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Vampires everywhere, oh my! What does it mean?

February 19, 2010

My idea of a vampire --Count Orlock, from the 1922 film, Nosferatu.

Like a lot of us, Margot Adler over at NPR has been pondering the question: Why are so many vampires popping up in books, movies and on TV these days? And why are they morally conflicted, sometimes even do-gooders? To find out, she read 75 vampire novels, classic and contemporary, and came up with some interesting insights.

The principle observation of Adler’s entertaining essay is that interest in vampire stories surges in times of uncertainty, “used again and again to speak to our fears and concerns.”

The vampire or something like it can be found in most cultures and folklore going back to the beginning of time, but it’s a mistake to think they have all the familiar attributes of Count Dracula. The idea –and the term “vampire” — began to appear in literature in the 18th century. Heinrich August Ossenfelder’s 1748 poem  “Der Vampir” may be the first. (You can read it here–and trust me, it’s worth a look).

Our modern fascination with vampires can be dated to a cold and stormy night in a Swiss chalet in 1816, where four friends–Lord Byron and his personal physician, John Polidori; Percy Shelley and his young wife Mary — decided to entertain themselves by writing ghost stories. Two masterpieces emerged, Mary’s novel Frankenstein, and Polidori’s short story “The Vampyre.”

“It was a shocking time,” horror novelist Whitley Streiber tells Adler. Europe had just emerged from the Napoleonic wars, industrialization was picking up steam, and science seemed “to be able to challenge the very nature of life itself.”

While a few notable vampire novels appeared in the 19th century — the gothic “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire (1847) and Sheridan Le Fanu’s influential Carmilla (1872 — a lesbian vampire!), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) codified the myth into the form all subsequent writers and filmmakers followed or reacted against.

Historian Benita Blessing tells Adler, “The concerns at that time were foreign illnesses, unwanted immigrants. What Dracula is about is the fear of what we might today call globalization.”

That’s a fascinating premise, though not the whole story. Dracula is clearly about fear of female sexuality –the vampire kiss awakens forbidden desire!–and the keen Victorian patriarchal impulse to stifle it. The book also expresses the tension between technology and older, pre-scientific traditions.

But Adler’s point is well taken. Bela Lugosi’s film Dracula — a towering cultural figure — came during the social and economic turmoil of the 1930s. The next great vampire era arrived, she says, in the 1980s, with Streiber’s Hunger and Anne Rice’s Lestat novels, among others. Why the ’80s?

Streiber suggests the era’s uncertainty, “when people were waiting for something to go wrong as the Soviet empire was collapsing. People wondered: Would they push the button in a desperate attempt to survive? And those feelings entered the unconscious.”

Adler’s thesis doesn’t entirely hold up. Where was the great outpouring of vampire stories in the 1950s, when people chafed under social conformity? (One notable exception: Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend.) Or the 1960s, with its revolutionary social unrest?

And what anxiety exactly was Joss Whedon dramatizing in the fat and happy 1990s, when he created one of the greatest and most inventive takes on blood-sucker mythology in the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

Still, Adler’s argument is persuasive, which leads to the question: What are we afraid of now? (A better question might be what are we not afraid of, but that’s another discussion).

What spurs the current plague of nearly human vampires, many of whom (Bill Compton, of Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series, for example) are trying to be good?

Adler has some intriguing thoughts, and her recap of the 75 vamp novels she’s read recently is entertaining and useful.

My guess? The uncertainty of our time — war, recession, climate change — makes people generally uneasy, while the light-speed advance of digital technology inspires a deep psychological fear we might be on the verge of trading our very humanity for the promise of digital enhancement.

Vampires, in reaction,  become less  demonic and more human.

Actually, I’m more than a little sick of these petty human-like vampires, with their sexual romances and moral quandaries. Aren’t we ready for a return to the vampire as primal fiend, a supernatural creature that’s interested in eating you, not sleeping with you, and can’t be beaten down with kung-fu?

