Vampirism, Sexuality, and Adolescence in Let the Right One In
Vampire. What comes to mind when the vampire is mentioned? Surely, the blood sucking via fangs is one of the first things. Perhaps a man dressed in a crisp suit with a bow tie and slicked back hair. Hopefully not an angsty teenage boy. Lesser known is the image of the vampire as a very cleverly veiled creature of sex; and nearly every aspect of the vampire somehow involves sex. The vampire can be a very sexual creature, as many vampire films attempt to emulate, although Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In alters and utilizes this trope while it gives a very uncompromising view of the adolescent and its stunning monstrosity.
It helps to have a bit of background on vampires. It actually extends way back to pre-Christ Asian and European lore, assimilating itself into the culture of the Chinese, Assyrians, Hindus, Burmese, and Greeks, each of whom had different depictions of the vampire of all of whom featured the vampire as a bloodsucking creature. As these stories were passed down and modified, as lore does, the sexuality of the vampire came into light, starting with the Greek version depicting the vampire, “Lamia”, as bisexual and the Solominic legend depicting their vampire Ornias as remarkably handsome. These stories formed a sort of past-time for traders, no doubt fueled by superstition and sexual repression. Bram Stoker wrote arguably the most famous depiction of the vampire, and really opened the floodgates for the more sexual depiction of the vampire–one that undergoes a significant reworking in Let the Right One In.
In Let the Right One In, a young man named Oskar falls in love with Eli, a vampire in the body of an adolescent girl. While many films directly address the vampire’s sexuality, this film tackles it from a very different perspective. Nearly every aspect of their relationship, save for the outright sexual one, is shown in the relationship between the children, and there is even some physicality there. There is a scene in which Eli has returned from her evening hunts, and climbs into bed with Oskar. One can infer that they are likely naked, and their “lovestruck schoolchildren” interaction, while not sexually charged in any way, still seems taboo given that they are both in their very early teens. It’s also established in this scene and in later scenes that Eli is not, as she initially appears, female. When they are in bed, Oskar asks to enter into a relationship with her, and she asks if he would still want that if she were not female. Later on, Oskar catches a glimpse of Eli’s naked form and sees that she does not possess any genitalia. In the novel on which the film is based, and in an early draft of the film, Eli was intended to be a male named Elias who got castrated before he was turned. This “deformity” that leaves Eli mutilated and genderless lends a subversive and somewhat monstrous element to the romance.
That’s not to downplay the sweetness of the relationship between Eli and Oskar, because that element is certainly there. It’s difficult, after seeing what Eli is capable of, to picture her as an innocent little girl, but their romance still seems like that at time. They stay in contact through Morse code, share and give away possessions, and truly seem to care for each other. The film’s title derives from the concept that a vampire cannot enter a home without the permission of the resident. Oskar eventually does this, which, to Eli, is a significant act of trust. Eli even eats a candy bar that Oskar buys for her, and though she knows that it will make her ill she also wants for him to feel happy. The film ends with Eli and Oskar heading away on a train. Eli is inside a large wooden crate at Oskar’s feet. Oskar reaches forward and taps out in Morse the word “P-U-S-S”, which is Swedish for “love” or “small kiss”. It’s a very sweet and touching end to the film.
However, the scene does carry a hint of darkness, because one must consider the origins of Hakan, Eli’s middle-aged human companion, initially appearing to be a father figure but later shown to be more like her servant. Given the interactions between Eli and Hakan, it’s not a stretch to imagine that Hakan and Eli used to be in a relationship when Hakan was Oskar’s age, and Hakan simply continued to live his life in servitude to Eli up until his sacrificial death. The implication of romance comes from Hakan’s jealous and antagonistic attitude toward Oskar, and his resistance to Eli’s leaving the apartment to see Oskar. There is even a slight element of sadomasochism to the relationship, evidenced by Hakan’s near-groveling before Eli, his timidness toward a poodle that startles him during a murder, his readiness to horribly mutilate his own face when he fails again, and his eventual offering of his own blood to Eli, ending in his death. Eli has seen that Oskar is capable of murder, having watched him act out his violent fantasies with his knife outside the apartment building. When Eli coaxes Oskar into taking violent action against his bullies, it is likely a test to see if Oskar can actually do it. She’s training him to be an aggressor, and one of the bullies loses an ear at Oskar’s hands as a result. Again, these scenes further emphasize how violent and “monstrous” these adolescents are. That’s not to mention the bullies, who themselves are alarmingly menacing and violent, and even come close to murdering Oskar before getting viciously slaughtered by Eli.
Over time, the vampiric practice of neck-biting has been reinterpreted as a sexual act. The fact that Let the Right One In’s vampire is physically a twelve-year-old girl, makes that act a rather chilling (and highly exaggerated) portrait of adolescent monstrosity. When her middle-aged servant Hakan fails to bring Eli her sustenance, she is forced to hunt for herself, and, in a rather startling scene, hunts down and kills a jogger with snarling ferocity. While it’s rather ridiculous to think of an actual child doing these things, placing a vampire into the body of a young girl is an excellent subversion of both childhood and vampirism.
Most modern depictions of vampirism depict the “disease” as attractive, sexy, and cool. Let the Right One In turns this completely on its head, making vampirism a stigma akin to AIDS (interestingly, they both are contracted through blood transfusion). Late into the film, Eli bites and infects a woman, Virginia, with vampirism, and she shame leads to her to request an assisted suicide: having her drapes opened so sunlight can destroy her. The film almost intentionally avoids showing too much mourning by her lover, who briefly attempts to make amends with her for an earlier argument, but does not spend too much time in anguish over Virginia’s death. He even seems somewhat disgusted by what she had become. The way the scene is handled suggests a fairly rigid conservatism in the town, and when juxtaposed with the romance between Eli and Oskar and Eli’s vampirism, creates a more defiant antagonistic attitude toward them, and their “monstrosities”, in the world the film inhabits.
Let the Right One In follows the vampire narrative’s tropes and adheres to the framework of the narrative fairly well in terms of themes and ideas, but completely rips out the meat of those and refits them to work with adolescents. Eli has that controlling sexuality and the sexual act of biting, but also falls into childhood-esque affection for Oskar. The combination of the adolescent form, the vampiric sexuality, and monstrous, violent acts that are shared by other children in the film make for a disturbing and unique vision of the vampire.