By Mary DeTurris Poust
Vampires have long held a fascination for human beings. From the vampires of Eastern European folklore returning undead to their family homes to wreak havoc, to the popularized vampires of more recent history sleeping in coffins in distant castles, to the modern-day vampires of "Twilight" or "True Blood" speeding around town in their Volvos or stopping in local bars for a pint, we see in them something both appealing and appalling, something of ourselves, perhaps.
Today, it seems, the vampire has taken up permanent residence in American culture. Everywhere you look -- bookshelves, movie listings, TV schedules, fashion magazines -- there's an element of the undead to be found. But the truth is that vampires have always been a part of contemporary culture, found in some of the most unlikely places. Remember The Count from "Sesame Street" or Count Chocula cereal? Harmless, cute variations on a monstrous theme.
Talk to any vampire expert, be it the author Anne Rice, who penned 11 vampire novels for "The Vampire Chronicles," or Matthew Bunson, an author and editor who wrote "The Vampire Encyclopedia," and you will hear the same general assessment: We are drawn to the vampire because we identify with the vampire, because in the isolated and alienated world of the vampire we find the things we fear or desire most.
"Vampires represent the embodiment of the more basic primordial fears that human beings have -- death, the ending of life, questions of immortality, fears of the night, fears of the grave, the contamination of the body, fears of evil nestled within society," said Bunson, adding that "iconic sexual imagery" as well as the ideas of exile, sin and punishment are also part of the vampire package.
On the flip side, however, there are the things the vampire possesses that human beings often long to possess, as evidenced by the obsession with creams and treatments and gadgets that promise to extend our lives and our looks. "The vampire also represents the quest for immortality, the quest for perpetual youth, the idea of being able to cheat death. You have a lot of different cultural things at work here," Bunson told OSV.
The precursor to the modern-day vampire can actually be traced back to ancient cultures -- Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, Babylonia -- where demon creatures with vampirelike features were common characters of legend. Then we fast-forward to Eastern Europe, where folklore gave rise to an undead creature that was not just the stuff of stories, but something that people -- both peasants and intellectuals alike -- feared as real. Finally, we arrive at the creation of what most people think of when they hear the word "vampire."
In 1816, on the shores of Switzer-land's Lake Geneva, some literary greats, while waiting out a storm, decided to engage in a competition to see who could come up with the most horrifying story. From that little competition, two great monsters were born: the creature in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and John William Polidori's vampyre. "The Vampyre: a Tale" gave us the literary version of vampire, an undead creature who combines terrifying details of death and misery with romantic notions and sexual overtones. Polidori's vampyre is said to be based on Lord Byron, whom Polidori both revered and resented -- a very unscary beginning to a horror genre that continues to fascinate and frighten everyone from small children to adults.
Of course, Polidori is not the name most commonly connected to older vampire fiction. That place in history is reserved for Bram Stoker, whose "Dracula" of 1897 gave us the vampire we recognize as the direct forebear of all those who followed. Here we found the undead creature who must move about at night and sleep in a coffin, who feeds off human blood, who casts no shadow and can be held at bay by garlic, a cross or holy water.
Evolution, however, has wormed its way into the vampire world even further. Today's popular vampires, while still holding the heart of the vampire story at its core, are very different from the originals. In the vampire of modern fiction and screen, we find physical perfection paired with a sensitive side, an undead creature who lives alongside human beings and lives not off human blood but alternatives, like animal blood or synthetic blood. The vampire has, in many respects, gone from bloodsucking fiend to misunderstood friend.
"The vampire is no longer a symbol of pure evil. It's more complicated. For better or for worse, the vampire represents the loss of the sense of sin in a lot of modern society, and the fact that you are permitted today to explore evil and also the forbidden with its own ramifications," said Bunson. "I think a lot of the social boundaries have been lost, a lot of the clear identification of what is wrong and what is right. So the vampire once again is a kind of reflection on modern society and always has been. It's one of the reasons the vampire is so durable."
One of the most striking aspects of the current vampire craze is the fact that it is targeted at a young audience. The "Twilight" series, with the brooding but beautiful Edward Cullen and his vampire clan, is a hit with middle school and high school girls. But even younger children are getting a dose of vampire legend mixed in with shows on mainstream television.
"For young people, the vampire allows a transference of their own sense of isolation, the lack of belonging, their inability to socialize in much the same way that the vampire is by its very nature cut off from society. It doesn't belong. It feels oppressed," said Bunson.
The vampire story is flexible, moldable, allowing classic motifs to be used again and again in everything from comedy -- think George Hamilton in "Love at First Bite" -- to very dark and monstrous books -- think "Dracula." It doesn't matter how the vampire appears, whether he or she is fiendish or friendly, Americans, like their counterparts around the world, can't seem to get enough of the undead creatures.
