Sunday, 30 October 2011

Vampires 101

Well here's my Hallowe'en contribution. I have a undying penchant for vampires, so here's where I'll indulge.  That is, vampires in literature and vampires in film, and long before they became popular in the public imagination.

In my opinion, vampires have an allure like no other fictional creation. In a word, they're cool. They're monsters for all intents and purposes, but they're not your usual kind of gooey claw-wielding monsters. They're beautiful, seductive, sexy, powerful and mysterious - the glammiest baddies ever. But they're also humanlike, incarnations of darkness just a step away from human nature. But I think why they're so popular is because of their ubiquitious natures.  They're not stapled ball-and-chain to the horror genre; infact, they easily transcend it into other genres such as romance, thriller, sci-fi, historical and allegorical.

See vampires are more than horror creations, they're metaphors. I was lucky enough to study a course on gothic fiction at college and came up close and personal with the figure of the vampire in literature. All the texts we studied had one thing in common: the metaphorical resonances. 

For example, did you know that Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' can be read as an allegory of the Irish/English political situation in the 19th century? Count Dracula being a personification of the English colonists sucking Ireland dry. Or vice-versa, the Count as a personification of the rebellious Irish, always a sore point for the English who found it difficult to quell rebel attacks (this is more obvious in 'Carmilla', a vampire short story by Irish writer of the time, Sheridan LeFanu). Also, Count Dracula not only represents fear of the foreign (the East) as noted by Jonathan Harker's superior notations of the country he travels to to meet the Count, but also fear of rampant and gluttonous materialism?  Count Dracula is a predatory land-owner, wealthy and powerful who comes to England to buy a new estate (and suck victims blood as a secondary pursuit - capitalism in its most rampant and figurative form).

Literary vampires were figures used to represent taboo  subjects of the day such as TB, Aids, (the blood symbolism), sex and war.  Many vampire narratives are set in times of war, an especially common one being the American Civil War. Seems supernatural narratives were popular in these times as a way of describing the indescribable reality of human depravity, the vampire being a convenient ghoulish figure to carry the weight of some of humanity's worst moments.

Vampires are the sexiest of the baddies  - after all, they deal in seduction and bloodlust. But did you know that this bloodlust represented sexuality back in the day when such an issue was a taboo subject? Sex and death, two taboo issues for Victorian society, and vampires were incarnations of both and how both were entwined. Vampires didn't attack their victims as per a normal violent ghoul, but seduced them on a romantic level. And blood drinking was akin to sexual intercourse.  The figure of the vampire back in the day was one of liberated sexuality. Vampirism was used to talk about sex, when sex wasn't allowed. And while there were mostly male vampires preying on women back in the day, today we have female vampires which  are the embodiment of sexual liberation (and feminism) - seductive creatures irrestible to their male victims - a vixen, a 'vamp' in other words, a femme fatale.

As well as representing  the obvious  good vs evil themes, vampire fiction also explores conflicting moral issues within vampire characters themselves, the stuff indeed, of what great literature is concerned with. For example, Anne Rice's iconic 'Interview with the Vampire' presents us with two very different vampire characters: Louis and Lestat; one good, one bad, one who struggles with his conscience, the other who  ignores it, the quintessential angel and devil on the shoulder, maybe even that great C19th debate of reason versus passion too.

Today vampire fictions have become especially adept at handling this moral aspect. The 'moral' vampire is a new construct and a pretty common one. Seems like you can't pick up a book or watch a show that doesn't have a repenting vamp, all tortured soul and wrecked with regret from centuries of blood-draining. This started with  Louis in Interview with the Vampire, found new notes in the brooding vampire Angel, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose spin-off series was based solely around his pursuit of redemption, and right on into the now infamous 'Twilight Saga'. Seems the figure of the vampire, a monster who is half human, half demon, is the perfect one to showcase this moral maelstrom.

Then there's the bad guys. The bad-ass kick-ass vamps. And it's true that the devil gets all the best lines when it comes these guys: they're all pros when it comes to the art of sarcasm and wit. "I can't help being a gorgeous fiend, it's just the card I drew... Rice's Lestat has to be top of this list, at turns vicious and vivacious, vain and arrogant and wittily dismissive of any morals: "Come on, say it again. I'm a perfect devil. Tell me how bad I am. It makes me feel so good!" played in the film to a fanged tee by Tom Cruise. He's obtained rock star cool staus within the vampire genre by now (as well as the books), proving that bad vamps make the ultimate cool baddie.

Running a close second has to be Damon Salvatore from new TV series The Vampire Diaries (my fave watch at the moment), who is deliciously  bad. Damon  enters the show as alter-ego to good brother Stefan,  a menacing figure dressed always in black, with piercing eyes and a merciless demeanour. He can go from a psychotic, bloodthirsty murderer to sullen and sorry, sharply sarcastic to heartbroken and deeply hurt all within a few seconds. His character is brilliantly complex with the eventual introduction of his human side, providing many emotional arcs to the storyline of the show. Ian Somerhalder is fantastic in the role (pictured). Yep, I'm a big fan of Damon and the like. The show is based on the series of books by young adult author L.J. Smith, who manages to explore all the potential we have for both good and evil and the precarious balance between both through this character, the vampire slant serving to heighten the fundamental message. 


Modern vampires have also come to represent the outsider's status in society, which has led invariably to vampires being equated with rebels. Vampires don't belong to the routines of society, they live beyond its rules and repressions, guided only by their bloodlust, which could be translated to a passion for living adventurously. Which could explain their popularity at the moment, especially with young adult readers who feel their individual personalities at odds with that of the collective. Vampire narratives elevate and celebrate the outsider's status, declaring it cool to be an individual who stands apart from the crowd.  

