Feminine fantasies resurrect the undead

WITH APOLOGIES to residents of the “Twilight” zone — the recent trend of women and young girls swooning over vampires is starting to creep me out.

The “Twilight” books by Stephenie Meyer have become an enormous smash, with a movie adaptation in the offing. HBO is pinning its fall hopes on “True Blood,” Alan Ball’s adaptation of another literary property drenched in metaphorical overtones, about vampires coming out of the closet to live openly among wary humans. And let the vitriolic emails fly, but lonely hearts are still pining for “Moonlight,” the vampire romance CBS cancelled in the spring. (Here’s a tip to future “Save our show” campaign organizers: Don’t say, “I’ve never loved a TV show so much before!” when the object of your ardor is decidedly mediocre. You lose a lot of credibility.)

Now, count me among those who have always enjoyed gothic horror. I’m able to compare Dracula portrayers from Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Christopher Lee to Jack Palance, Frank Langella and Gary Oldman, and I still have a lingering appreciation for “Nosferatu,” “The Night Stalker,” “Fright Night,” hell, even oddities like “Billy the Kid Versus Dracula.”

Even during my pubescent years, moreover, it was hard to miss the elements of eroticism inherent in vampire lore — the allure of a magnetic, overpowering figure; undying, century-spanning love; and a slightly tweaked approach to sexuality that entails sucking and … well, that’s about it, right?

NONE OF THIS, however, seems to account for the depth of passion many now have invested in vampires. What does it say about the state of feminine fantasies that love at first bite has sunk its fangs so deep into so many?

“The whole ideas of vampires as a vaguely erotic figure for a female audience, that’s always been true,” dating back to the early 19th century, explains Deborah Wilson Overstreet, a professor at the U. of Maine at Farmington and the author of “Not Your Mother’s Vampire: Vampires in Young Adult Fiction.”

Overstreet draws distinctions between young girls — who use such material as “a way to try on sexuality” — and females who are more mature, an adjective that becomes rather subjective depending on how many emails one has sent on behalf of “Moonlight.” Yet Overstreet does see a dramatic shift in vampire lit that can be traced directly to “Interview With the Vampire” author Anne Rice, who upended the notion that vampires were always evil. Today, they can be depicted sympathetically and even as the first-person narrator of stories.

Rice “completely changed the nature of vampire literature forever, and in a good way,” Overstreet contends, adding that vampires are “certainly the most malleable of all horror characters.”

Overstreet doesn’t hide her disdain for the “Twilight” books, but she is an enthusiast of the genre — even teaching an entry-level course devoted solely to the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which signed off five years ago and premiered when most of her students were in third grade. Although designed for freshmen, the class frankly sounds like the sort I would have welcomed during my senior year, when the daunting prospect of finding full-time work immediately post-graduation prompted me to forgo studying in favor of attending basketball games, watching Letterman and drinking.

I’LL HAVE TO take the prof’s word about the general quality of teen vampire lit beyond “Twilight,” but the embrace of exotic fictional lovers owes a sizable debt to chat rooms and maybe social networking sites. In those worlds, one can easily avoid real-life relationships — prone as they are to disappointments and imperfections — and become immersed in encounters that bypass face-to-face interaction.

Among its more disconcerting side effects, this modern development tends to breed a form of shared delusion — where the bloodless ratings for “Moonlight,” for example, must indicate either a conspiracy or hitherto-unnoticed deficiencies within Nielsen’s methodology.

While it will doubtless require conferences of sociologists to decipher the deep-seated meaning behind yearnings to date the undead, the only logical strategy is to cash in, assuming the condition persists. So should this keep up, I’m writing the moldiest, most cliched blood-sucker romance imaginable and retiring to Hawaii’s Big Island — hiding from the wrath of vampire enthusiasts in broad daylight.

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