Tell me what you think — and don’t try to hide behind an outstretched crucifix or a wreath of garlic. I know there are some vampire lovers out there.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    February 19, 2010 1:48 pm

    I think that the Buffy thing doesn’t really discount her theory. For one thing, Buffy is a fun, happy go lucky version of fighting vampires, but there is real darkness in there. And I think that during the “fat and happy 1990s” people had the fear of it ending, out of experience we know that those kinds of good times cannot last, so even at the time when everything seemed to be going along with the most ease, didn’t most people have lurking somewhere in the back of their mind the end? And fear of it? The death of the fat and happy 1990s? (A financial Apocolypse if you will).

    (I mean don’t most people have such fears in their daily lives, they are fairly secure at work, or madly in love and they are going along all happy but sometimes, sometimes the thought surfaces…when will this end and my whole world come crashing down around me? Because it’s somehow inevitable that things change and so even when things are best we have the fear of the worst).

    I have no interest in vampires who are all good and bad and morally conflicted. What was so smart about Buffy is that the one good vampire was a vampire with a soul, and now that, in my not so humble opinion, is interesting.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 19, 2010 2:01 pm

      You make an excellent argument for the relevance of the vampire myth to the 1990s. And of course, while we knew things were going pretty well, it did not become apparent how fat and happy the decade was until 9-11 threw us all into a state of fear, a state exacerbated by the mortgage crisis and economic downturn.

      I think maybe vampire stories are like fairy tales for adults. I believe fairy tales allow children to externalize some of their most basic fears — especially fear of being eaten and fear of being abandoned by their parents. The figure of the vampire, as Adler notes, is so metaphorically flexible, it can represent anything we want it to. It allows us to externalize the anxieties of the age, and, paradoxically, sleep better at night.

    • Candice permalink
      February 22, 2010 9:45 am

      Rachel–Even “easier” decades have their fears. Remember Y2K?

  2. Tommy permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:01 pm

    I partially agree with all of the reasonings given. I would have to add that the ability to live forever given to most vampires by authors taps into most humans fear of death. This power over death and the power to deal out death also comforts those who wish to have greater control over their life. So the theory that more vamps rise up in lit during times of perceived havoc has some weight, yet when hasn’t the world been spiraling down into the depths.

    Whedon’s film which predates the television program is one of my faves. Here Whedon had vampires who were anti-vampires in that they were not very crafty. Whedon loves the anti-hero or in this case the anti-heroine. Buffy, didn’t want to be a slayer she just wanted to be a normal somewhat bubble-headed cheerleader. Maybe he was trying to say something about growing up and how adults don’t always get to choose their paths or roles. Paul Reubens death scene in “Buffy” is still the greatest death scene ever captured on film.

    I love how an unusually cold winter gave the world two monsters.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 19, 2010 2:06 pm

      Adler discusses the importance of immortality to the appeal of vampires. I didn’t include because I wrote too long to begin with, but also because the immortality thing offends my own sense of vampire legend. This is one reason I despise, generally at least, the current raft of almost-human vampires. It seems to me that when a person comes back from the dead as a vampire, it is not actually the human who died, but a demonic simulacrum. So vampirism doesn’t actually convey immortality. It’s not you, it’s just your (un)dead body, possessed by a demon. But that’s just me, and I can already envision the objections to my thesis.

  3. Tommy permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:23 pm

    This brings up the question of what happens to the soul when the body dies. If it is just the body that dies the soul may be trapped.

    The vampire mythology has evolved and in my opinion has become even more frightening. Vampires (in the modern sense) are not these two dimensional spooks who are apart from us, they are us. The speak to the evil that resides deep within that given a chance would unleash itself. Which is more frightening to you Chauncey, that which lurks in the closets and dimly light streets of the world or that which lurks within the heart of you and all of humankind?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 19, 2010 3:07 pm

      Call me old-fashioned, but I’m more afraid of the primal and exotic than the familiar and domesticated. With something human, there’s always the chance you can reason with it, or that it might have a glimmer of conscience. But a demon (or a hungry bear, shark or lion), it’s only interest is to devour you. So Nosferatu scares me way more than Lestat.

      • Tommy permalink
        February 19, 2010 3:40 pm

        I still hold with the “Truth is always stranger than fiction.” camp. So I have always believed what is real is much more frightening than what is imagined.

        I might change my mind if I ever ran into a vampire or demon intent on having me for lunch.

