In 1983, the Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature was already noting Gothic’s altered eroticism from Byronic villainous figures in the works of Anne Rice; albeit still evil and dangerous and consumed by tormented doubt. Since then, the indefiniteness of the Gothic genre in its latest iteration, AMC’s Interview with the Vampire, (2022) provides pictorial scope for the bold attractions of the male body. In the show, corporeal strength which is gendered and, to a degree, race-based, after the erosion of agency leads to the showcasing of personal trauma. Lestat de Lioncourt (Sam Reid) and Louis de Pointe du Lac (Jacob Anderson) revisit the Gothic domain of tormented heroism: a powerful male body which is threatened by psychological insecurity, vulnerability and damage. Masculine trauma within the spectacle of Interview records vampiric lifestyle transformations as a discourse of sexual exhibition. The transformations in Interview’s visual configuration and the meaning of quality as a criterion of cultural value is the understanding of style and performance in this example of high-end TV drama.
Familiar tropes of vampirism and sexual perversity are intermingled with a renewed interest in the social construction of identity to create the televisual performances of Lestat and Louis’s extravagant excess. Lestat’s assertion of a masculine self becomes almost ceremonial in its decorative attractions but is situated in his growing anxiety before seeking redemption through violence. His personality magnifies his performance or, perhaps, the other way round, but the show’s star performance certainly has fangs. The importance of performance draws attention to itself to showcase the vampiric lifestyle with its vivid eroticising. In this way, acting techniques are made to reinforce a spectacle/performance paradigm. For example, glorious colour appears most during vampire/victim encounters, as well as in the spectacle of fanciful dress codes, to align acting techniques with a range of emotions such as hot anger, horror, great joy and incredible pain. The rapport of the viewer with Interview is to behold a performance relying on Lestat’s narcissism to work through the psychological processes of identity on display within the show’s spectacle. It is this cultivation of extravagant style to extend notions of identity in a lifestyle fantasy that further implies Interview’s consumerism within an example of high-end drama.
The violent horrors inflicted on the men of faith in the show, for example, the decapitation of a Catholic priest by Lestat who finds Louis at confessional, prefigures the theme that if Lestat is exotic and immoral, he is consumed by monstrous anxiety. His doubts throughout the series, expressed as various forms of psychological loss, culminate in the final episode of Interview and the spectacle of the destruction of Lestat’s (white) male body. First, he is drugged by Louis and rendered passive, followed by grievous forms of bodily damage, including mutilation ending in immolation. Lestat’s ability to survive attests to physical indestructability. However, the need to reassert the (male) body is at a high price within a circuit of performance and spectacle, additionally, betraying Interview’s fascination with wound culture and its fetishisation.
Louis’s story is about the individual experience of becoming a vampire but also his experience of being a black Creole man. For Interview, the privatised nature of Louis’s experience of race and sexuality in New Orleans becomes the public presentation of lived history. This is history which emerges from underneath the ‘official’ past and instead consists of fictions focussing on characters within what has been a marginalised social milieu. Louis displays a social self to the world which becomes the central process in Interview of representing the overt/covert. Interview signifies the inner self by its use of Storyville, one of the famous red-light districts in New Orleans, and linking it to Louis’s frank expression of identity in terms of how he feels rather than what he does as owner of a brothel. By connecting the theme to a televisual mode of performing the ‘real’, the show as it moves from turn of the century to the 1940s becomes a compelling form of ‘lived history’ in the form of a fantastic (vampiric) narrative. Equally, the richer use of images and sounds (including jazz music) recreates a version of the once notorious Storyville district of New Orleans. But, as with Lestat’s performance, the staging of events by Louis is to create viewer consumption of a ‘quality’ televisual production. Nevertheless, there remains an unresolved tension in Interview: how to precisely chronicle the socio-historical by conflating the public with the private.
To answer this, there is the sense of a sustained performance from Lestat and Louis and their felt experience of physical pain, as well as psychological self-exposure. As mentioned earlier, in Interview, the ‘true self’ of Lestat and Louis is seen to emerge from their ‘performed self.’ Interview is built on opening up space for debate about the display of the identities of Lestat and Louis. The emphasis in the show on a type of self-reflexive performance encourages the TV audience to have their attention drawn to the showcasing of a gendered and race-based trauma. By becoming a vampire, bodily and psychological insecurity in the show becomes a discourse on the exhibitionism of male physical strength and masochism: the show goes from the imperviousness of the masculine vampire body to its decline. The performance shifts the spectator from interest of what happens next to spectatorial registers of feats of endurance by Lestat or Louis and their near destruction to the former’s survival from his deadly incarceration in the final episode.
Within this brief look at style in Interview, performance finds inspiration in Gothic spectacle. This includes the detailed flamboyant outfits such as wigs, gloves, clothes and jewellery to form a discourse about the performative self and exhibitionism, while the show’s aesthetics incorporate the spectacle/performance paradigm. The kiss in the final episode between Lestat and Louis signals liminal borders beyond socially established binaries and the loosening of boundaries of masculinity. The textual world of Interview and the scope of possible meanings, suggest further complex aesthetic development in high-end TV drama, which I have described at greater length in my earlier book (2021). Interview with the Vampire offers its fans avenues to engage with its core issue of overt/covert sexuality and identity, allied to current social attitudes and their historic origins.
Max Sexton leads a degree in film and television practice. He is interested in aesthetics, particularly in how they can be used to disrupt production practices in high-end TV drama before forming new paradigms. His latest book due in 2024, Uncovering the Gothic: Six Feet Under and Beyond, includes arguments about how aesthetics complicates our understanding of how cultural value is assigned to a production. His Academia.edu profile: https://birkbeck.academia.edu/maxsexton