Edward, the undead hero of the Twilight movies and books, broods and simmers like a James Dean starter kit. But he might as well be hanging out in a nunnery for all the action he gets. His chaste love interest, Bella, can only pine.
Then there's Sookie Stackhouse, the spitfire waitress at the heart of HBO's cult series True Blood. While Bella chills in the Pacific Northwest, Sookie gets hot and heavy with her vampire beau Bill in steamy Louisiana. No repression here: The deliciously campy True Blood just says yes.
Sex was at the root of vampire myth ology even before 19th-century novelist Bram Stoker sent unwitting Jonathan Harker off to Eastern Europe to close a big real estate deal with that mysterious Dracula fella, only to find that the count was after his woman.
But desire can be handled in different ways.
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As Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer has discovered, along with the Twilight film team, vampire chastity means big business with teen girls. The Twilight books have sold more than 70 million copies. The first movie, released last year, made $384 million worldwide. The second one, New Moon, took in $72.7 million on its first day to break the single-day domestic box office record.
"Vampires are metaphors for sexuality, but one of the reasons they're so popular in the Twilight universe is that they're safe," says Melissa Rosenberg, the screenwriter for the first two Twilight movies. "They're safe but tantalizing in their sexuality. Edward protects Bella from her own raging hormones."
Bella must stifle her urges because she's a good girl. In Twilight, a reflection of Meyer's Mormon faith, sexual impurity is a no-no. The hot boys are vampires and werewolves; you don't want to get them too excited or who knows what might happen. Best not to find out. Even kissing is a dodgy proposition.
Past vampires might scoff at the Twilight gang's restraint. Vampires, after all, are known for libido; when they drink blood they're not just quenching their thirst. Witness Dracula's three comely brides in the classic 1931 Bela Lugosi movie.
"That sexual connection has been there from early on in vampire stories," says Sean Griffin, an associate professor in Southern Methodist University's cinema and television department. "Our fascination with vampires has always been tied to a fascination and repulsion over sex."
How that fascination plays out depends on the vampire story. It can be as subtle as the admiration of a luscious neck in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu. It can be comically lurid: the "Oops, I spilled red wine on my white shirt" scene that precedes Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon's hook-up in The Hunger. It can be the point of the whole movie: European erotic vampire film (West Germany's Vampyros Lesbos, the Dutch Daughters of Darkness) has become a subgenre.
Women looking for a good time in True Blood frequent a vampire bar. (The encounters don't always end well.) Guys looking for a boost in the bedroom can score a vial of illegal vampire blood, or V, which makes Viagra seem like Kool-Aid.
Maybe Twilight and True Blood say as much about us as they do about vampires. America's sexual attitudes are conflicted to say the least. We cling to puritan notions of virtue while the commercial culture — beer ads, sitcoms and Viagra sales — pushes libertinism to extremes.