  4. Connie permalink
    February 19, 2010 2:26 pm

    Actually I think Joss Whedon WAS dramatizing anxiety in Buffy: The anxiety of adolescence. Do I fit in? What’s my purpose? How come that hot guy slept with me and then turned into a real bastard? Being a teenage girl (or boy, I assume) is all ABOUT anxiety, whether it’s getting a date to prom, having your classmates accept you or having to blow up the entire school to kill a demon snake that’s trying to devour your graduating class. High school is hell – literally.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 19, 2010 3:09 pm

      Well, sure, that’s obvious (though you explain it well, as always), but adolescent anxiety, kind of like the vampire, is immortal. Like the poor, it will always be with us. What I don’t see (though Rachel has provided some insight), is what temporal anxiety does Buffy tap into? What anxiety specific to the time in which the show was conceived and created does it give voice to.

      • Tommy permalink
        February 19, 2010 3:28 pm

        “For me [Buffy] was about your teenage years but it was again the whole experience, the same situations you get into as an adult. Especially for the geeks of the world. It was about being separate but being triumphant in your separateness.”
        Joss Whedon

        “For me [Buffy] was about Sarah Michelle Gellar in tight sweaters and short skirts”

        “Always be yourself… unless you suck.”
        Joss Whedon

  5. February 19, 2010 2:36 pm

    Never, never, ever admit you are a Vampire. People take it personally.

    It may be the fear of death at the hands of another. Sucking the life out of some one or having some one suck the life out of you. It is an internal grown up fear because of the way it is done.

    Why always the neck? Especially with woman.

    Tommy, you ok out there?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 19, 2010 3:11 pm

      “Sucking the life out of some one or having some one suck the life out of you.” Mike, you just described my romantic history.

  6. John Karwacki permalink
    February 19, 2010 11:37 pm

    I saw “Nosferatu” in 10th grade and the sight of that freak’s shadow moving independently of his body still haunts my nightmares. Bela Lugosi never scared me, though Barnabus Collins on the soap “Dark Shadows creeped me out – of course I was six or seven years old at the time. I loved “Interview…” but the rest of Rice’s stuff never struck the same chord as deeply. I lived in New Orleans when Sting first sang -“I have stood many times outside her window at night, to struggle with my instinct in the pale moonlight, how can I be this way when I pray to God above, I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love…” Oh yeah, Chauncey, it’s all stealing the girl! Now I have to go look up “demonic simulacrum”.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 20, 2010 2:05 am

      Thanks for those obersvations, John. And kudos — not many people have seen the original Nosferatu, and I confess I’m not among their lucky number. A few more have seen the 1979 Werner Herzog remake with Klaus Kinski as the Count (here called Dracula, not Orlock) and the immortal (and sitll young) Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker. The most unsetling thing I remember from that version is the plague that strikes the city upon Dracula’s arrival, with the streets slowly emptying of people, filling with coffins. I loved that version of the vampire myth precisely because this Dracula is so alien, so un-human.

      Sorry for throwing the fancy terms about. I try to avoid that, but loose my head sometimes. “Simulacrum” means a “likeness,” or “copy,” or “effigy.” In this case I meant that vampires are demonic imitations of the humans whose bodies they occupy.

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 20, 2010 2:11 am

    Also, I urge everyone to watch this brief, brilliant Buffy/Twilight mash-up. It’s priceless:

  8. Connie permalink
    February 21, 2010 2:49 pm

    Oh, this is great! If Twilight had actually ended this way I might’ve watched it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 22, 2010 1:16 am

      Isn’t it brilliant and hilarious? It’s almost (but not quite) enough to make me doubt my rock-solid commitment to strict copyright enforcement…

      And it’s a reminder of the brilliance that is the writing on Buffy:

      What are you, twelve?

      You want to know what I feel right now? I feel….bored.

      And also, of course, Sarah Michelle Geller’s immaculate and precise line readings.

      Makes me miss the fat and happy ’90s all over again. Deju vu is what it used to be…

  9. Candice permalink
    February 22, 2010 9:51 am

    I love vampires because of their eternal youth. In this respect, I agree with Tommy. Imagine The Power??!! Vampires do not represent my fears, but my desires.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 22, 2010 11:28 am

      I think you have scads of company in that, Candice. Does it not bother you that such power comes at the cost of murdering other people? Or do you not take your wish fulfillment quite so seriously?

