[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]
For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.
Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.
The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The Vampyre – The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.
Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.
The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!
Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.
This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.
Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.
Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).
The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.
A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.
In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.
There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.
Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.
In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.
So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.
Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.
But they still don’t bloody sparkle.