Virgins and Vampires have been on my mind lately. The trigger was Tim Whitmarsh’s lively review of Nadia Scippacercola’s Il lato oscuro del romanzo greco. Though Scippacercola’s title seems to invoke Rafik Schami’s 2004 murder mystery, The Dark Side of Love, as Whitmarsh notes, her study actually offers something completely different, an exploration of how ancient writers were fascinated with the macabre. With its stories of individuals uprooted from the quiet life and thrown into a landscape of pirate raids, shipwrecks, sexual violence and even human sacrifice, the ancient novel fits into a landscape which we recognize, in the modern world, as that of vampire films and slasher movies.
Some years back, my own book The Virgin and the Bride looked at early Christian lives of virgins and martyrs in a similar light. I was then under the spell of a strange and mesmerizing book by Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in The Modern Horror Film (1992). Clover started out as a specialist on Old Norse and Icelandic sagas – where she learned a great deal about how violent narratives work! – and then became more and more interested in modern film.
What Clover brings to the table – among other things – is a special interest in how the viewer’s attention is focused on female protagonists, with a mixture of voyeuristic pleasure at the heroine-in-danger and a dash of empathetic instinct as well. Clover coined the term ‘Final Girl’ to describe the heroine who is left standing, toward the end of the film, to confront the killer or perhaps as the one who will live to tell the tale.
It seems to me that there is still life in the idea of the Final Girl, and I suspect that the new wave of fascination with vampires can do a lot to help us understand how ancient narratives played with the fine line between pleasure and horror. A new generation of heroines bring new questions: Twilight’s Bella and Edward, for example, turn the old idea of the erotic fascination between the vampire and his virgin/victim on its head – after all, it turns out to be a story about marriage and babies.
A new, and surprisingly different angle comes in view with the Games genre. Katniss in The Hunger Games is a perfect example that gives the old idea of the ‘last girl standing’ a vivid new twist. It’s too early to tell where this latest twist will lead us, but I for one am looking forward to the ride.