Masculinity, Visibility, and the Vampire Literary Tradition in What We Do in the Shadows.
In order to register this process of loss, the mockumentary genre is more than helpful. Beyond showing the vampires as caricatured images of their fictional ancestors, the genre reminds the audience of the vampires' textual past: it presents personal reminiscences accompanied with representative images from our real cultural heritage relating to vampire lore, as well as fabricated visual evidence of an alternate history featuring vampires. Thus it creates a new, fake historical/mythical framework in which the main interpreter Viago and his housemates appear. Both kinds of references to the characters' past contribute to revealing the loss of power that the vampire has suffered. The monster that used to embody deep fears and utmost desires (which are also to be feared) has, as the film reveals, become gradually disempowered.
The image of the weakened vampire provokes laughter in most cases; even when tragedy hits the characters, the context and the mode of presentation guarantees the retention of the comic atmosphere. Yet, beneath this comic surface lies real anxiety found in contemporary life. As "the monster's body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary)" (Cohen, "Monster" 4), it does so in the mockumentary as well. One might argue that all that happens due to shifting the monster narrative into the comic sphere is that the fear and desire attached to the vampire have lessened, and as a consequence, we are able to laugh at something that used to embody horror or lust; but, in fact, laughter is a mask similar to the one that the vampires aim at maintaining so that they may hide in society and stay unnoticed. The laughter of this mockumentary obscures the underlying narrative that addresses both the roots and the frightening consequences of the monsters' disempowerment.
The incessant references to the vampires of the past place the characters in a broad context that Gina Wisker describes as the "conventional and historical Gothic [that] tends to foreground anxieties about ... male fears of female sexuality" (9) and more narrowly in the context of the classic vampire lore, which concerns itself with power relations such as the fear of colonization that may bring about decadence. The revenant characters' vulnerabilities strongly relate to such themes--themes that have come to the foreground again due to the significant transformation of society, starting in the 1960s, that has more recently generated a renewed discussion of the ambiguous position of white men in post-liberational culture. This position is thoroughly explored by Sally Robinson, whose groundbreaking book Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis (2000) offers a useful theoretical framework for analyzing white male power in society and its representations in art. Outlining how the (white) American middle class has become disenfranchized due both to economic changes that have strengthened the position of diverse racial and ethnic groups and to the various liberation movements that challenge patriarchal norms and heteronormativity, Robinson argues that after the late 1960s white male power has naturally developed an interest in becoming more visible (2-3). The reason for this is that visibility and political power appear as inseparable to the marginalized, who must seek a way to make their voice heard; for this purpose, an effective strategy is to employ identity politics that defines the characteristics of a given group by articulating differences from what counts as normal (Robinson 3). The norm, in turn, stays inarticulate, invisible, but this invisibility is useful, for it helps in maintaining hegemony. Civil rights and liberation movements, however, have challenged the invisibility politics of the white power structure, and as Robinson points out, white men's altered position in society has brought about a dual interest in becoming both visible and invisible (3). As a consequence, marking men--marking masculinity--in fiction has become a tool to make them visible; however, another problem derives from the fact that the presentation of marked men tends to personalize the problem, working against the claim that the root of the problem may be found in social anxieties that affect white men as a class (Robinson 8-9).
This contradictory situation, as Robinson explains, means that
representations of wounded white male bodies signal a crisis elsewhere, and one that is simultaneously caused and managed by narratives of crisis and the wounded bodies displayed within those narratives. Displaying wounded bodies materializes the crisis of white masculinity, makes it more real, like other bloody battles over race and gender in American history; but such a materialization, in turn, threatens to expose the lie of disembodied normativity so often attached to white masculinity. Paradoxically, in representing a materialized, wounded white male body as the new norm of white masculinity in the post-liberationist period, [these representations] evidence the impossibility of recuperating the fiction of abstract individualism and unmarkedness. White masculinity, then, becomes fully embodied through its wounding. (9)
Robinson discusses American mainstream novels that address white men's angst in complex ways, through "[i] mages of wounded white men, manufactured traumas, and metaphorical pains" (6), but monster literature, and especially vampire fiction (in text and on screen) is especially suitable for examining the issue of masculinity in crisis. Understanding that the monster signifies culture-related anxieties, and that the historical vampire monster relates to fears of colonization--a topic that fits into the discourse of power relations between the dominant and the suppressed--as well as to fears of female empowerment, it is easy to see the points of connection. In Shadows the vampires demonstrate their loss of status as powerful monsters: the film concerns itself with presenting the transition between the historical and the contemporary in terms of power springing from monstrosity; it also engages with the theme of invisibility versus visibility, and the unresolvable conflict between the need for both states. All these explorations intertwine with the presentation of the male vampire characters whose identity is marked by their wounds--both physical and mental/magical.
Shadows exemplifies a most curious connection between culture and art due to its overall emphasis on monster culture and the genre of the mockumentary. The monster is the projection--a metaphorical embodiment--of real anxieties, and by presenting the transformation of this projection, the film does indeed document the metamorphosis not only of monster culture, but also what it stands for: that is, those real apprehensions that the vampires reflect. A close observation of both the characters and the function of the mockumentary genre will clarify the nature of the metamorphosis and its signification.
