I’m an avid reader of any and all vampire novels: even the shitty ones are culturally interesting. The figure of the vampire is always the site of anxieties around sex, death, and contagion, and it’s illuminating to see how these anxieties play out in different historical contexts.
Recently I read a mostly-forgotten pulp teen vampire novel from the mid-90s, Celia Rees’ Blood Sinister. I was struck by how, well, grotesque the vampires were. It’s quite a change from the contemporary teen vampire story, which is almost certain to feature the vampire as love interest.
Vampires are, politically speaking, an interesting monster. They allow us to talk about not just inequality or oppression, but exploitation. The vampire isn’t just a supernatural being of great power. It’s a supernatural being of great power that sucks the life force out of those it oppresses. It’s not strong in itself; its strength is stolen from others.
In Blood Sinister, a teenager, Ellen, is the victim of a mysterious wasting illness. She’s been sent to live with her grandmother, who’s closer to the hospital, but she doesn’t seem to be getting any better. While exploring her grandmother’s house, she finds the diaries of an ancestor, also named Ellen. Ellen senior is the target of a man who’s formed a friendship with her father, one Count Szekely. Ellen’s father, an eminent doctor, dismisses her concerns about spending time with the Count unchaperoned, and forces her to form a close relationship with him and his wife. As time goes on, it becomes clear that the Count and Countess are vampires, and that that they are responsible for the brutal murders of many of the working people around them — particularly sex workers. They intend to transform her into a vampire as well. She is rescued by their hulking, mostly-silent attendant, who sees her as a “good girl” not deserving of the fate of the working-class women the Count and Countess have murdered. She barely escapes with her life.
It becomes clear to Ellen Junior that the “blood specialist” she’s been sent to see is the Count himself, still alive. Further: he intends to transform her into a vampire, a replacement for the lost Ellen senior. He, in fact, is responsible for her illness, attacking her while she sleeps in the form of a bat and drinking her blood. He tells her that he knows she knows he is a vampire, but that nobody will believe her. Nobody credits Ellen’s reluctance to spend time with the eminent doctor who’s been so good as to treat her at his private clinic. It’s only with the aid of a sympathetic nurse who’s heard some rumours – and who spends enough time with patients to notice when they seem distressed – that she lures him into a trap and kills him for good. Almost immediately, her strength is restored.
Count Szkely is fairly straightforwardly abusive. He’s a high-status man who targets very young women, ingratiates himself with their families, manipulates them into compromising situations, and knows their sense of shame will guarantee their silence. Or he chooses targets with no protectors who can be killed with impunity.
He also lives off sucking Ellen’s blood. He needs her: she doesn’t need him. He’s not possessed of a natural superiority. He’s not stronger than her, or naturally longer-lived. He simply steals her health and strength. To get it back, she has to destroy the exploitative relationship between them. Reduced to relying on his own life force, he crumbles into dust.
In Twilight, vampires are defined not by this insidiousness, but by speed and force. They don’t so much slowly weaken their victims as devour them in seconds. In Vampire Academy, the Sookie Stackhouse books, and a number of other modern iterations of the vampire story, vampires weaken humans in another way: they create a chemical dependence on their bites. Humans who allow vampires to feed off them don’t necessarily become physically weak, but they become, essentially, drug addicts, looked down upon by vampires and humans alike. In all these novels, though, the vampire lives off blood, and there’s something kind of scary and wrong about it. That’s what makes them a vampire.
If vampires are so gross and scary, why is it that vampire novels centering a heterosexual romance are so popular with women? Precisely because they’re so gross and scary. I’d argue that Twilight is not fundamentally different to your average Mills and Boon. In a romance novel, though, the potentially dangerous aspects of maleness can never be openly acknowledged as frightening. In Twilight, Bella can be turned on by Edward at the same time as dealing with the possibility that he will kill her. It’s seen as a reasonable fear, not one that makes her crazy. Vampire romances allow heterosexual women to acknowledge these conflicting emotions. They recognise that humans and vampires, like women and men, exist in a structurally exploitative relationship.
Marx explicitly drew the analogy between the capitalist and the vampire in Capital:
As capitalist, he is only capital personified. His soul is the soul of capital. But capital has one single life impulse, the tendency to create value and surplus-value, to make its constant factor, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus-labour.
Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.
If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.
The capitalist does no productive labour, contributes nothing of value. He lives off the labour of others: that is, off hours of their life, their life force. It’s barely a metaphor at all, really.
Similarly, the inequality between men and women isn’t just a matter of women being held down from achieving full, glorious, masculine humanity: it’s a matter of men benefiting at the expense of women. If everyone acted like men do, the economic and social order we live under would fall apart. Our whole concept of the full-time worker is predicated on another providing reproductive labour, someone to cook and clean and look after future workers. In 1975, Silvia Federici’s Wages Against Housework drove it home:
They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident.
Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions…but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work.
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.
Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational diseases of the housewife.
And to turn it around: Capital might not be as far from Twilight and other mass-market novels as we think. In Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism, Ann Cvetkovich memorably reads Capital as a pulp murder mystery:
Uncovering the secrets of capitalism is a difficult process because the bodies of the workers keep disappearing, to be replaced by objects or commodities. If the worker is a victim, he’s a secret victim because his exploitation is hidden by the sensational allure generated by money, capital, and commodities. Capital is thus no ordinary mystery novel; it uncovers a nightmarish world in which bodies become things, and things become people, and in which the victim is also the agent. In the course of its search for the secret origins of profit, Capital renders the category of agency problematic. The capitalist, for example, is actually only “capital personified,” the human recipient of profits that are not of his own making. And the worker who produces surplus value would seem to be complicit in the very process that exploits him. Capital is a whodunit that cannot find its resolution by locating a human agent to blame for the violence it uncovers.
A more contemporary monster that lives by sucking out the life force of its victims is, of course, J.K. Rowling’s Dementors. In Harry Potter, Dementors are supernatural beings that subsist on the hope of their victims. They are used by the state as prison guards: they live by stealing the hope of prisoners, and thereby also maintain a state of hopelessness that prevents insurrection.
I’m interested in this reading of hope as a resource that can be drained, a form of labour power that can be exploited. Over the past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of social movements to create, sustain, and transform affect. I’ve been thinking particularly about hope. By hope, I mean an investment in the future, a belief that the future can be better, and a belief that we can act to change it. To me, it seems an essential resource for any social movement.
The frequently heard complaint that the Left is depressing, sterile, and anti-everything has to be read in this context. It’s not just a substanceless accusation thrown around because people are reluctant to give up their preconceptions and unearned privileges — although it sometimes is. It’s a problem faced by many people with sincere, long-held commitments to radical social change. How often do we on the Left define ourselves by anger, bitterness, and outright nihilism? Bond over our shared despair and bafflement as to how the masses can continue to cling to empty feel-good platitudes? Put bumper stickers on our bikes saying “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”?
I know a lot of people who feel they can’t afford, emotionally, to engage in radical politics because it’s too depressing. It makes them feel powerless, hopeless, traumatized. Primarily, these are people whose emotional resources have been sucked dry by living on the wrong end of oppressive social relations.
What would it mean to acknowledge hopelessness not as a natural reaction to social reality, but as a condition of emotional deprivation and exploitation? To see the optimism of the privileged as dependent on the pessimism and despair of those who lack? To see hope as something we’re lacking not because it’s foolish, but because it’s been stolen from us?