Thursday, March 04, 2010

Stuff: From blood-sucking outsiders to kosher sparkles.

In the Forward, writer Allison Gaudet Yarrow does a pop-light dissection of the Jewish subtext of the modern vampire. Horror fans might not find much new info here, but I took note of a curious bit on vampiric overtones in the story of Jacob and Esau.

Rice may have made a straight trade, from vampires to Jews, in her latest book, but it’s not just contemporary literature that pits those strangers from the East as either one or the other. Some claim that the original myth of the vampire comes from Genesis. A famously hairy and spurned brother struggles with whether to kiss his twin’s neck or to bite it. The parsha reads: “And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Sounds like a surprisingly joyous reunion (Jacob had cheated his brother of his birthright, you will recall), but rabbis point to the dots above the Hebrew word neshikah, “kiss,” which indicate another meaning.

Louis Ginzberg writes, in the book “Legends of the Jews,” “In the vehemence of his rage against Jacob, Esau vowed that he would . . . bite him dead with his mouth, and suck his blood.” This midrash plays with the closeness of the words neshikah and neshicha — kiss and bite, respectively. About as close as the spellings of Hanukkah and Chanukah, but with distinctly darker overtones of fratricide and vampirism.

Quickly, Jews were transformed from victims of night prowlers to the blood-sucking outsiders themselves. One of the hoariest old axes of antisemitism — the blood libel — is that Jews drink blood, or mix it into their matzo. Erik Butler, a professor of German studies at Emory University who studies vampire psychology, says that historically, vampires were symbolic of any persecuted group, and legends about them grew around whatever images the culture had to present. Hence, subjugated Jews became as good an outsider for vampires to represent as any.

The author goes on to ponder the implications of the vampire's mainstream status, from vaguely Semitic boogyman to romantic lead.

Now, of course, vampires are as often the good guys as the bad. Sarah Jane Stratford charges vampires with stopping the Holocaust in her debut novel, “The Midnight Guardian” (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Her vampires are both morally responsible and self-interested: They use their considerable powers to thwart genocide while combating hunger, as Hitler’s death camps are killing off all their food. These millennials transform the traditional vampire into a monogamous do-gooder. One called Eamon is even a cross-averse Jew himself, having led a pious life before being bitten. Now he’s too busy hunting Nazis to light Sabbath candles, but he can enter churches, unlike the formerly Christian night creatures.

If vampires are equipped to cripple the Holocaust, surely they can manage the suburbs, where they have descended upon diners and high schools. “Twilight” series writer Stephanie Meyer is a Mormon, but Melissa Rosenberg, who is responsible for the Twilight screenplays, is a Jew. She told Los Angeles’ Jewish Journal that the vampires of “Twilight” are “kosher,” if “kosher” is a synonym for “cool.”

With the current ubiquity of vampires, perhaps they’ve outlived their metaphorical life. No longer the “other,” they now just highlight a chosenness to star in their own fiction. In the 2009 film “Daybreakers,” everyone’s a vampire. The outsiders are human. But can these emblematic outsiders depicting minorities (Irish, women, blacks, Jews) still wear that badge now that they have entered into the mainstream? Maybe not. Maybe we’ll turn to mummies instead.

Have vampires lost their ability to represent the outsider because the "outsider" status has lost so much specificity to audiences in a relatively heterogenus and liberal culture?


zoe said...

sparkles, haha.
this was fascinating, thanks! and that photo--awesome! so, so awesome...

Pauline said...

I always imagined that what saved the "otherness" of vampires was the issue of sex. You weren't going to get pregnant/an STD/etc. from a reanimated corpse, no matter how suave they might be. I suppose the real issue was could they even engage in coitus as human's know it.

Now, with the the nouveau vampire strapped in a chastity belt or, alternatively, making baby vamps via intercourse, even that has gone by the board.

Maybe mummies would be a nice change.

Scare Sarah said...

Awesome article. And I love that picture too!

Anthony Hogg said...

"Have vampires lost their ability to represent the outsider because the 'outsider' status has lost so much specificity to audiences in a relatively heterogenus and liberal culture?"

Thomas J. Garza, who teaches a course on Slavic vampirism, is quite candid about this issue:

"As long as we can tap into our xenophobia, then we get into the kind of vampires that make us squeal and jump."

wiec? said...

how do you tell your parents that you signed up for your new semester of College courses and you picked 'Vampire Psychology' as a major?

and indeed that pic is dooooope.

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

The whole thing brings to mind "The Keep," "Carrion Comfort," and of course "The Fearless Vampire Killers."