Mocking the Shadows of Past Vampires
As a cultural signifier, the monster is continuously altering; accordingly, the creators of Shadows consciously reflect on the three major stages of the literary representation of vampires, connected respectively with authors Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, and Stephenie Meyer. (2) The film makes recurring references to the specific features of the vampire character and characteristic motifs that these authors employ, and suggests that the transformation may best be described as a crisis in masculinity. Vampires have become domesticated, and have ended up in safe zones, occupying a space in marketed mainstream literature, and also making their related characters as well as the readers feel safe in their presence. (3) Especially in the past two decades vampires have become "defanged"--not only in the sense in which Susannah Clements uses the term, applying it to the spiritual content of the vampire metaphor, but in a broader sense, which understands bite as a synecdochic expression of a metaphorical act. In this reading, blood sucking stands for sexual intercourse in these vampire texts, as psychoanalytic readings contend; (4) but sexual intercourse also signifies "taking" in a much broader sense, often implying patriarchal power or masculine power (the fang indicating a metaphorical penis in the case of male vampires, the primary concern here), as well as political power.
The archetypal literary vampire Dracula possesses a power that manifests itself in a variety of features, which appear in a ridiculed form in the mockumentary. Stoker's monster is capable of transforming himself into a wolf, a bat or fog; he is scary, and although he comes from the backward East, he is intelligent, and is thus able to adapt to the challenges of the modern, Western world; he attacks mostly women, who find it impossible to resist him, as he can hypnotize his prey; he is able to turn his victim into a vampire, which in the context of Dracula, points to the aggressive process of colonization. (5) In Shadows, all these fearsome manifestations of power are limited to the realm of nostalgic reminiscence, while the remnants of that power generate laughter instead of terror.
The 8,000-year-old Petyr's appearance in Shadows obviously alludes to Count Orlok's character from the 1922 film Nosferatu--the count whose character is based on Dracula, but could not have his name for copyright reasons. (6) Petyr keeps silent for the most part and rarely moves around even in the house, as if he were paralyzed; his existence seems to be detached from the present, and he has a limited interaction with the others. But however mute he may be, his age commands respect from his fellow vampires. Although the living dead share the same house in which everyone has his own responsibilities, Petyr is an exception to this rule: Viago's politely hinting at the possibility that Petyr may clear the mess he has made and his dutiful brushing of Petyr's fangs reveal the master-servant relationship between the ancient monster and his younger friend. The first interactions between Petyr and Viago disclose that the more modern monsters find the ancient one scary, monstrous, that is, "Other"--an idea that inherently carries the claim that the younger the vampire, the less monstrous he is. In fact, various literary and filmic vampire texts build on this concept of the hierarchy of power. The more ancient a revenant is, the more powerful he is, often making him a vampire master who converts the weaker vampires into his servants. In the movie, this disparate degree of monstrosity not only indicates the difference between the primordial vampire and his descendants but also points to the ambiguous contemporary position of the archetypal monster: he is still able to convey deep fear--but only in another vampire. His silenced, paralyzed existence warns us that his ability to scare has worn out. Petyr has the expected effect only on the past, not on the present. It is symbolic, therefore, that it is Petyr who actually vanishes from the present and from the movie when a vampire hunter finds the home of the revenants and launches an attack on them.
While Petyr represents the vampire that at least scares the younger vampires, Vladislav is the laughably disempowered representation of Dracula from Stoker's novel. Aged 862, he is still considerably older than his housemates, and in many respects, he also classifies as an "Other" in the community: Viago describes him as "a bit of a pervert" and criticizes his old-fashioned ideas, such as his desire to keep slaves. His connection to the literary Dracula character is visually established by a brief glimpse of an orgy that evokes Harker's seduction scene in Coppola's adaptation of the novel, as well as images of the historical Vlad Tepes, which are shown on screen as Vladislav speaks about himself during an interview. The name Vladislav the Poker is a reference to the historical character Tepes, also called Vlad the Impaler, from which the fictional character Dracula is generally thought to have derived. The name Poker itself signals erosion of strength, as the torture of impalement is reduced to poking. Vladislav's loss of power is emphasized in numerous other ways: while he is still able to transform into an animal, his attempt is always a partial failure, producing a shape that is much more ridiculous than scary; he has lost his former ability to hypnotize, and he has been defeated by his archenemy, the Beast, who turns out to be a female vampire.
This paradigm shift regarding the literary vampire is the result of a complex set of processes, but one of the primary, direct roots of the change comes from the genre crossing (7) that reached vampire fiction well before the publication of Twilight, mixing originally distinct Male and Female types of Gothic fiction. Beginning with Ellen Moers's pivotal attempt to differentiate among types of Gothic literature written by women, there have been several approaches to distinguish Female Gothic from Male Gothic. (8) Moers's approach in her "Female Gothic" (1976) laid the foundation for more complex studies that favored psychological readings, such as Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's foundational The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), as well as feminist interpretations that underscored the political and socio-cultural aspects of Gothic literature. By now, criticism has largely abandoned the idea that genre or plot structure naturally correlates with authorial gender (Wallace and Smith 3); however, it is still useful to look into the features that may render a text "female" or "male." It appears that just as "Female Gothic was an expression of the 'second phase' of American feminist literary criticism, which focused on uncovering the lost tradition of women's literature" (Fitzgerald 14), so do the plots of the Female Gothic novels that may be seen as derived from Ann Radcliffe's works center around reclaiming property--an idea that again is inspired by Moers's analysis of Radcliffe's Udolpho (Fitzgerald 13). Anne Williams describes plots featuring a "persecuted heroine in flight from a villainous father and in pursuit of an absent mother [... as] typical Female Gothic," and "masculine transgressions of social taboos" as Male Gothic (qtd. in Wisker 8). In the context of understanding property as focal in Gothic fiction, we may, however, venture to reformulate Williams's definitions and note that while Male Gothic may be understood as the literature where the theme of taking dominates, often featuring a male overreacher as protagonist, Female Gothic may be seen as expressing the wish to reclaim what has been lost. Originally, vampire fiction, with its emphasis on the biter that claims power, falls into the category of Male Gothic, and this is the masculine dream world that the revenants in Shadows long for. Why these living dead characters cannot make a successful claim of power, though, is because the context they are confined to live in has changed thanks to the feminisation of vampire literature.
