Mothers, Killers and Vampires: The Post-Familial Society in “True Blood”
True Blood suggests that a change in family structure within a society doesn't necessarily entail a downfall of traditional concepts of morals and values.
Represented in myth and superstition for millennia, vampires have experienced a resurgence in popularity and a simultaneous transformation in the last decade. They now appear as a marginalized group, revealing themselves as supernatural beings and expecting tolerance and acceptance: In the film Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, USA 2008) and its sequels based on the Stephenie Meyer novels, they are the mysterious classmates; in Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008) it is the peculiar kid next door; in Daybreakers (Michael & Peter Spierig, USA/Australia 2009) vampires even take over the humans’ social and political way of life and exploit them in a sort of mass husbandry.
In Alan Ball’s TV series True Blood (USA, 2008- ), based on the novel series Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris (2001- ), it's a blood surrogate developed by the Japanese that enables vampires to “come out of the coffin.” Bottled and capped, it can be obtained in different flavors, or blood types, in a supermarket or at the local vampire-friendly bar, and frees vampires from the need to kill or injure human beings to survive. Many of them now try to live openly among humans; they form a political organization, the American Vampire League, and strive for legal equality. This emancipation movement calls to mind historical struggles for tolerance and acceptance, such as for the rights of African-Americans, women or, homosexuals: To name one example, Vermont–the first U.S. state to legalize human-vampire intermarriage in True Blood -- promoted liberal legislation by introducing civil unions in 2000, and same-sex marriage in 2009. It was also the first federal state to abolish slavery, as early as 1777 in the constitution. In True Blood, the issue of slavery is repeatedly brought to the viewer’s attention by the African-American character Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley).
At the center of the series (at least in three of the seasons aired to date) stands the romantic relationship between the telepathic waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) and the vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), which is characterized by the daily incompatibility of their extremely different ways of life as well as by constantly having to struggle against prejudice and intolerance from members of both of their species. In the course of the series it becomes obvious that things are not always what they seem: Not every supposed human turns out to be one; moreover, neither of the two parties is either portrayed as appealing or qualified for identification: The small-town humans of limited means appear even more unlikeable than the vampires with their strongly stratified society.
Furthermore, and on this aspect I want to focus in this essay, it is striking that not a single intact family -- consisting of two (traditionally married) parents and children -- can be found in True Blood. Instead, couples are divorced, children are orphaned, mothers are violent to their daughters. Vampires, however, seem to engage in more stable and respectful “familial” relationships. The one between a maker and his or her progeny comes closest to a familial bond: It is even more intimate than a genetic relation as blood-bonding establishes a strong emotional connection between two beings.
True Blood suggests that a change in family structure within a society does not necessarily entail a downfall of traditional concepts of morals and values. The series seizes on current social developments such as alternative concepts of partnership and cohabitation as well as notions of possible future processes.
Family Television and Family Horror
Since its early years, television has been addressing the family as well as making it a subject of its programming. Like all television content, families, too, change over the course of time from the happy, wealthy white nuclear family with a bread-winner father in the 1950s (as in Father Knows Best, 1954-1960) to a more modern version that does not equate to the traditional corn-flakes family, but nevertheless represents intact relations (as in The Simpsons, 1989- ). The new millennium reveals a greater variety of family structures on television: The families in the mockumentary Modern Family (2009- ), Allan Ball’s Six Feet Under (2001-2005), but also in True Blood can serve as examples.
The family is also strongly connected to the horror genre (especially to the postclassical horror film). Robin Wood even identifies the family as the horror’s “true milieu” (Wood 2004, 124), the “single unifying master-figure” (ibid., 123) unifying all other, seemingly heterogeneous motifs of horror since the 1960s. According to Wood, this is accompanied by a steady geographical approximation of horror to the U.S. citizen: while the Universal -- horror of the 1930s is set on unidentified islands and in faraway lands, the extraterrestrial monsters coming to earth in 1950s science fiction horror mostly land on U.S. territory and are fought by Americans. Wood identifies Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) as a turning point, which led to a recognition of “horror as both American and familial” (ibid., 127). In the 1970s, finally, horror penetrates not only a locatable (although not yet clearly defined) place within the U.S.A., but also the private sphere, the family home (ibid., 124-9).
Violent Mothers and Fleeing Children
As a television drama series with elements of horror, True Blood is remarkably void of families. A closer look reveals that traditional families do not occur at all. Instead, parents are oppressive, if they are not absent, drunk, violent or dead. The only family consisting of two parents falls apart at the end of the first season: The stepfather in the family turns out to be the wanted murderer who killed several so-called “fang bangers” (people having sexual relationships with vampires).
