Vampires have been a staple of the Gothic and horror traditions, with iconic texts including Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and a host of Hollywood incarnations, from Nosferatu (1922) to Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance in Universal Pictures’ adaptation of Dracula (1931). While vampires are perennially popular, these creatures of the night were particularly ubiquitous in 1990s pop culture, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the 1992 feature film and the hit television series), Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Neil Jordan’s film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), and the Wesley Snipes franchise Blade (1998-2004). What is particularly notable about ‘90s incarnations of the vampire is the way in which these films negotiated or subverted traditional conceptions and expectations, whether through exploring the depths of vampire subjectivity or creating space in these narratives for women and people of color.
Caroline B. Cooney’s The Cheerleader (1991) and Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire (1994) are part of this larger trend and engage in the same process of intervention and interrogation of traditional vampire narratives. Both of these novels were later developed into series: a trilogy for Cooney and a nine-book series for Pike, the first six of which were published in the 1990s and the last three in 2010-2013. While each series is well worth exploration in its own right, a critical comparison of these two novels reveals some interesting themes and trends in teen horror, the late 20th-century negotiation of what it means to be a vampire, and the gender expectations that influence these engagements, in contrasting the male vampire of Cooney’s The Cheerleader with the female vampire of Pike’s The Last Vampire.
Cooney’s The Cheerleader begins in media res, right in the middle of a conversation between the vampire and a teenage girl named Althea, as he asks “Suppose… that I could make you popular” (1). There is no necessary suspension of disbelief, no explanation of how vampires have come to exist, no tedious process of convincing the reader that yes, this is a real vampire. He’s there, he’s real, and Cooney just gets on with the story. The description of the vampire himself remains amorphous, as he frequently appears as a shadow, an unseen presence, or a figure that Althea glimpses out of the corner of her eye. His influence is palpable, but his corporeality is a good deal more slippery, aside from repeated descriptions of his skin being “the color of mushrooms” (4) and his fingernails “like foil” (6). Cooney focuses on the vampire’s monstrosity, with a significant departure from predominant trope of the vampire as a potentially erotic figure (whether overtly or covertly explored). There are no late night visitations, hypnotic seductions, or penetrations from Cooney’s nameless vampire. His feeding is described as “migration” (173), natural and transitory rather than violent or messy (though this “migration” is still predatory and exploitative). He’s not sexy or romantic—most of the time, he isn’t even a concrete, visible presence.
Rather than erotic allure, the vampire tempts Althea with the promise of popularity, achieved through a spot on the varsity cheerleading squad. Althea is willing to give up anything and sacrifice anyone to achieve this popularity, which is presented as a high school magic bullet, with the promise that all of Althea’s problems will be solved if only she becomes popular. However, Cooney depicts this as something Althea cannot achieve on her own, as Althea laments that “Cheerleaders… important people, jocks, the party crowd—they’re always on another side of the room, sitting at a different table, laughing at a different joke. There’s no way to cross that dividing line. Either you’re popular or you aren’t” (9). The landscape of high school social stratification looms large and Cooney very effectively captures Althea’s longing for popularity and inclusion, one that would have resonated with many of her teen readers.
The seduction in Cooney’s The Cheerleader is moral rather than sexual in nature, as Cooney makes Althea complicit in the vampire’s predatory behavior, with him asking her to choose and provide the girls she wants eliminated to pave the way for her popularity. For example, the first girl the vampire demands Althea deliver is Celeste, who Althea specifically singles out because Celeste is a freshman who made the varsity cheerleading squad, winning the spot that Althea believes should have been hers (even though Althea didn’t make it to the final round of tryouts, so her jealousy may well be compromising her ability to think logically). The vampire feeds upon Celeste, who comes back to school listless and exhausted, and Althea begins her rise through the ranks of the popular crowd, with a bunch of new friends and a spot on the cheerleading squad.
What’s even more significant, however, is how Althea herself begins symbolically feeding on Celeste’s suffering, perversely enjoying the other girl’s fall from grace and even participating when the other teens make fun of Celeste, as Althea becomes exactly the kind of popular girl she had so recently hated. When the vampire temporarily revokes Althea’s popularity in a demonstration of his power, it’s harder to sympathize with Althea as she is excluded and made fun of, given that she has just been treating other girls the same way. Celeste is powerless against Althea and the vampire’s influence, with no idea of what has happened or why she’s now on the outside looking in, while Althea knows all too well, has few regrets about the bargain she has made, and intentionally contributes to Celeste’s social exclusion.
