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Interview With the Electorate: a Chronicle : Vampire politics: In their swing to the right in recent years, are U.S. voters embracing the cruelties of Lestat?

<i> Paul Lewis is a professor of English at Boston College. </i>

Perhaps not coincidentally, three days after the national election that turned Congress over to the Republican Party, Anne Rice’s 1976 novel, “Interview With the Vampire,” finally made it to the big screen. Starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as monsters differentiated by their ability to identify with suffering human beings, the film, which has been both long desired and feared by Rice’s fans, holds a mirror up to the current moment in American political consciousness.

Just as every science-fiction film located on a distant planet (“Star Trek: Generations” is a current example) is necessarily about life on Earth--so every monster film is a meditation on our feelings about humanity as a species. Because the monster is inhuman--an alien, mutant, cyborg, zombie or bogyman--its tendency to attack people defines a focus of the genre: How should we feel about human misery?

The power of Rice’s vision, both in the novel and the film, derives from the way it broadens this standard horror-film theme by associating a range of attitudes with different vampires. Louis, the central figure in this first of Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles,” agonizes over the pain that he and the other creatures of the night inflict on a parade of victims drawn into their circle of death; Lestat, who in this work is more bitter and cruel than he is in the sequels, argues for detachment and encourages Louis to laugh at the death agonies caused by their homicidal thirst.

As the American electorate has swung right in recent years, it has, arguably, embraced Lestat’s position. The homeless appeared in force in American cities throughout the 1980s, but--led by a President who insisted that it was “morning in America"--it was easy for conservatives not to see them, not to feel their pain. Mocking Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential race, Reagan quipped, “You know, if I listened to him long enough, I would be convinced that people are homeless . . . going without food and medical attention, and that we’ve got to do something about the unemployed.” And Reagan may well have felt the same way about AIDS sufferers, since during the early years of the epidemic he told jokes about them and underfunded both research and preventive education.

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Throughout the ‘80s, the figure of the monster as an amused and amusing killer came to pervade popular culture--Freddy Krueger, Hannibal Lecter and a reinvented Joker. The laughter that accompanies violence in the comic books and movies in which these characters appear is an extreme example of French philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion that amusement requires a temporary anesthesia of the heart, a moment of detachment from the pain inflicted on the butts of cruel joking. The hostility that passes for wit on increasingly popular conservative radio talk shows suggests that more and more Americans are eager to fall under the numbing influence of this comic anesthesia.

If Lestat is a Republican, then Louis may be the last of the liberals, righteously holding onto a sentimental affiliation with the species he is leaving behind. Like Bill Clinton or Tom Foley or George Mitchell, he shares our pain. Of course, mere empathy, however noble, cannot solve problems. This is the weakness that was exposed and exploited in the last election: Do the social programs designed by Democrats and now bending beneath the Republican guillotine--the welfare system, Medicaid, the Job Corps--hurt or help the people they serve?

For years after he is turned into a vampire by Lestat, Louis--in what can be seen as symbolizing the forgotten potential of liberal policies--decides to make the vampire’s ultimate sacrifice by surviving on the blood of animals to avoid taking human life. Perhaps Louis realizes that empathy can be efficacious only when it leads to action. Similarly, only an electorate willing to pay more to create a less divided society is going to move us toward social justice.

Just after the election, the audience I saw Rice’s film with was clearly more drawn to Lestat than to Louis. The philosophic, moralistic doubt and anguish of the new vampire elicited bemusement and the odd groan. Each of Lestat’s jokes--teasing the girl he has just turned into a monster, dancing with the corpse of her mother, jumping on top of a coffin into which he has thrust a screaming, half-dead prostitute--drew belly laughs. Like the reporter interviewing him, the audience seemed to miss the point of Louis’s narrative, which is simply this: Once we stop caring about human pain, we are already dead.

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