Romania’s Literary Star, or Why Americans Are Obsessed With Dracula

As a native Romanian who is also a novelist, I’m very intrigued and, frankly, somewhat baffled by America’s obsession with vampires and the Dracula legend.

Vampire novels and movies seem to keep growing in popularity, even as they’re spoofed by yet other vampire novels and movies. From what I can see, this trend doesn’t seem as popular in Europe. This leads me to wonder: why is America obsessed with vampires? I came up with five main reasons:

1. Exoticism. The original Dracula legend is set in a country whose history and traditions are foreign to most American readers, who find Romania distant and exotic. By way of contrast, to most Europeans, Romania is relatively familiar. It’s a place plagued by its devastating totalitarian history (first the rule of the Iron Guard, then its lengthy communist period). It’s a place struggling to emerge from its dark past, faced with enormous economic and political challenges. To the French, at least, it’s also a place known for immigrants from both sides of the social spectrum: the gypsy exodus, which is often linked to pick-pocketing and a nomadic lifestyle, and some of the most intriguing European intellectuals and artists. But when you tell an American you’re from Romania, often the first thing they’ll think of is not Eugene Ionesco or Mircea Eliade or Herta Muller, but of Dracula. Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler (the ruler of Wallachia between 1456 and 1462) captivates readers with his notorious inhumanity. He’s infamous for the sadistic punishments he imposed upon his Turkish ennemies as well as upon anyone who violated his laws. Legend has it that he’d enjoy his supper watching prisoners being impaled before his eyes. Which leads me to my second reason …

2. The lure of evil. Vampires – these liminal beings between dark spirit and bad human – represent the dark powers over which we have only limited control. Evil seduces us, only to later destroy us. The vampire bite is closely associated with unbridled sexuality. Vampires, like social predators, suck the vitality or life blood of healthy human beings before moving on to the next victim. But then, I wondered, why don’t we read about them in their human form, such as the Scott Petersons of this world? Why do we prefer to view and read about them as our Others?

3. Mediated evil. Human evil is inescapable. It’s everywhere around us. We read about it in the pages of history books and we see it on the news: ranging from the haunting memories of the Holocaust, to the Stalinist purges, to the latest serial killers on T.V. Because we’re exposed on a daily basis to the inhumanity of social predators, we’re not as intrigued by these deviants as we are by their un-human counterparts, the vampires. Familiarity breeds not contempt, butboredom. At the same time, evil in its human form makes people very uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine that social predators could enter our neighborhoods, our houses and our lives, to harm us or our loved ones. Vampires give a more bearable expression to a sinister presence we already know. They enable us to contemplate evil while holding it at arm’s length.

4. The widespread appeal of genre fiction. Compared to most Europeans, Americans have very little leisure time. Europeans get weeks, if not months, of vacation a year. Your average American gets only about two to three weeks. Although the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction is not cut-and-dry, I’d say that genre fiction places emphasis upon a fast-moving, interesting plot, while literary fiction privileges psychologically nuanced characterizations and a unique style. Most vampire novels, though well-written, place most emphasis on plot. They’re perfect for readers who have little time and want to delve immediately into the action rather than being distracted by stylistic experiments or bogged down by a long-winded, Proustian style. Of course, there are some vampire novels that harmonously blend several genres, to offer readers the best of all worlds. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which combines a beautiful style, historical erudition about the Dracula legend and a fast-paced, intriguing story.

5. Education. My teenage daughter reminded me yesterday that she and her friends read the Twilight series in fifth grade. This was their first exposure to narrative fiction that both adults and young adults enjoy reading. In Europe, on the other hand, the curriculum places emphasis (from a very young age) upon the literary canon. I remember being exposed to Tolstoy, Baudelaire and Flaubert early on, as opposed to reading either in school or for school the latest popular novels. While American students do sample the literary canon as well, that usually starts in junior high or high school. Even then, students are exposed mostly to the Anglo-American tradition. But, unlike most European students, they discover the pleasure of reading by delving into popular contemporary fiction right away. This sticks with them and most likely shapes their literary taste later in life as well.

I suspect that our obsession with vampires in the U.S.A. is not a fluke. There are real reasons why vampire thrillers became so popular here and why they’re probably not going to disappear from sight anytime soon. Having experienced evil first hand in my own life, however, I prefer to depict it as it is: all-too-human even in its worst inhumanity. When I was a little girl and complained to my parents about being afraid of monsters in my room, they told me that the only thing I should fear is evil human beings. Monsters, like vampires, don’t exist and can’t harm us. But it seems that some human beings are capable of immense evil, limited only by the worst of their desires and imaginations.

It’s this real, human, evil that I wrote about, both in my novel about totalitarian Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism and in my new novel, The Seducer, which is about a sociopathic predator. Sometimes, the monsters we imagine in fiction pale by comparison to the evil created by the monsters in our lives.

14 Responses

  1. All the five points in
    All the five points in Claudia Moskovici’s essay are very true and important in order to understand a certain “forma mentis” or mentality of the American readers. This is an excellent piece written by someone who analysis the inner reasons of a widespread phenomenon!

  2. I agree with most of your
    I agree with most of your comments, but the books and films of the Twilight series are also very popular in Europe.

  3. I agree with your
    I agree with your conclusions, Claudia. I’m especially interested in the “distant and exotic” aspect.

    When I was growing up, it was easy to believe magic existed in what we called “the orient.” Of course, now, with television and the internet, places don’t seems so far away and alien. I heard somewhere that there’s a McDonald’s near Vlad Tepes’ castle.

    Ironically, there are still places in the U.S. that seem hidden and cut-off from civilization, like the Louisiana swamp town where HBO’s True Blood is set.

