With the entire Twilight series now on Netflix and sitting firmly in the Top 10 for several days, it’s a reminder that vampires remain in the public consciousness as supernatural beings that captivate us. From the moment the full five-film series dropped on Netflix, people around the world got back into one of the most iconic and polarizing vampire series this side of Anne Rice.
In returning to Twilight — or starting the series for the first time — fans are coming across things they didn’t know about the vampires in the series. A major example? Jasper Cullen’s pre-vampire past as… a Confederate major in the Civil War. As young adult author Camryn Garrett pointed out during her own rewatch of the series, the fact that Jasper fought on the wrong side of the Civil War is never addressed again outside of the lone mention in Eclipse.
Instead of thinking of that oversight as a plot hole in an admittedly contradictory and confusing series, we’re going to put Twilight in its context in American vampire fiction. Twilight is part of a very long line of vampire media that gives us vampires who were some form of historical oppressor and those pasts are rarely something fans or the media we’re consuming deal with well. Like the villains and anti-heroes we obsess over elsewhere in pop culture, vampires fit specific metaphors that represent specific personal and cultural anxieties that we have as “regular” people — about death, aging, disability, queerness, and desire. As Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas points out in The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, “Characters (and by extension, audiences) being anxious and aroused at the same time is a signal feature of vampire narratives, one that is complicated by race, gender, and sexuality.” Those complications that Thomas mentions are what make characters like Jasper — the Confederate major turned “newborn” vampire trainer — hard to love across decades of vampire fiction and fandom.
Now, I’m not actually expecting vampires to be “good people” or putting my modern morals on them. Because that’s not what vampires are about. However, the fact that multiple pieces of vampire fiction give us vampires in the present who were hip-deep in historical atrocities — who ran plantations, enslaved humans as a human, or fought for the confederacy — only to be dropped into our modern time or introduced to modern audiences is something we need to engage with more as fans. If a vampire is a white supremacist in the 1800s or, has “period typical” white supremacist beliefs of the time, how are fans actually supposed to know that the character isn’t one now?
Anne Rice’s 1976 novel Interview With the Vampire changed the way that modern writers would go on to write vampires. Moving away from blood-thirsty monsters, Rice’s vampires were “classy” and attractive, prone to weeping tears of blood and complaining about troubles they were going through. They created a blueprint for a type of vampire that Ki Yoon Jang notes “are bound to feed on humans yet feel confused about vampiric states and suffer from ethical uncertainity” in “Louis the Plantation Owner: The Haunting of Vampiric Slavery in Interview with the Vampire.”
The ethical uncertainity, the conflict over eating and killing humans, never seems to extend to the ethics of slavery, however. In the novel and 1994 film Interview with the Vampire, Lestat de Lioncourt makes himself at home on Pointe du Lac Plantation, a Louisiana plantation owned by Louis de Pointe du Lac and his family. Together, they proceed to feed on and otherwise terrorize the enslaved Africans on the plantation.
Even as Louis struggles with the desire to eat humans, the one thing he never struggles with are the ethics of claiming you own another person. In Twilight, Jasper never reckons with what it means to have been a Confederate soldier and complicit in the atrocities committed in the name of fighting for states’ rights to enslave people of African descent. We never actually get any remorse or understanding in the present that these vampires realize that their pre-vampire lives were… not great. Louis’ guilt over killing people doesn’t make him compassionate, doesn’t make him free the Africans his family has enslaved (and that Lestat has been terrorizing). The only time that we get a taste of Jasper Hale’s past is in Eclipse, and it’s clear that he doesn’t become a “vegetarian” vampire because of the atrocities of the human war he’d taken part in, but because of the Southern vampire wars.
The Vampire Chronicles and the Twilight franchise aren’t the only forms of relatively modern vampire media that fail to engage with the fact that many of the vampires we know and love (or love to hate) were passive or active participants in the United States’ history of racist oppression. They also fail to engage with the fact that these vampires may be a “product of their time,” but that doesn’t explain or excuse their present behavior and how it may be impacted by those pasts.
Between the way that Bonnie Bennett’s actress Kat Graham was subject to antiblackness behind the scenes and from fandom and how characters of color continue to be written in canon and treated by fandom, it’s safe to say that The Vampire Diaries and its related shows and fandoms have a problem with race. One of the glaring issues is in the way that the already morally murky (or just plain evil) vampires that inhabit Mystic Falls, Virginia and New Orleans, Lousiana are linked with slavery in the past… and don’t treat Black characters very well in the present.
Damon Salvatore, one of the brotherly big bads in the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, was a Confederate soldier. This was first revealed in the series’ sixth episode “Lost Girls” — one of many episodes that showcases the series’ obsession with Gone with the Wind — where Mystic Falls’ past comes to light. In the episode, we’re shown flashbacks of the Salvatore brothers’ past in the town, including Damon in a Confederate uniform while supposedly on leave from the army. In later seasons, it’s revealed that he left the army because he disagreed with their “cause,” but the series never actually goes into detail about what that cause is or attempts to show Damon making amends for participating in the war. Considering how, even now, people struggle to understand that the Confederacy was fighting for states’ rights to enslave people, the lack of clarity and growth leave Black viewers in particular feeling as if we can’t tell where Damon has changed. Additionally, the show actively dodges the real human impact of the Civil War with Elena doppelganger Katherine saying that Damon was simply “defending the South” in a flashback.
Then, in The Vampire Diaries’ companion series The Originals, the connection with slavery is more direct in that we’re actually given a main character who survived slavery. The vampire Marcel Gerard is one of my favorite vampires ever — but that doesn’t mean The Originals treats him well. In a flashback during the first season, Marcel’s backstory as the illegitimate son of the Louisiana governor is set up early on. Vampire Klaus Mikaelson adopts the then-unnamed Marcel as a child following Klaus’ murder of his older (white) brother. In the show’s second episode, Klaus kills a man whipping the childand then names him “Marcellus”, Latin for “little warrior” before ostensibly adopting him as his own because he sees himself in the child. It is one of the most notable moments of compassion that Klaus has over the series, and it’s still not enough. Despite adopting Marcel as his son and protege, Klaus doesn’t view Marcel as equal to him or worthy of respect for much of the series. While on the surface it may seem as though Klaus is an equal opportunity monster, many people have clocked that The Vampire Diaries and its spin-offs do not have a good track record when it comes to the (mis) treatment of Black and brown characters over the years.
Thanks to Twilight’s resurgence on Netflix, the series is serving as a gateway to other sensitive yet super violent vampires like the ones in The Vampire Diaries franchise and even True Blood. All of these shows and films use vampires for a multi-layered metaphor for everything from sexuality to race. However, race is where the vampire narrative and their fandoms fall flat, because the majority of vampires in popular culture franchises that get fandoms… are white. And they glorify that whiteness, with human characters like Bella waxing poetic about their pale skin.
More than that, their past behavior leads to questions that I’ve never gotten an answer for in over five years: Did these immortal characters support certain wars, certain laws? What side were they on? Seriously, if your vampire was a slave owner in their human life, how do they handle being around Black people now? How did these characters live through periods where people of color wanted to receive their due civil rights? How are they handling the here and now with police brutality and terrorism and endless systematic racism?
Ultimately, it comes down to this: if you’re going to put Confederate vampires in your stories, or thirst over the ones you’re reading and watching, you should reckon with what that means instead of glossing over the gaps. Leave the outrageous plot holes to more trivial matters, like why Bella and Edward can still enjoyably kiss even though he allegedly has the rigid body of a statue.
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