The Vampire Problem
On the airplane as I traveled to my grandmother’s funeral in 2008, I read the first “Twilight” novel. Maybe there was something about the return to my childhood home and contemplation of mortality that made me crave a vampire story, but I don’t think it’s that. At that time, the books were just on the verge of massive attention, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Plus, it seemed that a young-adult novel would be good airport reading, not requiring too much concentration. I wasn’t looking for something particularly good, just felt like I might want to have read it for myself.
I could see why the book became popular, at least. It’s literary popcorn, a kind of comfort food that’s not too spooky, not too childish. But I began to feel a dragging in the book as the plane reached cruising altitude, and Bella anguished over the mysterious classmate Edward. Pages went by, and I complained to myself, “The flight attendants have completed beverage service and Bella still hasn’t figured out that Edward’s a vampire. How dense is she?”
That’s when I became aware of the Vampire Problem.
In the vapid and mostly worthless 1992 movie “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Donald Sutherland delivers an excruciating speech when he first meets Buffy. It’s full of pauses that are meant to be suspenseful, but end up being tedious. “You are… the One. The One… who will protect us… protect us… from Them.” For the viewer, the pauses aren’t suspenseful at all, because we already know what he’s getting at. Vampires. Spit it out, Sutherland.
The Vampire Problem is complicated by our awareness as audiences. I knew that Edward was a vampire before I picked up the book, and I knew that Buffy was a vampire slayer before I’d watched one minute of film. When the characters seem slow to reach the conclusion that vampires are real, I think of them as… slow. I want to shake them out of their oblivious ignorance. Get a clue! It’s vampires!
But maybe they aren’t so clueless. If I spoke to a person–in the real world–whose go-to explanation for events was “Maybe it’s vampires,” I’d doubt their credibility on just about anything else they said.
We judge vampire movies and novels based on a theoretical realism. We ask, “Is this a realistic way that an intelligent person would react to learning that vampires are real?” But there’s no way to say with certainty how a real person would react because–let us agree to stipulate–no real person has ever experienced it. Essentially, when we judge characters in a vampire story for not being aware that they’re in a vampire story, we’re judging the victims of genre.
In essence, there’s a gap between the awareness of the viewer of a genre story and the characters in a genre story. That’s why the Vampire Problem isn’t really about vampires at all. It’s simply that we assess characters in a story as “smart” or “stupid” by their reaction to the trick question inherent in the genre.
According to the literary critic Gary Saul Morson, criminal characters in detective novels are inevitably going to be caught, because the detective has the genre on his side. If you ever figure out that you’re living in a detective novel, it’s a good idea not to commit any crimes. The Vampire Problem is a similar conundrum. The characters take forever to understand they’re in a vampire movie, even though we (the viewers) knew that from the beginning.
There’s a near-inevitable scene in any contemporary vampire story, where someone who’s just learned about the existence of vampires asks a question like, “So vampires turn into bats?” or “Do vampires sleep in coffins?” and someone more knowing answers with a scoff, “That only happens in vampire movies.”
The scoffing answerer gets to look temporarily savvy, but in actuality, the response shows an even deeper ignorance. You say, “It only happens in vampire movies” with complete obliviousness to the fact that you are in a vampire movie. You’re the one who’s confused about what’s a movie.
Perhaps the worst fate in a vampire movie–or second-worst, after vampire victim–is the role of clueless mundane, those benevolent muggles at the edge of the story who never quite catch wind of the reality of vampires. They spend their entire existences as hapless bystanders of the great conspiracy, pitifully ignorant simply because they live their lives by the reasonable assumptions that we all do in the real world.
The most reasonable assumption in the world is that we’re not in a movie. If we were in a movie, we might need heavy restructuring of our ways of thinking about the world. Or maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe lots of our human problems are caused by the delusion that we are in a movie, a place with foreshadowing, heroes and villains, dramatic irony and catchphrases.
If I had to live in a genre of movies, I might choose Bollywood. These Hindi-language musicals have taken all the tricks I know of movie plotting and amplified them to absurdity. They abound in implausible coincidences, hyperactive emoting, and the rare medical conditions I think of as “Monty Python diseases” — those fantastic plot-based ailments that connect a specific cause to a specific effect, like “He puts a bag over his head whenever he hears the word ‘mattress,’ and will only take it off if someone nearby stands in a tea chest and sings.” They are specific in ways that real medical ailments never are.
One of the most successful Bollywood movies of all time is “Three Idiots,” a story about slacking second-rate students at the Indian Institute of Technology. A minor character in the film, a pregnant woman, discovers that her baby kicks every time the main character (Aamir Khan) says his catchphrase, “All is well.” (I know it doesn’t sound like much of a catchphrase. Just go with it.) Later in the film, the woman has given birth on the college campus during a stormy night without electricity, with the titular three idiots helping her. Aamir Khan holds the baby, and then says with consternation, “He isn’t crying!”
There’s an extended moment of consternation. I marvel at this point that the characters are unable to see the obvious plot contrivance—the baby will be okay as soon as he hears the catchphrase. But the moment extends because of the basic internal ignorance of genre. That is, no one knows they’re in a Bollywood movie.
I pause and imagine what it would be like, how long it would take a real person to figure out a plot-based cure for a plot-based medical condition, to correctly recall the foreshadowed remedy and apply it. I sigh, because it’s so obvious to a viewer and so difficult for the characters. But then Aamir Khan whispers “All is well” and the baby stirs, which leads everyone in the makeshift delivery room to cheer along.
It’s as though they’re willing Tinkerbell to live by asserting their belief in fairies. The music swells. They cry tears of joy. They are at least smart enough to know there are no vampires here.