Lust for the vampire

It’s a case of Salem’s lots and lots as the bloodsucker phenomenon bites the American academy. Jon Marcus reports

December 20, 2009

Retailers are scurrying to cash in on the Twilight craze this Christmas, hawking all conceivable type of merchandise related to the popular books and movies, but they are not the only ones infected by the vampire craze.

American universities are offering courses on vampires in literature and other popular culture to feed students’ seemingly insatiable appetite for the topic.

“They know more about vampires than they do about religion,” said Richard Androne, professor of English at Albright College in Pennsylvania, who teaches a course called “The Vampyre”.

Professor Androne covers everything from English Romantic-era vampire literature to modern texts and films, and begins the course by asking his students to tell him all they know about vampire myths. It fills several blackboards, he said.

“It really is a phenomenon,” added Elizabeth Richmond-Garza, director of the programme in comparative literature at the University of Texas, whose course, “The Uncanny”, has grown from a small seminar to a 250-strong lecture class. As much as half the course is devoted to vampires.

“It’s a huge, widespread thing that’s been happening,” she said.

Dr Richmond-Garza also teaches a graduate seminar on literary and artistic representations of the vampire in the 19th and 20th centuries and how they relate to cultural anxieties such as xenophobia and homophobia, and other issues that connect to topics such as terrorism and the exploration of sexuality.

Terrorists, for instance, can be like vampires, Dr Richmond-Garza said, as they are “people who are not like us who live among us”.

And many readers and filmgoers, including students who worry about jobs and debt, use vampire literature as an escape.

Dr Richmond-Garza’s husband, Thomas J. Garza, worked as a consultant on the vampire movie 30 Days of Night (2007), and teaches a second, separate course at Texas on the Slavic history and folklore of the vampire myth. It has attracted 140 students.

Whereas people previously interested in vampires often were reclusive loners, Dr Richmond-Garza said, “this kind of outsider thing has been domesticated and tamed into a pop-culture experience”.

She said that while her courses are fairly evenly split in gender terms, thanks to male-friendly sections on cyborgs and avatars, the audience for vampire literature is “markedly feminine”.

Even Harvard University is considering a vampire literature course in its continuing-education division. University officials said they will make a decision in the new year.

A new course on the same topic will be provided next semester at Stetson University in Florida, where “there is a lot of interest in vampire literature”, said Jamil Khader, associate professor in English, who will teach the class.

Perhaps the scariest place where vampires are in vogue on campus is the College of the Atlantic on remote Mount Desert Island, off the coast of Maine. There, a study of Satan in film and visual arts includes Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre (1979).

But if there is an epicentre of vampire studies, it appears to be Texas. Texas Tech University has a class called “The Vampire in East Europe and Western Culture”, which discusses the ways in which the vampire image has shifted to conform with social trends, especially in modern popular culture. And the film-television-digital media department at Texas Christian University is offering a course in January called “Bloodsuckers”, which will study the changing image of vampires in films from the 1920s to today.

Their artistic merit notwithstanding, Dr Richmond-Garza said, today’s pop-culture vampire films and books are likely to continue to lure large student followings.

“Bram Stoker was considered trash literature in his time and turned out to survive,” she said. “Maybe Twilight will survive, too.”

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