Other girls quickly follow. The vampire’s next victim is Jennie, Althea’s childhood best friend who left her behind when they got to high school, where Jennie got a boyfriend and became popular. Althea’s betrayal of Jennie is complex and provides a unique perspective on the kind of person Althea is becoming. In reflecting on her memories of Jennie, Althea thinks back to the person she used to be (presumably, a person who wouldn’t sacrifice her friends to a vampire) and is on the cusp of recapturing true friendship with Jennie, rather than the pack mentality sense of belonging she has achieved with the popular crowd. Althea nearly delivers Constance to the vampire as well. Constance is the epitome of popular girl perfection and Althea ultimately saves her because she decides she would rather keep Constance as a fetishized ideal to which she herself should aspire rather than destroy her (which is problematic in its own right, but at least Constance is spared). As these two interactions demonstrate, Althea is willing to let go of who she has been, to sacrifice her past self and relationships if doing so allows her to achieve popularity and become the girl she wishes she was. While there are a couple of popular guys kicking around as well—Michael and Ryan—the vampire seems exclusively interested in feeding on young women, perhaps because these are the people Althea herself is most interested in eliminating.
In addition to becoming morally compromised by procuring victims for the vampire, Althea also begins to become physically monstrous as well. One morning as she goes to open her locker, she notices “How long her fingernails had become. The nails were scarlet, and extremely pointed. They were claws. They were inhuman” (148). Once this transformation has begun, there’s nothing she can do to stop it, an embodied reminder of the (symbolic) blood on her hands.
While Althea seems largely unrepentant about all she has traded in her quest for popularity—asking the vampire for the chance “to be popular one more time” (174) even as he begins to prey upon her—her final ability to give up that popularity and commit herself to making friends one day at a time and earning a spot on the cheerleading squad by putting in the hard work it’ll take to do so is what saves her. This salvation, however, is pretty suspect. Althea adopts a superior attitude, claiming that popularity isn’t that important (despite all she has sacrificed to get it), and that it’s her responsibility to stand up for other “weak” (177) girls who might fall into the same trap. She’s pleased with herself (almost obnoxiously so) for regaining her sense of self, though given the fact that readers first met Althea when she was agreeing to the vampire’s deal, who that “self” is isn’t exactly clear and really, what’s to say she won’t give in to the next tempting deal to eliminate someone else to get ahead? There’s no vampire-less context for readers to use in anticipating Althea’s path forward. Cooney also gives readers no idea of what happens when Althea goes back to school, how she’s treated by her former friends, or whether her long-term perspective on popularity and belonging have changed. It doesn’t look promising though, as the final section of the novel tells readers that following these events, “The house is still there, although Althea moved away” (179). Althea’s parents aren’t mentioned once in The Cheerleader, but presumably they exist, and one of them could have gotten a new job that required relocation. Or maybe the social gauntlet of her high school was so unbearable that without the vampire’s protection, Althea was driven out altogether.
While many vampire narratives feature a male monster, Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire inverts this gender expectation with Alisa Perne, a 5,000 year old vampire who looks like a teenager. Like The Cheerleader, Pike’s The Last Vampire begins in media res, with Alisa’s direct address to the reader quickly and forthrightly establishing the groundwork of the narrative with her declaration that “I am a vampire, and that is the truth” (1). Also like The Cheerleader, Pike overtly negotiates the expected characteristics of the vampire figure, as Alisa goes on to explain that “the stories that have been told about creatures such as I… are not exactly true. I do not turn to ash in the sun, nor do I cringe when I see a crucifix. I wear a tiny gold cross now around my neck, but only because I like it. I cannot command a pack of wolves to attack or fly through the air. Nor can I make another of my kind simply by having him drink my blood” (1). She is unclear on whether or not she needs to drink blood to survive, noting that “After all this time, I still don’t know” (2). She drinks blood because “I crave it” (2) and there is a marked decline in her strength and abilities if she goes too long without doing so, but she also eats “normal” food.