This process begins with Anne Rice's vampire narratives, which paved the way for a new approach to vampires in terms of gender, for instance in novels written by Suzy McKee Charnas, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Jody Scott. Rice's novels are usually categorized as examples of Male Gothic written by a female author, but her texts already divert from the classical Male narratives when she "explores gender and power, women's radical behavior and patriarchal punishment, and also eroticizes the vampire embrace, moving beyond the condemnation, disgust, repulsion and loathing of Dracula" (Wisker 177). On the perhaps unintended, metafictional level, Interview with a Vampire is about reclaiming: it "recovers literary vampires' lost origin: the homoerotic bond between Byron and Polidori" (Auerbach 153). But more importantly, by foregrounding Lestat's homosexual desires, Rice challenges the conventions of vampire narrative that were established by Dracula (King 76). Her approach discards the strict masculine/feminine binary opposition, and "subvert[s] the heterosexuality which maintains a system of female submission and male domination" (78-79). The bromance of the vampires in Shadows, topped with Deacon's "erotic" dance that Vladislav and Viago witness with amusement, is a caricatured reminder of Rice's approach.
Yet Rice's eroticized presentation of vampirism and her creation of the humanized vampire opened up new paths for the next phase of vampire fiction, wherein the dominance of Male Gothic is challenged by an abundance of vampire romances, a specific variation of the Female Gothic. This kind of Gothic romance recycles the Beauty and the Beast formula and produces a story that evokes Jane Eyre with supernatural coloring. It regularly features a strong male suitor, who is initially viewed as demonic; yet as in accordance with the nature of romances, the demonic may be tamed to fulfill the wishes of the weak, helpless (preferably victimized) woman. This "taming" (defanging) is given an extreme manifestation in Meyer's Twilight series, in which Edward, Bella's vampire love interest, is described in terms of the angelic and the semidivine as opposed to the traditional demonic. As Sommers and Hume point out, Meyer constructs Edward Cullen as the "desexualized. good vampire" (161) especially because while Meyer makes it explicit that her revenant is as masculine as one may possibly imagine if he is allowed to fulfill his sexual desires, repression lies in the focus of the series (Sommers and Hume 161). The Twilight Saga centers on the imagined but not performed transgression--the bite not taken--whereas the bite provided the focus for the preceding Male vampire narratives.
Shadows highlights the tamed status of the vampires and exposes their feminized, domesticated nature, metaphorically signaling the paradigm shift between the more masculine vampire of Male Gothic and the defanged, living dead idol of the Female Gothic romance. Viago's and Deacon's features that are traditionally labeled as feminine become evident early in the movie. The first conflict among the vampires, for instance, concerns "flat responsibility," which gives the producers an opportunity to introduce Viago as a neat-freak who is worried about the negligence of his flatmates. The house is a mess, especially because of the accumulated unwashed dishes; moreover, the others do not think that covering the sofa with towels before biting a victim should have priority. Viago's pedantry seems to be compensated by Deacon's attitude of the "rebellious, young vampire": he has not done the washing up for the past five years, as he does not think vampires do such things. Yet, the scene concludes with showing him wearing pink plastic gloves at the sink, washing up the dirty, blood-stained glasses, suggesting that even the rebellious ones become tamed. His frustration with the job and the pink gloves he wears reflect both an unvampire-like image in the context of traditional vampire lore and an anti-masculine image in the context of patriarchal social relations. But it is also he who finds pleasure in knitting, (9) diligently working on finishing a scarf for their friend Stu, and who regularly entertains his housemates with his "erotic" dance performances, which hardly arouse one's sexual interest but rather a desire to laugh.
Deacon's hobbies connect the theme of the domesticated vampire to the diversely presented notion that the Twilight phenomenon has had a damaging effect on classical vampire lore. The revenant's knitting a scarf for Stu, "the Bella Swan of this story," on whom "all the vampires get a bromance crush, holding back from biting him" (Bradshaw) is a mocked and futile attempt at reclaiming vampire lore, as Stu's functioning as a shy Bella does not re-masculinize the Twilight narrative; on the contrary, it throws (twi) light upon how the masculine becomes feminized in the context of Meyer's fictional world.
The mockumentary engages with the Twilight phenomenon in several ways. The well-behaved rival werewolves, who emphatically are "not swearwolves" (Shadows), provide one of the many obvious references. The reconciliation between the two supernatural races at the ending of Shadows appears as miraculously and unexpectedly as it does in Meyer's Breaking Down (2008) when Jacob incidentally imprints on Renesmee, transforming the werewolf's emotions towards vampires in one second (Meyer 331). Another wink at the Twilight saga comes in the form of ridiculing androgynous vampiredom. While the overtly metrosexual, effortlessly fashionable Edward Cullen is the utmost object of Bella's desire, (10) the movie stresses the nearly impossible efforts that vampires need to take in order to shape their images satisfactorily. In a hilarious series of scenes, the spectators learn that as mirrors show no reflection of a vampire (and the revenants are not modern enough to use high-tech devices to solve their problem), these living dead rely on sketches drawn by their fellows to check if they look all right. This scene not only makes fun of vampire vanity, but also comments on the fascination that Bella has for the angel-faced, well-clothed, fancy-car-collector Edward.
