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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sucking the Life from Our Children, Part 1

I've been meaning to post the notes of my talk, "Sucking the Life from Our Children: Hollywood and the Romance of the Living Dead," delivered a few weeks ago (November 20) at the annual Fall conference of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. The conference theme was Younger Than Sin: Retrieving Simplicity Through the Virtues of Humility, Wonder & Joy. Thanks again to David Solomon and his crew for the invitation and for putting on such a splendid conference. 

As the complete set of notes would make for a rather lengthy blog post, I am going to break them out into several posts (parts 2 and 3 are below). These are just notes, so thanks in advance for your patience in reading them. Comments always welcome. Streaming video of the talk will also soon be available on the NDCEC's website. 


1.    I’m very happy both to be a part of this conference’s concentration on works of children’s literature…the greatest works of children’s literature help cultivate humility, wonder & joy and have enjoyed an enormous and positive cultural influence
2.    But today, I want to consider works of children’s literature—more specifically, what the publishing business terms works of middle grade and young adult children’s literature—as well as a raft of movies and television shows, principally aimed at young people, that are wielding a massive and negative (chilling) cultural influence: works that feature vampires (+ zombies). “Hollywood” stands in for all of popular culture.
3.    The ubiquity of the vampire in today’s popular culture…those of you who think you know how widespread this phenomenon is…pop into an airport bookstore on your way home…stroll past the middle grade and young adult sections at Barnes & Noble…scan the posters at the local Cineplex…see your TV listings: vampires are everywhere. 
4.    A quick look at 
5.    Why this emphasis upon the vampire?
a.    in one sense, vampires are not new—as we’ll see, their influence on popular culture goes back at least as far as the early 19th c.;
b.    at bottom, vampires are images of Satan, he who is neither living nor dead, the devourer of human flesh (a perversion of the Blessed Sacrament), he who holds out a bogus version of “eternal life.” 
c.     The vampire is the opposite of what Georges Bernanos said about the Blessed Virgin: the vampire is not so much “younger than sin,” but preternaturally youthful because of one of the most horrible of all sins: cannibalism.
d.    op-ed by Guillermo del Toro (director of Pan’s Labyrinth) in July 29, 2009 New York Times: literary and cinematic vampires reflect our need for the supernatural—for immortality; they also reflect a strange combination of sex and death—in a twisted parody of a sexual encounter, the vampire offers a grotesque version of “eternal life.” As del Toro says, Eros and Thanatos fuse in an archetypal embrace. 
e.    yet still, in the last 5 years or so the resurgence of the vampire in popular culture reflects a profound cultural shift.
6.    I want to show how recent vampires reflect this cultural shift by considering three vampire stories:
a.    John William Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” (1819)
b.    Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series (dir. Catherine Hardwicke)
c.     The 2010 film, Let Me In (dir. Matt Reeves), based on the 2008 Swedish film, Let the Right One In, based on the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist
7.    ThesisAs we compare the “classic” vampire story, initiated by Polidori, to our contemporary vampire stories, we see a dramatic change in how the metaphor of the vampire is deployed. More particularly, the vampire for us has ceased to be an image of unmitigated evil. Rather, the vampire has become, on the one hand, an image of the Romantic ideal of authenticity or self-actualization; and on the other hand, an image of the sheer unreality of evil (or conversely, of the unreality of innocence).
8.    As we consider these stories, we will see in particular an attack upon the very notion of innocence. The innocent young (on the threshold of adulthood), who originally were the victims of vampires, in our time have become the vampires, reflecting the notion that there is no such thing as innocence. The whole concept of innocence is “devoured.” 

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