Pike dismantles and reinvents vampire lore in The Last Vampire, affirming some expectations and complicating others (Alisa can’t fly but she can jump so high and stay airborne so long, that it’s easy to see why people might think so, for example). Pike also adds new components and complications, including his grounding of vampire lore in the mythical figures of Indian yakshinis and the appearance of Krishna, who serves as an oppositional power to the vampires and somewhat counterintuitively, as a spiritual and moral guide for Alisa, validating her remaining humanity as long as she promises not to make any more vampires. Alisa identifies a sense of hybridity in being “part of a culture that was capable of absorbing every invader and making him a brother” (42), which suggests a synthesis of the invading group’s identity with that of the Indian people they sought to subjugate, though as Pike frequently reminds readers, Alisa herself (named Sita in the human phase of her life) is blonde-haired and blue-eyed, a direct descendent of the white colonizers, a dynamic that isn’t fully explored in The Last Vampire. This maintains a clearly demarcated difference between Sita/Alisa and the Indian characters with whom she interacts, with Pike navigating between appreciation and appropriation in his engagement with Hindu traditions.
Just as with his reinvention of the vampire figure, Pike’s characterization of Alisa meets some gender expectations while refuting others. There is a romantic preoccupation as Alisa longs for her lost husband and child, Rama and Lalita, who she left when she was transformed into a vampire in order to protect them. One of the reasons Alisa finds herself attracted to a teenage boy named Ray Riley is because she believes he may be a reincarnation of Rama. However, Alisa is not defined entirely by this romantic yearning. While she doesn’t revel in killing indiscriminately, she is unapologetically violent, killing detective Mike Riley, as well as agents who attempt to kidnap her, with very few moral qualms and no regret. Of the three people Alisa kills in The Last Vampire, she only feeds on one of them. When she kills Mike Riley, she interrogates him, eliciting all the information she can get before he expires, and when she kills the female agent who helped kidnap her, she crushes the other woman’s skull in a display of violence meant to shock and terrify her other attackers. When Alisa does feed on the male agent, this process is described simply and poetically, as she says “I open him up … I take my pleasure slowly” (110). Just as Alisa has few qualms about violence or killing, she is forthright and matter-of-fact in her account of the aftermath as well, packing Mike Riley’s remains into a few garbage bags to dispose of him and burying the male agent in the woods. She doesn’t revel in the violence but she also doesn’t shy away from it, and her approach to killing has become philosophical and fluid over the course of her long life. As she pragmatically explains, “I kill less and less as the years go by because the need is not there, and the ramifications of murder in modern society are complex and a waste of my precious but endless time” (3).
Alisa is also unapologetically sexual. When she meets Ray Riley, she is immediately attracted to him and while Ray has a girlfriend, she invites him to her house under the pretense of helping her move some furniture, has a few drinks with him, and soon has him naked in a hot tub, telling him that “What happens with me will not hurt her” (66) as she encourages him to take a more libertine approach to his relationships and sexual experiences. Ray’s girlfriend Pat finds out that he has been spending time with Alisa and she is in fact hurt by this betrayal, but that doesn’t really seem to make much of a difference to either Alisa or Ray. Alisa enjoys sex and has no problem using sex to get what she wants. For example, part of her seduction of Ray was a ploy to find a way to get back into his father’s office, get access to his locked files, and take a quick look around to make sure she hasn’t left any forensic evidence of the murder. She is a femme fatale character and just like with killing when necessary, she doesn’t waste time feeling morally conflicted or guilty about the ways she uses sex to her advantage, and, perhaps surprisingly, neither does Ray. When he finds out that she tricked him to access her father’s files and delete evidence that could incriminate her, he is basically fine with it and doesn’t have any follow up questions. When she tells him that she killed her father, he is grief-stricken by his father’s death, but doesn’t respond to Alisa with rage or hatred, instead affirming her kindness with his steadfast belief that “you would not do anything to hurt me … You love me, I love you” (153). He is right, though whether Alisa loves Ray himself or loves the shadow of her lost husband Rama remains to be seen, and they’ll have plenty of time to figure it out after she turns Ray into a vampire to save his life, re-inscribing Alisa with a narrative of love and protection.
