The vampire tradition in fiction and film has served as a vehicle to explore various anxieties of western culture during the last century. Few texts, however, have explored the possibilities of representing a child as the night-dwelling and blood-sucking terror that so effectively haunts audiences. Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008) fills that gap, portraying the villainous vampire not as a charismatic adult male with colonizing intentions, but instead as a quiet, twelve-year-old girl whose protection of a bullied young boy leads to their friendship. While the children in the film may appear weak and insecure, their horrific brutality towards adults proves that the young vampire is anything but innocent. Let the Right One In contributes to the vampire cultural mythology, specifically, by showing childhood monstrosity to be a result of a failed family structure.
While Let the Right One In borrows from the vampire tradition, it contributes to vampire culture by using the child vampire to suggest adult anxieties about the violent potential of children. The young vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) serves as a “repository of adult fears about children, who are like us yet in crucial ways so different, who are both vulnerable and demanding, and in touch with the id in ways that that can elicit great anxiety…”[i] As seen in Let the Right One In, the neglect of children demonstrates the failed family structure that allows the violent impulses of Eli and Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) to surface.[ii] The adults in Eli and Oskar’s life fail to serve as a moral and ideological force capable of suppressing the violent tendencies that adults fear. Let the Right One In shows that, without these governing forces, “the power of children to inspire…terror…because of their vulnerability and uncontrollability has moved to the cultural front.”[iii] Eli’s relationship with Håkan (Per Ragnar), as well as Oskar’s distance from his parents, demonstrate how the absence of adults allows the child monster to surface.
Eli’s survival depends on the assistance of an adult male, Håkan. While Håkan is not Eli’s father, he does exhibit parent-like qualities. Given Eli’s inability to travel during the day, Håkan is responsible for providing for her by protecting her from strangers and obtaining the blood of victims for her to consume. Håkan is thus able to keep in check the violence of which Eli is capable. But when Håkan begins to fail in his attempts to collect blood and then loses his life in one of his attempts, Eli is without a parental figure. Once Håkan is gone, the “other” that Eli embodies is released, and her violent attacks become more frequent. Though she began murdering adults solely for nourishment, Eli soon starts to use her ferocity to protect Oskar from bullies at school. Without Håkan, Eli’s violent actions become more horrific, serving not only to help her survive but also to protect Oskar.
As a way of coping with the relentless bullying at school, Oskar seeks refuge from his peers in the bedroom of his lower-class apartment. Within his bedroom, Oskar finds solace in his collection of books on serial killers and newspaper clippings that document his country’s most brutal crimes. His absorption in death and murder shows the angst and hatred that Oskar represses. Despite his visions of retaliation, and despite his continually being bullied, Oskar never follows through with his planned revenge. His emotional struggles and interest in violence remain unnoticed by his aloof and distant single mother, who, when facing the reality of her son’s torment at school, sends him to his equally distant alcoholic father. For Oskar, the absence of his parents forces him to dwell on his rage and endure the emotional effects of the failed family structure. While he lacks the courage to act on his rage by himself, his encounters with Eli allow the monster within to surface.
The relationship between Eli and Oskar suggests a potential romance, but it is Eli’s ability to inspire Oskar to act on his violent urges that has the greatest effect on him. Given Eli’s thirst for blood, she can be read as an embodiment of the anger and violence that Oskar keeps inside. Oskar is finally able to release this anger against the school bullies only because of Eli’s encouragement, showing that she serves as a catalyst for the release of the violent “other” within Oskar. Eli does not only take the role of Oskar’s love interest; she also acts as his guardian or parental figure. Within their relationship, the traditional family structure has truly failed; the ideology imposed by the adult figure does not exist, and Eli, a symbol of the monstrous “other,” inspires the threatening “other” to come out in Oskar too. Through the child vampire, the “other” that lurks in children—the source of adult anxiety—has surfaced, removing any remnant of childhood innocence.
Vampire mythology has continued to evolve since its inception in the nineteenth century. Let the Right One In contributes to this mythology through its portrayal of the anxiety that adults have about children within a failed family structure. As the vampire tradition continues to change, it will be interesting to see if the child vampire is ultimately pushed aside, or invited in.
[i] John Calhoun, “Childhood’s End: Let the Right One In and Other Deaths of Innocence,” Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema 35.1 (2009): 27.
[ii] Teresa A. Goddu, “Vampire Gothic,” American Literary History 11.1 (1999): 125.
[iii] Calhoun, “Childhood’s End,” 29.
K. Zollo has an M.A. in English Literature and teaches English. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife, dog, and horror movie collection. He can be found on Twitter @kellenkz.