TV FANGDOM: A CONFERENCE ON TV VAMPIRES report by David Simmons
7-8th June 2013, University of Northampton
In recent years it has become something of a cliché to proclaim, with surprise, that vampires are everywhere. However, with a great deal of the available academic work to date being focused on cinematic incarnations (or one or two select examples drawn from the shows of Joss Whedon), the strength of the conference “TV Fangdom: A Conference on Television Vampires” was that it managed to offer a lively and enlightening selection of papers which covered such a diverse range of televisual examples: from some of the very earliest incarnations of the vampire figure on British and U.S. television right through to contemporary Spanish television vampires. The broad scope of the assembled papers meant that there was almost certainly something new here to discover for everyone, be they new to the field or a seasoned aficionado.
The two-day conference opened with a fascinating paper by Brigid Cherry entitled ‘Blood and Yarns: Vampire Fan Narratives and Feminine Handicrafting’. Cherry weaved together a range of original quantitative and qualitative research into a comprehensive dissection of the many and varied intersections between both the worlds of fandom and handicrafts (the fan reproduction of selected on-screen crafted items, the use of vampire avatars, the construction of handicraft inflected fan narratives), and the online communities that surround and bring together these activities. Indeed, in many ways, Cherry’s paper set the tone for the conference as a whole, offering an original approach to the topic of the vampires’ relationship with television that went beyond simple textual analysis of key examples to a much more interesting consideration of the many cultures that surround the figure and its intersections with the television form.
The elasticity of the TV vampire was a topic further explored in the panel entitled “Vampires and TV Horror”. Two of the papers in this session explored the reasons for the appearances of non-traditional vampires in television adaptations of Stephen King’s work. Both Nadia Naili and Simon Brown focussed their respective discussions around key examples including King’s Storm of the Century (1999) and the two TV adaptations of Salem’s Lot (1979/2004) to argue that the author’s work often strives for a type of mid-west social realism rather than out-and-out horror. Given this paradigm, both speakers arrived at the conclusion that it is non-conventional vampires (‘psychic vampires as Naili suggested) that move away from the trappings which define the classical incarnation (cloak, fangs, bats etc) that most accurately speak to the concerns of King’s work. The panel finished with a lively examination of the presence of the vampire as a ‘monster of the week’ in shows including Friday the 13th: The Series (1987 – 1990) and The X-Files (1993 – 2002). Academic Sorcha Ní Fhlainn lucidly charted these shows’ incorporation of the vampire prior to the airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), explaining how each took a markedly different approach (postmodern, biological) in their attempt to revalidate and re-authenticate the vampire as a viable TV monster.
The first day’s proceedings finished with a talk by Lisa Kerrigan, television curator for the BFI’s national archive. Entitled “Unearthing Rare Vampire TV”, Kerrigan’s session involved the screening of a selection of fascinating clips from the vaults of British TV, including Mystery & Imagination: Dracula (1968), The Dracula Business (1974), and Supernatural: Dorabella (1977). The montage demonstrated the persistent presence of the vampire in the development of British television factual programming and drama, bringing into question notions of social realism as the predominant mode of address in the development of the nation’s TV. Of particular interest, in this regard, was the final clip from Play for Today: Vampires (1979) which offered a melding of British social realist conventions with the overtly fantastical nature of the vampire, testifying to what seems to be a particularly national positioning of the vampire evident in examples such as Ultraviolet (1998) and Being Human (2008 – 2013).
The second day saw the diversity in approaches continue with papers on topics as varied as incest in True Blood (2008 -), slash fiction, Barnabas Collins, and period drama. The panel on the subject of parody and the television vampire was particularly interesting. The first paper in this session looked at the idea of the porn parody as paratext, focusing on the recent New Sensations version of True Blood entitled Tru: A XXX Parody (2010). Scholars Sarah Harman and Clarissa Smith examined the close links between the TV show and the porn parody. In what proved to be an entertaining piece of analysis they explored the ways in which New Sensations’ product evidences a keen understanding of the attractions of HBO’s show, transforming it into something that goes beyond a mere cash-in to a significant addition to the True Blood fictional universe. Ian Dawe’s paper “Count Blah: A Parody of a Pastiche, Wrapped in an Homage” took the second level simulation of Greg the Bunny’s (2002 - 2006) Count Blah as its topic. After exploring the differing theoretical concepts of parody and pastiche, Dawe proposed a working framework for examining Count Blah, a character indebted to a host of earlier figures (including but not limited to Bela Lugosi, Martin Landau’s portrayal of Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994), and the Count from Sesame Street (1969- ). Dawe then proceeded to examine the ways in which Blah can be seen as ‘de-fanging’ the vampire and the implications this has for the figure on television. The panel ended with a fascinating paper on vampires and variety programming on U.S. TV. Acting as an enlightening counterpart to the BFI session on the previous day, Brad Middleton’s talk was accompanied with a range of rare clips involving the many instances of the figure in what is often an understudied area of TV. Charting the proliferation of the TV vampire in variety shows back to the figures of the count as portrayed by Bela Lugosi and the character of Vampira played by the actress Maila Nurmi, Middleton surveyed some of the more interesting developments in the field (including an early Morgan Freeman as “Vincent the Vegetable Vampire”), cogently arguing that the vampire’s mutability has meant it has functioned as a unique barometer of U.S. cultural fears and anxieties throughout the latter part of the twentieth century and the beginnings of the twenty first.
The conference’s second day ended with a talk and short question and answer session with the BBC’s Simon J. Ashford (Eastenders, Robin Hood). Speaking about his ongoing role as writer for Young Dracula (2006-), Ashford offered a wealth of information and behind the scenes gossip concerning the show, its construction, the problems with making television horror for young children, and his genre influences. Ashford proved a genial and knowledgeable host and his unique insights into the processes involved with making a television show provided an interesting, industry focussed perspective on many of the issues discussed elsewhere. In conclusion, the success of “TV Fangdom” lay in its bringing together of a germane range of topics and approaches, the welcoming and friendly atmosphere that the organisers created, and the inclusion of noted speakers from outside the sometimes insular world of academia who added a broader take on proceedings. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that the only criticism I heard throughout the two days of the conference was that those involved wished the event had run for even longer, a sure sign of the accomplishments of those organising the event (Stacey Abbott, Lorna Jowett and Michael Starr), and perhaps an indication of the need for a TV Fangdom 2.
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