While Bram Stoker got the ball rolling on the whole vampire phenomenon back in 1897 by creating the (both figuratively and literally) immortal Count Dracula, vampires have seen a resurgence in our culture in the past two decades. One can lay blame at Anne Rice, whose novel Interview with the Vampire and the subsequent 1994 movie adaptation starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, helped pave the way for looking at vampires in a modern context. Or maybe it’s a resurgence of Bram Stoker’s original masterpiece, as evidenced by the success of the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman in the title role. The resurgence of the original Victorian nature of the novel has inspired other 19th century interpretations of the vampire mythology, most notably Seth Greene-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Or maybe we can blame those pesky teenagers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, and yes, Twilight. Or maybe we can blame horny adults for True Blood.
Because if anyone should be blamed for imagery like this...
The fact of the matter is all of these interpretations are successful because vampires speak to our most human fears and our most exotic (or erotic) fantasies. They’re immortal. They feed by killing. They share a relationship with the occult, the supernatural, and rebel against social norms, the church, and societal doctrine. But, perhaps most importantly, the idea of the vampire has always been associated with sex and sexuality, whether it’s Count Dracula seducing Lucy and her subsequent transformation into a less-pure, more sexual attractive being, the homoerotic tension between Lestat and Louis in Interview with the Vampire, or, yes, even Bella and Edward in Twilight. Note that vampires are also obsessed with fluid exchange for purposes of fulfilment and reproduction, but that fluid is blood.
With that said, let’s talk about two of my favorite vampire adaptations of the past few years (and possibly ever). Let the Right One In is a 2008 Swedish vampire thriller directed by Tomas Alfredson, written by John Ajvide Lindqvist and based on his novel of the same name. The story follows Oskar, played by Kare Hedebrant, who is a bullied 12-year-old boy who develops a relationship with a strange little girl name Eli, played by Lina Leandersson. What Oskar begins to discover is that Eli is a vampire, and she is aided by an adult caretaker (whose origins and relationship with Eli are left unknown) who drains blood from murder victims in other for Eli to feed. Eli and Oskar develop a relationship, but several close calls cause Eli to try to escape. Meanwhile, Oskar’s bullies have decided to gang up on him in retaliation for a time when he fought back against them, and attempt to drown him in a pool. Eli saves Oskar, and the film ends with Oskar on a train, escorting Eli, who is hidden in a box.
A haunting poster for a haunting movie...
The film was remade for an American audience in the form of Let Me In, released in 2010, written and directed by Matt Reeves. This time, Chloe Grace Moretz plays the little-girl vampire character, renamed Abby in this adaptation, while Kodi Smit-McPhee plays her human friend, renamed Owen. In terms of plot and structure, both films are pretty much the same, with Let Me In having minor deviations from the plot of its Swedish predecessor. For example of these is that the adult caretaker character, played in the American version by Richard Jenkins, is definitively set up as being another boy who developed a relationship with the immortal Abby when he was little, and subsequently grew up to be her guardian.
Innocence dies. Abby doesn't, and neither does America's taste for remakes of foreign horror movies!
Like other vampire media, there is an underlining sexuality to these two films. However, it is made troubling by the fact that the characters (as well as the actors that portray them) are so young. Therefore, rather than being a metaphor for sex or sexuality, I believe the character’s relationships, actions, and Eli/Abby’s vampiric qualities serve as a metaphor for puberty. Both Oskar/Owen and Eli/Abby are 12 in both adaptations, and are pubescent. Like other vampire media, sex and sexuality seems to be an underlining theme of both Let the Right One In and Let Me In, but rather than being focused on the act of sex, several scenes, lines of dialogue, and images in both respective adaptations promote the idea of an emerging sexuality for both characters, as well as Eli/Abby’s bodily changes when her vampire nature is revealed help to invoke a sense of growth, change, and metamorphosis.
“You smell funny.”- Oskar, Let the Right One In
“You smell kinda funny.”- Owen, Let Me In
“Do I smell better now?”- Eli/Abby, Let the Right One In/ Let Me In
There’s a scene in both interpretations where Oskar/Owen tells Eli/Abby that she smells “funny,” and when they meet again, Eli/Abby asks if she smells better now. The IMDb FAQ section for Let the Right One In says the following:
“At the time Oskar asks her this, she was starving because the dog/people had scared Hakan [the caretaker] away from blood he was collecting for her. A bit later, after she has eaten, she asks Oskar if she still smells strange, and he says no. The book offers two other suggestions that would explain Eli's smell: she gives out corpse-like odor as she gets hungrier and her body decays…”However, in regards to reading the films as metaphors for puberty, one could interpret the scene to be about the development of body odor that occurs during puberty.
Go easy on her, dude! She's a vampire, after all!
As I will discuss later, particularly in the American version, Abby goes through a series of monstrous physical transformations beyond her smell when she gets a sense for blood. These could also be indicative of pubescent transformations, but I will discuss where Abby’s monstrous nature comes into play later.