Bella's infatuation with Edward is most straightforwardly criticized through Nick's character. Nick desperately wants to become a vampire because he is aware of the Twilight saga's gender-skewed popularity, and therefore he is convinced that becoming a vampire will make him irresistible to women who have fallen in love with Twilight's fictional sparkling undead. He soon must realize, nevertheless, that his personal Twilight-fantasy will never turn into reality: the expected crowd of women who would all have a crush on him never appears. Nick becomes disillusioned with his tough transformation process and its consequences, but he tries to make the most of his new existence: he randomly cries the word "twilight" when he is roaming the streets, and he keeps bragging about his condition, claiming that he is "the main guy from Twilight" (Shadows). These pitiable attempts at garnering popularity do not earn him the privileges he hopes for; what is more, they bring about tragedy after he gives out information to a vampire hunter about who they are and where they live--an act that directly leads to Petyr's extermination. The Twilight-hype to which Nick is so attached thus destroys one of the pillars of classical vampire lore.
Nick, who would love to take advantage of the Twilight phenomenon in order to have a sex life is not shown finding a partner; in contrast, Viago's romance with his old love directly subverts the Edward-Bella affair. The well-known theme of a vampire falling for a human girl is presented as a most weird relationship. His eternal love presents Viago as a real loser: instead of the vampire's romanticized passion leading to a successful seduction and then marrying and living happily ever after with his transformed beloved, the movie indulges in the pain and frustration Viago feels for losing his opportunity to have what Edward Cullen wins in the Twilight Saga. Viago's personal tragedy is presented with a strong comic overtone: he explains that his life tragedy is the result of the wrong amount of postage on his coffin in which he meant to follow his love Katherine to New Zealand. Consequently, the journey took eighteen months, which was long enough for his beloved to find a new partner, a human, who married her. Eternal love is ridiculed by the gift of the woman: she gave a silver medallion to Viago before emigrating to New Zealand, obviously as a love token. As vampires cannot wear silver because it actually burns them, every time Viago puts on the medallion, he suffers burn scars, and must again and again face the fact that even their virtual coupling (presented as the meeting of his vampire body and the silver medallion) is something painful and temporary. Eternal love becomes an eternal, but miserable existence, wherein the much-hyped vampire sex becomes eternal loneliness with random joys of masturbating in a coffin with the photo of the beloved woman.
At the conclusion of the movie, nevertheless, we appear to have a fairytale-like ending: Katherine is free, living in an old people's home, and Viago finally has an opportunity to enjoy his version of eternal love. He does find the woman who still loves him, and who is happy to be turned into a vampire, so Viago's achievement may be compared to that of Edward in Breaking Dawn. Yet this parody of that relationship emphasizes both the incompatibility of such partners due to age difference, and the controversy over the idealized vampire-human romance in Twilight: in Shadows's universe vampires look exactly the age they are bitten, and as a consequence, Katherine looks ninety-six, but Viago, who has been a vampire for three and a half centuries, looks young. Physical appearance thus points to incompatibility, but it hides the real perversity of the relationship, which is that it is Viago who is the "cradle-snatcher" (Shadows) and not Katherine, as might be one's first impression. Viago will live happily ever after with Katherine, the forever ninety-six-year-old lady, but the visibly old image of the lady reminds an audience that extreme age difference is an extreme age difference even if its signs are concealed by magical rejuvenation, thus the ideal image of the Edward-Bella romance becomes damaged, too.
The mockumentary rejects the false, manipulated fantasy of the Twilight world that generates unrealistic expectations and thus huge disappointments, as Nick's example demonstrates. The disparity between Nick's and Viago's attitudes is also suggestive: Nick's disappointment stems from his condition of being a young vampire, so his expectations derive from his human experiences; in contrast, Viago has long been initiated into a vampiredom that lacks Twilight's sparkling aspect and the Bella-like, vampire-admiring fan groups, so he must be content with a reality-compatible version of eternal love. The demasculinized and powerless vampire existence that Viago exemplifies allows him to take only the old lady, although he could have had the young, beautiful version of his desire if he had been more powerful and courageous, and had confessed his emotions before Katherine's emigration. On the other hand, this "old-age" romance is presented with self-irony, as well as an emphasis on accepting (diegetic) reality, which suggests that this parody functions primarily to mock the consequences of accepting the idealized world of vampire romances. Viago may be in an awkward relationship from the spectator's point of view, but his ability to see the same young Katherine in the old lady is a lovely touch that also counters the beauty-fascination that defines Bella's view of the world (including vampires).
The criticism of Twilight's shallowness and anti-feminism is clearly articulated via the character of Jackie, who also may be seen as a counterpart to Bella. The two female characters share a fascination with vampires, and they are converted into revenants by the end of their stories. Jackie is bluntly shown as very rational and self-interested, consciously serving a vampire as his familiar to earn her reward: power. Bella also yearns for power: her "frustrations are actually embedded in a desire for action" (Coker par. 28), and thus it is possible to read her desire for transformation as the manifestation of feminist ideas. However, Bella's fascination springs from her admiration of the vampires' beauty, which will turn into an irrational love for Edward, and for the general public, this successfully cancels any feminist coloring of her character. In Shadows, the contrast between these women's attitudes is, therefore, pinpointed in a feminist context, as the bite of transformation comes from their desire to change their relationship to the "masculine world" in which they exist. Edward and Bella are presented in a hunter-prey relationship that atypically ends by Bella's offer[ing] herself up to the hunter as a willing victim" (Stevens par. 40). This is possible because Bella's world is defined by one character, Edward, who overwrites all other characters in her life; as a consequence, her desire is limited to the sought-after relationship with Edward and springs from her wish to become a "suitable" wife for her vampire boyfriend--a desire that confirms stereotypical expectations of womanhood in a fundamentally patriarchal world. Jackie, in contrast, does not embrace this stereotypical gender role and is irritated by the limitations she faces because of her gender. Her initial desires are in line with the aims of equality feminism: becoming a vampire, for her, means transgressing the boundaries of her gender and gaining power. She is outraged when she learns that her transformation has been delayed because Nick was accidentally turned into a vampire, and she immediately explains her disadvantageous situation in terms of her sex: "You know if I had a penis, I would have been.I would have been bitten years ago"; and then she goes on calling the vampires "a big homo-erotic dick biting club" that dooms her to iron "their fucking frills" (Shadows). Her words parody the harsh criticism that Twilight's "defanged" vampires received from those who prefer Male Gothic, evoking a discussion that draws upon the sexual signification of the vampire. When by the end we see Jackie's transformed self, she has become Master to her husband and she greatly enjoys her new potential: "My husband is my familiar. So, there has been a dynamic shift there ... I feel like I'm where I need to be now" (Shadows). She enjoys having more power than ordinary men and embodies the "feminist threat" that aims at completely subverting the established social order by placing women in the dominant positions. Her character mocks Bella's submissive nature but also illustrates the suppression of vampires belonging to the Male Gothic tradition. Jackie has sought her own way to become transformed, having grown tired of Deacon's repeated, but never fulfilled promises. But she also marks a counterreaction to the Twilight-phenomenon: she is turned by Nick, the disillusioned Twilight-fan, which does not give much hope to the older revenants.
