Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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769 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Vampires everywhere, oh my! What does it mean?

Chauncey Mabe

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, 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 (a 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 that 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.

—From Open Page (19 February 2010)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury