This is a question that’s been going around for a while, what with the smash success of some vampire-related franchises that aren’t all that good: Twilight and TV’s True Blood, whose season finale last night was yet another sign that Alan Ball will never live up to the early promise of Oh, Grow Up. When you factor in guys like Joss Whedon whose only mainstream successes have been with shows that starred vampires or featured the word “vampire” in the title, you have to wonder: why is it that anything with vampires in it is a hit? (Update: Yes, that’s hyperbole. But hyperbole is no excuse for inaccuracy; there are lots of non-hits with vampires.)
Everyone has their answer to that question, so here’s my attempt: vampires have the kind of cross-gender appeal that is valuable to producers and especially valuable in television. Monster stories are considered to be primarily a boy thing. Brooding romance stories, or sex-drenched soap operas (True Blood fits into the latter category) are considered to be primarily a girl thing. A vampire story offers a soapy or romantic tale, but with monsters and violence. That brings in men and women. (Okay, I don’t know how many men went to see the Twilight movies, but I’m going to guess that it wasn’t fewer than would have gone to see a similar story without vampires.) It also appeals to writer/creators because it allows them to use the organizing principle of science fiction — tell fantasy stories that are clearly about our own world and our own time — but reach a broader audience than metaphor-heavy science fiction usually appeals to. True Blood is trying to do metaphorical social commentary, just like Battlestar Galactica did, but because it’s about vampires rather than space travelers, it doesn’t have to be pigeonholed as a “geek” show.
And of course vampires are appealing because of the wish-fulfilment aspect. That’s familiar enough, the idea that there’s something cool about being a vampire: you get eternal youth and beauty, and you get to keep most of the outward trappings of humanity. (Werewolves may have a certain wish-fulfilment element, based on our longing to be tough and primal, but werewolves don’t get to be pretty and they don’t get girls. Not usually, anyway.) Even the vampires who don’t live in cool castles like Dracula are kind of like the idle rich, people who live by different rules, have exotic appetites, and can do unusual things. And yet, unlike witches, they don’t have so many powers that writing for them becomes impossible. They’re magical enough to be cool, not magical enough to make plotting difficult.
*No, I’m not kidding.