TRUE BLOOD and the Southern Gothic Legacy: A Good Vampire is Hard to Find

by Joseph Andert

While driving down the highway, a young woman reaches into her boyfriend’s pants, exclaiming, “I’m bored.”  The two pull over and enter a convenience store advertising the synthetic blood drink Trublood.  The boy, confused and excited, expresses that to his knowledge, Louisiana wasn’t home to any vampires.  The lovers ask about the Trublood, and the clerk, in an unplaceable Eastern European accent, replies, “You didn’t know that New Orleans is a mecca for vampires?”  The girl, fascinated, remarks dimly, “Oh… so the Anne Rice novels were right?”  The couple is terrified when the clerk reveals that he himself is a vampire and subsequently relieved when he admits that he was joking.  However, the camouflage-clad country bumpkin in back of the line does not find it funny, and warns the clerk, “If I ever catch you pretending to be one of us…I’ll kill ya,” and bares his fangs (Ball “Strange Love”).
And so begins Alan Ball’s macabre melodrama, True Blood.  With these first five minutes, True Blood immediately reveals its intent to completely subvert any expectations its audience may have in regards to traditional vampiric narrative.  By playing with the our preconceptions of the traditional Transylvanian vampire character through the clerk’s bombastic impression, the show coyly winks to its underwhelmed audience and proudly exclaims, “This will not be what you’ve come to expect.”  Fortunately, this limbo does not last long and relief comes in the form of the expressly Southern vampire who steps in as if to say, “Is this what you were looking for?” As in the case of the backwoods vampire and the clerk, True Blood has more in common with the grotesque writings of Southern Gothic literature than with the multitude of vampire books and movies to have come before it.  It now seems that, like the naïve girl at the convenience store, we no longer have any reason to be bored.
In such a conclusion, it becomes important to define the trends and tendencies in the narratives of both Southern Gothic literature and of vampire books and films in order to determine which parent attained custody of True Blood.  However, before this can be done with any precision, one must possess a basic understanding of narrative in both theory and structure.  Victoria O’Donnell puts this argument into perspective in her book, Television Criticism, when she reinforces that
“People tune in to television to be told stories, but they have a familiarity with the narrative forms in which they are told, thus they relate to these stories against a backdrop of stories they know…” (O’Donnell 72).
Vampire narratives are not only among the most popular in our culture today, but also the most easily recognizable.  This poses a challenge for writers, in that consumers are looking for a way to not only experience an incredibly specific type of narrative, but to have that form disturbed enough to differentiate their work from the multitude of stories while still remaining recognizable.  To Alan Ball, and just as importantly, Charlaine Harris, the author of True Blood’s source material The Sookie Stackhouse Series, this meant introducing the narrative traditions and forms of Southern Gothic literature.
The term “Southern Gothic” has been surprisingly easy for critics and fans to agree upon. This can largely be attributed to that fact that it’s history is relatively self-contained and short.  This type of literature materialized in the South after their defeat in the Civil War.  After the war, The Reconstruction, as it was known, gave birth to the first wave of Southern Gothic novels.  Elizabeth Kerr gives perspective to the Southern Gothic genre in defining the popular consensus that “The gothic novel presents readers with an opportunity to vicariously experience horrifying realities. By creating worlds where tragedy and repressed behaviors come to the forefront, gothic writers explore the psychology of human existence on several unique levels” (“Southern Gothic Literature”).  This statement would undoubtedly ring true to both fans and creators of True Blood. In fact, Bill Compton, the lead vampire in the series, was made a vampire at precisely the time of The Reformation.  It is as if Charlaine Harris wrote this into Bill’s back-story as a way to point to Southern Gothic literature and say, “Look, I even took a character from those stories!”
The Southern Gothic novel “builds on the traditions of the larger Gothic genre, typically including supernatural elements, mental disease, and the grotesque” (Foster, “What is Southern Gothic…?”).  The narrative structure of the South Gothic novel is also unique in that its narratives all take place in the south after the Reformation.  Flannery O’Connor summarizes her reasoning for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure succinctly in the introduction of her anthology, “The Complete Stories” when she claims: “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear”  (5).  By defining the function of the Southern Gothic narrative, Flannery O’Connor has shed new light on True Blood.  Indeed, with the show, Alan Ball has brought many contemporary issues to light using the grotesque in the vampire form.  True Blood has been lauded as a brilliant metaphor for the plight of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
This metaphor is brought home at the beginning of every episode during the show’s legendary title sequence.  Squeezed between shots of Ku Klux Klan members and a decaying fox corpse is a church sign illuminated at night that reads “God Hates Fangs;” an obvious reference to the Fred Phelps’ famously hateful slogan. Charliane Harris herself makes her own reference to homosexuality in her Sookie Stackhouse novel, “Living Dead in Dallas,” when she writes, “When the Japanese had perfected the synthetic blood that actually enabled vampires to live without drinking human blood, it had been possible for vampires to come out of the coffin” (Harris 10).  This clear reference to “coming out of the closet,” or becoming an openly gay person in society, could not be more obvious.  One does need to look much further for even more obvious parallels between the treatment of homosexuals in our community and the treatment of vampires on Alan Ball’s True Blood.
Though Alan Ball has consistently claimed that True Blood is not a metaphor for the gay community, it becomes impossible not to come to that conclusion when watching the first three seasons of the show.  In an interview with the L.A. Times, Ball makes his intention clear when he admits; “I really don’t look at the vampire as a metaphor for gays”  (Martin, “True Blood is not a metaphor for gay people”).  However, Harris and Ball both use “Vampire Rights” in True Blood so openly that it becomes hard to see the show as anything but a social commentary at times.  Without a doubt, the two creators have tapped into the Southern Gothic tradition in order to tell their stories more effectually.
