wrong, wrong [and] devils” is on the
other hand not an emotional reaction she strives to hide (2009: 2.9 “I
Will Rise Up”). For Maxine, like the lawyer and the Fellowship of the
Sun, the difference, not in degree but in kind, between human and
vampire makes for a more accepted outlet of emotive, hateful
expressions.
Romance, deadness and danger
Cultural and social constructions of Otherness are central even in
contemporary vampire narratives which focus on relational, romantic
attachments. What is different in these texts can also be perceived as
deeply attractive, or even be a prerequisite for this attraction in a culture
in which outsiders (in some contexts) are less stigmatized. As Milly
Williamson argues, the contemporary vampire “has become an image of
emulation [offering] a way of inhabiting difference with pride, for
embracing defiantly an identity that the world at large sees as ‘other’”
(2005: 1). The main vampires in the text world, Bill Compton and Eric
Northman, are depicted as objects of love and desire, but simultaneously
as very different. They can be labelled “heroic antagonist[s],” the
oxymoron signaling characters that are simultaneously “admirable and
subversive” (Heldreth and Pharr 1999: 1). Romantic conventions
influence how these heroic antagonists are portrayed, but also how
Sookie is placed in relation to them. In contrast to other human
characters in the text world, Sookie has expanded knowledge and
abilities to assist the vampires in various ways. The romance staples of
overcoming odds, of portraying the human character as able to disarm
potential threats because of attraction or love, and of depicting her as
extraordinary thus work to stress not only why Sookie is drawn to the
outsiders, but why they are drawn to her.
The attraction between Sookie and the main vampires also hinges on
the depiction of her as an outsider. The novels’ first-person perspective
and the initial voice-over in the TV-series, along with a continuous
focalization, establish that Sookie is the character inhabiting the
normative role. In a fictional world increasingly populated by
supernaturals of various kinds, she is initially the human touch stone,
with a liberal attitude to the marginalized, non-human groups she comes
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 43
into contact with. Further, she is characterized as relatively open-minded
about ethnicity and sexuality, yet she displays human (perhaps familiar)
shortcomings in some of her views.5 But Sookie is also literally openminded
in that she has access to other people’s thoughts. Her telepathic
gift enables her to overhear bigoted opinions, demeaning views about
herself, and secrets that people have no desire to have known. In the text
world there are few stereotypical traits and no cultural script governing
attitudes and reactions to telepaths, arguably making Sookie into one of
the main sources of fear. The question “what are you?” is not, as would
be expected, asked of vampires (or even the lesser known supernaturals
in the text world), but rather, and repeatedly, of Sookie herself.6
Sookie’s ability, or “disability” as she characterises it, along with the
fact that she is revealed as part fae, place her in a marginalized position
and make it difficult to unreservedly read her as the norm (Harris 2001:
2). She is considered (both by others and herself) as an aberration and is
repeatedly referred to as a “freak” (Harris 2001: 217; 2002: 60). Her and
her family’s struggle with her Otherness has given rise to feelings of
embarrassment and shame (see e.g. Harris 2001: 51); emotions which
naturalize her gravitation towards other outsiders. Ahmed states that
shame can be read as “the affective cost of not following the scripts of
normative existence” leading to an individual seeking to “enter into the
‘contract’ of the social bond” (2004: 107, original emphasis). Sookie
enters into one kind of social bond whereby the vampires offer a sense of
togetherness, and inclusion in the vampire community offers a release
from the shame since the scripts of normative existence in their company
is substantially rewritten.
The friendly, romantic or erotic appeal of the vampires’ Otherness
may seem at odds with the fact that they are dead (or undead) and that
the meeting between human and vampire bodies should produce disgust
rather than desire. Drawing on Julia Kristeva’s discussions about
abjection, Ahmed suggests that what is perceived as disgusting is not
alien to the subject: “what threatens from the outside only threatens
5 Especially in the Southern Vampire Mysteries where the reader is privy to her
thoughts, it is made clear that she is quick to jump to conclusions, sometimes
based on peoples’ actions, sometimes because of her lack of exposure to ethnic
and sexual difference.
6 See for example Dead Until Dark, where Bill asks this question at least three
times (Harris 2001: 13, 27, 32).
