Vampires are a national obsession right now, especially among young people. TV shows, movies, comics, novels—blood-suckers are everywhere, and they’re big business. For four years, NPR journalist and Pagan Margot Adler shared that obsession. Vampires Are Us: Understanding Our Love Affair with the Immortal Dark Side is her attempt to tell us, quite simply, why vampires are more than the latest adolescent fad.
As Adler relates, she read 260 vampire novels before writing the book, which is a long essay on vampires and culture followed by an annotated bibliography of the novels. For Adler, what triggered the obsession was her husband’s cancer diagnosis, and her avid vampire novel consumption continued through her own struggle with cancer. This narrative of her own journey with mortality—the fantasies of becoming immortal, the pain of remaining alive while loved ones die—was one of my favorite aspects of the book, a personal glimpse of a massively influential Pagan writer. (Adler published Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America in 1979; the book is now in its fourth edition, and it is used in college classrooms as well as in Pagan groups seeking to learn more about the Pagan movement.) Adler argues for the ability of non-realistic fiction to effectively capture elements of the human experience that realism struggles to encompass. To have an active fantasy life, she argues, is not necessarily a sign of detachment from reality, but rather a mode of experience that allows the exploration of difficult emotions and situations in another guise.
What, then, can vampires teach us about ourselves? Adler argues that in the twenty-first century, vampires are no longer symbols of the feared other, the way they were in the past. (Dracula, for example, mirrors nineteenth-century Anglo anxieties about the perceived destructive effects of immigration.) Today, vampires in fiction are not monsters to be feared, but protagonists and love interests we are meant to identify with—in other words, they are us, as the title of Adler’s book claims. Moreover, most of the vampires in contemporary novels are deeply conflicted beings who are struggling desperately to be moral—to behave rightly in the face of their predatory natures and their raging addiction to blood. Isn’t this, Adler asks, rather like our present moment in the West? We are complicit in economic systems that are predatory: exploiting the earth’s resources, the underpaid workers who turn those resources into consumer products, and the young people whose sexuality is used to sell those products (whether we really need them or not). We’re addicted to gasoline, Nike sneakers, cheap cornfed beef, and convenient housewares from Ikea and Walmart. To try to wean ourselves away from the products of an exploitative economy often involves partially withdrawing from wider community life (to avoid using a car or airplane; to cut expenses enough to afford the extra costs of locally grown food; to send our kids to schools that don’t push or even require the purchase of corporate products).
Are vampires a metaphor for the way we are drinking other species, the land, and each other dry? Maybe this developing allegory is a stretch, but it’s clear that there’s something about the morally conflicted, damned-but-trying-to-be-saved vampire that audiences are entranced by. Maybe, at the moment, we are no longer confident that we are right or good; in fact, perhaps there’s a suspicion that we are terribly, terribly wrong, even as the power and pleasure of it all continues to be intoxicating, exhilarating. We’re addicts; we can’t stop.
If these issues weigh on your mind as they do on mine—and especially if you enjoy a good vampire novel the way I do—this book will help you track down the very best in genres ranging from historical to romance to sci-fi. And, perhaps, you’ll do as Adler did, and find yourself confronting some of the biggest questions of the human condition, lightly veiled by a layer of compelling fantasy. Happy reading!
Vampires Are Us is a feature in the Patheos Book Club! Click through for more roundtable responses from our Pagan bloggers, vampire video footage, praise from horror novelist Whitley Strieber, and more.