Jackie's independence and self-assurance makes her as frightening as The Beast is for Vladislav. The Beast, Vladislav's former lover, clearly connects the fall of these male vampires of the Male Gothic tradition to the emergence of the empowered woman:
Vladislav used to be extremely powerful. He could hypnotize crowds of people. Great orgies. 20-30 women. He could turn into all sorts of animals. But now he never get [sic] the faces right. He would kill anybody. Men, women. Children. Burning ... everything. It was totally great. But he suffered a humiliating defeat.at the hands of his arch nemesis ... The Beast." (Shadows)
Both of these strong vampire women thus serve to point out how the vampire narratives that follow the patterns of Male Gothic have lost their privilege. The demasculinized Vladislav, who is terrified of his ex-girlfriend Pauline, the Beast, may be read as a reflection of how the masculine vampire narrative has been challenged by the feminine one since the publication of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, which has inspired a new vampire renaissance by introducing the character of the tamed, vegetarian, (11) demigod-like, sparkling revenant with retractable fangs and astonishing college diplomas.
The parody of vampire tradition involves not only domesticating the revenants but also a form of reverse cultural appropriation. The writers and actors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement portray European vampires, but both are of Maori descent. (12) This casting provides an extra ironic take on the presentation of vampires, traditionally the palest of all monsters and thus signifiers of white European aristocratic privilege and power. In Shadows, however, the air of aristocracy hovers around these undead characters only in a nostalgic manner, and funnily enough, it is the human character, Stu, who manifests extreme whiteness (whereby the redness of his skin is emphasized).
On the whole, Shadows approaches the theme of vampires' disempowerment from diverse directions. The individual vampire life stories and character studies are showcases revealing how certain vampire lore features have changed, weakened, or disappeared following the prominent turning points in the literary history of vampire fiction. Together these monsters demonstrate a loss of power that is defined mostly in terms of masculinity but manifests in various fields of life (if this term may be applied to the living dead, at all) and point to an emptied vampire myth that even the vampires do not comprehend any more. Nothing exemplifies this loss better than the vampires' conversation about why they prefer virgin blood: none of them knows exactly where this component of the vampire mythology comes from. Deacon thinks they keep up with the habit simply because it sounds cool, while Vladislav tries to fill the phenomenon with real content. He compares women to sandwiches, highlighting unknowingly that female victim characters in most vampire romances are there only to be consumed by male vampires, and then continues by collapsing the vampirism-as-sex metaphor into literality: "if you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it" (Shadows). Yet it is important to note that while in theory these vampires do attach importance to the victim's virginity, they do not get to drink virgin blood very often, as they must accept whatever victim Jackie brings back to their house, also illustrating that their agency has become limited compared to that of their predecessors.
Technology and the Mockumentary Genre
This examination of how the movie's vampire characters represent the post-Twilight deterioration of literary vampiredom is powerfully supported by the mockumentary genre in which the vampires' story is mediated. This choice of genre is one of the keys to understanding the paradoxical nature of the monster in contemporary popular culture, as it underscores the unresolvable conflict resulting from the vampires' lack of technology: the living dead refrain from using everyday technology, and as a result, they do not consume modern media but unwittingly become part of the machinery that produces it. They participate in what is a documentary in the film's diegetic reality, exactly because they do not understand the implications of their participation and the technology that connects to the process of filming. The vampires' attitude towards modern technology thus reflects our newly created monsters' ambiguous place in our world.
The binary structure through which readers often interpret the vampire contrasts the monster with modernity: the living dead are not bound by time, and the emblematic vampire always appears ancient in comparison with the human, whose existence is limited in time, and whose identity is defined by the present as well as what the present incorporates, including, most notably, technology. While this symbolic disparity between the vampire and the human certainly holds generally, in Stoker's Dracula, the monster character becomes so powerful and frightening exactly because he demonstrates the ability to surpass this original assumption. The archetypal literary vampire is capable of transformation and evolution, and this adaptability becomes a basic survival skill for the previously noted, famous vampires, as well. For instance, "[t]he tendency of Rice's vampires to construct their own identities, often according to literary and cinematic models" (Harse 254) may clearly be observed in Lestat's chameleon-like character. In a similar vein (pun intended), Meyer's Edward, with his hobbies of collecting diplomas and driving luxury cars, confers modernity on himself. In this light the backwardness of Shadows's vampires becomes symptomatic: it shows their reluctance to change, together with their inability to understand their position in the space they inhabit.
