This time I'm focusing on Elena as the Gothic heroine and what it is about her that compels us to watch every new episode. If you're in the mood for some talk on TVD during the hiatus, here's my two cents. Voice your opinions in the comments. Do you agree or not, do you think I'm way off? I'd love to hear your thoughts. And if you just want to say hi, you're welcome too. :-)
There are many Gothic films and TV shows being made these days. And yet, their appeal doesn’t pale. Week after week thousands of viewers tune in to their favourite vampire/witch/werewolf/other-supernatural-creatures show on TV. Mostly, these spectators are teenagers or, like in my case, adults who refuse to grow up. My choice of poison is The Vampire Diaries which is a textbook case of a Gothic TV show. It has everything, from Gothic settings (the old house where Stefan hides the coffins, the secret tunnel beneath the Lockwood mansion, the cemetery where Stefan first meets Elena, the Salvatore mansion etc.) to Gothic characters and monsters (ghosts, witches, vampires, need I go on?). These features add extra suspense and drama for the viewers, but what truly draws us to TVD functions on a more psychological level and through our identification with the protagonist of the show. Elena experiences a profound transformation, not only in terms of her becoming a vampire, but also as a teenager trying to find her identity in the world of grown-ups.
The main driving force of Gothic fiction is fear – fear of the unknown, of the less than decent desires and urges in us, of the anger festering in our wounds. As spectators, we (are invited to) project such vile emotions onto the on-screen monsters, we stick our worst features on them and then we watch their ugliness with satisfaction (well, not in Damon’s case, there’s no ugliness to speak of there). The human protagonists of Gothic shows have to bear the brunt of the violence and abuse from the monsters because Gothic “confronts the principal characters with the gross violence of physical or psychological dissolution, explicitly shattering the assumed norms (...) of everyday life with wildly shocking, and even revolting, consequences.” (Hogle 3) Remember Elena’s shock when she realizes that Stefan is a vampire? Or how sickened she is by Damon’s brutality and mercilessness? The evil and carnage that the brothers attract and dole out changes her view of life; post-brothers nothing is safe or sacred – the things she took for granted are now endangered and threatened.
But on the psychological level, what Damon and Stefan signify is merely “the unconscious as a deep repository of very old, infantile, and repressed memories or impulses, the archaic underworld of the self.” (Hogle 3) In TVD, we get to see the two opposite poles of this. While Damon is acting the infantile impulses out, Stefan is trying to repress them at all cost. With the brothers representing each a different extreme, they create a sense of hopelessness – they seem to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It seems that being a vampire is a lot like being human and especially a teenager. The struggle is never over. “The longevity and power of Gothic fiction unquestionably stem from the way it helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural, throughout the history of western culture since the eighteenth century.” (Hogle 4)
This is where Elena comes in. At the beginning of the first season, her life is turned upside down. In the opening scenes, we see her mourning her parents who died in a car accident that she miraculously survived (it is later revealed that Stefan saved her). Although her aunt Jenna steps in as their guardian, Elena nonetheless feels responsible for Jeremy and takes up the role not only of the older sibling, but that of a parent. She is forced to mourn her parents and to become a parent by a single traumatic event. This is typical of contemporary Gothic which “markedly registers a crisis in personal history: in the world depicted in such works, one is forced simultaneously to mourn the lost object (a parent, God, social order, lasting fulfilment through knowledge or sexual pleasure) and to become the object lost through identification or imitation. This history of repetition, (...), constitutes a sense of trauma, and it is finally through trauma that we can best understand the contemporary Gothic and why we crave it.” (Bruhm 268)
It is at this point in her life that Elena meets Stefan. “He came into my life at a time when I needed someone,” she says to Damon in 3x23. Again, on the psychological level, her meeting Stefan is a coping strategy in which she needs a monster to blame it for everything bad that’s happened to her. The threat of the supernatural echoes the dangers of growing up, of taking on new responsibilities. Damon’s killing sprees and Stefan’s fear of his own darker self mirror Elena’s insecurities and her fear of losing control. Her very earthly problems have been transformed into supernatural nightmares. Elena becomes a “traumatized (heroine) who (has) lost the very psychic structures that allow (her) access to (her) own experiences. (...) such narratives emphasize a lost object, that object being the self.” (Bruhm 269) But Elena’s development hasn’t stopped yet, and I’ll touch upon that later on.
Elena is a Gothic heroine, and one of their characteristics is that they “seek both to appease and to free themselves from the excesses of male and patriarchal dominance.” (Hogle 5) The first Gothic heroine in TVD is Katherine who had an unconventional affair with both Salvatore brothers back in the 18th century. She and her friend Pearl were strong women who weren’t afraid of the despots of Mystic Falls. They took care of themselves and they resisted the societal norms of the day, they represented the “journey of women coming into some power and property by their own and other feminine agency” (Hogle 10). Put quite plainly – they kicked ass. Elena is steadfastly following their steps by tirelessly fighting her battles.
