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Laura Brounstein Headshot

Why Vampires? It's the Superpowers, Stupid

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I've always rooted for the underdog TV show or movie, the kind that had a weird island or lizard aliens or the kind with a crazed cult following rather than mainstream approbation. So I love that genre entertainment is having such a day in the sun, but it's fascinating me that so few of the heroes of the franchises at the forefront can actually step out into sunlight -- unless they want to be caught sparkling or sizzling, that is. The vampire has been invited in, and he is not taking his leave anytime soon. We've got the Twilight series, which has the sweet, swoony rush of teenage infatuation in every word of its four (and a half [click through for The Short Second Life of Bree Turner]) tremendous tomes; the dark, delicious and more than a little campy sexuality of True Blood; The Vampire Diaries' teenage angsty ennui and coupling. Undead men are at the center of many a female fantasy at the moment and driving more than a few men to the closest screen to revel in the bloody good fighting and sex that tend to be found wherever there's an Edward, Eric, Bill or Damon.

When considering this fascination with vampires, it is tempting to muck around in the vast history of literary and pop-culture bloodsuckers to ask what implications for our current obsession can be found in the long and varied incarnations of these legendary night creatures? But what if that's not the right place to be looking at all? The true inspiration won't be found under the dusty black cloaks of a Vlad the Impaler or a Count Dracula but, rather, under the bright red and blue cape of a much more familiar figure: Superman.

It's not the specifically vampiric traits -- their thirst for blood, or their ghostly pallor that are seducing us. We've fallen for their super-human speed, strength and preternatural penchant for adoring deeply and unflinchingly. Every age, especially every troubled age, develops the pop-culture superhero it needs.

Superman, the first true superhero (created in 1936 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Midwestern boys from Jewish immigrant families) was a character whose "otherness" made him not bad, as was the precedent in pulp fiction, but an epic force for good. It was the dawn of the Golden Age of comics, the genre's genesis, which lit the Great Depression and the nation's descent into WWII, with brave and patriotic heroes who would fight for truth, justice and the American way. Best of all about this newfangled hero? His beloved, a plucky girl reporter who was smart and sassy enough to engage female fans and foxy enough to endear her to boys, comics' core audience. Although Lois Lane did need to be saved occasionally, she was no pulp-fiction damsel in distress. She was going head to head with her mild mannered coworker at the Daily Planet and humanizing him in the process.

The next big wave of heroes, comics' Silver Age, reflected a very different time. This wasn't a moment for pageantry, for true-blue supermen dropping from the sky to save the day. The sixties' Spiderman, whose web-slinging ways were due to a radioactive spider bite, struggled with understanding that "great power comes with great responsibility" while living in the very real city of New York, rather than the technicolor NYC avatars of Metropolis or Gotham. Peter Parker, Spidey's alter-ego, was the very a model of modern major hero searching for his place in a Cold War world that was questioning the right of a murky oversees "conflict" and the actions America the SuperPower was taking. The fact that Parker was a teenager and almost as worried about wooing the girl next door as he was about saving the world made complete sense to the ascending tide of baby boomers.

Cue today's Vampire. He (or occasionally she) is freakishly fast, with a body of knowledge that comes from having a hundred or so years to read up on things. The undead hero yearns to connect with the human he was or the human he wants to protect, to master his carnal needs. He is passionate to a fault, and there's a chance that underneath all those smooth ways, he might be lethal. A hero who is more than likely too good to be true? Sounds about right for our current moment of meta-musings, deteriorating resources and just a bit of audacious hope. The dark power these men (and women, thank goodness) wield is frequently matched only by the intensity of purpose and trust, albeit questionable, of the soul mate by their side.

As the economy gasps and twists, the desire to be known for who we are rather than what we can do or have is a primal one. There's also an awareness that through carelessness and collective thirst for more, more, more we may have taken too big a bite out of our world, sucked too much from our precious earth, sea and sky and damaged beyond repair the life sources on which we are most reliant. Small wonder that the vampire, desperately fighting against darker urges, longing to be known and loved, is familiar... and so seductive.

It's interesting that the courage and wit, in all of these cases, of the vampire-hero's lady love, relying on her mostly human repertoire of skills and savvy measures up to or outdoes that of her super-powered swain. Time and again, she saves him: from himself and from his foes. By standing by his side, despite his debilitating reaction to kryptonite or sunlight, she proves her mettle and his value. All of that, along with her myriad real-life personal charms, made Anna Paquin, who, as Sookie on HBO's True Blood is at the epicenter of this phenomenon, a perfect cover for this month's SELF magazine. This is an exciting time, when the entertainment world is serving up just what we're thirsting for, and this fan girl and pop culture curator is savoring every drop.