A university lecturer hopes the undead can liven up English literature for the Twilight generation

Robert Pattinson has a lot to answer for. Ever since his lanky frame immortalised Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight character Edward Cullen with an American twang, all the vampires of the world seem to have lost their British passports. Those populating Bon Temps, the fictional town in Louisiana that is the setting for TV drama True Blood, have a southern American drawl. Meanwhile Mystic Falls, Virginia, where The Vampire Diaries is set, is a long way from the London and Whitby homes of the most famous vampire of all: Count Dracula.

But watch out, bloodsuckers: the Brits want to bring you home. Academics at the University of Hertfordshire are organising a conference that will serve ketchup-smothered food (it’s tastier than blood) from coffins, all in the name of putting British vampire fiction back on the map. It’s the brainchild of Dr Sam George, a lecturer in English literature at Hertfordshire who is fascinated by vampires and keen to use them to make literature exciting.

“British actors have traditionally been cast as vampires on screen, but recently they’re all American, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight. I aim to turn the focus back to the texts, which are mainly English, and what they say about our society,” George explains. “I wanted to put them in the setting of a rigorous academic conference on vampire fiction to prove that you can study popular literature in a serious way.

“When I teach my students 18th-century and Renaissance literature, they sometimes struggle to connect to it. But they’re always talking to me about Twilight and its ilk, and I thought the wealth of subject matter in vampire lit made it a perfect way to study popular literature on an academic platform.”

The idea has certainly been popular with academia. George’s call for papers led to more than 100 academics from disciplines including film, literature and cultural studies sending in abstracts; 70 have been selected to talk at the two-day conference. They are travelling from across the world as well as from British institutions.

The schedule is packed – and some of the topics sound like they shouldn’t be discussed just after lunch. Planned lectures range from “Sullied Blood, Semen, and Skin: Vampires and the Spectre of Miscegenation” to “Who Ordered the Hamburger with Aids?: Blood Anxiety in True Blood”.

It’s hardly your normal academic fare, but that, says George, is the point. “I didn’t want this to be a stuffy traditional conference, I wanted it to be exciting and inspire people to become interested in vampire fiction.” Around 200 people have confirmed places so far, ranging from academics to people from book groups to students and media figures who are interested in recent vampire developments.

In a bid to make the most of that interest, George is launching, in September, what seems to be the world’s first master’s degree in vampire literature. “In the months I’ve been planning the conference I’ve fielded a huge number of inquiries from people all over the world who are interested in studying vampires, zombies and the undead at a higher level,” she says. “I had the idea of offering the master’s as a direct follow-up from the conference. I thought it was crucial to have a way of extending this burst of awareness.” The best papers from the conference will be collected in a book, which will become a textbook for the MA students.

George expects the course to become an annual staple that will outlast the current TV craze for all things vamp, because “vampires themselves change so much, and reflect contemporary society”. She says today’s vampires are glamorous and sexy, and have an emotional side.

“Vampires used to be rooted in the past, representing something primitive; now they are about modern culture, living in cities, listening to punk music, embracing technology. Some are even female, and vegetarian.”

George claims that change reflects the fact that vampire stories mirror the anxieties embedded in modern-day culture. “Vampires teach us to come to terms with our desires and the fact we have a darker side,” she says. “In the 1980s, a lot of vampire films and books tackled disease and corruption – it was a way of talking about Aids. Vampires are used to bring up things we don’t want to talk about.”

The topic du jour of our modern vampires, is, George believes, the sexualisation of teens. “In earlier fantasy narratives, like CS Lewis’s Narnia stories, sexuality is outlawed. Susan is prevented from returning to Narnia once she becomes interested in ‘nylons, lipstick and invitations’. But the new vampire stories represent a sexual awakening. Our modern vampires are a metaphor for teenagers’ wider anxieties about their bodies and their first stirrings of desire. They provide a safe way to acknowledge these desires.”

George claims that vampire fiction also tackles fears of technology. “Science is starting to let us think seriously about living a lot longer, and that’s fascinating in the vampire context, since they obviously live for eternity,” she says. “Current vampires – like the eternally teenage Edward of Twilight – reflect the scientific debate about preserving youth and living forever.” George adds that it’s no surprise that vampires tend to become prominent during times of social change – like last year’s recession – because “they are escapist and let you think about society in a very different setting.”

George adds that it’s the ideas behind the otherworldly beings that she is interested in, not their physical reality. “I know some people think vampires exist, but I don’t. The conference will be about thinking of vampires in a metaphorical sense, and how they mollify us by playing out our fears in literature”.

And if eating cocktail sausages from a coffin encourages more people to think about intricacies and implications of vampire literature, then that’s OK with her.

Open Graves, Open Minds: Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture is at Hertfordshire University’s de Havilland campus on 16-17 April. To reserve a place, contact Sam George: s.george@herts.ac.uk

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