Vampires and Semiotics in a Postmodern World

Buffy/True Blood/V Wars

Our favourite bloodsucking fantasy creatures have a prolific history in various texts from Dracula to True Blood and Buffy to Twilight. But what made vampires shift from obscurity to popularity to the point that they have been able to stand the test of time? The answer can potentially be found in the depths of postmodernism and semiotics.

To speak about vampires, we must look beyond what they are at face value and investigate how they become meaningful. Roland Barthes, Ferdinand De Saussure and Jacques Derrida all played a role in developing semiotic structures (Fiske 1985). Semiotics can be used to understand the relationships and patterns between signs and their meanings that are descriptive and subject providing an infinite number of further meaningful symbolism (Gaines 2010). But what do vampires symbolise?

The postmodern turn brought with it the collapse of concepts like high and low culture in the sense that texts became more accessible to a wider audience. For vampire texts, this shift came in the form of subjective vampires that stepped out from the minority shadows and into the arms of those willing to consume the relatable gothic view of cultural, social and political representations hidden behind fangs (Ní Fhlainn 2019).

As Auerbach (1995) aptly describes, there is a tendency for people to find vampires wherever there is power within a narrative, yet another indication of the postmodern sentiment and representation. Postmodernism, as Ní Fhlainn (2019:4) contends, “redefines and reshapes the narrative by providing a tantalising insight by the very creature that was previously marginalised”. We can begin to take a leaf from the philosophers and scholars that impacted semiotics by deconstructing the symbolic meanings behind vampirism if we remember that:

“postmodernism rejects the sanctity of metanarratives or grand narratives, bringing forth a necessary scepticism towards such structures in an age that permits a fluid cultural blurring of these previously separate ideological frameworks” (Ní Fhlainn 2019:4).

Generally speaking, aspects of vampirism could be symbolic of the world we live in. At their heart, vampires and gothic fantasy can represent identity politics that confuses the ‘normal’ boundaries of binaries like good and evil. This binary extends for the idea of the Other, where human characteristics are placed on the archetype of the vampire and fundamentally positions fearing the vampire as a response to them being evil because they are different or unfamiliar rather than being feared because they are evil (Gelder 2001). It thus becomes a duality of identifying oneself in vampires while also fulfilling the fantasy narrative of indulging the Other. More than this, vampires become metaphors for an abundance of things including, sexuality, consumption, non-traditional family structures, forbidden relationships, power, but ultimately, are reflections of humanity both the good and the bad (Gordon and Hollinger 1997).

If we focus only on vampire television shows, it is important to remember that myths in television are often representative of dominant ideologies and serve the interests of a particular majority (Fiske 1985). But keeping in mind that both vampires and television offer the opportunity to comment or disrupt societal norms, there are some interesting examples set by different shows.

For example, Buffy (1997–2003) was a show about a vampire slayer in high school. The show not only follows Buffy as she takes control of her life as a strong woman, but it also shows the importance of choices and the power of the individual and the collective to make a change in the world. Simultaneously, and like most good/evil parallels, the series reflects on the morality. It positions some of the vampires as pure evil, while placing the humanity back in others and even questions how knowledge of others can make one question one’s own judgements and actions.

Thanks to HBO, conservative television went out the window with True Blood (2008–2014). Based in the deep South in Louisiana, the show was a beacon for representation in many ways, and eliciting conversations about sexual fluidity, race, marginalisation, sex, religion, addiction and more. The modern take used synthetic blood as a mechanism to have vampires climb out of their coffins and into a world that wasn’t ready to share their power, leading to debates about greed and lust for power for humans and vampires alike once again mirroring the notion that vampires are merely fantasised personifications of the human condition.

The final example is a further step into realism and horror. V Wars (2019) only received one season on Netflix, arguably because it followed a similar premise to the many shows that are instigated by mutations due to a virus. More than anything, vampires in this series help bring a focus to humans and their tendency to place someone or something as opposition. V Wars, like other vampire texts, brings the tensions of family versus work and the many traits that can interfere with behaving ethically or acting out of survival.

Overall, vampire texts shine a light on humanity’s darkest traits, social hierarchies and how society chooses to uphold these values. Vampires represent many things in this postmodern world, and semiotics can help us understand the vampire within ourselves.

*Written for CIM402 — Critical Inquiry — SAE Institute. Blog Task 2, Part B

References

Auerbach, Nina. (1995). Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fiske, J. (1985). The Semiotics of Television. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2(2), 176–183.

Gaines, E. (2010). Media Literacy and Semiotics. Media Literacy and Semiotics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gelder, K. (2001). Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge.

Gordon, J. & Hollinger, V. (1997). Blood read: The vampire as metaphor in contemporary culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ní Fhlainn, S. (2019). Postmodern vampires: film, fiction, and popular culture. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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