Our Thanksgiving tradition for three decades has been to go see a movie at the theater after the meal, then come home for pie. Due to the pandemic, our local theater chain was offering to rent out the entire movie theater for a private showing of an older movie for only $100, so we decided to take our small family group to see Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Again. It’s a John Hughes classic from 1987, featuring many familiar faces from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. The story is about businessman Neil (Steve Martin) trying to get from New York to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving dinner. He encounters an obnoxious shower curtain ring salesman Del (John Candy) and ends up stuck with him throughout this increasingly strange and frustrating journey.
One of the first things we noticed this time is that Steve Martin’s wife sleeps a lot. In an early scene he’s explaining his flight delay and instead of arriving home by 9PM, he won’t be home until around 10PM (!). She says “I’ll wait up for you.” That’s only an hour later. Also, what time do these people go to bed??? Multiple times when he calls home, she’s already in bed asleep, and he wakes her to explain his further delays. When he finally (spoiler alert) gets home, he goes to kiss his wife and she’s crying. My husband leaned over and whispered to me “She probably missed her nap.” The movie might fail Bechdel if his wife were actually awake long enough to say anything.
I was telling my nephew that the movie was at one point intended to be a vampire movie. The premise was that Del’s character is finagling an invitation into Neil’s home through various tactics: guilt, social pressure, seeming pathetic and needy, offering to pay back money loaned (so I just need your address), etc. These “vampire story” elements still exist in the movie. Del also inexplicably carries a large trunk with him (not as large as his actual body is, but it’s still not a very nimble choice of luggage for someone who says he “hasn’t been home in years.”) I suppose the sleepy wife is another parallel to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sleeping women are vulnerable to a night predator like a vampire, particularly since vampires can hypnotize their victims, “glamming” their own appearance to make themselves look irresistible.
In an address at the Fox Tucson Theater in Arizona, Professor Jerrold E. Hogle addressed an audience to discuss vampire lore. He teaches English at University of Arizona.
Hogle began to wonder why people create stories to scare themselves. Now he asks that same question in an academic context. Throughout the ages, says Hogle, the vampire persona has been appropriated as a symbol of society’s fears, anxieties and conflicts.https://tucson.com/news/local/immortality-lecture-vampires-symbolic-of-society-s-fears-anxieties/article_5dda0a8b-4877-5162-b53b-7683d262b877.html
In 1980s movies in particular, the idea that a vampire requires consent to enter a dwelling was a common theme. It’s an important feature in the movie the Lost Boys, which I probably saw a dozen times at Provo Midnight Movies, if not more. The idea that a person must invite the vampire in is symbolic of the idea that evil can only get us if we invite it in, if we succumb to temptation, if we allow ourselves to be fooled or mesmerized by it.
For movies that use this trope, vampire lore is all about consent. Vampires (who represent evil and death) are clever enough to apply the pressures, tricks, and any tactic necessary to gain access to humans. Humans are generally unaware of the danger, not realizing that they have allowed a vampire into their lives and are falling under his or her influence. In Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Del shows up everywhere, even when Neil kindly tells him they need to part ways. He simply can’t shake him, and Del makes him feel guilty for attempting to leave. In changing the movie to a non-vampire ending, we are left with a sappy family movie with a heart-warming (and inexplicably crying wife) ending. The vampire is invited in, but we are supposed to feel good about it because he’s not a vampire, he’s just a lonely weirdo. But is he really so innocuous?
Several years ago, there was a Broadway show called [title of show] that I liked so much I went to see it twice. It’s about two guys writing a musical and working through the score with two of their women friends. The show is a bunch of songs about the creative process, including their self doubts, writer’s block, and anxiety about their ability to succeed.
In the song Die, Vampire, Die, they sing about the various forms this self-doubt can take and how it keeps them from working, writing and creating. From the song, “
“a vampire is any person or thought or feelingDie, Vampire, Die by Jeff Bowen and Susan Blackwell
that stands between you and your creative self expression,
but they can assume many seductive forms.”
During a break in the song, Susan lists out 4 types of “vampires” that kill creativity; the third one is that of self-censorship to keep things “nice.” From the lyrics:
Brothers and sisters, next up is the air freshener vampire.https://www.allmusicals.com/lyrics/titleofshow/dievampiredie.htm
She might look like your mama, or your old fat-ass, fat aunt Fanny.
If she smells something unpleasant in what you’re creating, she’ll urge you to (spraying sound) it with some pine fresh smell ‘em ups.
The air freshener vampire doesn’t want you to write about bad language, blood, or blow jobs.
She wants you to clean it up and clean it out which will leave your work toothless, gutless, and crotchless.
You’ll be left with two tight paragraphs about kittens that your grandma would be so proud of.
You look at that air freshener vampire in her fat ass, fat old f**kin’ face and you say “Morte Vampir Morte”
The point is that not all vampires are straight up evil or death. They are also social pressures that can hamper our ability to experience a full life and to be able to express ourselves fully by forcing us to be socially accepted. The vampires in the song mostly appear as voices in our head, changing or limiting our own thoughts with doubts and fears and anxieties, nearly all of which are social in nature. Some of the other “vampire” thoughts the song mentions include:
- You can’t draw.