Now that a motive for using the Southern Gothic narrative structure has been established, it becomes imperative to look at the similarities in narrative technique between True Blood and Southern Gothic literature.  Many of our world’s greatest thinkers have found a way to greatly forward our shared understanding of narrative by formulating fascinating theories on the nature of narrative that the most learned scholars may well have trouble wrapping their minds around.  One of these thinkers is Roland Barthes.  Barthes developed a theory in his renowned work S/Z, which argues that “all narratives are comprised of a variety of different codes” and that “any text is, in fact, marked by the multiple meanings suggested by the five codes” (Barthes 30).  These codes are: The Hermeneutics Code or the enigma code, the Proairetic Code or the action code, and the Semic, Symbolic, and Cultural Codes.  Again, O’Donnell offers a valid simplification of these ideas when she reduces hermeneutics to “The science of interpretation,” and adding “the stages of the hermeneutic code enable an audience to interpret and follow a story” (75).  She then summarizes Barthes complex and long-winded essay in stating: “Narratives have an intricate series of enigmas, delays, and resolutions, with one resolution creating another enigma” (75).
S/Z has received its fair share of criticism, however.  The most valid may be Robert Scholes’ work, Semiotics and Interperetation.  In his argument, Scholes expresses his disdain for S/Z, when he asserts, “Provid(ing) only five codes for an infinitely meaningful text is a shade miserly”  (103).  Indeed, when reading S/Z, one must question Barthes’ decision to lump narrative interpretation into only five simple codes, but the validity of Barthes’ writing does not come from the accuracy of his numerical claims, but from his ability to offer a solid foundation for an educated discussion on a narrative’s interpretation.  After all, the respect for and value of S/Z comes from its capacity to aid in the act of interpreting (which it does, splendidly), not in the infallibility of Barthes’ analysis of the nature of narrative interpretation.
For the sake of comparing True Blood to Southern Gothic literature and its own vampire kin, the Enigma code becomes the most relevant.  Being a serialized television show, each episode is naturally filled with the proposing of enigmas, suspenseful delays, and resolutions.  Each episode, with few exceptions, ends in a particularly dramatic enigma, as many serialized television shows are wont to do.  However, ground is gained here in recognizing that the types of enigmas presented are unquestionably similar to those enigmas raised in the works of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers.
A common question that is raised in almost every episode of True Blood, and the vast majority of Southern Gothic literature is simply, “Is this person, or these people, good?” and by association, “What is good?”  The people of Bon Temps, Louisiana are all divided on the nature of vampires, and with such brilliant writing, how could they be blamed?  Indeed, viewers have been left to ponder Bill Compton’s goodness for every episode of True Blood’s first three seasons.  This series-arching enigma heightens our enjoyment of the show, and offers grounds for an involving discussion on the nature of ethics and morality.  Though these questions are not likely to ever be answered during the show’s duration, the show’s creators have offered one bit of food for ethical thought: If vampires are truly evil, what does that make humans?   Indeed, small-minded humans, incapable of seeing the world outside of their selves, have committed the worst acts of villainy and bigotry on the show.  Bill and Sookie’s first conversation expresses this ideology brilliantly, as Bill confides to her, “Vampires often turn on those who trust them, you know.  We don’t have human values like you,” to which Sookie replies, “Well, humans turn on those who trust them, too” (Ball, “Strange Love”).
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story Revelation, an old white woman named Mrs. Turpin is constantly suffering her own fear and hatred of African Americans.  She finds them to be the worst type of people, and the irony of her situation is that she is the living embodiment of all that black people supposedly are in her mind.  As the story progresses, it is revealed that while the African American field workers under Turpin’s employ are everything good  that Mrs. Turpin thinks she herself represents. By expressing these kinds of ideas through hermeneutic enigma, True Blood is continuing a conversation held between the pages of Southern Gothic narratives for years.
Aristotle, perhaps the most well known of narrative theorists, offers a slightly simpler take on narrative theory.  He believed that “While character, thought, dialogue, song and spectacle were important… plot is the most important part of a narrative (O’Donnell 74).  Aristotle also believed that scripts should be either “22 or 44 minutes long” (O’Donnell 74).  Television shows themselves clock in right around 22 minutes for half-hour shows and 44 minutes for one hour shows.  Concurrently, Southern Gothic literature, which most commonly manifests itself in the short story form, coming around 15 to 30 pages, would take the average reader about 45 minutes to read.  It would seem that True Blood and Southern Gothic short stories even have the same running time!
The most obvious connection to Southern Gothic literature, and departing from vampire mythology, is the location in which True Blood takes places.  Bon Temps, Louisiana, home to Antebellum society and all that is Southern, acts as a home to these characters and offers a stage on which the show can be set.  Though some may point to the New Orleans setting in parts of certain Anne Rice novels as grounds for invalidity, the location in her novel(s) never once has a significant impact on the characters or their lives.  True Blood, however, shapes each of its characters around Bon Temps, giving the town plausibility and life which directly finds its way to the viewer. When Bill first walks into Merlotte’s bar, Sookie exclaims, “A vampire!  Can you believe it?  Right here, in Bon Temps!” (Ball “Strange Love”). By setting True Blood in the South, the creators have made bigotry and hatred seem viable.  For Southern Gothic writers, that hatred and bigotry wasn’t a part of the South’s history, it was a part of its very present and very persistent reality.  Every character in the genre is defined by how Southern they are, and the same can be said for True Blood.
In regards to her characterizations, Flannery O’Connor states in one of her a letter in her collection “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor,” “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation. In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”  Alan Ball seems to come from the same family, as he creates most of his characters around this idea.  Maxine Fortenberry, mother to Jason Stackhouse’s best friend, Hoyt, has indeed been cut from this cloth.  Hoyt argues with Maxine and says, “You hate everything!…  cats, dogs, African Americans” (Winant, Oliver “I Will Rise Up”).  Maxine Fortenberry could be replaced with Mrs. Turpin from O’Connor’s “Revelation” and one would be hard pressed to find differences between them.  Indeed, it seems as if everyone in Bon Temps has reason to be dissatisfied.  Apparently, one must be to be considered a character on True Blood.
In today’s entertainment industry, vampire entertainment has been easily the most popular genre market in the past 3 years.  Many people will reject any television show or movie simply based on grounds that that show or movie must just be a cheap attempt to get on the vampire bandwagon.  However, True Blood has found its way into the hearts of even the most persistent vampire-trend haters.  This can surely be attributed to the fact that True Blood borrows more from Southern Gothic Literature than traditional vampire narratives.  In fact, if one manages to catch just a few episode of Alan Ball’s masterpiece, it will become all too clear that True Blood isn’t a vampire television show.  It’s a Southern Gothic television show.
Works Cited