The Last Vampire presents one of ‘90s teen horror’s only moments of queer representation, as Alisa tells readers “I have had many lovers, of course, both male and female—thousands actually—but the allure of the flesh has yet to fade in me” (67). While this inclusion is notable and encouraging, however, this sentence is basically all there is. Some members of Pike’s teen audience might read this sentence and feel a frisson of recognition and a sense of validation that there are other possibilities in the world beyond the heteronormative, which is crucially important, particularly for those readers who were growing up in households or communities of LGBTQIA+ erasure, exclusion, or rejection. But Pike gives those readers no idea of what such a relationship or same-sex desire might look like, how Alisa conceives of her own identity, or what realistic possibilities the world holds for LGBTQIA+ people who aren’t ultra-wealthy, supernaturally formidable 5,000 year old vampires (at least not in The Last Vampire, but again, there’s a whole series waiting beyond this novel. Fingers crossed).
One other notable element in The Last Vampire is Pike’s inclusion of an AIDS narrative, as one of the peripheral characters, Seymour, is HIV positive. Given the central importance of blood and transmission in vampire lore, it is surprising how few vampire stories overtly engage with AIDS narratives. Seymour is a bit of an unexpected hero, a quiet nerd who loves horror, writes great stories, and largely stays under the high school hierarchy radar. When Alisa first meets him, she knows “this young man will be dead in less than a year. His blood is sick” (32), though this isn’t explicitly identified as AIDS, which Seymour contracted through a life-saving blood infusion, until midway through the novel. Seymour also has an uncanny ability to pick up on Alisa’s thoughts, emotions, and intentions, and when Alisa is stranded after murdering the agents who have kidnapped her, it is Seymour she calls for help. He comes and gets her, brings the requested change of clothes, asks very few questions, and remains unflappable when he finds her covered in blood and when she undresses in front of him to get cleaned up and changed. Alisa is able to cure Seymour through the transfusion of a small bit of her blood (though not nearly enough to make him a vampire). Why or how this works goes entirely unexplained, with Alisa basically using Seymour as a guinea pig for a hunch she has about the inexplicable power of her own blood, which luckily for Seymour, proves effective (though there’s the sense that if it hadn’t worked out or Seymour had been harmed by Alisa’s blood, she likely would have shrugged and moved on, seeing this failure as unfortunate but not worthy of feeling guilt or regret). Disappointingly, despite the fact that Seymour is a fascinating character, he is relegated to margins, writing Alisa’s story and telling her “thank you for being my friend and letting me play a part in your story” (168). Seymour deserves better and maybe, with this new lease on life, he’ll get it.
Both The Cheerleader and The Last Vampire challenge perceptions of the vampire, creating new ways of seeing this familiar Gothic figure and engaging with the abilities and power dynamics which surround it. While there are plenty of representations of vampires who are interested in human affairs in general, Cooney’s The Cheerleader gives teen readers an antagonist who cares about their specific day-to-day struggles and elevates high school drama and Althea’s fanatical desire for popularity to the highest possible stakes, taken seriously and used for both gain and destruction. Cooney desexualizes the vampire, making him an amorphous figure and a shadowy presence, while elevating Althea to heroic status in the novel’s final pages, demonstrating that even the average teenager is capable of both good and evil on a grand scale. Pike’s The Last Vampire also suggests that these everyday teenagers may be more complicated that meets the eye: Alisa looks like a regular teenage girl, though she has in fact lived for 5,000 years and has tremendous powers, while Ray starts off the novel as an actual teenage boy, who is then awakened to all of the supernatural powers that surround him and becomes immortal, a hero in a potentially epic love story, and, at the very least, one heck of an adventure.
As with other vampire narratives of the 1990s, these two novels create space for new characters and reframe the familiar vampire story within new contexts, offering a fresh lens. Unfortunately, while there are some notable moments of inclusivity and diverse representation, including cultural difference and queer representation in The Last Vampire, the context largely remains one that is familiar and comfortable to Cooney’s and Pike’s readers: mostly white, middle class, straight kids, with the notable addition of vampires. But it’s a place to start and with Cooney and Pike’s continuation of these stories in their respective series, we can hold out hope for more diverse narratives in later books, and for the return of Seymour, the real hero of The Last Vampire.
Alissa Burger is an associate professor at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Missouri. She writes about horror, queer representation in literature and popular culture, graphic novels, and Stephen King. She loves yoga, cats, and cheese.