Maria Lindgren 44 Leavenworth
insofar as it is already within” (2004: 86). The corpse, or the revenant in
this case, is therefore likely to provoke disgust as it is the negation of the
living body. In the text world, however, the issue of deadness is initially
downplayed by the suggestion that vampires suffer from a mysterious
virus. Rather than being dead, they simply manifest allergic reactions to,
for example, sunlight, garlic and silver. But this version, or “propaganda”
as Sookie’s employer Sam terms it, becomes untenable as additional
categories of supernaturals make their appearance in Bon Temps. Sam
(himself a shape shifter) concludes that, “I’m sorry, Sookie. But Bill
doesn’t just have a virus. He’s really, really dead” (Harris 2001: 252).
Sookie later reflects that she has been “happier [believing that] Bill had
some classifiable illness” (Harris 2002: 63), but his deadness does not
make her terminate the relationship. Genre plays an important part in
changing attitudes because with the general change from horror to
romance comes a shift in focus from the vampire as signifying the dead
body to it representing a figure of immortality. Rather than representing
“deadness or dead things” the contemporary, romantic vampire trope
represents “death as transformation” (Bosky 1999: 218-19). Sookie’s
own position as an outsider explains why she would desire
transformation and the text world’s partial grounding in traditional
romance downplays potential disgust in favor of an idealization of the
immortal state.
Even as threats are diminished, and as deadness shifts to signal a
sought-after transformation, there are tendencies in vampire fiction to
continue the stress on potential dangers. In connection with audiences,
Fred Botting argues that a lingering “negativity suggests a reason for
[their] continued emotional investment in figures [even when] horror
cedes to romance, and revulsion to attraction” (2008: 4) and the same can
be maintained regarding characters in the text world for whom the
emotions presuppose each other. In their initial meetings, Bill himself
draws attention to the lingering traces of negativity, and tries to instil fear
in Sookie. “Vampires” he says, “often turn on those who trust them. We
don’t have human values, you know” (Harris 2001:13). In connection
with another human/vampire couple, Sookie reflects that Hugo “might be
in sexual thrall to Isabel, he might even love her and the danger she
represented” (Harris 2002: 125). In a situation featuring Hugo in True
Blood, he reflects that: “It’s addictive, isn’t it? To be desired by
something that powerful” (2009: 2.7 “Release Me”). Similarly, Talbot,
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 45
another human, “liked that he had won the heart of Russell Edgington, a
being who could kill easily, who deserved to be feared” (Harris 2003:
164). The very Otherness which comes into being when the meeting of
bodies establish boundaries is here portrayed as a source of a powerful
attraction. The human characters are singled out by Bill, Isabel and
Russell; dangerous, extraordinary beings, which in turn means that the
humans can be perceived as extraordinary too. The danger and lingering
negativity are thus constructed both from the inside by the monsters
themselves, and from the outside by humans, the latter construction
serving to maintain and enhance the human’s own desired apartness, and
following similar lines as the romantic script.
Stereotypes, stickiness, and sympathy
The diversity of the literary vampire trope and the plethora of popular
culture vampires in novels and on screens today necessitate in-text
delineations of the specific vampire conventions at work, and of what
stereotypes do and do not apply. Ahmed argues that fear is produced by
“the repetition of stereotypes” (2004: 63), that is, to experience fear of
what is approaching, the object drawing near has to have been
perpetually (mis)represented. The stereotypical representation of the
literary vampire involves various genealogies and strengths which are
designed to Other the trope and establish the vampire as fearsome even at
a first glance. But in many contemporary vampire narratives there are
also tendencies to play with and subvert stereotypes to create unique
representations. Subversions of this kind presupposes associations
characters, readers and viewers have in common, however these come
from a literary and cultural tradition which shifts and changes throughout
history. As Cohen argues, “the undead returns in slightly different
clothing, each time to be read against contemporary social movements or
a specific, determining event” (1996: 5). With an eye to what each new
incarnation is clothed in, the traditional vampire myths serve an
important function. They become a backdrop to the new and enable
discussions about what specific cultural moment this new is born into.
This connects to Ahmed’s idea of stickiness “as an effect of the histories
of contact between bodies, objects, and signs […] what sticks ‘shows us’
where the object has travelled through what it has gathered onto its
surface, gatherings that become part of the object” (2004: 91, original
Maria Lindgren 46 Leavenworth
emphasis). Even though the vampires in the text world are a reality rather
than myth, the human characters’ reactions and curiosity are influenced
and aroused by traditional and contemporary vampire stereotypes; a
varied history of figurative contact with the vampiric body. In a metatextual
sense, that is, the fictional characters are highly aware of other
fictional texts, such as The Addams Family or Interview with the Vampire
(Harris 2001: 101), or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2008: 1.3 “Mine”), and
prone to draw conclusions based on these experiences. It is thus the
history preceding the present―what the vampires concretely or
symbolically have travelled through―which makes reactions in the now
make sense.