      • Tommy permalink
        February 22, 2010 11:57 am

        The other problem with vampiric immortality is (besides having to feast on the mortals) is watching every person you know and love die. Then finding new people to know and love and having to watch them die. It ends up looking like a trap to me. Just one more time where greed is punished. So don’t take that vampire up on his offer, Candice.

        Chauncey, I really must applaud you for resisting making the title to the blog “Vampires every vere, oh my! Vhat does it mean?”

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    February 22, 2010 12:04 pm

    See, in my world view, vampires, being utterly evil, wouldn’t give a whit about any of the things you describe, all of which are functions of human attachment. For a prime example, watch the “Evil Angel” story arc in (I think) the second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    • Tommy permalink
      February 22, 2010 12:32 pm

      I’m guessing your world view, as it pertains to vampires developed from stories like The Vampyre and Buffy where the main character is human. In a story like this ( a tale about humans being hunted by vampires and their struggle to defeat said vampires) it’s quite alright for the vampire to be an unthinking remorseless juggernaut demon solely bent on blood. The Rice books, True Blood and Angel have vampires as the main characters ( a vampire story). I believe these vampires must have qualms about their nightly activities or else their is no conflict. I am not sure which type of tale I like better or which is a better kind of story.

  11. Candice permalink
    February 22, 2010 12:29 pm

    I do not take my wish fullfillment seriously. Vampires are beautiful, sexy creatures of the night. They rule! But, alas, they are not real….

    Tommy–love is as painful as it is beautiful….

  12. August 15, 2011 11:35 pm

    There’s no disputing the gifts of Tottenham-born Adele Adkins, the latest BRIT graduate to stroll into the charts. As we know from her single Chasing Pavements, she has a sensational voice: rich, robust, voluptuously bluesy.
    Is she the new Amy Winehouse?
    It is not quite right.
    True, both are white girls who owe a debt to black soul, both sing with a London twang (“I don’t get nuffin’ back,” rasps Adele on the punchy “Tired”), and both are in pieces because their man done them wrong.
    Eleven of the 12 songs on Adele’s debut are about heartbreak (the other, “Hometown Glory”, is about how cool London is).
    Adele, though, is easier to listen to than Winehouse. Her music is cleaner, less menacing: there’s the bright acoustic-guitar chime of “Daydreamer”, the lullaby twinkle of “First Love”, the plush strings of “Melt My Heart to Stone”.
    Her mesmerising singing tone, honest lyrics, jazz and soul influences, and brash Cockney speaking accent, echo Amy. But Adele’s delivery is far more delicate.
    Lyrically she’s simpler, too, occasionally even soppy: “When there’s no one there to dry your tears, I could hold you for a million years,” she gushes on “Make You Feel My Love”.
    Where Back to Black sounded emotionally and musically true, almost everything on the covers-all-bases “19” sounds like it was absorbed by osmosis at the London’s BRIT School for Performing Arts (where she, Katie Melua, Leona Lewis, Kate Nash and Winehouse are alumni).
    Some will find Adele rigidly old-fashioned. Her influences (Etta James, Dusty Springfield, Billie Holiday) are from another age.
    A cursory listen may lead you to conclude that Adele has a voice way in excess of her years. In terms of technical ability, that’s true.
    The instrumentation seems designed to usher you to that conclusion: a dash of jazz bass, the odd string arrangement that seems to take its cue from Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy”.
    “Sumptuous one moment then fragile the next, this is an album dripping with beauty and class.
    Adele’s voice caresses and inspires, and is superbly supplemented by piano, guitar and glorious orchestration”.(Lee Davis)
    All that we can say is that she sings with unabashed passion about a kind of pain we can all recognise, and that sort of thing doesn’t date.

    Made of Bricks
    Piece by Piece

  13. November 23, 2011 6:41 pm

    I’m extremely impressed along with your writing talents and also with the structure to your blog. Is that this a paid subject matter or did you customize it your self? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to look a great blog like this one today..

  14. December 22, 2011 12:40 pm


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