12/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Zombies, Torture, Bloodsuckers

True Blood is not on right now, to the disappointment, not to say withdrawal symptoms, of the millions addicted to its veinous entertainment . HBO's vampire series is over for the season, not to return the Louisiana backwater where it's set until next June. Bill Compton, the "good" vampire who is in love with and tries to protect Sookie Stackhouse, the waitress who can extremely sporadically read people's minds, will have to wait six months to imbibe from her veins again. Meanwhile, the Stephanie Meyer vampire book and movie phenomenon, which is saving one publishing company and doing amazing box office with the movie "Twilight," is slaking popular culture's hemoglobin thirst very nicely.

I saw "Twilight" last weekend, in an audience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in a theater filled with teens and tweens, a few of whom looked with suspicion at the mature gentleman in their midst. But mainly they laughed at the movie. They weren't scared or filled with ardor for the boy vampire--they just thought the whole thing was hilarious. Made me proud to be a New Yorker--I really do wonder if the film met with the same bemusement in Indianapolis.

But what is with the vampire craze right now? The vogue for them has ebbed and flowed over the last century, but at the moment the ventricles seem all the way open. A friend of mine suggested that this fad may represent our culture's unconscious efforts to depict in metaphorical terms the financial greed that has sucked blood money from the body politic--especially the subprime mortgage fiasco that started it. "Mortgage" is derived from the Latin word for "death," after all.

I'm sure Film Studies courses everywhere and serious books about sociology and cinema and television have examined this theory in greater detail and with more erudition than I ever could. But all on my own over the last four or five decades I've noticed what seems to me a fascinating co-incidence between popular screen themes and deeper social concerns and crises. Zombies and triffids during the Cold War, with its fear of the Red menace. Westerns a little later in which automobiles and machine guns and cameras began to conflict with the American frontier's rough justice and primal way of life. In the nineties, a great number of movies came out that expressed anxiety about the growing influence of technology--"The Matrix," "Pleasantville, "The Truman Show," almost all the Schwarzenegger futuristic features, to name a few. Then came the "Saw" series--which is still going on--and "Hostel" and other brutal torture movies, which seemed to mirror uncannily the awful news about Abu Ghraib. And now we have vampires preying on the innocent and ignorant, at the same time that corporate bloodsuckers are doing their best to avoid the light of day and scrutiny.

Seems to me that movies are, however unknowingly, projections in more ways than one. If I were to guess what might be the next such cinematic manifestation of social anxiety, it would be--in light of neuroscientific discoveries--movies that call into question what most of us believe to be free will.