In the quote below, Bella Swan, heroine of Stephenie Meyer's controversial vampire romance, the Twilight Saga, seems to summarise the basic premise of the paranormal romance genre. The story has practically become cliché: girl meets boy, boy and girl fall in love, but boy sort of wants to eat girl, yada yada yada …. And, of course, there's sometimes a werewolf in there - or a wereleopard, or a fairy lord, or a demon, or a zombie, or all of the above. It's important to keep things interesting, after all.
About three things, I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him, and I didn’t know how potent that part might be, that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him. Bella Swan
Since the 1990s, paranormal romance (along with its close relation, urban fantasy) has developed into an outrageously popular genre of fiction, film, and television. Generally, its various tropes and themes coalesce in the relationship between a Gothic or otherwise supernatural monster and a postfeminist version of the Gothic heroine.
This genre’s mix of forbidden attraction and fear is nothing new in either the Gothic or the romance. As Joseph Crawford argues in Twilight of the Gothic, “the histories of those genres which we now call ‘Gothic’ and ‘romantic’ fiction have always been heavily interlinked.” Crawford’s study identifies the relationship between the Gothic romance of the eighteenth century and the development of the sentimental novel and romance fiction, tracing the developing, interrelated pathways of imperilled heroines, monstrous males, and monstrous supernatural creatures. From Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), to Jane Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey (1817), to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Gothic literature is ripe with plucky yet vulnerable heroines trapped within and straining against the horrors of their world—some supernatural and some all too realistic.
Yet it wasn’t until the later twentieth century that the possibility of becoming a vampire’s meal truly became more titillating than terrifying. In the eighteenth century, vampires were shambling revenants of folklore, feeding on the family and villagers who had outlived them. The vampires of the nineteenth century often masqueraded as aristocrats, but under their glamour were nonetheless evil entities. For example, in John Polidori’s seminal novella The Vampyre (1819), a young lord named Aubrey discovers his travelling companion has the power to return from the dead. This vampire, Lord Ruthven, traps Aubrey in an oath that prevents him warning his sister that her husband-to-be is a monster waiting to feed on her, and so the vampire murders her on their wedding night. And the titular vampire of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), while laden with psychosexual possibility, is ultimately more monster than lover.
In the early twentieth century, the portrayal of Dracula as a handsome stranger in a tuxedo, first on stage and then in film, began a shift in the iconography of the vampire. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s and the 1970s that a number of texts began to really reimagine vampire as a sympathetic monster who possessed the ability to love. For example, the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows (1966–1971) portrayed its vampire, Barnabas Collins, as haunted by lost love. Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) told its story from the point of view of the vampire, exploring the possibility that its monsters were thinking and feeling subjects. And Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania (1978) depicted its quasi-historical hero, the vampire Saint-Germain, as a lover who brought women sexual pleasure in exchange for the blood he drank from them.
This is not to suggest that all vampires before this were unsympathetic creatures. Rather, as Margaret Carter has argued, instead of arousing sympathy in spite of its monstrosity, from the ’70s onward, “the vampire often appears as an attractive figure precisely because he or she is a vampire.” Carter explains that this shift in vampire literature “reflects a change in cultural attitudes toward the outsider, the alien other.”
In Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach provides a more specific context: she argues that after the civil rights movements of the 1960s, in which hierarchical authority was widely contested by those it oppressed, the vampire, as an archetypal outsider, took on a new, more sympathetic form. In this period, the social power structures that had previously excluded women, people of colour, and other marginalised groups began to lose authority. Milly Williamson also argues that “the vampire’s troubling ontology resonates with . . . those who do not occupy the normative identity.” The vampires of the later twentieth century, she too concludes, “speak to . . . changed attitudes towards authority and sexuality.”
Speaking in particular of the boom in paranormal romance that has occurred since the year 2000, Crawford similarly determines that the vampire’s role as the “basic Gothic figure” of “the outsider” is used to interrogate and refract the anxieties that come with social and political change. So, he writes, “The period in which the paranormal romance has developed has been marked by major social changes, which have repositioned a variety of former outsider groups as being, in fact, ‘just like us,’” a process that “has not been an untroubled one.” In this sense, the “incoherencies and contradictions” of the vampire’s role in paranormal romance “mirror the fragile and imperfect social toleration such outsider groups have found in real life.”
Crucially, just as the vampire is an outsider, so too is the heroine of the paranormal romance. Because of her own marginalised position, the heroine finds herself able to sympathise with, understand, and fall in love with the creature she should fear. For example, Bella Swan is the awkward new girl in school. Vampire slayers like Joss Whedon’s Buffy Summers and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake are themselves outsiders in a world where their attitudes, physical strength, and supernatural powers are at odds with patriarchal constructions of femininity. In another example, Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse (see also True Blood, 2008–2014), sympathises with the vampires because she too is Other, a telepath who can hear others’ thoughts and is considered abnormal by those in her community.
As noted above, though, what begins as innovation quickly becomes cliché. Popular genres like paranormal romance / urban fantasy are also shaped by the apparatuses of production and consumption. And with the commercial and pop cultural success of this genre has come fatigue as well as new attempts to innovate. Thus, today’s paranormal romance explores many of the same concerns about the self and the Other or the Outsider through not only vampires but also many other supernatural entities—werelions, weretigers, and werebears, oh my!
In this sense, the post–2000 boom in paranormal fiction has created new fictional worlds in which vampires are no longer the Other; instead, they have become just one supernatural figure in a community where we all, various monsters and humans alike, must somehow learn to get along. In our own era of great social change—of globalisation, new technological interconnection, sharp political division, terrorism, and global climate change, not to mention ongoing civil rights struggles for women, people of colour, and the LGBTQI community—paranormal romance suggests that the key to a happy ending is empathy, understanding, and love, no matter how impossible or scary this may seem.
- Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (1993–)
- Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries (2001–2013)
- Robin McKinley’s Sunshine (2003)
- Kim Harrison’s Hollows series (2004–2014)
- J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series (2005–)
- Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series (2006–)
- Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series (2007–2018)
Suggested Film and Television
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
- True Blood (2008–2014)
- Being Human (BBC, 2008–2013)
- The Twilight Saga (4 films, 2008–2012)
- The Vampire Diaries (2009–2017)
- Teen Wolf (2011–2017)
- Warm Bodies (2013)
- Hemlock Grove (2013–2015)
- iZombie (2015–)
- See Leigh McLennon, “Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: Crossing Boundaries of Genre, Media, Self, and Other in New Supernatural Worlds,” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 23 (2014), http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2014/06/26/uf-mclennon/.
- Joseph Crawford, The Twilight of the Gothic? Vampire Fiction and the Rise of the Paranormal Romance, 1991–2012 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014), 5.
- Margaret Carter, “The Vampire as Alien” in Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture , eds. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 27.
- Margaret Carter, “The Vampire as Alien,” 27.
- Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 132–33.
- Milly Williamson, The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (London: Wallflower, 2005), 2.
- Milly Williamson, “Let Them All In: The Evolution of the ‘Sympathetic’ Vampire,” in Screening the Undead: Vampires and Zombies in Film and Television, eds. Leon Hunt, Sharon Lockyer, and Milly Williamson (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 72.
- Crawford, The Twilight of the Gothic, 7.