  4. I think for a nation with a
    I think for a nation with a focus on self-actualisation, extreme individualism, and a certain studied callousness resulting therefrom must inevitably have a soft spot for vampires, at least in their non-folkloric portrayals (in folklore they are fairly often weak except in holding on to feed, and repulsive rather than sexy).

    The point about mediated evil is a good one. I can only add that vampires tend to come with _rules_ about their behaviour, how to avoid them, how to destroy or neutralise them, and that in this they are preferable to real murderers.

    Finally, I would point out that since about 1981 our country has been increasingly dominated by non-living, non-dead, legal ‘persons’ that sap our strength and are potentially immortal.

  5. Gary, I agree with you, but
    Gary, I agree with you, but vampire books and thrillers are still more popular in the U.S. than they are in Europe. Also, in France in particular they seem to read more experimental/literary fiction than here.
    This comment is for everyone: Levi has done something special to the picture in this post. Can you tell what it is? I noticed the Dracula/Vlad Tepes image was different, but couldn’t put my finger on how/why. Finally, for those who’d like to see the promotional videos I did for my new novel, The Seducer, which is about a real-life vampire (or psychopathic social predator, the Scott Peterson type), the links are below:

  6. Bill, I agree with what you
    Bill, I agree with what you say about the link between evil and sexuality. Sexuality isn’t in itself evil, of course, but what’s most marketable–and repulsive/fascinating–is the predatory sexuality that poses a danger to others. Vampires embody that dangerous sexuality in its fictionalized form. But that’s what often occurs in reality as well, since the psychopathic seducers are often very charismatic, romantic and hyper-sexual. In my new novel, The Seducer, which you can read on Neatorama’s Bitlit, I try to capture that fatal, dangerous attraction of the charismatic psychopath, featured in the sensual promotional video below as well.

  7. Right, Claudia, as you say,
    Right, Claudia, as you say, sex isn’t evil, but when I was a kid, it seemed like a hidden, mysterious thing. Then I started reading those monster magazines with countless pictures of monsters, mummies, vampires, carrying scantily clad women…

    Can’t wait to watch the video links when I get home later. Our computers at work block out youtube and lots of other cool stuff.

  8. Congratulations on publishing
    Congratulations on publishing The Seducer and thanks for this provocative post, Claudia.

    To the extent there’s a particularly American obsession with vampirism, I found myself considering the conception of blood in Stanley Elkin’s story On A Field, Rampant, namely, blood as restoration.

    I can’t prove it, but I tend to think vampirism may have been bouncing around in that magnificent batcave of a mind of his,. Not only because of the mention of the gypsy in the quote below, but also because I read in a Paris Review interview (No. 61) that OAFR was the first story he wrote in which he stopped imbibing Faulkner’s linguistic lifeblood and finally found his own style.

    Here’s the relevant excerpt from the story:

    “For him it was not the wart or mole or scarlet pimpernel which in the last act of their drama finally brought recognition even from the enemy who stood to lose because the prince was found. It was not the superficial deformity, scar of quality so important to others that was important to him. It was rather a concept, the validity of which he came increasingly to recognize as he raced through the novels–a concept of blood itself. He knew his man long before the dullard others did, spotting them their familiarity with the telltale wound inflicted on the inner thigh by ruffians at birth. A man’s blood was his character, he knew. At the same time he experienced a real anxiety that for once the heroine would not find out in time, that the gypsy would be killed before things could work themselves out. But it was not the hero’s marriage which he longed for; he did not yearn for the pale and distant princess. He wanted one thing for the hero, one thing only. He wanted restoration. To him it was a daring and delicious word. He said it under his breath.

    It was a pleasant life, but he knew, even from the beginning, that the sense of special condition he felt so deeply was not forever to be enjoyed passively. All right, he reasoned. I have known for a long time that I am different. But I know no more about myself than does a small child. I have no facts.

    Instead of gratitude to Khardov he felt a growing resentment. The quality, the essence he could identify so easily in the heroes he read about, he recognized in himself. He was something–a prince of the blood–something other than what he seemed. To be grateful for a few fine clothes, for Khardov’s open deference, for the leisure he enjoyed, for the promise [his medallion] swinging on his chest, was foolish. Like feeling gratitude toward the clerk who hands out the money when one makes a withdrawal from the bank. What he wanted now, needed, was not the small change of personal assurance, nor Khardov’s blank checks on his specialness–conspiratorial drafts on a vague but somehow splendid future. He needed only what his blood demanded: restoration. If one wanted it for stranger/heroes in foolish romances, one insisted upon it for oneself.”

  9. Frances, thanks for your
    Frances, thanks for your response and this provocative excerpt. The fact that there are so many different kinds of associations with vampires–tied to predatory sexuality, our mortality and, as you’ve pointed out, blood restoration–may explain more of why it captures readers’ imaginations.

  10. Stephanie, you bring up
    Stephanie, you bring up another good point. Even clinically, there’s something eternally youthful (or emotionally immature) not just about vampires, but also about their real-life counterparts: the predatory types (sociopaths) that I describe in The Seducer. They have no worries, no conscience and no emotional depth and feed upon the lives of others to remain forever young, at least psychologically if not physically like vampires.

  11. I am very interested in the
    I am very interested in the comments you are making and fully agree with them.
    Another one comes to my mind. Wouldn’t the lure of evil be less “appealing” in more secular societies, and aren’t European societies more secular that their American counterpart? After all, European cathedrals are also populated by all form of evil figures, and if those evil figures have somewhat faded, it is also because western Europe has found other ways to apprehend reality that the ways of Religion.

  12. Dee Jay K, that’s a very
    Dee Jay K, that’s a very plausible hypothesis. Less secular societies have different ways of embodying the spirit of evil (witches, the devil, Mephisto and maybe also vampires, as you point out).

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