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October 26, 2006

Vampires in the Academy

I’ve always loved Gothic fiction, old horror movies, and things that go bump in the neck. Since I was eleven or twelve and I would watch The Night Stalker on late night weekend T.V. with my mom, I’ve been fascinated by the darker side of literature and film. This was solidified in high school when Stephen King’s novels led me away from the mass of Tolkien imitators I had been reading and into the land of mass market horror. In college, Peter Straub deepened the snare.

My career as a professor of literature has only increased my love of dark fiction. There’s a fair amount of popular fiction that doesn’t bear up to critical scrutiny, but well-written horror does, more often than not. Plus, the roots of much of what gets written in the horror genre today lay in the 19th century, which happens to be my literary stomping grounds. Which is all to say that it’s great to have a job where I can do things like write a book on Gothic London, or teach a course tracing vampire imagery over two centuries.

I’m prompted to talk about this due to the latest stage in the unintentional media blitz the Ridenhour clan is unleashing on Bismarck. KFYR came to my office this morning to do a Halloween interview with me about vampires and then to film part of my 9am Literary Vampire class. It was fun, though the questions were somewhat lame (“What sorts of things kill vampires?”). At the very least I got to present vampire fiction as a subject for serious critical inquiry.

And that matters. I won’t bemoan lack of respect, because the Gothic has been pretty firmly established as a site of legitimate scholarship for fifteen or twenty years now (though one colleague here at UMary clearly is disdainful of the course I’m teaching right now). But there is a disconnect with the general public sometimes–“surely you don’t seriously teach Dracula?” But I do, and even worse, in a month I’ll be teaching Buffy! A smart text is a smart text, no matter how pointy its teeth, and we find the Truths about ourselves that literature promises hidden even in darknesses like these.

Which leads me to the rather interesting conversation I had last Friday. Over dinner with friends, after a discussion of Gwyn’s and my interest in Buddhism, this exchange occurred:

Unnamed Friend: How do you balance all those positive things [Buddhist philosophy] with all that darkness?

Me: What darkness?

UF: All that stuff you study.

M: You mean Gothic novels?

UF: Yeah. Vampires and things like that.

M: Well… (I begin to formulate my standard justifications for the study of literature)

UF: I mean….do you worship the Devil?

M: ???

UF: (correctly believing me offended) I mean, it would be okay if you do…

M: No, it wouldn’t!

And these are people we know pretty well. Granted, Unnamed Friend had had three or four glasses of wine at that point, but there’s no way around the fact that she honestly wondered. And that idea–that there must be something seriously off in the psychological make-up of somebody who spends time thinking about this stuff–comes up more often than I would have expected.

But that’s a small price to pay. Frankly, I get to read books for a living and then talk about them, either on paper or in front of a class. I got paid to talk about vampires to fairly large audience at Minot State earlier this month, and they served me blood-colored punch afterwards. Who am I to complain? I don’t worship the devil or drink blood. In fact, most of the time I teach Charles Dickens and Lord Tennyson. But don’t tell Unnamed Friend. She might lose her terrified awe, and the magic would just go out of the whole relationship.


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