On the other hand, “women are the figures most fearfully trapped between contradictory pressures and impulses.” (Hogle 9) Elena as the main character has been put through more than any other character on the show, but she’s remained steadfast, compassionate, empathetic, and loving. She takes care of herself and her loved ones. She never gives up or relies on anyone to solve a problem instead of her. When Stefan is captured by the tomb vampires (1x17), she insists she go with Alaric and Damon to save him. Again, when Stefan is missing in season four, she keeps searching for him, never giving up or losing hope. She saves Jeremy’s ass a gazillion times and even saves Damon when Lexi’s boyfriend tries to turn him into a living torch (1x11, this even before they became all cuddly and friendly). But all the pain that her burdens bring, the grief, the strain and stress, leave a mark on her. She is torn, she is broken in ways even she doesn’t know. There’s just as much drama going on in her soul as there is in her life. She is constantly on the edge, waiting for the next calamity to hit and cause more pain, more irreversible damage. She is not only a teenager, she is a bereaved, hurting teenager prone to attracting monsters of every sort imaginable. Her life sucks.
As if that is not enough, “the female Gothic involves the haunting of a woman by another woman (usually a rival, a Doppelganger, or a mother).” (Kavka 219) Elena has to put up with all of the above as she is simultaneously haunted by Katherine, her scheming Doppelganger and rival, and Elena’s even more scheming biological mother, Isobel, who was turned into a vampire by Damon. The latter one shows up when Elena discovers that she was adopted and “the recovery of a lost or hidden maternal origin” (Hogle 10) ensues. But Isobel is no mummy dearest, she was a vampire groupie who left her husband Alaric in order to become a vampire. Now she comes back to haunt Elena. Get in line, mommy!
Life as such can be challenging, but when we lose a loved one it is even more difficult to find ourselves. Our families shape a part of our identity and with someone’s death, we lose that little part of ourselves. “Through the Gothic, we remind ourselves, albeit in disguise, that something like a return to the confusion and loss of identity in being half-inside and half-outside the mother, and thus not entirely dead nor clearly alive, may await us behind any old foundation, paternal or otherwise, on which we try, by breaking it up, to build a brave new world.” (Hogle 5) What are vampires if not “not entirely dead nor clearly alive”? And what is more confusing and causes a more important search for identity than being on the cusps of becoming an adult? Building a brave new world is something we all aspire to when growing up, but no one more so than Elena who’s lost too many family members and friends due to the evil walking the streets of Mystic Falls. She’s struggling to push the past (symbolized by the undead vamps, ghosts etc.) back where it belongs and to look forward into a brighter future (starting college this season, y’all!). But the stakes are raised when she falls in love with the past (first Stefan, then Damon), and then becomes part of it by being turned into a vampire herself.
The game is being played on a whole new level now that she’s fighting something that is part of her; the battlefield has been internalized. She despairs in season four, telling Damon that, “Jeremy can’t live with me, Stefan wants to fix me, and Caroline flat out admitted that she doesn’t like me this way.” (4x07) She’s not welcome anywhere, she can’t find her place. She’s voicing the trauma not only of being a new vampire, but also, metaphorically, of being a new adult. She is neither here, nor there. Her identity is slipping – can she be humane if she’s a vampire? Can she be a true vampire if she’s too caring? Who is she? Are her friends afraid of her? Is she a failure? Is she still Elena? Why does she feel so dead? Why does it all have to be so complicated? Why don’t all the feelings just STOP?!?
In contrast, Damon, being his usual selfish (but also not so selfish) self, tells her he’s never seen her more alive. He loves her and he gives in to his desire (as vampires are wont to do), and Elena more than welcomes his advances. She begins to see herself in him, she finds it easier to accept herself by accepting him, her “monstrous (counterpart) that (seems) “uncanny” in their unfamiliar familiarity while also conveying overtones of the archaic and the alien in their grotesque mixture of elements viewed as incompatible by established standards of normality.” (Hogle 7) Damon was the ultimate evil when she first met him. It was unthinkable that she could ever begin to care for him. But now, for Elena, loving him is the metaphorical acceptance of herself. She’s come to terms with who she is. Damon was (is?) a throat-ripping, mindlessly violent beast. And yet, there is something in him that Elena can love. He is sick, perverted and broken, but redeemable. This makes her believe that she is too, despite becoming a monster.
This is where we get back to the importance of Elena’s role with the Salvatore brothers and the viewers. Because becoming a vampire is not all bunnies and sunshine (especially not the latter, and the former is only good for Stefan anyhow). The transformation at first doesn’t help Elena re-focus her identity. She doesn’t become fully monstrous because she doesn’t discard her humanity (apart from the short period when she turns off her emotions). But she’s also not human. Becoming a vampire adds another item to her ‘failure’ list. Her sense of self is being shattered further, into even smaller pieces. “(The) loss of wholeness, that destruction of the thing in favour of many things, so obsesses Gothic fiction in the later twentieth century that many such narratives are about the impossibility of narrative.” (Bruhm 269) At the beginning of the series, this “impossibility of narrative” is shown through the consequences of compulsion. Elena can’t remember meeting Damon on the night her parents die because he compels her. Similarly, she has no recollection of him telling her that he loves her. The narrative of her life is interrupted; there are parts of her, in her, that she has no access to. This ties in with the idea of one’s identity being the “lost object” of the Gothic tale. It is only when she becomes a vampire that she regains access to these hidden corners of her soul, and then slowly, when she accepts her new fate, she starts joining all the pieces into one whole personality again. As a vampire, she is powerful and this gives her the strength to be afraid, to be frail, to recognize her weak points.
