Vampires have been a staple of modern mythology for the last two centuries or so, from Bram Stoker’s aristocratic and sinister Count Dracula, to the sparkling Edward Cullen of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. The last twenty years or so has seen an uptick in vampire interest; indeed, it is nearly a frenzy. But what is it that makes vampires so intriguing, so alluring?
In the beginning, vampires were portrayed as sinister forces of darkness that seduced women and turned them into agents of the devil. Now, they are just semi-dangerous love interests. Throughout they have been associated with sexuality, at least to a certain degree. The drinking of blood summons images of bestial, carnal urges, while the penetration of human flesh by vampire teeth summons images of… well, you get the idea.
In Dracula’s time, sexuality was still viewed as a vice, something of the devil that should be avoided. So, making Dracula seductive and human-like in appearance, resonated well with his nature as the prince of darkness. He existed to tempt women, to draw them away from the path of virtue, and corrupt their very souls. His sexuality at that time was synonymous with his corruptive influence; it was his avenue to damnation. We’ve moved beyond that now. Courtesy of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, vampires have become perfectly respectable dance partners, dates, even husbands. I don’t know what that says about us… but it probably isn’t good.
There is a third aspect to the vampire that we also find alluring. That of the soul-searching creature of the night. We’ve turned from the vampire as tormentor, to the vampire as tormented. It began with Anne Rice (I think) and the vampire Louis from “Interview with a Vampire.” Now, the vampire broods and ruminates, suffering ungodly horror for his fate. He endures incomprehensible moral anguish for every human he kills. This window into a dark soul entices us, it hopes to offer a better understanding of our own human condition—we with all our faults and failures, and our own anguish for the things we’ve done that eat away at our soul. Perhaps we can find relief and meaning from the experiences of a creature condemned like Louis.
In the end, the vampire is a complicated amalgam of forces. It is seductive and intriguing in many ways; it is a monster with a human soul, a sexual lure into darkness, or perhaps… a potential boyfriend with a spotty past. Whatever the case may be, its pull on us mere humans is undeniable.
I have written previously of how the nature of the vampire has changed since the original writing of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”(the original blog entry is here). Where once they could move about during the day, they are now incinerated by sunlight. Where they could once turn into a bat, many modern varieties are limited to a human-like form. Etc… One thing I failed to touch on, however, was the manner by which the vampire transforms its unhappy victim into another vampire. By all accounts, it does so by biting his or her victim, and draining the blood to a certain critical point. Through the years, though, one’s understanding of the bite and how it ultimately works has changed.
At the time when “Dracula” was written, the bite was understood to be a curse. The vampire, as agent of the Christian Devil, bit the victim, and he or she was transformed into a creature of the night by the mysterious powers of darkness. The method of transformation was safely ensconced in the supernatural. It was beyond human understanding, and as such, offered no hope of redemption. Most modern people, as a result of the continuing advance of science, do not believe in curses. They require a more “scientific” explanation for the vampire. They want to see some mechanical explanation that is somewhat more plausible than some unfathomable “curse.” And so the vampire virus was born. I don’t know who first used the virus-explanation, but it seems quite prevalent nowadays. I remember seeing it once in a comic book years ago, and I thought it clever, then. They used it in the series of “Underworld” movies starring Kate Beckinsale, and earlier in the “Blade” movies starring Wesley Snipes. I’m sure I’ve seen it elsewhere, but precisely where, eludes me for the moment. Anyway, I’m starting to get annoyed with the vampire virus explanation. I mean, really, do we need a “quasi-scientific” explanation for a vampire?
Isn’t it more chilling and more sinister to have the method of transformation beyond mere mortal explanation? Although most of the tales agree that the virus is incurable, that aspect of the disease is a temporary state. There is no reason why a virus, in principle, could not be cured at some later point in time by scientific advance. Some movies have even incorporated a “cure” for vampirism in the plot line. And to me this just detracts from the supernatural horror. Give me the curse without a cure. The sentence of living damnation that cannot be suspended. I mean, we are dealing with supernatural folklore here. Why limit ourselves with “science.” The vampire virus was kind of cool and clever for a time, but nowadays, I’m starting to look at it as more of a cliché. I like the mysterious and the unfathomable; give me the curse with no cure. It makes for a much more chilling tale.