Dracula was characterized by the power to transform his environment as well as the power to adapt to his environment, and to use the former ability for his own purposes. Upsetting the order of the western world, he buys properties and dominates his new spaces--he starts colonizing. Shadows' vampires, in contrast, move to a new country, but do not arrive as colonizers but as emigrants and their primary goal is to hide. Deacon, for instance, had to begin a new life on a new continent because he used to be a Nazi vampire, and being a Nazi and a vampire was a combination that would not be tolerated in countries that were directly affected by World War II. Viago emigrated because he followed the girl he thought was amazing. These vampires do not think of conquering their new home but rather pursue assimilation, aware of the fact that they must blend in once they go out and walk the streets, and therefore their major concern is to hide their vampire identities. Their strategy includes dressing up in their victims' clothes, but they cannot change their mentality as easily as they can change their clothes--their frame of mind completely lacks modernity.
Nick, the freshly turned vampire, is the one who explains modern things to the company of vampires. He brings along Stu, the software analyst, who installs the TV, explains to them how to send text messages and take selfies and how to use google to search for something on the internet. These scenes do not simply disclose how much these vampires are incapable of understanding modern technology, they also problematize the way their story is mediated. What is a mockumentary for the spectators is a documentary in the diegesis of the film, and as such, it aims at revealing the truth about these vampires' daily routines as well as their characters in context.
Incessant comparisons between the past and the present emphasize the loss of the revenants' former monstrous power; this phenomenon focuses on the fears and the desires of the monster--as opposed to the more traditional vampire texts, where primarily human anxieties or desires surface and become projected into the body of the monstrous. Since Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, however, the vampire psyche has also become subject matter for monster narratives. As the diegetic documentary includes several interviews with the vampires, Rice's novel--or, rather, its film adaptation--naturally emerges as a point of reference. In consequence, Shadows may be interpreted as not solely a subtle allusion to Rice's work, but as a subversion of what the actual interview originally stood for.
The manner of confession, this time in a technologically advanced manner, recorded by TV-cameras, points to significant differences between how we perceive the monster in Interview with the Vampire and in the mockumentary. Rice's approach humanizes the monster but still renders the vampire as a mythic character: the interview in question is a very exclusive one in her novel and emphasizes the initiatory nature of the revelation, and consequently, the information appears confidential even though it is "leaked" for publicity. The vampire Louis, however, does not give any further testimony to support his story; his words will either be believed as true or rejected as a hoax by the reading public, while only the interviewer will have the opportunity to ascertain the validity of the interview.
By contrast, Shadows highlights the ordinariness of the vampire lifestyle and the accessibility of the knowledge concerning vampiredom. The diegetic documentary interviews not one, but several vampires, showing them on screen to provide a visual demonstration of the revelations. The format itself renders vampire life into the category of the normal and ordinary: firstly, the mockumentary is "the least complicated, least expensive, and least respected kind of film to make" (Juhasz and Lerner 6); secondly, fake documentaries show conflicts of small dimensions and uncomplicated resolutions (Harkness)--a life that we may recognize as familiar. Reality TV appears to have the same thematic focus, but it aims at "validating ordinary people" (Carpentier 347), whereas mockumentaries presenting the lives of ordinary people mock even the reality that makes reality television possible: "a reality where celebrity, or authority, is easily bestowed not for the value or quality of that which is under consideration, but for the consideration in and of itself" (Juhasz and Lerner 3). Accordingly, Shadows suggests the mediocrity of vampiredom through the revenants' questionable celebrity status. The monsters are shown in familiar surroundings, and in human-vampire interactions to emphasize their co-existence with human society. The film also looks at the larger supernatural community of vampires and that of werewolves, thereby indicating that what is presented on screen in detail is a microcosm of a larger society, and thus supernatural existence is not at all exclusive. Its emphasis on everyday routines, furthermore, turns the monstrous experience into something comparable and consumable by the human viewership.
Conclusion: Vampires and the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility
The genre of the mockumentary primarily points to the paradoxical nature of vampire existence in our time. The film underscores the revenants' ambiguous attitude to their monstrous existence by showing their awareness of the necessity for hiding, which, surprisingly, is combined with their voluntary participation in a documentary. The paradox appears to stem from the vampires' technological illiteracy, which prevents them from fully comprehending the consequences of their participation in the diegetic documentary. The older undead characters scorn Nick for bragging about his vampiredom, thereby calling attention to the importance of keeping their identity secret--but this scene takes place in front of the cameras, while the "documentary" is being filmed.
The mockumentary, furthermore, continuously makes references to spectatorship. We are not allowed to forget that what we see on the screen is a product that is made to be seen and thus consumed. It is the audience that defines what kind of information the vampires reveal, and their awareness of having become characters of their own lives' filmic version influences their choices as they try to please the audience. Vladislav, for instance, thinks that the girl whose blood he wants to drink would make a good victim because she is a good choice "for television" (Shadows). Such considerations make the film embrace the audience, turning the gaze toward the spectator, who comes to understand that those who watch create the vampire.
The similarities between what we see in Shadows and what we may encounter in certain reality television shows that focus on the dynamics of community allows for interpreting the fake documentary as a story of (communal) survival. The vampires do everything in order to survive human determination to eliminate them--but participating in a "documentary" seems to contradict this imperative. It is suicide for them to perform a "coming out," but it may in an awkward manner ensure vampire survival: the monsters serve the entertainment business, which guarantees a place for them in the human world. Inevitably, however, their role goes through a transformation. These male vampires, similarly to Twilight's Edward, become "cute" on screen; but while Edward's cuteness is connected to beauty and the erotic, (13) the mockumentary's revenants reside at the other end of the cuteness-scale, displaying weaknesses that relate them more to children than lovers. As Maja Brzozowska-Brywczynska notes in her study of the relationship between cuteness and monstrosity, "a certain degree of both physical and psychical weakness and disability can be seen as sub-types of childishness and both are essential parts of cute aesthetics and general sweet appeal" (216). Ironically, while Viago and his friends condemn the presentation of a fake reality due to the process of aestheticization, they also rely on the power of cuteness, though it can only invite a hug of pity instead of an erotic embrace. Yet this cuteness becomes the superpower replacing their former strength, resonating with Jamie Raap's observation that "[f]rom a Darwinist point of view, cuteness is constructed as a means for survival" (qtd. in Brzozowska-Brywczynska 222).