Blood and the female form:
Unlike the protagonists of other vampire stories, Let the Right One In/ Let Me in are unique in that the protagonist vampire character is a female. Moreover, Eli/Abby’s age becomes important when attempting to understand the sexual dynamics of the story.
The definitive moment for female puberty is a girl’s first menstruation. Obviously, it involves blood. The purpose of Eli’s interaction with blood, including a scene where she bleeds through multiple orifices all over her body when Oskar refuses to invite her in, take on a much more different meaning if one associates Eli/Abby’s interaction with blood as a metaphor for menstruation, puberty, and the dynamics of transformation.
It probably doesn't help that Eli/Abby frequently looks like Carrie after the prom...
What I think is so interesting about the relationship this film has to the concept of blood is that all the vampire characters are female. In both versions, Eli/Abby bites a local woman in the area, but the woman survives her vampire attack. Because of this, she too becomes a vampire. She is eventually killed by the sunlight in her hospital rooms, as vampires are not to be exposed to natural sunlight.
The fact that all the vampire characters in both adaptations are female make me think that the author and screenwriters wanted to tie the concept of blood with the female form and bodily functions. This contrasts with most other vampire stories, because the vampire characters are usually male, probably because of the enduring popularity of the archetypal vampire, Count Dracula. By tying the concept of blood to something feminine, the story makes a greater effort to appear to be a metaphor for puberty, and puts the focus on Eli/Abby and her struggles.
Male strength and the coming-of-age confrontation:
Oskar’s major arc in the movie is about a conflict with bullies. While the Swedish version shows the mental toll the bullying is taking on Oskar, the bullies don’t do much besides call Oskar a pig and occasionally throw him against lockers.
And pick his nose, apparently...?
The bullies in the American version are quite vicious, and curse at Owen and give him excruciating wedgies. However, both versions do have a scene where Oskar/Owen is whipped and suffers a cut to his face, which he later tries to hide the cause of from his mother by lying.
Oskar/ Owen decides to start lifting weights, and it is here that we see the puberty-arc extended to his situation. Pubescent boys define themselves in part by perceived masculinity. As their bodies grow and become more toned, things like athletics and exercise begin to become a focus. Not only that, a lot of young men define a major milestone in their life as being their first fight. Oskar has his confrontation with the bullies, which results in him hitting one of them on the ear with a pole.
Rather than the bodily changes that affect Eli/Abby, Oskar/Owen’s arc is about social changes that happen with male growth during adolescence. He wants to be strong, he wants to be able to fight back against the bullies. In stark contrast to Eli/Abby’s arc, Oskar/Owen’s arc deals more with societal pressure and a masculine desire to be physically strong.
“I’m not a girl.”- Eli/Abby, Let the Right One In and Let Me In
“You’re not a girl? What are you?” “I’m nothing.”- From Let Me In
A concept that is stressed in the Swedish version, but not as much in the American version, is the concept that Eli struggles with her sexual identity. She repeatedly tells Oskar that she is not a girl, and Oskar is confused as to what that means. In a moment that is not carried over to the American remake, Oskar glances at a nude Eli to discover that she lacks any sort of genitalia. While this is supposed to be a nod to the original novel (where Eli is actually a castrated boy), the fact that this isn’t explored means that in addition to her supernatural nature, Eli is also supposed to be sexless. It could be interpreted that this is supposed to represent unsure feelings of her own sexuality, as non-normative sexualities such as homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, etc. usually emerge or become known to an individual during puberty.
“You’re not wearing anything.”- Oskar
“Sorry. Is that gross?”- Eli
-From Let the Right One In
Both films deal with the characters’ emerging sexualities. In the scene referenced above, for instance, what is surprising is that these characters are not so far removed from juvenile understandings of love and sexuality. The characters are around the age that “cooties” would be a popular term, and Eli even asks Oskar if it is gross that she’s lying in bed naked. The fact that Oskar responds “No” represents that he is maturing and coming to grips with a more adult, more mature understanding of the opposite sex and of the nature of sexuality.
The equivalent scene of the Oskar-glancing-at-Eli-nude in the American version doesn’t show us what Owen sees, just an expression of awe as he watches (what the audience should infer is) Abby’s nude body. Unlike the Swedish version, the American version doesn’t use this scene to make Abby more monstrous or sexually androgynous, but rather to show Owen’s reaction to her. Abby is never seen, but we see Owen, and the audience understands that he is looking at her differently than he was before.
Finally, in both versions, Eli/Abby and Oskar/Owen engage in what as usually seen as the beginning of a young person’s romantic and sexual existence: a first kiss. In both versions, they are initiated by Eli/Abby, and in both versions it is right after she has killed to feast on blood, so she still has blood on her lips. One could see this as the girl leading the boy into temptation, which leads to an end of his childlike innocence. This is not unlike the biblical creation story about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis.
Conclusion: Why do we think there is something monstrous about female puberty?