And, of course, I must shamelessly mention my fantasy vampire novel, Drasmyr—see the side bar under Publications if you are interested.
I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (again) a couple of nights ago. And keeping with my Thursday vampire theme, I decided to review it for my blog. I know it’s an older movie (1992), but I think it marks an important milestone in vampire cinema. The film had a formidable cast: Gary Oldman as Count Dracula, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, Wynona Ryder as Mina Harker, Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker, and a few other talented names or almost-names. It was an early movie for Keanu Reeves, so his acting skills were somewhat unpolished, yet his performance fit the role well. He comes across as naïve, in a stiff sort of way. And that, surprisingly, worked. The other actors did fine as well. The weakness of the film was not in the actors who worked in it, but in some of the liberties the makers took with it.
Of all the Dracula movies I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a number of them over the years—this one, I think, followed Bram Stoker’s original book the best, keeping true to much of the storyline. It begins with Jonathan Harker going to Count Dracula’s castle to help the count purchase various properties in the London area. The Count goes to London, kills a couple people, and is forced to flee back to his castle in Transylvania. A desperate chase ensues. Etc… All that being said, Francis Ford Coppola did take a number of creative liberties with the script. Some of them good, some not so good.
It’s been a while since I read the book, but I don’t think Mina had actual romantic feelings for the Count in the book. She was bitten, of course, and began to succumb to his powers, but the background romance wasn’t there. I like how she was introduced to the Count in the movie, but the whole reincarnation bit, and the amplification of Mina’s role in Dracula’s demise, I have mixed feelings about.
The next topic of concern is the sexuality of the movie. It far exceeds the level of sexuality found in the novel. That’s not really a big surprise considering when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. As vampires are supposed to be seductive forces of darkness, the sexuality portrayed by the vampires in the movie might have been a bit too brutally bestial at points, but I think it was acceptable. What I didn’t like, however, was the portrayal of the sexuality of the human characters, particularly Mina and Lucy. The whole bit with the pornographic Arabian Nights book and the two young women kissing in the rain was totally unnecessary. And, more importantly, it did not fit at all with the sexual mores of Victorian England which was when the book took place. I think it ruined a potentially very good movie.
Then there was an odd scene with blood flying everywhere (when Lucy was killed). That was just too random and should have been edited out.
Overall, I thought Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula had a lot of potential, but failed to realize much of it. It got distracted by its own efforts to sexualize the vampire to the nth degree. I’ll give it three out of five stars. It’s worth watching, but it could have been a much better movie than it was.
Ever since Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula” (although he did have predecessors) the vampire has been a potent force in Western myth. The novel, itself, has decidedly Christian overtones, as that was the dominant religion in Europe at the time of its writing. As such, the vampire inherited a number of demonic-type powers from the forces of darkness and was seen as an agent of the Christian devil. Although it has been romanticized in recent times, the original vampire was seen strictly as evil.
In the original myth, Dracula could walk around during the day, although his power was greatly reduced. Later vampire tales embellished and made the exposure of sunlight lethal to him. I have seen a number of movies in which, after many struggles and battles, Dracula is destroyed by being caught outside with the rising of the sun. Oh, if it were only so easy!
Typically, Dracula and other undead of his kind, are presented as exceptionally strong and cunning, with power over some of the meaner forces of nature. They can control rats, bats, wolves and even the weather. They can also assume the form of a wolf, or a large bat, or even a creeping mist. But this is changing, at least as far as bats are concerned. I rarely read a modern novel or see a modern movie in which the vampire assumes the form of a solitary bat. This may be the result of the difference of the approximate masses involved. We no longer seem willing to suspend disbelief to the point where we can accept that something roughly the same size as a man can be crammed into something as small as a bat. Of course, this may be a result of another change that has occurred in the vampire. When Bram Stoker wrote, Dracula was seen as a quasi-spiritual being, almost like a ghost. He could slip through cracks and walk through the edge of a closed door. Today, vampires tend to be regarded as solid physical beings. And, where it might make sense that a ghostly undead could assume a smaller form, it is a little harder to imagine a physical one doing so.