Sookie Stackhouse’s family disappears in the course of the series, demonstrating that families are a myth in True Blood: Because of her telepathic abilities, Sookie’s parents, afraid of their daughter, sent her from one therapist to another. When Sookie was even, both of her parents died (1.2 “The First Taste”), leaving her and her brother with their grandmother, who later was killed by mistake by the said murderer (1.5 “Sparks Fly Out”). On top of all that, Sookie was molested by her great-uncle Bartlett as a child. As an adult, her relationship to her brother is not intimate enough for him to understand why she dislikes seeing the great-uncle (1.6 “Cold Ground”). Solely the scenes involving Sookie’s grandmother convey the impression of a secure home: “Gran” lovingly takes care of her grandchildren, talks with them about their problems and emotions, protects them as best as she can, and seems to delight in cooking an inexhaustible stock of food. Gran’s impact on Sookie, even after her death is not to be underestimated–nevertheless, a single grandmother with her granddaughter does not constitute a traditional family.
A single mother who treats her offspring in a very different way is Hoyt’s mother Maxine Fortenberry, who along with most of Bon Temps’ inhabitants falls victim to possession by the maenad Maryann during the second season. This causes them not only to participate in orgiastic parties, cut their own fingers, etc., but also to lose all other inhibitions. In the episode “Frenzy” (2.11) Hoyt’s possessed mother therefore confronts him (who escaped possession) with the truth about their family:
Hoyt: Daddy was a hero!
Maxine: Daddy was a secret drinker. And you wanna know what I really think? A closet homosexual. […]
Hoyt: You know I don’t wanna hear this […] Daddy died protecting you and me from a burglar.
Maxine: Daddy put a bullet in his own head ‘cause he was too weak to handle his responsibilities… I lied, and said it was a burglar ‘cause otherwise we’d never gotten that life-insurance money, dumbass!
Hoyt’s remark, which he makes several days later, reveals the extent of his mother’s abusive behavior:
All these years you keep me here, you keep me from going to college … from doing anything! All ‘cause you’re scared of some burglar that never existed. (2.12 “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”)
The traumatized mother makes her son replace his father by using a constructed reality -- partly wishful thinking, partly repressive instrument, partly self-deception. It is only under external influence that she admits the lie, which leaves her no other choice than to confirm Hoyt’s worry about her story being true, once she is free from the influence of ancient mythological entities.
In True Blood, families have lost their protective function and are characterized by lies and violence. To name another example, Tara’s childhood memories seem to be narrowed down to mixing drinks for her alcoholic mother and later cleaning her of her own vomit. Tara’s single mother, a fundamentalist Christian, often resorts to violence against her daughter, for example in “Mine” (1.3) when she lies in wait for Tara behind the door, beats her with a bible as she enters and greets her with the exclamation: “Where the hell have you been, you dirty whore?!” As Tara tries to calm her mother, she is attacked again, this time with a glass bottle. It is therefore not surprising that Tara happily throws herself into Maryann’s deceitful arms when she is offered a perfect world in which the older and experienced Maryann serves as a liberal surrogate mother. Her function as such is visible in a rather disconcerting way when she awaits Tara in Sookie’s kitchen in “Never Let Me Go” (2.5), wearing an apron and reading a novel at the kitchen table. She thus imitates a scene from “Strange Love” (1.1), in which Gran awaits Sookie at the same table in the same manner (reading C. Harris’s Dead Until Dark). As Tara finds out later, Maryann turns out to be a deceitful egoist who does not care about her protégées well-being (as she is willing to kill Tara along with the rest of the community in the end of season two) instead of the caring surrogate-mother she appears to be.
Makers and Progenies
Among vampires, the notion of family is present in the relationship between a “maker” and a vampire created by him or her (“progeny” in True Blood vampire slang, but mostly referred to as “child”). Another familial relation is implied among vampires who live together in a so-called “nest” (i.e., a vampire commune) and who refer to each other as brothers and sisters. Often these are also “parental” bonds, as progenies live together with their makers (at least in the beginning when they are still “baby vampires”–a term linking them closer to human children and thus to the structure of human families). Although only those young, inexperienced vampires are dependent on their maker’s mentorship, the relation between maker and progeny remains very close in most cases. A vampire indoctrinates his or her offspring into the rules and behavior patterns of vampire society, provides a home and protection, and is responsible for his or her well-being.
Drinking vampire blood in the True Blood-verse establishes an emotional link between two individuals: When human beings consume it, the vampire in question can also sense their feelings and whereabouts. Such a connection is permanent between maker and progeny and is often used to call or alarm other vampires. Compared to human families, it is obvious that such a close link between its members is out of the question, however close they might be. “I’ll be your father, your brother, your child,” Godric (Allan Hyde) announces before turning Eric (Alexander Skarsgård) into a vampire (2.5 “Never Let Me Go”), thus expressing that this relation will not only replace but also surpass a human family. The relationship between Eric and Godric is the closest one among the vampires depicted in True Blood: When Godric decides to wait for sunrise in order to kill himself, Eric is ready to die with him if he cannot keep him from suicide (2.9 “I Will Rise Up”), demonstrating the importance of the bond between maker and progeny.