Some often reiterated stereotypes are modified, which aligns the text
world with general developments in vampire narratives. A.J. Grant
describes 19th-century vampires as “theologically evil, having made an
eternal pact with the devil […] morally evil, in the sense that they intend
evil [and as resembling] natural forms of evil―earthquakes, floods, fire
and lightning―because they strike randomly” (2011: 64, original
emphasis). In contemporary narratives, on the other hand, the
“theological framework is abandoned altogether” and with it “the power
of crosses, rosary beads and holy water.” Vampires have acquired a
morality, and they no longer “strike arbitrarily” but rather find specific
(and often not innocent) victims (Grant 2011: 65). The secularization
Grant illustrates has the effect that the text world’s vampires are not
adverse to crosses or other religious symbols and many of them do not
intend evil, but are rather represented as moral, conscientious citizens
who aim for peaceful coexistence. In many cases where vampires choose
human blood instead of the synthetic option, the randomness of attacks is
eliminated as humans volunteer for thrills.
Other stereotypes are revealed to be true and they make vampires
simultaneously vulnerable and threatening. The text world’s vampires
still have to sleep under ground or in coffins, they burst into flames in the
sun, and stakes through their hearts are as effective as in the countless
analogues in the literary tradition. On the one hand, these traits work to
signal an enhanced Otherness, on the other, they render vampires
vulnerable because they conform to the cultural tradition within which
the trope has been represented. Human characters know about these
limitations, and consequently know how to destroy the monstrous
Others. Stereotypical vampire strengths that are retained in the text world
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 47
are the vampires’ ability to manipulate minds and turn humans. Ahmed
maintains that “fantasies [of fear] construct the other as a danger not only
to one’s self as self, but to one’s very life, to one’s very existence as a
separate being with a life of its own” (2004: 64). Rather than a fantasy,
the vampire’s power to turn human into monster is a literal illustration of
the self being subsumed, but the text world’s vampires initially rarely use
this ability. Bill is forced to do so once as punishment for having taken
another vampire’s (un)life, and during his centuries-long existence, Eric
has only sired Pam. However, the human characters’ fantasies of this fear
have been perpetuated and reinforced by the repeated stereotype and
consequently holds the possibility “to justify violence against others”
(Ahmed 2004: 64). That is, although rarely literalized, the threat of
turning is anticipated and used to unite the human characters against the
Others.
Despite these potential and literal threats, the vampires in the text
world conform to another stereotype, found in many contemporary
narratives: the sympathetic vampire. Using Rice’s tormented Louis as an
example, Botting argues that the late 20th-century vampire is often
depicted as “a solitary wanderer seeking companionship and security,
intensely aware of his difference and fascinated by the frailty and
mortality of the humans around him” (2008: 77). The representation of
the romanticized outsider may, as noted, produce desire rather than fear,
but the stereotype is similar to the fearsome vampire subverted in the text
world, as in Bill’s self-reflexive pronouncement: “I AM a vampire, I’m
supposed to be tormented.” Bill’s torment, however, is not necessarily
produced by a search for belonging, but rather by the blurred boundaries
between human and vampire. Bill says: “When I was made one was
forced to live outside society. As an outlaw, a hunter. Humans were prey
and nothing else” (2009: 2.4 “Shake and Fingerpop”). The co-existence
between different species portrayed in text world has confused the
categories of hunter and prey and given rise to a postmodern identity
crisis.
Bill is not the only vampire in the text world to voice this view. At
the end of his undead existence, the ancient vampire Godric states that “I
Maria Lindgren 48 Leavenworth
don’t think like a vampire anymore.”7 This lack of a stable identity has
altered the perspective he has on the vampire species, and the
identification with humanity leads to his view that: “Our existence is
insanity […] We’re not right” (2009: 2.9 “I Will Rise Up”). Godric is
represented as an authoritative character, having lived a long life and
executing power over large groups of vampires, but he is also
characterized as a “renouncer” who has “betrayed” vampires and “allied
himself with humans” (Harris 2002: 104). Like Bill’s wish for a return to
more clearly defined roles, Godric’s condemnation of vampires as an
aberration works to re-enforce the boundaries between human and
monster. This tendency to question the blurring of boundaries and
reclaim some of the vampires’ monstrosity may be read as somewhat of a
backlash to the increasingly sympathetic vampire representations in
contemporary culture.
