Obsession: Karen Winstead and Vampires

November 2, 2017
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This story is the first of a recurring series on obsession. For this series, we reach out to a member of the department who has a very particular obsession and ask them to share it with the world. In this edition, Professor Karen Winstead shares her love of vampires.

By Karen Winstead

I was bitten circa 2007. I was casting about for an engrossing literary classic to ground my critical writing class. Eureka! Or rather, Dracula! Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel was available in a Bedford Critical Edition, perfect for teaching criticism and theory. At the time, Twilight was hot. Very hot. I figured Edward Cullen’s fans might enjoy meeting his Transylvanian great-granddaddy.

Teaching a novel requires an intimacy that casual reading doesn’t. Dracula’s evasions, ambiguities and erasures mesmerized me. Craving more, I looked back to the novellas of Polidori and Le Fanu and forward to modern novels, films, TV series and games. My favorite vampire stories are rooted in tradition, and I enjoy juxtaposing the old with the new when I teach: Lord Ruthven with Edward Cullen, Sir Francis Varney with Barnabas Collins, Van Helsing with Buffy. Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 (2013) is a page-turner that is also an ingenious tribute to centuries of vampire culture—vampire aficionados who love Stephen King shouldn’t miss it.

Vampires are everywhere: lecturing on Civil War history; retaking high-school biology for the umpteenth time; captaining a luxury steamer down the Mississippi; skulking in the trenches of World War I; skateboarding the streets of the Ayatollah’s Iran in a chador. They are professors, musicians, actors, the kid next door—even family pets. Karl Marx famously called Capital a vampire. Others have likened vampires to pandemics, wars, sexual “deviants,” racial Others and feminists. Film has also been called a techno-vampire, thriving in darkness and transforming living actors into the undead. Vampires speak to our darkest desires and to our deepest fears about others and ourselves. Their stories take on real-world issues from racism to terrorism. 

Lately, vampires have become less horrifying, more simpatico. They turn to blood banks for their meals and suck lemons to stave off “the thirst,” while the “vegetarians” among them feast on animals rather than humans. Synthetic blood allows them to come out of their coffins and romance their erstwhile prey. Draculaura, a vegan, thinks blood is “icky.” A “modern vampire…gets his juices from a blender,” Bunnicula author James Howe tells us. 

But some of these vampires are deadlier than they seem. About a decade ago, the Twilight Saga convinced myriad teens and tweens (and many of their moms) that an overbearing, stalking, control freak is the perfect boyfriend. In the 2010s, Deborah Harkness created a similarly abusive Romeo for professional women in her bestselling All Souls Trilogy. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven merely sucked women’s blood; Meyer’s Edward Cullen and Harkness’s Matthew Clairmont want their souls. 

Vampires have infected my teaching. My love of Dracula led me to develop a vampire-heavy iteration of English 3378: Special Topics in Film and Literature called “Monsters Without and Within,” and then an English 3364: Special Topics in Popular Culture devoted to Vampires. I’ve used Dracula to guide study abroad students through Victorian London.  When I teach medieval literature, I can’t resist noting how mystics resemble vampires.

One of the best parts of teaching is the opportunity to learn, and I’ve found that with vampires, especially, students often bring to the classroom their own considerable expertise. Students introduced me to Anno Dracula, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and, most recently, The Coldest Girl in Cold Town, Penny Dreadful and Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Here are a few of my personal recommendations: For me, the most compelling vampire novel of our millennium remains John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In (2004)(Warning: this novel is for the strong of stomach. It deals with, among other things, bullying, pedophilia, rape and substance abuse—the monstrosities of our world.) Its 2008 movie adaptation, directed by Thomas Alfredson, is also excellent (and superior to the subsequent American film), albeit far tamer. Bunnicula is a splendid book for children, with plenty to delight adults who love Dracula, rabbits and smart storytelling. Fans of George R. R. Martin should check out his eminently readable Fevre Dream (1982). Fellow addicts of Victorian literature, do read Florence Marryat’s The Blood of the Vampire (1897), whose unhappy heroine devours not the blood but the vitality of those she loves.

Stay tuned for the next Obsession story for which Winstead has tagged Leslie Lockett!