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In 2008, The Twilight Saga began baring its glistening, well-flossed teeth at the box office. Dads like me have been loath to admit that our teenage daughters—spurred on by a gaggle of giggling girlfriends—have anticipated each installment in this vampiric puppy love series. I'm also not the only dad to look at the cultural landscape, wrinkle up his ample forehead and utter that universal parental exclamation from time immemorial: D'oh! (No, Homer Simpson didn't coin that one.) 

I'll give you a quick Twilight summary: A high schooler named Bella moves from her mom's home in Phoenix to live with her dad in Forks, Wash. In this overcast and gloomy place she meets and falls in love with an equally overcast and gloomy guy named Edward. He looks cutely pale, but turns out to be a 90-year-old vampire who thirsts for the blood of all living creatures in general—and Bella's in particular. 

Sounds like happily ever after right from the start, doesn't it? 

Stephenie Meyer's young-adult best-sellers featuring this mismatched pair, though, have not only stirred up a devoted, googly-eyed teen audience, they've seemingly inspired a whole new finding-love-with-your-friendly-neighborhood-vampire craze. And that's translated into a tsunami of new books, movies, TV programs, cell phone apps and clothing lines all begging for a nip at your financial jugular. 
One particularly gag-worthy tie-in has been an energy drink that boasts the texture of blood—and comes packaged in a transfusion bag. 

My Friend the Vampire
Part and parcel with this pop culture bum-rush is a new and improved sensitive vampire. This hunka hunka biting love not only escapes but utterly breaks the old "I'm going to drink your blood" mold. Sure, the Bela Lugosi-style neck-biter looked chic with his caped tuxedo and slicked-back hair. But he's far too cold for today's romantic undead. 

The modern vampire is a moody but caring sort. He's young and handsome. He listens raptly when you speak. He holds your hand. He uses his otherworldly powers to protect rather than harm. He can even be virtuous—in a bad-boy, edgy kind of way.

"Young women and tween girls love the image of a damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him," says professor Carol Fry, author of Cinema of the Occult: New Age Satanism, Wicca and Spiritualism in Film, in an interview. "What better way to invest in a character with such qualities than to make him a protective vampire, bad by nature, but good by inclination?" 

And the Twilight story certainly plays into that mindset. Edward is a totally devoted crush who stares lovingly at his un-beating heart's desire as she sleeps. He doesn't grope. He doesn't belch. He doesn't hog the TV remote. He's a model of restraint. So it's easy to see why young girls could find this vision of a perfect guy so desirable. 

But when taken a step further—and isn't that the way teens and the entertainment industry always roll?—things can swoop down an undesirable path. 

Fan-ning the Flames of Love
One devotee on an Edward Cullen fansite summed up her and her fellow fans' obsession with the handsome undead this way:
"I love Edward not because he's the ideal guy any girl could dream of. Because he is inspiring, his figure doesn't make girls hide in their rooms and daydream all of their lives. It makes us go out and search for our own Edward. And the blessing comes after we have found him. We can stay forever in the bliss of having the most perfect guy in the universe all to ourselves."

Oh, boy. This kind of deluded adoration for a fictional character, and more specifically, a fictional vampire, can't be healthy, can it? It certainly flies in the face of any realistic standard for love and romance. And don't think this fan's reaction is some bizarre and rare oddity. She just happened to be the "fan of the month" on the site I spotted. There are many like it, and many more like her. If you'd like to know how many, just check out Twilight's Facebook page.

Overactive fandom, however, isn't the whole preternatural powder keg.

Sucking You In
The CW network has a popular series called The Vampire Diaries that features a familiar small-town-girl-meets-nice-bloodsucker-and-loses-her-heart storyline. "The vampire is the new James Dean," the show's writer/producer Julie Plec told The New York Times. "There is something so still and sexy about those young erotic predators."
Point well taken. Sexuality is, without question, a part of the vampire equation. And even though the Twilight movies have been relatively chaste, that doesn't mean all vampire fare is. And Plec's envelope-pushing, teen-tempting, prime-time TV offering is a perfect example.

Pushing the envelope off the table and into the gutter, however, is HBO's True Blood. Once again, the innocent girl and her gentleman vampire are the featured love birds. (Have I convinced you yet that there's a pattern emerging?) But far more even than The Vampire Diaries, this version brutally bares its fangs. In True Blood, the vamps have "come out" into the public eye. And although much of the drama centers on the human/vampire relationship, the action is all bloody death and raw sex. Vampire strip clubs. Vampire seductions. In fact, mostly naked, virtually pornographic and darkly threatening vampire sex is a mainstay. 

The show remains among HBO's highest-rated series. But here's an interesting and telling bit of information: When it premiered, the perverse bite-and-tell drama attracted a meager audience. "Slowly," Entertainment Weekly reported, "Blood began building a cult following … and word of mouth only intensified after a little movie called Twilight kicked off a nationwide vampire craze in November 2008." 

I can't help but wonder how many of those rabid followers were young female Twilight fans who found their way (through marketing or word of mouth) to the hard stuff?

A Steady Diet of … Garlic
The next sensible question would seem to be: What's a living, breathing, non-vampire parent supposed to do? Well, steering clear of the sexually rancid stuff is a no-brainer. So just say no to the likes of True Blood. But what about that God-given longing for lasting romantic love that's seemingly so aroused by the likes of Edward? The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 that we are to take "every thought captive to the obedience of Christ." And 1 Corinthians 13 gives us an inside track on what love was built to be.

It's up to us parents, then, to stay, um, plugged in to all that's happening in the entertainment industry. From there we can help our kids through this land of monsters who want to suck away their innocence and sound judgment. Books, movies and TV shows that excite our kids on a surface level should always be explored more deeply. And in doing so you'll find that often it's a few well-placed questions that lead to the solid answers. It can be hard work sometimes. And "D'oh!" will still escape your lips from time to time. But it sure beats sprinkling garlic salt on our window sills.

Published November 2012