Our nation has a long history of expressing its inexpressible horrors through art and literature. It has become a long-accepted facet that post-war trauma has led many an author to pen the atrocities of violence and unspeakable horrors into something melodic and lyrical. As Tim Snelson puts it in The Ghost in the Machine: World War II, popular occultism and Hollywood’s ‘serious’ ghost films: “…these articles attributed the phenomena to the desire for ‘escapism’, rather than an attempt to seriously engage with the uncertainties of wartime” (Snelson, 1). Our country seeks solace in memorializing and ‘escaping’ the horrors and unseen specters that haunt even in the daylight. War has ignited many facets of our culture and in turn our artistic subcultures. I posit that recent struggles facing our nation have resurfaced this long-held ideology due to the pressures of war, violence, and latent sexuality. The medium through which our nation appears to be evidencing this is film and literature. We have created a new genre of literature in recent years titled ‘Paranormal Romance’ which seems to be the clinging spirituality our people turn to in times of strife or confusion.
In Snelson’s article women are defeminized for their belief in an ‘other’ during times of war (World War II): “However, this strategy of displacement, largely onto women’s anxieties about loved ones overseas, allowed the middlebrow press to spread a reassuring message that V-J Day was imminent whilst distancing itself from this perceived feminine, irrational belief system” (Snelson, 1). This flippant displacing of female anxiety was due to the ambivalence of the increased sales of Ouija boards at this time. The stress of war and this framing of the collective consciousness stems directly from the need to ‘escape’. War has caused our paradigm to shift once more into a defeminizing and suppression of female sexuality through the use of the vampire theme.
Snelson states that the Ouija board was used: “…as a medium that addressed wartime women’s feelings of uncertainty and loss, whilst simultaneously drawing attention away from the violent eradication of bodies” (Snelson, 2). This subversion of female power stems directly from war in that during times of war, historically, women tend to assume new roles in society. It would appear there is a fear of this happening in our society now, making it a momentous time in American history. Movers and shakers in the Women’s Suffrage movement were barreled forward due to their dominant presence in society during World War I. With male supremacy busy up at the front lines, women’s responsibilities grew on the home front. This female dominance again resurfaced during World War II, in Joanne McGurk’s article The Subversive Message of World War II-Era Hollywood Films – Adapted from Contemporary Novels By and About Women, we glean some insight. McGurk rationally states: “An output of novels-into- films reached a critical mass during the World War II years, thereby reinforcing women in their seizure of the public realm…” (McGurk, 4), and “These films…contributed to the message that this war was a democratic enterprise that included the efforts and achievements of women” (McGurk, 8). This seems to indicate our country was buying into propaganda while simultaneously (albeit not necessarily intentionally) promoting the feminist movement. Women were promoted during the war, an oddly liberating time period for women in our society, yet male dominance longed to resurface at the conclusion of the war. We can trace this vampiric thread back to the Civil War and even utilize Gone with the Wind to illustrate our vampirical rationalization of females to delineate their power and capitalize on their overt sexuality. Margaret Mitchell makes interesting and knowing comments into the insights of how females were viewed both inside and outside the text and film at the time. It was considered unnatural for women to overstep their bounds in business and the bedroom, blurring the lines of duty and sex. Rhett Butler, Scarlett’s sometime lover and husband says rather in contradiction of himself: “I execrate these vampires who are sucking the lifeblood of the men who follow Robert Lee – these men who are making the very name of blockader a stench in the nostrils of all patriotic men” (Mitchell, 235). There is an interesting theme found in this as relates to our modern society – do we perceive ourselves as blood-sucking, greedy and vile? We tend to see gluttonous homogeny in our vampirical obsession. Our nation’s transcendent author Edgar Allen Poe has also made reference to emasculating female sexuality/power through the tool of vampirism in his story Berenice. Bram Dijkstra writes in Evil Sisters: “…set out to prove that nature had given all women a basic instinct that made them into predators, destroyers, witches – evil sisters” (1). It was within this paradigm that he dubbed women as ‘latent vampires’. Male society could not extricate women being successful or modern from their overall life-sucking abilities. This framework has been present for hundreds of years, yet always seems to resurface at prescient times. To prove this we have to understand how art, literature, and poetry have impacted us as a nation and how it is linked to times of upheaval. The time of these writers though was one that was rather tumultuous, the sands hissing quickly through the hourglass of war. The author of Literature, the Nation, and the World, Grace Schulman says: “My reason for recalling those views (meaning the critics) is not to underline their dimness, but, on the contrary, to show their struggle to perceive new directions in modern poetry and in poetic form during times of political upheaval and death” (Schulman 59). And indeed, this upheaval brought a shift that seemed to change the way poetry was understood. Robert Bly stated that “..the true political poem moves inward, deepening awareness of the self” (Schulman 60). A new paradigm had emerged that seemed to understand, accept, and assimilate politics into poetry, and poetry into the self. Walt Whitman’s poetry was then considered “national”, something that could contain the true patriotic self, the true political body of understanding and development within itself! It took more time to break the mold for female writers, a reviewer stating that: “It is the cry of its women. In many respects it is the resume of the wants and thoughts of all women who are other than passive beings” (Schulman 61). That reviewer was responding to Gail Hamilton whose works were considered “devoid of art”. But none could withhold the ‘poetic justice’ for long. For a critic soon acclaimed a female poet in such terms: “…the movement of Mademoiselle Sand’s thoughts seems to us as free as the air of heaven” (Schulman 62). Such beauty ascribed to the works of a female finally broke the shell that harbored animosity in art, and literature bridged the gap between politics and poetry and came together in a marriage of nationalism. To bend the definition of the time is something that crops up again and again throughout the world. Schulman reinforces this notion by saying: “In a large sense, though, literature and politics are joined, for modern poetry is international in character” (Schulman 70).