Vampires also had a number of odd attributes, a potpourri of strange powers and weaknesses. They were repelled by garlic and their own reflection in a mirror. A rose, if placed on the cover of its coffin, could restrain it within as long as the rose remained in place. Nowadays, although garlic and mirrors are still associated with the vampire, it is a rare thing to see the rose employed as it was originally intended.
Another weakness was running water; it was said to have the ability to destroy the vampire if he or she was immersed within its currents. Again, this is another power or weakness that seems to be fading away in the literature. I rarely see a movie where running water is used as a weapon against the undead.
Finally, there is the matter of religion. In the beginning, Dracula was repelled by holy objects: be it a cross, holy water, a eucharist, or what have you. As the cultural influence of Christianity wanes, this aspect of the vampire is losing its appeal. I believe it was Anne Rice in her Vampire Chronicles where the impotence of the sacred was first introduced. That may or may not be a sad commentary on our society, but it is certainly a very specific change in the power of the undead.
There were other powers in the original myth, as well, such as being able to cross running water with the moon, or the tides, but I will not delve into any more.
To sum up, the original vampire had a whole slew of special powers, both strengths and weaknesses, that made it a very unique creature that was seen as a quasi-demonic force of evil. Today, we seem to be in the process of humanizing them, stripping them of their supernatural power and transforming them into merely immortal humans whose only fault is that they drink blood to survive. Personally, I don’t really like that development. I recently wrote a fantasy novel involving a vampire called Drasmyr (see the side bar if you are interested–Publications). I did embellish on the powers of the vampire a little bit, but I tried to keep to the original spirit of Dracula and the original myth at least as far as the vampire was concerned.
Vampire stories abound, from the modern “Twilight” by Stephenie Meyer, to the classic “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. I’ve never read or watched any of the “Twilight” series. I am tempted to, if for no other reason than I’ve written a vampire book myself (entitled Drasmyr–see my about page for the link), and I want to check out the competition. But I just have too many misgivings about the fundamentals of the plot to even bother. In my view, “Romeo and Juliet” does not offer a reasonable archetype for a vampire novel. A fellow blogger (That Fantasy Blog) wrote this review, which gives an excellent thrashing to the notion of using a vampire as a romantic partner. But I have a few further points to tack on.
I get the vampire as seducer or seductress. That makes perfect sense. They have quasi-demonic origins. And, at least in Western traditions, demons and evil are supposed to have a quasi-erotic attraction for humans. It goes with the mystique and temptations that come with evil. Somewhere along the way, though–I think it may have started with Anne Rice’s “Interview with a Vampire” series–we stopped looking at the vampire as a creature of the night, and started to humanize him/her/it. Then came the romanticizing. They were the ultimate bad boys. The beasts that every teenage girl wanted to tame. Oh, please.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was not intended to be a teenage heartthrob. He was based on the draconian tyrant Vlad Tepes for God’s sake. Why, oh why, would you want to romanticize that? Also known as “Vlad the Impaler,” Vlad Tepes approached torture and killing with a near-religious fervor: he set enemy soldiers on giant wooden stakes, hanging them up to let gravity pull them slowly down the length of the stake so that each one would die an agonizing death, and not quickly, mind you.
Vlad Tepes was evil. The Dracula character was evil. Evil is fundamental to the nature of the vampire. Not romance. But dark and insidious evil.
Trying to morph it into something else, something actually desirable is, as “That Fantasy Blog” aptly puts it, creepy. A vampire is an animated corpse. And yet the modern teenager seems to want to have a baby with one? What does that say about us?