The classic 80s movie 'The Lost Boys' has made its way into the cult classic line-up of films mainly because of this. The social commentary plot sees the newcomers to town recruited into the local vampire coven, who are none other than the resident rebellious punks who stand outside of society's rules and regulations (characterised by their leather, piercings, tattoos, punk hair-do's, motor-bikes, delinquency etc). The movie celebrates the new teenage punk generation (it even has a punk rock soundtrack) who sleep all day and party all night,  effectively equating them with vampires and with the outsider rebel (rocker) status. Twilight also exudes this message somewhat; its vampires the Cullens, literally live on the edge of society and experience shunning and judgement from the townsfolk but don't seem to be bothered by it. Edward is regarded as a 'freak' by his peers at school, but remains unperturbed, as do we as readers/watchers. We know vampires are cool, so that fact trumps social exclusion issues. 

There's also the idea that vampires are representative of old traditional ideals and Romantic notions. In Anne Rice's short story, 'Master of Rampling Gate' the story revolves around a vampire trying to protect his home from being torn down and destroyed by the encroaching forces of modernity. The vampire is noble and honourable, old-fashioned and traditional and in complete contrast to the superficial preoccupations of the day. The narrator Julie is drawn towards him, as are we, and to all that he represents - the values of the past pitted against a vacuous future. Edward from Twilight is also quite an old-fashioned character: he reads,  writes, listens to classical music, upholds traditional views about marriage and chivalry and is morally upright, which may explain his popularity among readers - especially women! 

Vampires are appealing on many levels, but maybe mostly, because they exude power like no other supernatural character. Not just supernatural abilities (envious ones like mind control and immortality - what could be more powerful than the ability to outdo death?) but other more earthly kinds like wealth and status. Think of any vampire character in any book or film - they are always well-off powerful characters, their wealth accumulated mysteriously. They never have to want financially or materially. They are always well-educated too, extremely intelligent, even bookish (the thinking person's baddie of choice? Well, living for hundreds of years I suppose contributes to this). They enjoy high status in a community - Count Dracula was a Lord, Louis and Lestat, estate-owners. Vampires are not only powerful, they represent power as well, all kinds of it.
Think vampires are all about blood and gore, think again. Nowadays they've become more synonymous with forbidden love and romance than anything else. This is the whole premise of Twilight, the (inferior) vampire mythology coming second to the love story. This was previously and successfully explored in Buffy, where vampires took on the whole metaphorical weight of forbidden love with a love-story between a vampire and a vampire slayer. What could be more forbidden and heartbreaking than love between a vampire and a human?  Yet another example of fantasy literature being the perfect medium to delve deeper into a common theme. Teenage angst, lust and longing finds a perfect outlet in tales of forbidden love between vampires and humans, which explains why vampire fiction is the biggest selling Y/A genre at the moment. (Plus, it also appeals to all romantics out there, especially the tortured ones - myself included!)

Oh yeah, and another reason why I like vampires: they're not that scary. A must for me who swears against all horror films (yes, I'm that one behind the sofa with a cushion over my face while watching anything with a suspenseful score). Vampire fiction, when done right, causes us to ponder what it all could mean, not jump in fright. It throws up a whole array of themes and ideas through the mysterious and elusive figure of the vampire, who wanders these fictions 'cloaked in metaphor' - (the one quote I can remember from my winning essay on vampires as an undergrad...)

While I love the gothic escapism of a good vampire yarn, I love the underlying stories even more. I love the comment it makes on human nature in a very veiled and seductive way. It heightens emotions and truths and puts its message across in a way that will never get tired, never date, or diminish (or grow old.... maybe immortality is the chief lure of vampires...?)

Gosh, I  ramble! If you're still with me - you must be a vampire lover too! Let me know if I've left anything out - any themes, metaphors, films, books, characters....?? Would love to hear your responses and your views on the topic!

Happy Hallowe'en!

~ Siobhán.

Click to see a preview of: The Vampire Diaries Trailer

And instead of the usual creepy tunes, here's some spook-tastic ones that soundtracked this blog: (well, three spooky and one spine-tinglingly sad...)

Sleep Alone - Bat for Lashes
Enjoy the Silence  - Anberlin
Night Drive - Jimmy Eat World
Beauty of the Dark - Mads Langer

(And by popular demand, some more spooky tunes & videos: Red Right Hand - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds; People Are Strange - The Doors; Cold - The Cure; Lullaby - The Cure;  Translyvanian Concubine - Rasputina; Running Up That Hill - Placebo; Closer - Kings of Leon. That's all I can think of for now...! Any more  ideas let me know...)


  1. Siobhan you have completely altered my view of vampires. Mainly because I can/could never get beyond this crazy creature with the big incisor's biting the neck of the woman he desired and, supposedly, loved.

    I did watch, and rather enjoyed 'Interview With a Vampire' but the character in it that I vividly remember is that played by Stephen Rea. Brilliant.

  2. Haha - see there's more to them than blood and sharp teeth! And you're right - there's been a lot of feminist criticism around the subject, and it's only recently we're seeing more female vampires on the scene. The biting you see is seen as symbolic of love/sex/connection etc ... but modern vamps refrain from biting their loved ones, after all Twilight seems to be a whole parable about abstinence...
    Feminist writers are now starting to use the figure as an attack on sexist attitudes. There were a few short stories I read like this...will try and remember them & let you know!


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