Writing is a medium that allows individuals to conquer established tropes and enfeebled genres that have weakened over time by such prodding and finally in shamefaced acceptance nod acquiescence to those barging in. This parallels the events of the time in such fascinating manners as to create a link between life and poetry, and the emotions that are dredged up within the individuals writing reflects those adventures the world takes on. For poetry is a form of writing that can affect all of human nature and surpasses boundaries of prose and language. When translated poetry can hold its profundity. Poetry can stand alone and does not harbor biases and prejudices, and as Schulman so aptly puts it: “And because poetry refuses any political identification it is, paradoxically, the medium of all people” (Schulman 70).
To further construct the paradigm and understanding necessary to see the movement of American history and the large historical part that literature has played in forming our society and the momentous times in our history, we have to see a small pocket of how literature bleeds into history. Historian Alison Weir correctly perceives the indivisible nature of literature and historical record: “This was an accepted practice in an age when history and literature were almost indivisible” (Weir, 9), when discussing interpreting moral stories as definitive truth.
Knowing that literature plays a large role in shaping society and molding history to fit its sentence structure, how much of our recent political strife is wrapped up in vampiric literature? We must understand historically that we, as Americans have a fascination with the criminal and therefore sympathy with the criminal. This leads to our romanticizing of vampires in the male role, and the demonizing of females in the vampire role. And we can then see how this theme is birthed from our current prospects of war in the Middle East.
Sara Crosby’s article Early American Crime Writing is one that wholly embraces the notion and theory of criminal sympathy. That is not to say the sympathy a criminal feels for its victim, but rather the whole-hearted embracing of the venomous female murderers and the seducing, sashaying rogues that we as an American society do. It began innocently enough, by granting the sympathy we had long withheld from criminals/victims who were deserving of it, but morphed into something far more concerning and at times rather sinister. Those we identify with has transformed from the early days of Crosby’s example of execution sermons, to gritty, grisly true crime novels that leave one with glossy color photos of corpses embossed in one’s mind. To say our sympathies lie with the devil is rather an apt description, and one that Crosby clearly paints. A departure in the “norm” in American society’s sympathy occurred, and it seems was resisted due to feminine threats.
Crosby’s article opens with perfect examples of why and how our sympathies came to be what they were. An argument between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne is the portrayal used. Melville believed that “America would embrace egalitarianism through sympathy with the criminal…” whereas Hawthorne disliked the theory “…precisely because it promoted this leveling identification” (Crosby, 1). This idea of sympathy, an emotion which levels or relegates ones feelings to the same sphere as those of the individual you are feeling sympathy for, creating egalitarianism in society is extremely true. When one can sympathize with another, there creates an atmosphere of equality and understanding. In this people become not the same, but similar. Melville approved of this idea, but Hawthorne feared what leveling a criminal to the level of an honest person would do for society. In some cases Hawthorne’s fears are well founded in that we identify too much with those committing crimes, and thus copy-cat crimes and killers crop up. Leaving that aside, was Hawthorne ever in fear of equality not necessarily amongst criminals-non- criminals, but rather men-women?
This paradigm seems to me quite obvious in that the very beginning of sympathy for American criminals was female in nature. The infanticide crimes that Crosby describes are what first generated this idea of pity and sadness for the criminal and what inspired some to take action. With the growth of that sympathy the female and the male would eventually be equal. Was Hawthorne threatened by the direction this could take? Were many feeling this way? If we allow our sympathies to fester and grow perhaps everyone would simply do as they pleased and these feelings would become dangerous rather than dignified.
