Vampires: Good for Symbolism, Bad at Politics

Being Human's Mr Snow, ancient vampire

I’ve been re-watching Being Human, and marvelling at how consistently good it was before it decided the vampires had to take over the world. Well, that subplot’s right there in the first season so perhaps that’s unfair, but I have to say most writing involving the handsome blood-drinking undead works better for me when it doesn’t lean towards plotlines of world domination. Seriously, why are fictional vampires so intent on ruling the planet and implementing a system that glaringly does not work?

Of course, many a narrative dutifully points this out, and the logistics bring up all sorts of lovely philosophical questions about the nature of humanity and evolution and morals, but the plot is still there to be talked about. I suppose it’s a natural direction to take your story in if you’ve got vampires running about, because let’s face it, living for x hundred years in style (because vampires are more fun when they’re stylish) would quite conceivably give you a bit of an ego and air of invincibility. Why not move up in the world, stop skulking in the shadows? Stage a vampire coup and make them the ruling class. Nothing could go wrong there.

In theory, it presents a lot of interesting ideas, in practice (like a lot of political philosophies and movements) it doesn’t often gel. Vampires work best on the fringes, since that’s where they came from as a story device—a walking metaphor for all sorts of bad things that humanity fears and wants shut up in the dark, both sexual allure (often attributed as beginning in female form advertising the dangers of wanton women, but there’s certainly a lion’s share of male vampires attempting to woo maidens off the straight and narrow about) and the diseases and ill effects that can come from it (always use protection with a new partner, kids, and in this case we mean a garlic-infused neck brace), as well as their bloodthirstiness making a neat metaphor for substance addiction.


“Can I get a grande blood latte?”

A vampire revolution, then, signifies all the shadowy badness of the world bubbling to the surface and taking over. Which is why vampire world domination is often a plotline Our Heroes leap to the business of trying to stop. If they succeed, morality wins out over sexy, addictive murder, which is generally a good thing. Though of course, expect a lot of dialogue about cleansing humanity and the necessity of evolution, as you definitely get in the Being Human example. Maybe somewhere lying in all this is the question of whether humans are by nature prudish and need to get back in touch with their wild side. Again, an honourable notion in theory, but is a world full of vampires really the way to go about it? Herrick presents a utopia to his recruits, promising eternal life free from the confines of humanity where you and your loved ones can live forever without fear of death or illness, and with a vampire world, fear of prosecution.

But idyllic as it sounds, a vampire world has too main flaws: it wouldn’t really work unless it was an entirely vampiric world, and an entirely vampiric world wouldn’t work. Firstly, you’d need a hell of a force to overthrow the world as we know it, and all that army has to eat—which typically leads to a section of humanity roped off and kept as a blood bank, or, as Daybreakers (and True Blood, as I understand, when it isn’t about naked people) explores, the science and politics of trying to wrangle a blood substitute or efficient way to use the stuff. It’s a fairly unsustainable resource when you have a world full of vampires who, also worthy of note, aren’t aging, dying or going anywhere, leading not only to a food shortage but a stagnant population and no doubt political unrest. Nobody likes to be led by the same old fogies for too long, after all. Even the immortal get restless.

Because inevitably, in these stories you’re going to have a bunch of crusty, ominous ultra-vampires looming in the background somewhere, be they the elders from Blade or Twilight’s Volturi—they often end up sitting around long ceremonial tables imposing a quiet menace on the rest of the population. The generation gap comes into effect even with immortals, often with the young bloods (ha) the ones who overthrow them in search of change and revolution. What do vampires say about the need for generational growth and change, then? Shiki makes them into a vessel for this discussion, with the gradual takeover of vampires a symbol of the new replacing the old and disrupting the stagnant societal structure of the town.

Shiki's Sunako

“I’m still cute though, right?”

Shiki also makes the point that the humans are, in the end, no worse than the vampires when it comes to being bloodthirsty creatures easily swayed by mob mentality and the fear of being alone, and really just out for their own survival in the end even if it makes them into monsters. Another philosophical trick the vampire revolution can pull out of its sleeve—especially if you’ve got humans cramped up in blood farms, and someone points out how awful that is, and some other suave smartass voice of the metaphor says “But didn’t humans treat their prey like this? We’re really just rearing cattle here.” The easiest way to show how crappy humanity can be is to mirror it with monsters.

But all that poetry aside, a vampire world would not work. Saying it’s a purely Darwinist survival of the fittest thing, especially with sci-fi examples where vampirism comes from a mutant gene or somesuch, is all very well, but it somewhat freezes progress. Which, again, is the metaphorical point: humans need to continue with their messy, ever-changing and volatile humanity or things will go to pot. Maybe in some cases this will lead to a happy symbiotic community where vampires and humans end up living in peace, but more often than not vampires don’t lend themselves to “we should accept marginalised groups” storylines as well as other supernatural species that don’t murder people and represent so many ingrained taboos.

Vampires at their core work best as a representative of ideas rather than rulers of the world, though making the grab for world rule does bring all that representation into play. If you’re going to have vampires running around as a politically-minded swarm rather than looking at the lives of individual characters, you’d better have something to say with it, or it’s going to end up in a stagnant bloody mess rather like a world where vampires did win. To me, at least, the vampire works better as a character study on a smaller scale, but hey, if you can pull off a Taking Over the World plot without running fangs-first into a wall, power to you. Otherwise, good thing we have Blade about, because world politics are in enough of a state without them being taken over by the undead.


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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

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