This paradoxical connection to the genre harmonizes with the politics of visibility and invisibility that white male authors in societies advocating liberalism have been trying to pursue for the past decades. As discussed in the Introduction, visibility politics in mainstream literature presents white men as marked by weakness in the form of physical or mental distortion that makes them stand out from what is considered to be the norm; in a similar manner, the physical and mental deterioration of the literary vampires in the mockumentary marks them and makes them interesting, visible. These vampires are white males, yes; but they do not simply stand for an extension of the white male character into the fantasy realm. As cultural markers, their paradoxical attitude towards visibility connects to societal fears and desires.
The choice of genre for the film implies that we need mockumentaries because we cannot have documentaries about monsters; and we need mockumentaries because we still need the illusion that we have the monsters. Both implications reflect the desire and the fear: we do desire the monsters and we do fear that they may not be around us; and to make this notion more complicated, we need to remember that the vampire in itself is a metaphorical expression of man's fear and/or desire, which means that we desire to have such metaphors and yet we fear that we may have lost them.
This anxiety is closely linked to our technologically advanced lifestyle that the mockumentary also alludes to. The development of technologized media has substantially influenced our attitude towards the monsters. As Judith Halberstam notes, "[i]n the modern period and with the advent of cinematic body horror, the shift from the literary Gothic to the visual Gothic was accompanied by a narrowing rather than a broadening of the scope of horror. One might expect to find that cinema multiplies the possibilities for monstrosity but in fact, the visual register quickly reaches a limit of visibility" (3). The link between the mock-documentary and Reality TV furthermore, supports the notion that the proliferation of monster texts appears to desensitize the spectator and thus generates a double effect: on the one hand, it calls for more and more frightening monsters--and in this respect the film caricatures people's fascination with the monstrous and some of the vain efforts to keep on creating effective monsters; on the other hand, it gives way to a process of demythologizing, stripping even iconic monsters of their mystic robes, as the film clearly demonstrates. It deconstructs the vampire by refusing to show it as the frightening, the monstrous--and by doing so, the mockumentary provides a sharp critique of today's society, suggesting that what used to be monstrous is not terrifying anymore, because the norm has changed. The vampire, which used to indicate an alignment with the sub-cultural, after all, has conquered the mainstream.
Those watching the diegetic documentary mean to indulge themselves in the pleasure of watching horror. Intriguingly, the non-diegetic audience comes for the opposite, to indulge themselves in the pleasure of watching comedy. However, unexpectedly, they become also active participants in facing the presentation of the horrific (yet not necessarily decoding it as terrifying): the ontological anxiety that stems from living with ineffective monsters.
The existence of the monster, as Cohen points out, is tied to perceptions of ourselves as humans. Thus we may claim that this presentation is in line with the latest trend of humanizing the monster, further blurring the boundaries between the human and the monstrous, suggesting that the monster is not much different from humans. We may even claim that the way this mockumentary presents these monsters suggests that today's monsters are unable to fulfill their original function of being the fantastic manifestations of humanity's apprehensions and fascinations. But laughter, as I suggested before, is misleading in this case. These "twisted" monsters do fulfill their original function and thereby represent our fear of losing the capability of creating monsters that are able to answer the challenges of contemporary life. Or, to continue this thought, these monsters embody our fear of losing "real" fear and desire, emotions that have helped us to comprehend our human nature.
This fear also reflects the primary function of monsters: they are fictional, but they come to life because we create them to help us in our psychological journey. They help to slay our dragons, to use an easy-to-understand metaphorical expression. But do we really understand the complexity of this claim? Monsters do not help us slay dragons by handing us a sword in times of need; they help us slay dragons by becoming dragons and allowing themselves to be slain. By externalizing our fears or (worrisome) desires, monsters embody what may not have one specific shape or even name; they are "harbinger[s] of category crisis" (Cohen, "Monster" 6) and through their sheer existence grant us the opportunity to cope with them, giving us "a space in which perspectives can be adopted and the permissible and impermissible can be played with" (Scott 1). Woven into intricate fabrics of fiction, they show us a way to slay or tame them. But taming, it appears, may be dangerous, because in order to engage with the game, monsters need to be powerful and need to be able to correlate with the reality they signal. If we cannot create new, capable monsters either because we have become so much desensitized by their predecessors or because we have become so used to aestheticizing the monstrous (which happens especially in vampire romances), we risk losing a potent space of imagination in which anxieties and desires may adequately meet to constitute human nature in our cultural condition. What We Do in the Shadows confronts us with what we do in the shadows, what we humans have been doing to our monsters in the dark, thus avoiding attention. "The monster and its dreamer are not two entities inhabiting a divided world" (Cohen, "Postscript" 463): it is we who have created these weakened monsters, and thus the pronoun in the title of the mockumentary, we, refers to creatures and creators alike and severely critiques the paradigm shift in vampire fiction brought about by the proliferation of supernatural romances.