 

Barkman, Adam.  “Does God Hate Fangs?”  Trueblood and Philosophy:  We Wanna Think Bad Things With You.  Ed. George A. Dunn and Rebecca Housel.  Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wile and Sons, Inc., 2010.

Barthes, Roland.  S/Z.  Paris:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1974.

De Vore, David.  “The Gothic Novel.”  U.C. Davis.  Web.

Foster, Niki.  “What is the Sourthern Gothic Movement in Literature?”  Northwestern University, 6 October 2010.  Web.

Harris, Charlaine.  Living Dead in Dallas.  New York:   Penguin Putnam Inc.  2002.

“I Will Rise Up” True Blood.  Writ. Nancy Oliver.  Dir. Scott Winant.  HBO.  16 August 2009.  Time Warner.   2009.  DVD.

Martin, Denise.  “True Blood is Not a Metaphor for Gay People.”  L.A. Times Blog.  10 July 2008.  Web.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Complete Stories.” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1971.

O’Connor, Flannery.  “The Habit of Being:  The Letters of Flannery O’Connor.”  New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, inc.  1988.

O’Donnell, Victoria.  Television Criticism.  Thousand Oaks:   Sage Publications, Inc.   2007.

Scholes, Robert.  “Semiotics and Interpretation”.  New Haven:  Yale University Press. 1982.

2 thoughts on “TRUE BLOOD and the Southern Gothic Legacy: A Good Vampire is Hard to Find

  1. Fascinating! I never thought of Southern Gothic as a genre that could cross over into television.

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