The reason these feelings are “dignified” is because they were originally supposed to be virtuous. Crosby’s article states: “These novelists found crime writing irresistible because they aspired to be ‘moral painters’ inculcating virtue in the new nation” (Crosby, 5). Sympathy was supposed to be directed in a virtuous manner and not given freely to those who were undeserving. For in seduction novels one was not supposed to feel grief for or sympathy with the rogue, but rather the female whose innocence was savagely taken from her. One was to feel pity for the lust that ripped through virtue and to find peace and sanctity in the realm of Truth and Virtue and to live through it and demonstrate it to all. These were lessons to women. But again this recalls the execution sermons; they were lessons to women to remain intact in virtue or else they would become pregnant and murder their babies. Execution sermons were fantastical to those who heard them or read them, but to understand their true meaning they were warnings to other women. The sympathy seemed to be a side-effect at first and a selling point only later on. With seduction novels the same theme can be seen repeating itself – feel sympathy for these women, but heed the warning within. Seduction will destroy you, death is inevitable.
It seems that sympathy is a tool used for and against women, and sometimes it can be seen as detrimental even in today’s American society. Sympathy can be considered a weakness when demonstrated by women, or seen as an insult or a suggestion of inferiority when directed at women. Crosby’s article makes evident the relationship between America, crime, and sympathy and how they all come together harmoniously throughout the entire history of this country. What the message behind that sympathy says today is up to readers to interpret, but it is clear that sympathy has never died.
This sympathy with the criminal aligns itself with our world policing efforts and the anti-war demonstrations. Yet even so our patriotism is not to be lightly dismissed. It seems that merely through the horrors of war that plague our society or the constant threat of violence have turned themselves inwards and created an escapist method for dealing with these pressures. Literature has taken up the standard and created the Paranormal Romance genre that has led to popular novels such as the Twilight series. This series also has a filmic representation that idealizes the fantastical and horrific. It promotes the vampire as not something wholly evil and disseminates to the public that we should quit ‘othering’ and chase the fantastical. It seems to be a method of grieving for that which we have attained or cannot attain through our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The non-violent rendering of such historically evil creatures leads one to feel sympathetic towards and interpret the motivations of such beings differently. In Rick Worland’s article Dark Shadows 1970: Industry, Anxiety, and Adaptation, he insightfully discusses the television show Dark Shadows: “For the fantastical yet day-to- day realm of Dark Shadows, the repressed included the on-going turmoil of the Vietnam War era itself—events often posing radical challenges to political, social, and gender ideology, and which dominated network newscasts airing only a couple of hours after each day’s dose of vampires and werewolves. Wood contends that analysis of a given horror text can commence with the statement, ‘The monster disrupts normalcy,’ and subsequent elaboration of how each of those terms—the nature of the monster, the disruption, and the definition of the normal—are played out (70–94)” (Worland, 1).
Yet does the re-emergence of the vampire hold significance to the feminist movement and the repression of female sexuality? The continual flow of emergence/repression of female dominance in American society is highlighted by time periods of import and significance in American history. From the Great War to Prohibition. The flapper era and speakeasy time period led to the liberation of female sexuality. Frances Early truly sums up this thread of thinking in Feminism, Peace, and Civil Liberties: Women’s Role in the Origins of the World War I Civil Liberties Movement: “….that some feminists involved in both anti-war and civil liberties work during the war era came to see how militarism, war, and misogyny are related in western society, an insight which informed the thought and activities of the post-war women’s peace movement” (Early, 1).
To prove this vampirical and shuddering impact of women, war, and latent violence, Jennifer Lobasz states our central theme in her article The Woman in Peril and the Ruined Woman: Representations of Female Soldiers in the Iraq War: “…that the predominant female gender images reproduced in the media during and after the Iraq War have been of the Woman in Peril (Lynch) and the Ruined Woman (England). Rather than undermining stereotypes of women, as some feminists had hoped, the dominant narratives of Lynch and England worked instead to reinforce existing gender norms” (Lobasz, 1).
It seems that the more our society engages in violence, historically demonstrated both through accounts and literature/art/film, the more we marginalize female roles and seek the fantastic either through escapism or through the lens of ‘evil women’. Our country has experienced this in the Civil War, World War I and II, the Great Depression, Prohibition, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and our current struggles in the Middle East. This ‘othering’ and destabilizing of the female breaking stereotypes instead cripples our own society and pushes back against advancement. In fact, most post- apocalyptic fiction obsesses on the idea of lost history, ahistory, and the regression through loss of literature and art. We merely accept this paradigm in a self-fulfilling prophecy when we allow war and violence in our nation to demonize our female population.
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Notes and Outline:
What effect literature has on history
What culutural shift led to sympathy with the criminal and the romanticizing of the vampire?
How wars liberate women.
Written in Blood – obsession with vampires. Latent stress, violence, and sexuality.
The paradigm shift that led to the collective cultural consciousness through the obsession and
sexualization of vampires.
The role literature plays in shaping American culture.
The role literature plays in historical accounts.
The fantastic and escapist mindset of America – pressures of violence.
The cultural use of vampirism to repress feminism and female sexuality.
Historical frame for reference to pose the question – why has it resurfaced?
During times of war, women tend to assume new roles in society. Perhaps there is a certain fear of this
in our war-stricken society now.
We see our own society as blood-sucking.