"I always perceived [vampires] to be powerful metaphors for the lonely one in each of us or the alienated one or the one who feels like a monster. I think that's how vampire literature functions. It's really about us, about our consciousness, our ability to contemplate our own death," said Rice, who gave up writing vampire fiction after returning to the Catholic Church. (See full interview at right).
Rice told OSV that in her life vampires were a metaphor for her own isolation and search for meaning despite her commitment to atheism. She may have left God behind, but God found his way into even her darkest works. Each book in "The Vampire Chronicles" became increasingly preoccupied with the misery that a separation from God brings, she told OSV.
"The later Chronicles go very deep into the despair of the vampire, the alienation of the vampire and how we seek redemption in art and music and painting, in the beauty of the world, the beautiful architecture of Italian cities, the beauty of creation itself and how none of this really works if we're cut off from God," she said.
A quick search of the term "vampire movies" turns up millions of hits. To be sure, bloodsuckers have appeared in hundreds of movies over the past century and in virtually every genre, not only horror but comedy, action, romance and even "blaxploitation." And that's not even counting the multitudes of vampire television series and films. Here is a list of some influential celluloid vampires throughout the decades.
A silent horror masterpiece based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula," with German actor Max Schreck's chilling portrayal of the vampire Graf Orlok, whose pale skin, large eyes and pointed ears have been seared into the minds of moviegoers for nearly nine decades.
THE vampire movie for many movie lovers. When people think of vampires, they often envision Bela Lugosi (who was Catholic, by the way) and his slicked-back hair, fangs and long, flowing cape.
Salem's Lot (1979)
A writer and various cohorts, including a Catholic priest, try to stop vampires from invading a small town in Maine in this television miniseries based on a 1975 Stephen King novel.
Near Dark (1987)
A young rural man becomes entangled in with a family of vampires in this cult classic that's not for the faint of heart.
Interview with The Vampire (1994)
Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise star in this adaptation of the Anne Rice classic. Plantation owner Louis is made a vampire by the hedonistic Lestat.
Forget about creepy, nefarious blood suckers. This adaptation of the Stephenie Meyer publishing sensation features the dreamy, sensitive vampire Edward and his mortal love, Bella. Edward and his vampire "family" have learned to feast on animal blood, so they can mix and mingle safely with humans in Washington state.
Even someone with minimal knowledge of vampire legends could probably rattle off a list of things that will make the undead recoil: a cross, holy water, a consecrated host, the Mass, a priest. In the earliest days of vampire folklore, it was the Church that served as the main enemy of the vampire and protector of the people. That was due in part to the fact that Church writings about vampires -- including the idea that the devil could use corpses to harm living humans -- led to what Matthew Bunson labels "widespread hysteria" that could be quelled only by clerics-turned-vampire-hunters.
In "The Vampire Encyclopedia," Bunson explains that 15th-century teaching on vampires led the faithful to believe that they could be destined to an eternity as a vampire, trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead, if they failed to follow Church teaching. And so religion was significant, not just symbolic, in early vampire lore.
"The 18th century, however, witnessed a gradual secularization of the war against the undead as local townspeople and villagers, familiar with the stories of the vampire, took matters into their own hands," Bunson writes. "While Christianity declined as the exclusive combatant of vampires, its weapons nevertheless remained intact, becoming essential elements of the symbolism of the entire field."
Today's vampire literature has pushed the power of sacramentals and religious images to repel evil even further to the fringes of the story. In "Twilight," for example, members of the vampire family living on the outskirts of a small town in Washington state are not only impervious to the cross, they keep a large one hanging in the hallway, a vestige of a past life when the patriarch's father was not a vampire but an Anglican pastor.
Bunson says the decline of Christianity's power in vampire fiction over the centuries reflects shifting cultural attitudes away from faith and toward science. "The bulwark, the defense against vampires and against evil, has always been the Christian church, and the loss of that, I think, is testament to where we are culturally. The vampire again remains a really interesting mirror for the rest of modern society."
The portrayal of vampires in books, movies and television often reflects the culture of the times. For example, these days, vampires have a decidedly different outlook than their predecessors. Let's compare Count Dracula from Bram Stoker's Gothic novel with Stephenie Meyer's Edward in her "Twilight" series, which is a fan favorite of millions of teenage girls and older women alike.
Lives in remote, drab castle in Transylvania
Stalks and feasts on to protagonist Jonathan Harker's fiancée Mina Murray and her friend, Lucy.
Drinks human blood
Goes outside during day (theme of sunlight destroying vampires was introduced later)
Lives with his "family" in Washington state
Initially avoids love interest Bella because he's so attracted to her he's worried he'd harm her
Has trained himself to be a "vegetarian," meaning he drinks animal blood
Avoids going out on sunny days because he sparkles in the sun
Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York.
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