Monsters of Capital: Vampires, Zombies, and Consumerism

Excerpt from Chapter 10, by Lorna Piatti-Farnell

While both Lestat in the Vampire Chronicles and Miriam in The Hunger may pretend to “live” a normal life with their human acquaintances, their consumer habits and true way of life remove them from the everyday socioeconomic context and place them in the sphere of conspicuous consumption. This term, coined in 1899 by economist Thorstein Veblen, is useful in identifying the yuppie vampires as belonging to a higher order of consumer, an upper-class group for whom the acquisition of expensive goods is part of the display of their social status. Conspicuous consumption is the spending of money and the acquisition of luxury goods in order to display economic power. That economic power translates into higher social status for the conspicuous consumer, whose public display of wealth makes him the source of not only envy, but also desire.10 Luxury, therefore, equals prestige. Although Veblen’s understanding of conspicuous consumption was based on his analysis of nineteenth-century socioeconomics, the term still has relevance in the late twentieth century and, arguably, the twenty-first, where significant material improvements—including the increasing disposable income of the larger middle-class group of the Western world—have allowed extravagant items to become a sign of prestige. This is particularly pertinent in view of the development of brand-extended, “masstige” versions of everyday luxury that are now within the reach of many.11

In our contemporary twenty-first century, the vampire’s lavish consumption has become the order of the day. Far from simply being an extravagant occurrence, consumerism in the vampire’s life is not only unavoidable, but to be expected. The media-rich environment of the post-2000 era has truly made a virtue of portraying vampires as incredibly wealthy. Across the representational spectrum, vampires are creatures of means, surrounded by expensive commodities and living in luxury. Although, when it comes to the vampire’s possessions, different and disparate examples can be found (and it would be unwise to generalize), it is reasonable to suggest that vampires are “upper class” in their tendencies.12 The list of rich, consumerist vampires in contemporary media is long and plentiful; examples range from the extravagant specimens in True Blood—a television series adapted from Charlaine Harris’s well-known Sookie Stackhouse novels (2001–2003)—to the sexy, trendy vamps in L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries, both in their ongoing literary and televised incarnations. On the silver screen, vampires are portrayed as rich and powerful in the Blade trilogy (1998–2004), the Underworld film series (2003–2012), and Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), based on the 2010 novel of the same name. The connection between high consumerism and vampires is so well established that Rob Latham has gone as far as labeling the creature as the “exalted representative” of economic “difference” and perpetual “accumulation.” The vampire, Latham suggests, is an “insatiable consumer.”13

Where mainstream examples are concerned, however, the high-consumerist existence of vampires is nowhere more obvious than in the popular and truly unavoidable Twilight saga. The vampires in this storyline—both in their original incarnations in Stephenie Meyer’s novels and in their cinematic adaptations—are portrayed as the ultimate creatures of affluence. From the aristocratic creatures of Europe to the nouveau riche families of the New World, vampires are depicted as having an immense wealth at their disposal, evidently granted to them by their long-existing, often centennial status. Winning in popularity and attention is the Cullen family—captained by the youthful-looking Edward—a group of blood-bonded vampires who fill the protagonist role in the series. The Cullens live in a large mansion with high ceilings and wooden floors; the mansion, however, is not their only foray into real estate, as we are told they own luxury properties all over the world. They drive expensive cars and wear the latest designer clothes. The visual advantages of the cinematic medium make the Cullens’ wealth even more explicit in the film adaptation, where the brands are granted more attention, and Edward Cullen is seen driving a Volvo XC60, a custom-made car sold only in Europe. The European nature of the car here loudly communicates its status as a luxury item for the American audience. The Cullens’ wealth has been depicted as so immense that Forbes magazine ranked Carlisle Cullen— the patriarch of the family—as the richest (fictional) man of the year in 2010, the second richest in 2011, and the third richest in 2012, his accumulated fortune amounting to $36.3 billion.14 An impressive figure for a three-hundred-year-old vampire who pretends to be a human doctor at the local hospital in the small American town of Forks, Washington.

10. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Dover Publications, 1994 [1899]).
11. The term “masstige” was introduced and popularized by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske in their article “Luxury for the Masses,” Harvard Business Review 81, no. 4 (2003): 48–57, and their book Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods—and How Companies Create Them (New York: Portfolio, 2005). Masstige is portmanteau of the words “mass” and “prestige,” and means literally “prestige for the masses.” Masstige items are defined by Silverstein and Fiske as “premium but attainable” and fill the gap between mid-market and superpremium.
12. Of course, examples still exist, especially in the literary world, in which vampires do not live a luxury, extravagant, commodity-filled existence, but prefer anonymity and even dwell in caves or abandoned crypts, recalling more aptly the vampiric creatures of folklore. One need only think of David Wellington’s Laura Caxton Vampire series (2007–2012) or Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) as evocative examples here. Recent cinematic examples of this category of “common vampires” include, among others, Near Dark (1987), 30 Days of Night (2007), and Daybreakers (2009).
13. Rob Latham, Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 156 and 1.
14. “The Fictional 15,” Forbes, April 14, 2010, April 1, 2011, and April 23, 2012.

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