- You sound weird.
- You’re song’s derivative. (Sung suddenly to the tune of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” in case you didn’t catch that).
- You went to state school.
- Your teeth need whitening.
- Who do you think you’re kidding?
- You look like a fool.
These are garden-variety doubts that all people have. Seeing them as vampires can help us to recognize that we are inviting in social pressures that aren’t bringing out our best self, that cling to our thoughts, that alter who we are, making us smaller and more common, repressing our true feelings, making us “easier” for other people, reducing our influence, making us more invisible. Susan’s advice is that you have to confront these social fears and vanquish them, just like killing a vampire. The nicer they are, the more insidious they may be.
There is a quote that has sometimes been trotted out at General Conference that is just this type of social pressure:
“The world has enough women who are tough; we need women who are tender. There are enough women who are coarse; we need women who are kind. There are enough women who are rude; we need women who are refined. We have enough women of fame and fortune; we need more women of faith. We have enough greed; we need more goodness. We have enough vanity; we need more virtue. We have enough popularity; we need more purity.”Margaret D Nadauld, YW General President https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/a-well-loved-quote-about-women-and-the-woman-who-said-it?lang=eng
While her intentions were doubtless good, this cleverly alliterative framing denies women the full range of human experience. Women, like all humans, can be both tough (self-reliant) and tender, both coarse (authentic) and kind, both rude (exuberant) and refined, faithful but also famous (seen by others) and wealthy (compensated financially), greedy (aware of our own needs) and good (aware of others’ needs), vain (proud of our achievements) as well as virtuous (contributing to public good), popular (well-liked) as well as pure in heart. The things she lists as negatives are mostly about self-care; the positive alternatives she proposes are all about other people: their needs, their comfort, their wishes. It is certainly possible to do both things, to have both self-care, and participate in pro-social endeavors to help others. A vampire’s goal is to be fed at the expense of their victims. They drain life and vitality from others. And we have to invite them in and lower our boundaries to let them do it.
More modern (post 1980s) vampire stories have defanged these antiheroes so much that there’s very little downside to being a vampire. Someone coined the term “vegetarian vampire” to describe this type of vampire who is abnormally attractive and wise, has super-human strength, and gets to live forever and gain wisdom and experience. Not such a bad gig, particularly if you add literary devices to avoid having to kill people and drink their blood. But the original point of vampire stories, aside from not understanding how bodies actually decomposed, was to put people on their guard against inviting evil into their homes and communities. By making vampires so much more innocuous in movies in the 1980s, the caution shifted to being on our guard when dealing with outsiders, particularly if they use charm and manipulation to disarm you. If Del’s character had remained a vampire, maybe the point would be not to allow social pressures and guilt to motivate you to invite a true pest into your home who will then prey on you as a houseguest.
Even Jane Austen had something to say about vampirism. In her novel Northanger Abbey, heroine Catherine Morland is full of gothic tales and freaks herself out while staying at the Abbey which is the homestead of her would-be boyfriend Henry Tilney. Tilney’s mother has died before the time of the story, and his stern, social-climbing father is an intimidating presence. Catherine begins to imagine all sorts of terrible scenarios about what has happened between the senior Tilneys, ultimately making a fool of herself in front of Henry when her wild theories come tumbling out. He later explains why he had mysteriously referred to the Abbey having a sort of “vampirism” and “secrets.”
“…Your imagination may be overactive, but your instinct was true. Our mother did suffer grievously and at the hands of our father. Do you remember I spoke of a kind of vampirism? . . . Perhaps it was stupid to express it so, but we did watch him drain the life out of her, with his coldness and his cruelty. He married her for her money, you see. She thought it was for love. It was a long time until she knew his heart was cold. No vampires, no blood. The worst crimes… are the crimes of the heart.”Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen quoted here: https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/item/quotation/643364082
All relationships and communities involve a give-and-take to be healthy for both the individual and the other members of the community. When a community or a person takes more than it gives, that’s when vampirism of this sort is at play. It’s a parasitic relationship that feeds one at the expense of the health of the other.
- What types of vampirism do you experience in the Church? Have some wards or leaders been more demanding than others (without reciprocity)? Have some been healthier and more reciprocal than others?
- Do your family experiences color your willingness to engage with “vampires”? How so?
- How do you find and maintain the right balance between self-care and participation in a family, the Church or other community?
- How have “social vampires” finagled an invitation into your home (and thoughts)?
 I explained this to my son when he was 8 and couldn’t get to sleep because he had been reading a book about vampires and was freaked out. I explained that vampires were really just because back in the day they kept accidentally burying people before they were really dead, and then when they showed up again, covered in dirt with long bloody fingernails from digging themselves out, oxygen-deprived and no longer right in the head, villagers thought they came back from the dead. Believe it or not, that didn’t cure his nightmares.
 Now it’s more about becoming special by association with the undead, a heroic myth around the vampire’s immortality and attraction. If a mere mortal is found attractive by such a creature, that person must be very special indeed; modern vampires now often protect their quarry rather than hunting them. This is changing the very nature of vampire lore which is about a parasitic relationship that drains its host. It makes vampires more like the Trill species in Star Trek, a parasite that elevates the status of its host.