Please be advised: this post contains mature content.
Grab a snack and a bevvy, children. I’ve got a story to tell; two stories, in fact. One is about the evil that comes from within, and one is the evil that comes from without. Today, I want to talk about the latter: The Vampire.
Ever wonder why there are some monster tales with more staying power than others? How and Why do books on Vampires enter the general mainstream, coming so far as to make an exasanguinating creature of evil the romantic aspirations of millions of girls and women? I’ve been asking that question since the rise of Stephanie Meyer’s books. I have an answer; one answer, though not necessarily the only one.
Abraham Stoker published Dracula in 1897. He wrote several other horror novels, including Lair Of The White Worm and Jewel of The Seven Stars. Why and how did this novel, Dracula, come to be acknowledged as one of the most famous horror novels of all time? Two words: sex and responsibility.
Read it. The book is a lurid bit of epistolary-style fiction, written during the Victorian era. I know you’re with me so far. But there’s one more primal note in this song of dread: none of the victims has control over their fates: poor Lucy Westerna didn’t ask to be drained of all her blood. She was overwhelmed. Johnathan Harker didn’t seek out the evil Count and his brides, he was sent by his boss. The hapless and helpless are not responsible for their experiences of deadly dangerous sexuality. Moreover, the Count isn’t even present in most of the book. His existence lingers like a shadow on the bedroom wall. The heart of the story is, pure and simple, the ability to experience unrestrained sexual behavior without assigning responsibility.We can go so far as to say it outlines the experience of sex without the sex. The repressed Victorians, of course,went wild.
In 1922, German filmaker F.W. Murnau recreated the nightmare of the predator in his classic film of German Expressionism, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens. Stoker’s widow sued Murnau for copyright infringement and won. The courts ordered all copies of the movie to be destroyed. It was a stroke of fortune that bootleg copies survived: Murnau’s movie is a thing of artistry and fevered skill. Furthermore,there is a key difference between Stoker and Murnau. In the movie, Ellen ( the German Mina Harker) reads the journal her husband has forbidden her to read; a journal that says the only way to defeat the monster is for a sinless maiden to offer herself willingly to the Noseferatu. The monster will lose himself in the innocence of his victim, forget about the coming dawn, and be destroyed in the first rays of the sun. She offers herself up, and sure enough, the monster is destroyed: a happy ending created through loving self sacrifice and self-determination. A mixture of Stoker and Murnau will be created by Coppola many decades later, and will reflect the horrors of more than a decade of the HIV pandemic. As a side note, I think the movie fails because of it’s timing rather than it’s skill. We had read Anne Rice. Many of us had lost someone to the horror of AIDs. We got it,already. The movie works best as an homage to the history of the vampire. But it shows Murnau’s influence.For good or ill, the German film maker helped the powerful genie of sexual repression escape it’s bottle and the indelible image of the vampire was called up from the depths of our psyches for once and for all. It’s legacy will transform as our fears and understandings of our natures change throughout the 20th century. F.W. Murnau, Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Frank Langella,John Lindqvist, Francis Ford Coppella: all of these authors and movie personalities will bring something new to the genre. In spite of these differences,all vampire stories fall roughly into three basic categories:
1: The Sexual- This category starts with Stoker and leads a straight path though Lugosi to the sixties and the films of Hammer studios, where Chris Lee will give rise to a legion of bloodlusting wantons whose thirsts are commesurate with the fears of burgeoning sexual freedom. Then, the vampire will make a small but significant change in course during the early 70s, with Louis Jourdan playing the count as an existentially evil(but most attractive) creature of the night. Jack Palance gave an under-appreciated and beautifully primal performance as the bloody count in 1973. Frank Langella was the first truly romantic vampire, and there’s a direct line from Langella’s Dracula to Edward, but Langella’s sparkle lies in the execution of his craft. True Blood fits comfortably into this category, and I know more than a few vampire fans who thrill to the phrase,”Sookie is mine!”
2: The Non-Sexual- Stephen King does this one quite well, as does Richard Matheson in I Am Legend and Guillermo del Toro with Chuck Hogan in The Strain Trilogy. The vampire isn’t the slightest bit interested in your intimate participation, it ain’t pretty, and it’s success depends a great deal on human weaknesses outside of our sexuality. It’s an evil from without, but tips it’s scales with the help of the evil from within us.
3: The Mixed-The third category exploits many combinations of human emotions, including – but not restricted to -sexuality. As in the previous category, the success of the predator lies in it’s ability to pry at the cracks in our lives. John Avjide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In is a top example of vampire-story-as-cautionary tale: evil always breaks through the cracks in human experience created by alienation and dysfunction. Merhige’s Shadow Of The Vampire (another fine tribute to Murnau’s creation) exploits hubris and riffs upon the relative anonymity of Murnau’s star actor in Noseferatu.
All vampire stories fit to varying degrees in these categories. There’s only one book I know of since Stoker which makes the vampire wholly a force from outside of our control, and that’s the brilliant stand-alone, Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. Some have argued that it is not a vampire story at all, but a story about mind control practiced by a small group of people who keep themselves alive by feeding on the violence they create in others. Hmmm…I rest my case.
So. You may still ask: what does all this have to do with the vampire as a wildly popular romantic figure? It’s this: it’s been more than 100 years since a crazy Irish actor immortalized himself with a tale of darkest Dionysian sexuality. During this time, repetition has made us comfortable with idea of the dangerous other in the darkened room, while holding the fact of a true other at a comfortable, supernaturally-based arm’s length. For some of us, it is enough that the other sparkles. For some of us, the other is a fire storm. For others still, it is a reptilian luminescense. But we’ve had a century to become comfortable with the notion that a dark light attracts us. Who knows more about the glow of fear and desire than the inheritors of this new century?
Next time,kids the terror from within: The Rise of The Zombie.