Spike the sympathetic vampire


I really enjoyed Milly Williamson’s article on the sympathetic nature of Spike the vampire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and on the way in which subtext shifts the audience’s relationship with this character and the text as a whole. According to Williamson:

The vampire Spike fascinates us because of his polymorphous sexuality, his ambiguity and his emergence as a liminal and pathos-ridden figure. But this is not a new departure for the vampire figure; instead Spike draws on a much longer tradition of the suffering vampire. While much film and literary theory of the vampire has focused on the monolithic evil of Dracula (Astle, 1980; Bentley, 1988[1972]; Jackson, 1981; Jones, 1991[1929]; Richardson, 1991[1959]; Roth, 1988; Twitchell, 1985), there is another tradition which precedes him, in which the vampire is a glamorous outcast, sexual deviant, rebel, rogue and tortured soul. Spike updates several of the conventions associated with the image of the vampire as alluring outsider and, as such, is the latest contribution to the longstanding image of the sympathetic vampire – a creature which always firmly inhabits a contemporary cultural landscape. It is this sympathetic [-p.290] and ambiguous vampire (rather than the vampire-as-menace) which has produced enormous fan cultures throughout the 20th and early 21st century; Spike’s character connects to this fan culture implicitly, thereby adding to the ‘cult’ status of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS).
This article examines Spike’s fictional vampiric ancestry. It assesses what Spike shares with previous sympathetic vampires and it considers the way in which this might resonate with audiences. In addition, the article will consider Spike’s character innovations and will locate the way in which his character changes depictions of the sympathetic vampire in the specific context of the television text BtVS, as well as the larger context of cult television and fan culture.” (pp.289-290)

“Reluctance to kill (or at least a tortured conscience about not being able to resist it) is a key component in vampire fans’ sympathy with the vampire.” (p.291)

“Not good enough to be loved by Buffy and, because of his chip, not bad enough to act vampirically, Spike inhabits an excruciatingly liminal self.” (p.292)

“It was through the figure of Byron that the vampire first became popularized. ‘Byronmania’ contributed deeply to the association between rebellion and a doomed but glamorous outsiderdom which marked the Romantic idea of vampirism.” (p.293)

Describing Spike’s sympathetic ancestry, Williamson describes how “from its entry into the novel, the popularized image of the vampire in Europe and the anglo-American world had become fused to Byronic images of glamorous outsiderdom, morose fatalism, sexual deviancy and social and artistic rebellion.” (p.294)

“Yet while the image of alluring outsiderdom is, as Nina Auerbach puts it, ‘dramatically generational’ (1995: 5), the vampire comes to enter the 20th century generally as an anti-hero and one which several disenchanted generations were prepared to embrace specifically ‘because of its curse’ rather than in spite of it (Carter, 1997: 27; emphasis in original). The fascination in the 19th century with vampiric outsiderdom turns to sympathy and emulation in the ‘success’-oriented culture of the 20th century, which of necessity is simultaneously the culture of the outcast. Chris Rojek suggests that the vast majority of us suffer from ‘achievement
famine’ (2001: 49); this is due to the way in which the ‘democratic ideal of being recognized as extraordinary, special or unique collides with the bureaucratic tendency to standardize and routinize existence’ (2001: 149). Lucien Goldmann made a similar point when he suggested that bourgeois society produces an ‘internal contradiction between individualism as a universal value . . . and the important and painful limitations that this society itself brought to the possibilities of the development of the individual’ (Goldmann, 1975: 12). The official discourses of European and anglo-American culture have promised the right to personal fulfilment and significance, as well as creating the conditions that ensure that its achievement is unattainable. This paradox produces potentially contradictory experiences for the self in cultures which promise (indeed demand) a personal success which the majority cannot achieve. These paradoxical experiences contributed significantly to the rise of fan cultures. Stephen Duncombe explains how this dilemma is experienced by the underground ‘zine’ writers in the US who experience themselves as ‘losers’: 
[‘]While there isn’t much they can do about being losers in a society that rewards interests they don’t share and strengths they don’t have, they can define the value of being a loser and turn a deficit into an asset. (1997: 20)[‘]” (p.294)

Spike connects to contemporary socially-constructed feelings of inadequacy and Otherness more deeply precisely because of his lack of ‘talent’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘fame’; he suffers from the experience of marginality and disappointment that is the majority experience. Chris Rojek reminds us that our success-oriented celebrity culture ‘creates many more losers than winners’ (2001: 15). Similarly, Duncombe points out that America’s ‘meritocracy’ forces people to compete for their place in society and rewards the winners. But he comments that:
[‘]Where there are winners there are also losers – and lots of them. The winners are celebrated with power, wealth and media representations. The losers – the majority of Americans – are invisible. (1997: 20)[‘]” (p.295)

She concludes: “Spike’s fannish appeal is generated simultaneously from the existence of the metatextual sympathetic ‘vampire star’ through which Spike is read, and BtVS’s cult mode of address, which invites (and depends upon) a ‘knowing’ ‘subtextual’ reading of Spike’s character. Initially, the series hints at Spike’s sympathetic, pathos-ridden existence by drawing on the subcultural reading of the ‘cool bad boy’ vampire as signifying hidden suffering. Once Spike’s empathy-inducing pathos is overtly depicted, the series shifts its subtextual allure onto the sexual relationship between Spike and Buffy. The series uses the conventions of slash fiction stemming from television fan culture in its construction of the sexual relationship between Spike and Buffy, thus continuing to generate the cult status upon which such niche market shows depend. BtVS’s overt appeal to cult fandom’s understanding of subtextual meanings indicates that such readings are not ‘resistant’ or ‘poached’ from the text, but are openly invited. Thus the early academic characterization of fandom as subversive of mainstream television culture, which was predicated on the idea that subtextual meanings were at odds with the intentions of the television text, has been undermined because of the way in which the cult television text deploys subtextual conventions.” (p.307)

Williamson’s discussion of the use of subtext to create a fan relationship with this character – and her discussion of ‘the character-as-star’ are really great. They’re just not what I’m focusing on right now.

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Milly Williamson (2005) Spike, sex and subtext : Intertextual portrayals of the sympathetic vampire European Journal of Cultural Studies 8: 289-311

“ABSTRACT The vampire Spike of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the latest in a long line of ambiguous but sympathetic vampires which have caught the public imagination, stretching back to Polidori’s Byronesque vampire, Lord Ruthven. This article argues that the vampire image that circulates across contemporary vampire fan cultures is one that exceeds any individual depiction of the vampire; the sympathetic vampire operates as a metatext for vampire fans who draw on textual cues to interpret vampires sympathetically, even when the text itself does not. In the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the text overtly encourages a sympathetic subtextual reading of Spike by linking his glamour, sex appeal and rebellion to a hinted-at unseen suffering, which is easily recognized by fans. Fans read Spike’s bad-boy pose as symbolic of hidden pathos. Indeed, the text adopts conventions associated with fan fiction in order to encourage and sustain a surrounding fan culture.” (p.289)


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