From Jeff Wagg:

At the JREF, one of our roles is to examine cultural phenomena from a critical thinking standpoint. In this vein, we present a series of reviews by our research assistant Alison Smith. Each week, she'll pick a different book, movie, or TV show and give it a skeptical once over. We hope these reviews will encourage discussion about what it means to be a skeptic in a world where fiction and fact often blur.




Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball has teamed up with HBO once again for the new television series True Blood, which is set in a reality much like our own with one major difference – Japanese scientists have perfected synthetic blood, and vampires no longer live in secret.

The plot of the series is loosely based on the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris , and takes place in a small Louisiana town where vampires have not yet taken up residence – until Bill Compton, a former Confederate soldier and current vampire, returns to his family home to stay.
When I watched the first episode of this series, I was pretty excited. Nearly everyone loves a good vampire story (if I can judge by the number of goth clubs that pepper the nation like that Duchess from Alice in Wonderland has gotten ahold of the shaker). And the beginning of the first episode was a little misleading, as were the promotional videos .

At first, the show seemed like a clever commentary on racism, with news debates about whether or not vampires should have civil rights consistently shown in the background of the characters' lives. In the same way that the 1998 film Pleasantville used the concept of people existing in greyscale to discuss racial issues, True Blood began by creating a caricature of the vampire myth in order to point out our flaws in prejudice and social interaction. The best parts were the parts where we truly had to question how society would integrate a new race, and True Blood's characters each took up a side of the debate to make it interesting.

However, by episode three, the political side of vampire integration was mostly abandoned in favor of following the romantic encounters of the main character, Sookie Stackhouse, as she falls in love with the vampire, Bill Compton. The viewpoints of the secondary characters, which made for lively debate at first, become stagnant. They never change. No amount of graciousness on the part of Bill Compton moves them to alter their political views, and the script becomes predictable, with Sookie's brother Jason always taking up the KKK-reminiscent "I Hate Vampires" stance and Sookie's boss, Sam Merlotte, going the route of accepting-so-long-as-it-doesn't-touch-me.

The show descended into personal drama plays and, since it is on HBO, lots and lots of sex. Instead of wondering about the ramifications of having a vampire in office, I was wondering about the mechanics of vampire sex. Instead of considering the impact this would have on life insurance policies, I was wondering why the sclera of the vampire's eye was white since supposedly the only bodily fluid inside them is blood. And though in a way those would be good questions since I am a skeptic and feel that if you're going to dive straight into a mythological world it should have rules, they were answered in full by vampire Bill Compton within the first few episodes.

He calls it "magic." And then points out that Sookie's physiology is also run by "magic."

Way to swiftly answer every question, Bill.

I can see why the writers of the show were forced to do this. When you really stop to think about vampires, they don't make any sense, and I guess the best way to distract viewers from that fact is to wave a string in front of them. A Magic string.

But doing this ignores the larger picture, and I don't mean that paranormal shows are stupid or pointless or that they don't fulfill a need. They raise interesting moral questions (if done properly), and create worlds where we must all abide by a different set of rules than normal – where situations that test our ethics are constantly raised. But you might lose sight of that in this series, which prefers to focus instead on the fact that human beings who drink vampire blood will have the same results as if they took a combination of Viagra and Ecstasy.

So, yes, if the point of the show is to delve straight into tropes about vampires and the standard questions that come with them (Does Sookie have to become a vampire too? What happens if she cuts her finger by accident?) then well done. If the point was commentary on racism, well, massive fail.

And now that we're on the subject of vampires, we can talk facts as well.

According to a poll by Fox News , 4% of the population believes in vampires. That may pale (ha-ha) in comparison to a belief in, say, astrology, which ranks in with 37% belief, and yet part of me believes the vampire percentage should be the most disturbing of all.

According to Wikipedia, the process of exhuming bodies to "kill vampires" was first noted by Austrian officials in 1725 . When a grave was opened, a vampire could be recognized by its purple, bloated appearance as well as longer hair, teeth, nails, open eyes, and the fact that blood was coming out of its mouth. Keep in mind that this is a corpse.

Amy Corwin, a mystery writer who collected information on the decay of the human body for story research, cites a few case studies on her site that break down the appearance of a human body into a timeline. Bloating, according to the site, begins on day two. But, depending upon the conditions of burial, can last much longer. During this period, the eyes can bulge out. As the skin decays, it recedes and the hair, teeth, and nails become more prominent, with the appearance of being longer. And, before embalming, it surely isn't impossible to think of a corpse's blood running from every orifice available. Corpses can also moan, grumble, and shift.

This sounds totally revolting, but it's factual – not only that, but well-understood facts. Where is that 4% of the population coming from?

There are explanations for the "classic" Bram Stoker style vampire as well. Porphyria, solar uticaria, xeroderma pigmentosum, hyperosmia, and on and on and on... And let's face it, stake anyone in the heart and they're going to die.

TRUE BLOOD: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

SKEPTICAL FURTHER READING: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach