It’s official: there are now enough vampires flying around the pop culture landscape to fill Transylvania Stadium during homecoming.
In the past week alone, a new novel co-written by a descendant of Dracula author Bram Stoker has been released, a comic book company has announced that Stephen King is helping write a vampire comic book, and a movie called “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant” premiered.
Meanwhile “True Blood” is a hit on HBO. Vampire jewelry, vampire fashion, and vampire make-up are outfitting bloody stylistas. Club kids can now mix their designer vodkas with a blood-like energy drink that comes in hospital blood bags, and recently a New Jersey newspaper ran a long feature about real-life vampire wannabes in suburban Montclair organizing themselves into the “Court of Lazarus.” Next month the “Twilight” movie sequel will hit theaters.
So with Halloween upon us it seems like a bloody good time (sorry) to ask a question:
After all, vampires have been around awhile. So why this new burst of enthusiasm for the undead?
For starters, they're a sinister catch-all who can symbolize everything from sex fantasies to escapism from swine flu worries to darker social issues, experts say.
“Vampires are convenient vessels, convenient metaphors, to play out all kinds of things,” explained Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University and an expert on Bram Stoker and Victorian-era fiction. For example, some have viewed F.W. Murnau’s great 1922 silent movie “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror” as anti-immigrant or anti-Jewish propaganda.
And, among other things, vampires are usually inherently hot — at least since the modern vampire era began 200 years ago.
In 1816, an associate of Lord Byron named John Polidori wrote “The Vampyre” (published in 1819), possibly inspired by Byron himself. Byron, for those of you who chose an economically viable major in college, was a dark, brooding romantic bad boy who appealed to women in the same way that Edward does, the male lead in “Twilight,” played by Robert Pattinson.
“Edward is a very romantic, smoldering figure,” explained Carrol Fry, professor emeritus at Northwest Missouri State University and author of “Cinema of the Occult: New Age Satanism, Wicca and Spiritualism in Film.” “He’s like Byron, or, say, James Dean.”
Young women and tween girls, Fry argued, love the image of a damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him. What better way to invest a character with such qualities than to make him a protective vampire, bad by nature, but good by inclination?
Ravaged by a vampire
Some vampires are even more overtly sexual. In 1872 Irish writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who was acquainted with Stoker, wrote a vampire novel called “Carmilla.” In it, Carmilla, the vampire, tries to initiate a lesbian affair with the narrator, but the sex was couched in metaphor because it was 1872.
“Sometimes,” the narrator tells us of her dreams, “there came a sensation as if a hand was drawn softly along my cheek and neck. Sometimes it was as if warm lips kissed me, and longer and longer and more lovingly as they reached my throat, but there the caress fixed itself. My heart beat faster, my breathing rose and fell rapidly and full drawn; a sobbing, that rose into a sense of strangulation, supervened, and turned into a dreadful convulsion, in which my senses left me and I became unconscious.”
That’s a pretty good description of an orgasm. Yet we hold the narrator blameless for what was then considered deviant sex because she was unwillingly mesmerized.
“It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,” Stiles suggested about “Carmilla” and Stoker’s “Dracula,” published in 1897.
Fetishism, deviance, perversion all play out in vampire literature, Stiles said. “The sexual undercurrents are not hard to see. You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.”
Starting about the late 1950s through the Anne Rice novels of the 1970s and 1980s, Fry said, vampires in pop culture became something of authority-defying heroes and the sex became much more explicit. In vampire-themed B-movies “the girl always had to get her shirt ripped off,” Fry said, and as time went on vampires began showing up in porn, culminating in 1990’s immortal “Wanda Does Transylvania.”
A return to mystery
But in this day and age, with a preponderance of easily-accessible online porn, if we want to see sex, we don’t need to do it through a screen of vampire metaphor.
That sheer pervasiveness of sex, and of science, may be exactly what’s motivating us to rediscover the mystery inherent in vampires.
Fry believes that in a rational world with science triumphant we like to scare ourselves with the spooky. Vampires appeal to our primitive fears, not only of death, but our mutating human natures. Vampires are not fully human, nor fully animal, neither fully alive nor fully dead. In some ways they are superior beings.
Stiles, who has become an expert in the melding of 19th century scientific discoveries about the brain and literature, suggested that Dracula was Stoker’s rebellion against “bio-determinism when you had scientists telling us this is the way the world works, the way things are. Vampires resist that. They are spiritual beings and do not conform to the laws of science.”
We have stopped regarding mental and emotional problems as spiritual or even Freudian personality traits honed by our histories, she said. Instead we have reduced them to imbalances of chemicals like serotonin and we medicate them. Even attraction, lust, love have become scientific subjects. Vampires are a way to pretend we don’t know what we know and to luxuriate in mystery.
Stoker himself studied science, but the opening page of Dracula says outright that the book is “a history almost at variance with the possibilities of later-day belief.”
Exactly. So this weekend forget about the recession and war and H1N1. Get out there and mesmerize your lovers with your undead stare.
Brian Alexander is the author of the book now in paperback.