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For Love Of Do-Good Vampires: A Bloody Book List

Tod Browning's 1931 film <em><em>Dra</em>cula</em>, released in the chaos and uncertainty of the Great Depression, turns in part on the character of Mina (Helen Chandler), who manages to maintain her i--ocence — and--ontrol — despite having suffered at the hands of Bela Lugosi's vampire.
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Tod Browning's 1931 film Dracula, released in the chaos and uncertainty of the Great Depression, turns in part on the character of Mina (Helen Chandler), who manages to maintain her i--ocence — and--ontrol — despite having suffered at the hands of Bela Lugosi's vampire.

We've been inundated with vampires this past decade, and we don't simply mean bloodsuckers like Bernie Madoff.

In the 1980s, it's true, there was a similar surge of interest in vampires, with Whitley Strieber's The Hunger and the wildly popular novels of Anne Rice. But the past few years have seen a new crop of intriguingly different vampires — seemingly conflicted souls, from Bill Compton in HBO's True Blood to Stefan in the CW's television series The Vampire Diaries and, of course, Edward Cullen in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books.

Even here at NPR, if you look at the archives, there have been at least 20 recent stories about vampires. What is it about our society now — the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times — that's making vampires so popular? And why are most of the vampires we are seeing struggling to be moral?

A confession: In the past nine months, I've read 75 vampire novels. I'll get to why later, but let's first step back in history.

Vampires have been a constant in folklore around the world, but our modern notion of the vampire came out of a particular cultural moment in 1816. Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori came together in a chalet in Switzerland to do a kind of literary exercise. Out of that retreat came Shelley's novel Frankenstein and Polidori's Vampyre, the first vampire story in the English language. And there was a reason, rooted in immense changes that were under way in the world of ideas.

"A shocking thing was occurring," says Strieber, the author of two other vampire novels in addition to The Hunger. "Science was beginning to seem to be able to challenge the very nature of life itself."

Since then, vampires have been used again and again as a way to speak of our fears and concerns.

"It's almost this perfect vessel," says Eric Nuzum, an NPR colleague and the author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. "If you want to understand any moment in time, or any cultural moment, just look at their vampires."

Take Bram Stoker's Dracula.

"It was written at the end of the 19th century, at a time when England had some of the largest ports in the world," says Benita Blessing, who teaches modern European history at Ohio University. "Here you have a ship arriving from Eastern Europe, bearing soil from another country, and a plague-like person who is going to bring death and destruction. The concerns at that time were foreign illnesses, unwanted immigrants. What Dracula is about is the fear of what we might today call globalization."

The famous Bela Lugosi film of Dracula came out during the Great Depression, in a time of economic and social chaos. The surge of interest in vampires around the 1980s is often attributed to the pressures of the Cold War and the spread of AIDS. That was the era of Anne Rice's vampire series and Strieber's The Hunger.

"It was a period," says Strieber, "when people were waiting for something to go wrong as the Soviet empire was collapsing. People wondered: Would they push the button in a desperate attempt to survive? And those feelings entered the unconscious."

In fact, there were about four times as many vampire movies made in 1980 as there were in 1990. Perhaps after the Berlin Wall came down, there was just a lot less fear to write and think about.

What about now? Why the renewed interest?

Kimberly Pauley has written an incredibly funny vampire book for teens that turns the genre on its head; it's called Sucks to be Me. She believes vampires are attractive right now because we're in a time somewhat similar to the Depression, another "time of chaos," she says.

"Vampires are immortal; they are not hurt by the goings-on in everyday life," Pauley says. "They stand above it. I think that is the most appealing factor about a vampire — that no matter what is going on in the world around you, you are going to make it through."

A vampire's near-immortality is probably why I ended up reading 75 vampire novels. I'd been caring for a seriously ill loved one, and as a result, I had been spending a lot of time thinking deeply about issues of mortality. I had also occasionally fantasized what it would be like not to have to think about that.

But what I started noticing as I read all these novels and looked at all the recent television shows featuring vampires is that their near-immortality isn't the most interesting thing about them. Almost all of these current vampires are struggling to be moral. It's conventional to talk about vampires as sexual, with their hypnotic powers and their intimate penetrations and their blood-drinking and so forth. But most of these modern vampires are not talking as much about sex as they are about power.

Take the CBS show Moonlight, which aired for only one season in 2007-2008. Mick St. John is a private investigator who is also a vampire. In one scene, he's trying to reason with a violent rogue vampire by telling him, "We have rules."

The rogue responds, "There are no rules: I'm top of the food chain."

"This is the central question of so many vampire novels and films, " says Amy Smith, a professor of English at the University of the Pacific. "If you had power over people, how would you use it? 'We can do what we want' vs. 'We were human, how can you treat humans as if they were cattle?' "

People keep going back to these stories because they illustrate a tension that exists in real life, Smith says.

"For example, if you earn more money than someone else, you find that you have more power: How will you use it?"

Smith teaches courses on Jane Austen and the literature of war, as well as a course on vampires in literature. She says the issue of power is both personal and global.

"How do you treat someone you love, for example?" she says. "The core question is always: Does might make right?"

The question comes up again and again in True Blood, the HBO series based on the Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris. In True Blood, vampires have emerged from hiding to become mainstream citizens drinking a form of synthetic blood. Bill Compton, who was turned into a vampire after the Civil War, is trying to re-embrace his humanity. In one scene, he voices his envy for a teenager who's become a vampire just recently, in the modern world, and doesn't have an evil and violent past to confront.

"It's so different for her," he says with sadness and yearning. "When I was made, one had no choice but to live completely outside the human world, as an outlaw, a hunter."

Whether it's Bill Compton wanting to embrace his humanity in True Blood, or the entire Cullen family rejecting humans as nourishment in the Twilight saga, these modern vamps are all struggling to be moral even though they are predators by nature. Which brings us to a question: Who are we?

Author Whitley Strieber says we humans are just a different kind of predator.

"Our prey is our planet," he says. Today's fear is not the Cold War or AIDS, it's the fate of the Earth: "We sense that there is something wrong with the environment, that the planet itself may not be able to sustain us very long, and so we are beginning to romance death once again."

Maybe it gets back to that very American notion that we have laws and constitutions to keep our baser instincts in check. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote recently: "We are beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality."

Exactly. Maybe that's why vampires aren't really a fad. Because — except for that all-but-immortal thing — they really are us.

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Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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