(1.) As Cynthia J. Miller explains, "mockumentaries may be thought of comprising a range, or continuum, of hybrid fictional texts that borrow from documentary modes to achieve their own ends" (xiii). Key components of mockumentaries include "appropriation, mimicry, confusion, and subversion of documentary modes" (Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight cited in Miller xiii) as well as "elements of parody, pastiche, and self-referential irony" (Gary Rhodes and John Parris Springer cited in Miller xiii). But while the determining features are the same, their purpose may greatly vary. What We Do in the Shadows belongs to the subgenre of parody (Abbott 92), but equally important are mockumentaries that create a hoax, often labeled as "false documentaries" (Miller xiii) or the ones that critique documentary aesthetics (Miller xii).
(2.) The periods into which the history of vampire narratives may be divided are characterized by a revived interest in vampire literature and may also be connected to Stoker, Rice, and Meyer. In her "Introduction" to a collection of critical essays on the Twilight phenomenon, Giselle Lisa Anatol differentiates among First, Second, and Third Wave vampire narratives. First Wave is applied to the earliest, nineteenthcentury such texts, from John Polidori's "The Vampyre" (1819) to Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Although Dracula is the last in the row chronologically, it became the most influential, so the first stage is aptly hallmarked by Stoker's name. Second Wave begins after the publication of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire (1976), which generated a renaissance of vampire fiction after a long break in the 80s and 90s, and led to Third Wave vampire narratives written after the turn of the millenium (Anatol 2-3). Albeit not the first novel in Third Wave, Twilight is definitely the most influential in popular culture, thus justifying the linking of this stage to Meyer's name. Unfortunately, Anatol does not specify what difference--if any--she sees between the two groups of works penned by Second and Third Wave authors, but the revived interest in all cases is clearly connected to a new approach to the vampire character. Stacey Abbot in her Undead Apocalypse offers a more complex overview of the history of vampire literature, and clearly identifies this new approach as the change of perspective that characterizes vampire texts, producing I-vampires, that is, the characters of the sympathetic undead (ch. 7).
(3.) Abbot importantly notes that beyond this safety, in the 70s, "the sympathetic vampire increasingly became associated with a form of 'self-disclosure', challenging cultural perceptions and dominant ideologies" (148). I argue that this phenomenon, actually, supports the feeling of safety, however rebellious the vampire's behavior may seem, because with the application of the I-vampires, the texts generate sympathy and embrace counter-cultures.
(4.) One of the earliest scholars to connect vampires with sexual perversion is Ernest Jones. His psychoanalytic study On the Nightmare (1931) and Christopher Bentley's 1972 article "The Monster in the Bedroom: Sexual Symbolism in Bram Stoker's Dracula" have influenced many scholars exploring this theme. More recently Jean Lorrah identifies the vampire's act of bloodsucking as "an obvious symbol for rape" (31), while Ken Gelder in his study on Dracula explores the aspects of sexuality and perversion attached to the vampire in his Reading the Vampire (65-80). While discussing how the attack of the vampire metaphorically stands for sexual intercourse, Lorrah, as well as Bentley and Martin J. Wood are quoted in Joseph Michael Sommers and Amy L. Hume, "The Other Edward: Twilight's Queer Construction of the Vampire as an Idealized Teenage Boyfriend" (54), as is Nina Auerbach (162n5). Accordingly, sexual intercourse has become inseparable from bloodsucking in vampire films, as images of copulation cemented the concept of the sex vampire.
(5.) On the aspects of colonization in Dracula, see Stephen D. Arata's article "The Occidental Tourist: 'Dracula' and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization" (1990). Arata argues that sexual transgression in Stoker's novel "resonates culturally and politically as well." As he explains, "For Stoker, the Gothic and the travel narrative problematize, separately and together, the very boundaries on which British imperial hegemony depended: between civilized and primitive, colonizer and colonized, victimizer (either imperialist or vampire) and victim" (626).
(6.) See Felicia Feaster's "Nosferatu (1922)."
(7.) Cf. Gary K. Wolfe's Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature.
(8.) For a concise, but very informative summary on the evolution of the Female Gothic as a literary category, see Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith's "Introduction: Defining Female Gothic."
(9.) Deacon's hobby evokes the classic scene from the Hollywood science-fiction comedy Demolition Man, in which the once very masculine cop is reprogrammed while he serves his sentence in a futuristic prison, and when he wakes up, he finds himself in a strange world, where he feels compelled to knit complete sweatshirts, and is forced to work with a female colleague who becomes his boss.
(10.) For a detailed analysis on how consumption contributes to the construction of Edward's gender, see Michael J. Goebel's "'Embraced' by Consumption: Twilight and Modern Construction of Gender."
(11.) Note that the "vegetarian" vampire is not Meyer's invention, as it was preceded by, for instance, Angel's character from the TV-series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In Buffy (and later in Vampire Diaries) vampire "vegetarianism" is a moral choice, as in Twilight; however, in the former "vegetarianism" is associated with the position of the poor, the marginalized, the despised, while vegetarianism in Twilight, as Michael J. Goebel notes, does have the air of the "benevolent bourgoisie." (173.)
(12.) On Waititi, see, for instance, Sophia Whittemore's article "Maori Director Bringing Indigenous Polynesian People to the Forefront of Thor: Ragnarok"; on Clement, see Sean O'Neal's interview with Jemaine Clement.
(13.) "To make cute a multifaceted concept we need the following instruction: 'Draw a circle, and ray out from it the abject, the melancholic, the wicked, and the childlike. Now in the zones between add the erotic, the ironic, and the kitsch. Inter-sperse the Romantic/Victorian, the Disney/ consumerist, and the biologically deterministic. At the centre of this many-spoked wheel lies a connective empty space. Label it CUTE'" (Brzozowska-Brywczynska 216).
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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