Sunday, August 9, 2009

Dresser on Vampires

I have just finished reading Norine Dresser's American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners, a rather unorganized look into the idea of the vampire and its impact on American culture. Dr. Dresser, a folklorist, jumps around quite a bit: she discusses a sexual perversion called oral sadism, lists vampire fan clubs, describes vampires' appearances in television and film, and in the book's best chapter, discusses a group of genetic diseases called porphyrias, which were the center of a media frenzy beginning in 1985 when Dr. David Dolphin proposed that its symptoms may have given rise in the Middle Ages to the vampire myth.

Without being too harsh with Dolphin, Dresser cites medieval legends, compares the actual symptoms of the various forms of porphyria, and thoroughly explodes Dolphin's hypothesis. Dolphin proposes that porphyria sufferers have adverse reactions to garlic; Dresser gets information from doctors indicating this is false. Dolphin proposes that porphyria sufferers could find relief by drinking blood; this is also false. Dresser also reveals that Dolphin's ideas of vampirism come mostly from the image of the creature constructed by Bram Stoker, and not from pre-existing legends.

But the most interesting part of this chapter, which makes this to me a profound book and not merely an informative one, is Dresser's discussions of porphyria sufferers who were ostracized or mocked by friends, family, and coworkers as a result of Dolphin's hypothesis (a result Dolphin hadn't anticipated). Although most of the examples Dresser cites of people making jokes about porphyria clearly meant it to be harmless, it isn't harmless to those who have the condition. This has led me to a resolution to change the way I discuss disorders--of any kind--on this blog or elsewhere. Even well-meant jokes can sting when people are suffering. I think of some of the ways I've discussed homosexuality in previous posts and am not much pleased with myself.

Also, I'm inclined to say I wish I had read this before Snuffles, Lucky, and I had written our review of Twilight. In her discussion of fan groups, particularly associated with the TV horror soap opera Dark Shadows, which began its run in 1966. Vampire romance and fangirl vampire fantasies about dangerous but alluring vampire men, rather than being merely a contemporary fad as I had supposed, have been around for decades. Stephenie Meyers has not simply capitalized on a current craze, but has instead constructed her own take on something within fandom that is both widespread and enduring. That doesn't make the romance in her book any healthier, but it does help explain why her unhealthy romance is so popular.
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