But before this happens, a change is needed in her life. Stefan is no longer the right person for her. He is too much like her. Elena needs someone to pull her out of her miserable corner where she’s hiding her shame and insecurities. Damon is the ideal candidate for this because he’s accepted his monstrous side. With his help, Elena can retain her humanity and accept with her vampire cravings, finding her place in the middle. In doing this, she could also help both brothers by pulling them towards the middle and away from the extremes that they’ve been occupying for over a century. Additionally, as the most grounded character, Elena is the one that viewers can identify with most easily. She’s the character that – despite not having all the answers, or any at all – shows us that that is okay, that it is acceptable to be confused and lost because that is most often the natural state of humans. “No other form of writing or theatre is as insistent as Gothic on juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction (...) and leaving both extremes sharply before us and far less resolved than conventional endings in most of these works claim them to be.” Such Gothic narratives “enact and reflect the most intense and important ambivalences in modern western culture.” (Hogel 11-12)
With Elena’s help “monstrous figures (are no longer) terrifying objects of animosity expelled in the return of social and symbolic equilibrium. Instead, they retain a fascinating, attractive appeal: no longer object of hate or fear, monstrous others become sites of identification, sympathy, desire, and self-recognition. Excluded figures once represented as malevolent, disturbed, or deviant monsters are rendered more humane (...) Transgression becomes just another permitted social activity.” (Botting 286) This all starts when Elena accepts Stefan despite his vampirism. Then, she convinces her friends that he is one of the good guys. This in turn fuels what at the beginning seems impossible – the acceptance of Damon, a veritable monster. Caroline turning is just another stepping stone towards making Elena’s transformation possible so that when she, as the heroine of the show, becomes a vampire, the act of transgression is already accepted and acceptable. We are slowly being convinced that being a vampire is not in itself an evil thing. “In Gothic times margins may become the norm and occupy a more central cultural place.” (Botting 286)
So, why is The Vampire Diaries so popular with viewers? There are some obvious reasons, such as Damon, good cast, excellent writing, the older Salvatore brother, intriguing plot lines, the kickass action ... did I mention Damon? I did? Hm. Anyhow, there’s also the Gothic aspect of things. Modern life has become so messy that we need to channel our fears and insecurities through on-screen monsters. “We need (Gothic) because the twentieth century has so forcefully taken away from us that which we once thought constituted us – a coherent psyche, a social order to which we can pledge allegiance in good faith, a sense of justice in the universe – and that wrenching withdrawal, that traumatic experience, is vividly dramatized in the Gothic.” (Bruhm 273) And the key word here is ‘dramatized’ because, as Walter Benjamin says, “such horror narratives confirm for us that we are spectators, safely distanced onlookers whose integrity is guaranteed by the dissolution of another.” (quoted in Bruhm 272) We are neither the haunted protagonists, nor the despicable monsters doing the haunting. We are safely removed, on the other side of the screen.
This process of ‘venting through Gothic’ is particularly welcome in the vulnerable teenage period because it mirrors the search for identity, the lostness and all that godawful hurting. Teens can identify with the on-screen protagonists because they seem to be going through similar horrors (albeit supernatural) as themselves. Elena’s perfect life was shattered and we follow her struggle to reclaim a sense of normalcy and peace again. She’s just like us (except for, you know ... the looks, the line of boys vying for her heart, the perfect hair ...). Gothic offers us relief because “it allows us in ghostly disguises of blatantly counterfeit fictionality to confront the roots of our beings in sliding multiplicities (from life becoming death to genders mixing to fear becoming pleasure and more) and to define ourselves against these uncanny abjections, while also feeling attracted to them.” (Hogle 17)
Botting, F. 2002. “Aftergothic: consumption, machines, and black holes.” Hogle, J. E. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 277-300.
Bruhm, S. 2002. “Contemporary Gothic: why we need it.” Hogle, J. E. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 259-76.
Hogle, J.E. 2002. “Introduction: the Gothic in western culture.” Hogle, J. E. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1-20.
Kavka, M. 2002. “Gothic on screen.” Hogle, J. E. (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 209-28.
The Vampire Diaries. CW. 2009-2013. Television.
 As an aside, this Gothic characteristic of a “recovery of a lost or hidden maternal origin” offers a nice opportunity to TPTB to explore the origins of the Salvatore brothers. We know nothing about their mother, and perhaps there’s a whole new storyline in there. It could add another dimension to the brothers and their upbringing.