“We Are Vampire”
A backlash of a more concrete kind comes towards the end of the third
season of True Blood as Russell Edgington rips the spinal column out of
a news caster on live television, effectively undoing the careful PR
strategy presenting vampires as unharmful neighbours next door. A
terrified audience looks on as Russell, like Nan Flanagan in the first
season, nods to the proclivities humans and vampires have in common.
In this scene, however, the aim is not to forge links between vampires
and humans, as Russell concludes: “in the end we are nothing like you.
We are immortal.” His attack has interrupted a news segment about the
increasing support for vampire rights, through the work of the American
Vampire League, and he finishes off by referring to their perpetuated
smoke screens, asking: “Why would we seek equal rights? You are not
our equals. We will eat you after we eat your children” (2010: 3.9
“Everything is Broken”). At this stage in the narrative arc, humans and
vampires have lived in close proximity to each other for a long time, and
Russell’s attack illustrates a clear regression from the initial coexistence
7 The TV-series conflates two novel characters in the figure of Godric. As a
renouncer, he corresponds to the character Godfrey; as Eric’s Maker, he
corresponds to the character Appius Ocella.
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 49
to a state in which humans are openly considered as beneath the
vampires, albeit in this instance only by one individual.
But Russell is not alone in holding this view; on the contrary, a
theme of hierarchies develops throughout the narrative and connects to
Ahmed’s discussions about disgust, an emotion which, in contrast to fear
which can be produced also by a distance between bodies, “is clearly
dependent upon contact” (2004: 85). A prolonged “relationship of touch
and proximity between the surfaces of bodies and objects” may give rise
to reactions which single out objects as “‘lower’ than or below the
subject, or even beneath the subject” and allow for a distinction between
“more or less advanced bodies” (Ahmed 2004: 85, 89). Several vampires
voice views to the effect that humans are pets or cattle, and Eric tells
Sookie that vampires “for hundreds, thousands of years have considered
[themselves] better than humans, separate from humans” and that they
have the same “relationship to humans as humans have to, say, cows”
(Harris 2005: 214). Ideas of emotional refinement further this distinction
between animals and higher beings. The vampire known as the Magister,
for example, argues that “humans … are incapable of feeling pain as we
do.” Feeling pain could arguably be construed as a sign of weakness and
as a vulnerability, but the Magister simultaneously states that the human
incapability stems from their “quite primitive” state (2008: 1.11 “To
Love is to Bury”). These statements all echo colonial and racist
discourses through which groups are depicted as occupying different
rungs on a developmental ladder, and where less advanced bodies
produce disgust.
The move back to segregation between humans and vampires
effectively undermines the text world’s initially promising depiction of
multiculturalism, but it is complicated at the very outset by vampire’s
attitudes to mainstreaming. Nicole Rabin (while focusing solely on the
first two episodes of the TV-series’ first season), argues that True
Blood’s “critique [of] pluralist, post-race ideologies,” depict vampires as
threatening because they “are literally mixing blood within their bodies
like multiracials” and that mainstreaming becomes a way of “passing” in
the multicultural society (2010: n. pag.). While Bill initially appears to
embrace mainstreaming not only in his dietary choices but in his
conscious efforts to educate humans in vampire ways and share his
knowledge of the past, several of his kind resist this approach. Eric, for
example, keeps himself aloof, feeds on human blood with relish and
Maria Lindgren 50 Leavenworth
quips about Tru Blood that “It’ll keep you alive, but it’ll bore you to
death” (2008: 1.9 “Plaisir d’amour”). A rogue vampire, not abiding by
the strict rules of the minority community, emphatically states that he,
and others of his ilk, have no desire to go to sports events and
“disgustingly human … barbecues! We are Vampire” (Harris 2001: 152).