One of my favorite movies is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. It is a scary, riveting, engaging film that asks questions about the nature of evil, the perceived powerless of man in comparison to the supernatural, whether that be God or the Devil, and corruption of innocence. Like Eli/Abby, the main character of The Exorcist is a 12-year old girl named Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair. Regan is a sweet little girl who is doted upon by her mother, and engages with an imaginary friend named Captain Howdy. However, this all changes when Regan becomes possessed, and suddenly she has a deeper voice, she shouts obscenities, and has supernatural powers. This is reminiscent of Abby’s transformation in Let Me In in particular. Just like in the case of Let the Right One In and Let Me In, one can ask: Is The Exorcist also a metaphor for puberty?
The case is a little harder to draw with The Exorcist. It is very much a horror movie, with some of the most iconic images in horror cinema. It is not a coming-of-age story the way Let the Right One In and Let Me In are, because there are no other young characters besides Regan. By all evidence, The Exorcist seems more about the adults in the story as the struggle with Regan’s transformation. Also, the film makes no attempt to disguise the fact that Regan is not herself and is, in fact, truly possessed by something evil and something beyond her control. Eli/Abby’s behavior in the two movies is supposed to be her usual behavior. She is acting like herself throughout the movie.
God help us if this is Regan's normal behavior...
Whether it is Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, or more contemporary depictions like the 2004 film Mean Girls, our culture likes to associate the adolescent ages in a young woman’s life with the “monstrous feminine.” Whether it’s Mary Tilford or Regina George, our culture has depicted teenage girls as plotting, scheming, cruel, unemotional, and occasionally sociopathic. Teenage boys, on the other hand get Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, or, more contemporary film characters like Ferris Bueller. Male teenage characters are shown as rebellious, sure of their status and place in the world, and skeptical and cynical of the adult world around them.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop, look around, wear a red hunting hat, go to New York, talk to a prostitute, get weirded out by spending the night at your teacher's house, and take your sister to the Central Park Zoo, you could miss it.
Obviously, these are broad generalizations, and do not in any way refer to all works in all media. But I use these examples to prove a point: that culture, whether it be for the sake of fantasy and horror (like The Exorcist) or for the sake of comedy (like Mean Girls) or serious drama (like The Children’s Hour), increasingly depicts female puberty in monstrous ways. In the realm of fantasy and horror, this takes on the form young female characters who are possessed and become something unhuman. In other examples more firmly set in the real world, this takes on depicting young pubescent girls as cruel.
Stop trying to make the monstrous feminine happen! It's not going to happen!
Let the Right One In and Let Me In ground the fantasy/horror idea of the “monstrous feminine” into the context of puberty. The American version even shows Abby becoming a more monstrous entity, something more akin to Regan in The Exorcist, when she gets the need to feast on blood. Her voice becomes deeper, her pupils become big and brighter, and she growls like a wild animal. Because of this, and because of other issues in both adaptations of the story, the way these films present gender roles should be seen as rather problematic. Eli/Abby is shown to be the monstrous girl with issues of blood (as a metaphor for menstruation and female puberty in general), questioning of her own sexuality identity, and physical changes. Not a lot is addressed about Oskar/Owen’s sexuality beyond the context of his relationship with Eli/Abby, and not a lot of symbolism or imagery is used to show what he is going through in his puberty, like there is about Eli/Abby. Ultimately, Eli/Abby falls more into the Regina George or Regan MacNeil category of “young, monstrous feminine” while Oskar/Owen is defined only through his social relations, both with Eli/Abby and with the bullies. The girl character’s struggle is with her physical body, the demands and issues it creates, while the boy characters only struggles with love and confrontation with other boys. That is a very problematic gender convention.
Because of this, I can’t definitively say these two movies are metaphors for puberty. I will say instead that I believe they are metaphors for the way Western society views puberty. To the untrained viewer, one who is not studied on the way pubescent young people are portrayed in media, or even has studied vampire mythology to see how tied it is to sex and sexuality, I can understand why these movies would be viewed as metaphors for puberty. But like Lucy’s transformation in the original novel Dracula from the pure, chaste girl into the beautiful, lust-worthy monster after her vampiric transformation, the idea of the vampiric is tied with these idea of maturity, emerging sexuality, and metamorphosis. Both Let the Right One In and Let Me In play with these conventions. Had the characters been that much older, I feel like a lot of the meaning of the story would be lost. But it is crucial to the understanding of both of these films that the characters are so young, because it would have been just another sappy, melodramatic vampire-meets-human romance if had they been high schoolers instead.
Looking at you, Stephanie Meyer.
Their youth informs the story, informs where they are in their lives and how love, transformation, and questioning of your surroundings and your identity are crucial to their development. Unfortunately, a lot of media still would love to portray young women as “monstrous feminine”, but Eli/Abby’s strength as a character is that she is able to overcome that, as well as inform several metaphors and symbols about the general themes of both films. If one looks at both films, one can infer that both are surprisingly critical of gendered generalizations of how young people should act (like that it's Eli/Abby who saves Oskar/Owen, not the other way around), and has no shame in depicting the two lead characters as intellectually deep, sexual, flawed, and curious young people. The fact of the matter is, despite being a vampire, Eli/Abby is probably more real than a lot of other young female characters in film and television, and both films seems to be dealing with that in their own respective ways for their own respective countries of origin.