However, not all vampire relationships are harmonious. For instance, Bill has been trying to rid himself of his maker Lorena who is unhappily in love with him, and has been for 60 years, occasionally even attempting to kill her (and finally succeeding with the help of Lorena’s rival, Sookie). Bill’s own “child” is the result of a sort of forced reproduction: for killing another undead, he is sentenced to creating a new one by the vampire magister (1.10 “I Don’t Wanna Know”). Accordingly, Bill finds it hard to establish an emotional bond with the 17-year-old Jessica who is brought to him for transformation before the vampire court. While he conducts himself in the manner of a strict father, trying to limit Jessica’s contact with young men and to teach her an ethically correct way of dealing with her newly acquired blood thirst, she takes the role of a wild teenager who wants to enjoy her new freedom -- the two of them thus perfectly mimicking the typical behavior of an overchallenged single father and his pubescent daughter. Immediately after being turned into a vampire, Jessica becomes aware of the new possibilities this new un-life presents her:
Bill: You have been made vampire. […] You cannot go home. That part of your life is over.
Jessica: No more momma and daddy? No more little sister?
Bill: I’m sorry. No.
Jessica: No more belts. No more clarinets. No more home school! No more rules! Yee-ha! I’m a vampire! (1.11 “To Love is to Bury”)
Freedom from obligations (homeschooling) and rules as well as from the civil education imposed on her by her parents (clarinet) and the domestic violence acted out by her father (belts) outshines the loss of Jessica’s family, at first. When her loneliness later prevails and she returns to her parents’ home, it is her father whose arrival destroys the happy reunion when he greets Jessica with accusations. In her new vampiric superiority, she reacts by getting hold of her father’s formerly feared belt and fastening it around his neck (2.2 “Keep This Party Going”). Jessica’s human family stays violent; the new distribution of power merely determines who holds the belt. Once she has the chance, the child that has experienced violence takes vengeance through violence.
Blood ties alone do not constitute families in True Blood as the exchange of blood between two species is part of everyday-life (vampire blood, “V”, is a highly effective drug for human beings). The creation of a new vampire requires a ritual involving more than just the exchange of blood and being based on an elective affinity, as a vampire carefully selects her progeny (with the exception of Bill and Jessica). [On ethical aspects of vampire reproduction cf. Robichaud, Christopher: “To Turn or Not to Turn: The Ethics of Making Vampires,” in George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel (eds.) (2010): True Blood and Philosophy: We Wanna Think Bad Things with You, Hoboken, NJ, pp. 7-18.] In like manner, the divorced, single, orphaned, or childless humans in True Blood establish new relationships that replace the families fallen apart: Friends and co-workers take the place of family members, share a home and support each other. It is Tara who stands between Sookie and her brother when he beats her (1.6 “Cold Ground”). Likewise, it is Sookie who manages to free Tara from Maryann’s influence together with Bill -- something Tara’s relative failed to accomplish (2.10 “New World in My View”).
The comparison of human and vampiric relations has shown that traditional families exist in neither of the two societies. Instead, elective affinities have taken over the function of genetic relations because vampires necessarily lose their human families (and possibly even unwillingly destroy them by being turned into a vampire) and therefore fill a pioneering role. In their society, traditional notions and terms of family are reinterpreted: The place of genetic families is taken by vampiric parents, children, brothers and sisters, whose attachments to each other are more intense and longer lasting than the bonds between human relatives.
Within the human society, True Blood depicts neither a crisis of family nor of individuals who are emotionally broken up or morally depraved due to their difficult familial situations. Even after her grandmother’s death, Sookie upholds the slightly old-fashioned moral values she stood for, often even directly referring to Gran’s supposed approval or rejection of certain behavior. Sookie, who grew up as an orphan for most of her life and is in addition “disabled” (as she sees it) by her telepathic ability, is the most exemplary character in the series in terms of morals and ethics. Perhaps it is even because of her familial conditions that she became a “better person” than she would have been, had she grown up in a traditional, harmonious corn-flakes family.
True Blood is a television series that takes place in a small-town milieu, but omits anything like an intact family. If, according to Robin Wood, the horror has been approaching the familial realm since the 1960s, in True Blood it seems to have passed it. There are no idyllic families that are shattered by the horror, nor do families create horror -- instead they simply do not exist anymore. None of the characters are part of an intact, traditional family, and most of them seem to cope with it. Among vampires, there are brothers and sisters, parents and children who love and protect each other even if their actual families have long vanished. Similarly, it is the freely entered post-familial commitments among humans that defy falling apart despite all difficulties.
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Wood, Robin. “An Introduction into the American Horror Film,” in Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharett (ed.) (2004): Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, pp. 107-141.
I would like to thank Audrey Fausser and Frank Cifarelli for their corrections and comments.
KATHARINA REIN is a graduate student in Cultural History and Theory at the Humboldt-University Berlin. She has published several essays in German and English in journals.