In line with the new status for vampires as a legally recognized minority,
this will to live apart, to enforce boundaries, is equated with the reactions
of conservative humans. These, “the backward-looking undead,”
continuously strive for segregation and secrecy and regard positively “a
return of persecution of their own kind” (Harris 2002: 106-107). Like
human communities at the early stages of co-existence, this type of
vampire needs antagonism to create a sense of togetherness amongst
themselves. As Bruce A. McClelland argues, the resistance to
assimilation can be construed as a fear of “the gradual disappearance of
those cultural features that provide the vampire community (or any
community, for that matter) with a sense of identity and cohesiveness”
(2010: 83). It is only by being apart that the community can be united
and the emotions of love and hate―effects of cultural processes rather
than their starting points―are clearly linked to the formation of a
particular group mentality. Both the backwards-striving vampires and
organizations like the Fellowship of the Sun love their own kind and its
supposed superiority, while hate and disgust for the Other and inferior
surface with prolonged contact. Passing as human, that is, is depicted as
problematic at the outset, laying the foundation for more violent
outbursts of disgust at later stages in the narrative.
In Ahmed’s discussions about multiculturalism, Otherness is crucial,
but there are provisos attached to how it is to be maintained and acted
out. “The others can be different (indeed the nation is invested in their
difference as a sign of love for difference), as long as they refuse to keep
their difference to themselves, but instead give it back to the nation,
through … mixing with others” (2004: 134). The vampires’ tendencies to
withdraw suggest a violation of the multicultural contract. This narrative
strand is at focus in the fifth television season when extremists within the
vampire community isolate themselves, keep human beings as livestock
in pens and turn to apocryphal texts in which “God is a vampire,” thus
leading the visual text down a dark path (2012: 5.10 “Sunset”). No
longer constrained by mainstreaming limitations, vampires are instructed
to feed off humans, to procreate (in the sense of indiscriminately turning
Fear, desire and disgust in the SVMs and True Blood 51
humans), and to assume what is seen to be their rightful place at the top
of the food chain. Although several individuals resist this development,
the cliff-hanger ending in which Bill, once the paragon of
mainstreaming, seemingly turns into a vampire deity, suggests a
continued plot development in which the initial promise of the
multicultural society is revealed to be always already hollow.
Conclusion
As the fictional universe in both novels and TV-series expands with the
inclusion of more and more varieties of supernaturals, it emphasizes that
what is different is perceived as dangerous. Once the nature of vampires
is established (or so it seems), along comes another category; a fairy,
perhaps, or a goblin, and with it a new set of rules, myths and stereotypes
to relate to. Ahmed argues that “[t]he more we don’t know what or who
we fear the more the world becomes fearsome” (2004: 95, original
emphasis). As the focalizor of the text world, Sookie learns bit by bit,
and the reader/viewer along with her, to relate to these new groups, but a
telling quotation from the fifth novel illustrates that peace of mind does
not necessarily come with expanded knowledge: “If vampires exist, what
else could be lurking just outside the edge of light” (Harris 2005: 11,
original emphasis). At this point, Sookie, and again the reader/viewer
with her, knows that fearful reactions produced by the contact between
human- and vampire bodies can be tempered by the realization that no
two vampires are alike, but their mere existence still brings with it
frightening possibilities of other Others appearing.
While emotions are not commonly discussed as forms of power,
sustained close readings of texts show that the reiteration of affective
terms, along with the depiction of how bodies are pushed together and
pulled apart, do illustrate forms of social and cultural power. The
political implications of “attending to emotions” in Ahmed’s analysis
reveal how larger discourses of racism structure and limit the movement
of bodies in contemporary society and culture (2004: 4). In the case of
the studied text world, power is initially connected to how vampires
rhetorically are made fearful and hence marginalized and restricted by
the human bodies that fear. Parallel to discourses of fear, the romantic
discourse depicts these same bodies as desirable and attractive, also
Maria Lindgren 52 Leavenworth
because of their marginalization and the relief from societal norms their
outside position can offer.
The vampire as a fictional construct has a long history and has come
to stand for a number of fears and desires; culturally constructed and
maintained by the repetition of stereotypes. Stereotypes are also featured
in the text world, but with a handful of important modifications and
subversions which on the one hand forge links with earlier instantiations
of the trope, on the other illustrate a meta-textual, postmodern play with
signification. Further, the oscillation of power, resting first in the hands
of the human characters with the vampires as a minority group, and
gradually moving into the grasp of the vampires with the increasingly
pronounced differences between frailty and strength, clearly illustrates
how the movement of bodies is policed and critiques the text world’s
initial promise of a multicultural society, with ample room for both the
living and the undead.
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