Vampires have had quite a few incarnations over the last one hundred years–at least in film and television. Popular culture has seen vampires portrayed as blood sucking, sinister, suave, sexy, and even silly (here’s looking at you, Cirque du Freak). With the soon-to-be released Dracula Untold in the media, I was hoping for something different. I found out about it by accident, during one of my trips down the rabbit hole that is IMDb.com (great resource for all things on film!) and was immediately intrigued. All I got from that first little blurb of information was that this would be a film about the historical Vlad Tepes, and maybe how the mythos of the vampire grew up out of his violent tendencies. Was I ever disappointed when I recently saw the first trailer. One review compared it to Underworld, basically equating it to a derivative of that franchise.
So here we are in 2014, eight years away from the 100th anniversary of the original German release of Nosferatu, awaiting the theatrical debut of an action-packed, pseudo-historical, vampire-filled (hyphen-laden) blockbuster. This film is sure to be exciting, but it is not what I was initially expecting. I guess it is my fault for hoping big Hollywood would put out a historical drama on a topic so ripe for artistic adaptation (read: exploitation). I mean, impalement and feudal land wars are so fifteenth century. We need more magic and bats! Great living spires of bats! That is original cinematography and screenwriting, right there. Who thought I would get more accurate historical information from Ghost Adventures? Maybe it is because I am interested in the original stories, or because I am not easily satisfied by an action movie for the sake of special effects, but this film is beginning to look very superficial to my eyes. I want more meat to my stories, and more subtlety.
In response to our cultural fascination–or obsession–with vampires, I would like to take a tour through history and popular culture to see how these weird creatures have staked their claim (pardon the pun) on our imaginations, particularly in the West. I am deeply curious mostly because the vampire is a myth older than Vlad II. After all, the vampire bat was named for the myth, and not the other way around. Where does this idea originate? How much has it really changed?
The Etymology of a Blood Sucker
The difficulty of tracking down the origin of the vampire mythos is its folkloric nature. It is much easier to say when the vampire image took on its modern proportions, through fictional works emerging to popularity in the 19th century. Still, I am interested in the folklore. It is often more intriguing than fiction. Ancient civilizations worldwide have “vampire” lore, but most of it amounts to a fear of the undead. These undead manifested as either the deceased coming back and causing the deaths of family and neighbors, or as a corpse possessed by a harmful spirit which feeds off of the living–killing them in the process–to survive. The former circumstance is generally accepted as a misinterpretation of the spread of contagious diseases, like the plague. The latter scenario smacks of superstition and is credited to a lack of knowledge about decomposition. It may likely be where the blood sucking attribute came from, as well. Blood was believed to hold a person’s life force. Some cultures even drank their enemies’ blood to gain their strength–but that is the living feeding off of the dead.
Eventually, cultures were incorporating anti-vampire customs into burial rituals. This occurred often in eastern European Slavic language groups, whose legends also inspired Bram Stoker’s fictional Dracula, who was loosely based on a Slavic prince. All this gave us what we in the West consider a true vampire. The thing is, Prince Vlad was thought of as a hero, not a horror, by his people.
So what qualified someone as at risk for becoming undead? The sources I read include the improperly buried, blasphemers and the excommunicated, witches, unbaptized children, basically anyone whose soul was not right with God (according to the Church), and any desecrated corpse. A respected prince and warrior of the Christian faith against the encroaching Turkish Empire would hardly be suspect. Anyways, his corpse was beheaded, taking care of the vampire issue neatly. The casting of Vlad II, prince of Wallachia, as a vampiric count is a strictly western European convention. It does not hold credence with even most modern Romanians, but it sure is good for tourism.
From Stoker to Twilight: The Pop Culture Evolution of the Undead
Before the vampire folklore escaped eastern Europe to gain legendary status, vampires were quite humble creatures. They were the dreaded undead, but mostly to be feared by their relatives and neighbors. There were burial practices in place to prevent vampires from rising. Vampires were considered a rural superstition. It was not until the “18th Century Vampire Controversy” that the modern legend was born. Germans first, and later, the rest of western Europe, caught wind of vampire folklore. Still, it was more a fascinating and probably misunderstood tradition than an actual threat. A few writers exploited the craze and panic, beginning the fictional vampire literary tradition in the late 1700s.
Although not the first vampire story, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the most famous and the most enduring. It is also the most influential in forming the modern idea of the vampire, as well as connecting 15th century Vlad II to the vampire legend. Some folklore traditions included blood drinking in a vampire’s set of habits, but it was not ubiquitous. The tales where it does occur usually have children as the victims and women as the vampires. Stoker eroticizes the phenomenon to have an ancient count sucking the blood of powerless young women. Giving Dracula the power to seduce or hypnotize his victims opened the door for all sorts of adaptations to the legend. Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer created alluring, sexy male vampires with softer sides. Film adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel see an escalation of this theme over time. Nosferatu portrays a hideous Count Orlock (darn copyright issues) preying on a virtuous young wife. Bela Lugosi gives the count charm and sophistication, as well as a better wardrobe, in the 1931 Dracula film. He is gentlemanly at first appearance, but domineering in the pursuit of victims, who are unmarried young ladies this time. Still, the sexual themes are more like undertones, implicit in the text, but buried; likewise, it is hidden in these first two movies. The erotic themes are made explicit in later texts and adaptations, with director Francis Ford Coppola’s stylized film being the most notable novel-based version.
Several other aspects of the modern vampire can be credited to Stoker’s novel. Shape-shifting–especially into a bat or wolf–is now a common trait of vampires which merely sprung from the imagination of the 19th century author. Likely he heard tales of the strange bat in South America that fed off of the blood of living prey. The hatred of mirrors and lack of reflection are also newer traits.
Stoker’s novel opened up a world of new vampire myths to explore, whether it be in literature, film (adaptation or otherwise), or television. It may seem like this has only spawned a series of pale, brooding, sparkly vampires, trying to pass as humans (as is the case in Twilight), or a set of pale, brooding, socially conscious vampires, existing on the edges of communities, acknowledged as real but deeply suspect (such as in TrueBlood). Each new type seems to be a reiteration of the last, until they become parodies (seriously, Cirque du Freak, how do you even exist?) of the archetype laid out in the 1892 novel.
Yet if we look closely, there is a certain layer of humanity that has crept back into vampires of the last several decades–and definitely the most recent one–that has created creatures with feelings and dreams not unlike our own. They can be good or bad, and it is easier to empathize with them. Vampires are becoming rounded individuals with more than a thirst for blood and destruction. They are no longer evil creatures of the night to be hunted and destroyed, but they are still enigmatic. Maybe that is why they are so fascinating. They hold the imagination in thrall with questions of the eternal. The legend leaves us wondering what it would be like to be forever trapped on this earthly plane, in an earthly body. The body would be changed, yes, but it would still require sustenance. How would we cope with such a maddening need for blood? How much would our memories of human relationships allow us to maintain human empathy? Would we be able to resist turning into monsters? The idea of the undead surely springs from the human fear of death. It is a strange way of processing the mystery. We can gain much knowledge of life from those who have gone before. Death is a ledge we jump off of into a bottomless abyss. Each of us must learn of it alone, inevitably. That, I think, is the draw of vampires. To remain forever on the edge of the abyss, looking into it but never jumping, may be tempting to some. But friends and loved ones departing while I remained would surely drive me to madness and monstrosity. As Bela Lugosi’s Dracula said so aptly, “There are far worse things awaiting man than death,” (Dracula, 1931).