Fear Itself: Thinking About Vampires and Moral Panics – Part 3 (The Modern Vampire)

The character of the modern vampire is easily observed eliciting an annoyed groan from one only to induce swooning in another. The plastic fangs, black cape, and cartoonish accent, once donned, are enough to spark the recognition of even the youngest Westerner. As a matter of fact, the vampire concept is so commonplace in modern American and European culture that vampires have done everything from advertising cereal to performing on children’s television. The modern vampire is a conglomeration and continuation of virtually all of the vampire myths and metaphors that have come before it and yet lacks the fear and respect once due to a devilish and fearsome night-dweller. Today, the vampire is a fictional character straight from the literary traditions of the earlier 18th and 19th centuries with little of its former historic past in tow (Carter 1989). It is as popular as space aliens and angels and no more real in the minds of the populace than fairies and ghosts. The modern vampire is the child of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the supernatural free from the bonds of religion and science, and an icon of dark sexuality for the young and rebellious. This contemporary vampire has undergone a variety of transformations in response to ongoing shifts in popular culture and the political mise-en-scene. Increasingly, the vampire’s religious associations, while not absent, are weakened, and replaced primarily by sexual associations, just as Western culture has also become secularized and sexualized.

The fascination with the vampire is evident in the popularity of vampire films and books, such as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, TV’s True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural, and the oft maligned Twilight series. The mid-1990s and 2000s also saw a great upswing in the popularity of vampire role-playing games such as Vampire: The Masquerade by Mark Rhein-Hagen and White Wolf publishing, where, for a moment in time, the mantle of the vampire is assumed and played out. The vampire is popular in Goth and Punk subcultures and in music, like Concrete Blonde and Siouxsie and the Banshees, where it parades its mysterious and elegant self, and winds its way through society on wings made of the proliferation of fantasy and horror. The vampire has, however, become an ambiguous figure as of late. While tales of the dark side and the cautionary stories about sexuality remain, the vampire has become a story about human nature in a time when people are no longer sure what the nature of humanity is (Day 2002 and Carter 1989). Better yet, the modern vampire has become a template by which our humanity is defined. Even the most sinful or subversive vampire is a statement on the humanity within which it lives and from which it came. The vampire was, after all, once human. What has given the vampire particular force now is the questions that it faces people with. Where does our humanity lie? Is it in our ability to control our needs and desires, our ethical and logical nature, or in our liberation from our baser natures? Is the vampire human or something wholly different (Day 2002 and Holte 2002)? For these reasons, the vampire metaphor not only remains strong within modern contexts but is still performing much the same role as it did in ancient times. The vampire remains the embodiment of the collective fears that society holds onto, only gaining a new form of expression and a much larger audience. It has gone from the country dweller of folktales and superstitions to the stalker of the urban masses (Day 2002, Holte 2002, and Gordon/Hollinger 1997). Today, the vampire is everywhere.

With the coming of film, the vampire concept gained mass exposure in the medium of the moving picture. For the first time in history, the vampire was actually seen and experienced; his presence on the screen so profound that he remains there today. Countless movies have been made with the vampire as everything from hero to anti-hero to villain. The vampire is no longer a soulless monster of old religions; instead he is exotic and powerful, extravagant and alluring, gentlemanly, deferential, and wholly malignant. But contrary to the vampire of 19th century literature, he has gained a human soul. He now has motivations and emotions that could be identified with and has emerged with a personality all his own that is likeable, if not desirable. The first vampire movies; such as Dracula (1931), Nosferatu (1922), Vampyre (1932), and the ‘B-movies’ of the infamous Hammer Studios, were not yet completely a change from the famous literary vampire. Instead, they were a chance to indulge in the perversions of the night and experiment with the dangerous and forbidden. These films sensationalized the primal and the frightening with terrifying and lurid images of stakes, blood, fangs, and violence. They terrified and excited by conjuring up the sexual taboos of the times, the violent imagery once contained only in books, and invoking the powerful physiological ‘fight or flight’ response that makes horror popular (Day 2002 and Toufic 1993). It was the movies that first brought the imagination to sense experience and for this reason the vampire became more tangible. In a sense it was the first time the vampire was truly seen at all.

The case of the vampire in the late 20th century is somewhat similar. The vampire is an escape into the realms of disenchantment with reality, realms of magic and supernaturalism, and is filled with romanticism and the promise of freedom and desire. He invites his audience to reject society and community and be, once again, redeemed. This escape does also have a negative side. Demystification can lead to disillusionment as value and meaning are traded for fact and magic is dismissed as childish musing (Day 2002 and Gordon/Hollinger 1997). Lately, however, the stories of the vampire are much more about sensationalistic sexuality. The bite has become a kiss, what was painful is now pleasurable, and death is now the ultimate, if fatalistic, expression of love.

In the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s the vampire concept took on yet another brief but poignant trait reminiscent of the Plague vampire of the late 1300s. In vampire movies such as Pale Blood (1992), The Subspecies trilogy (1991-1993), and The Lost Boys (1987), the vampire is a thinly disguised warning against sexual promiscuity and disease. For this particular period of time, one might assume that the disease in question is almost certainly AIDS. The vampire imposed his undead state on another through the bite, which took on a virulent, disease-like quality and he had no compunction about inflicting his ‘kiss’ on a member of the same sex. Since the vampire portrayed was almost always male in these cases, and the bite was likened to a forbidden sexual act, the association becomes easy (Gordon/Hollinger 1997). For these purposes the vampire’s sexuality is best when it is portrayed as an ambiguous suggestion of what cannot otherwise be acted out, even if the suggestion is less than ambiguous. The concept of the ‘queer goth’ and the vampire as an outlet for homosexual tensions has long been gaining popularity in contemporary times. A wide collection of literature devoted to this topic has been slowly accumulating as the vampire gains popularity as an icon of forbidden sexuality. Most of this literature can be found in short story compilations and anthologies of various themes. The sexuality is explicit, in a society which now more or less openly embraces expressions of sex, and the charisma of the vampire figure erotically disarming. In other words, this part of the modern vampire concept is no longer the ‘great secret’ of the literary 19th century but merely another fact about it (Day 2002, Toufic 1993, and Silver/Ursini 1993).

The modern vampire is also a creature born of violence on both a social and an individual level. The vampire is at war with himself, his anachronistic nature, and with those around him. Countless modern vampire movies, see for example Vampire Hunter D (1985 and 2000), Blade (1998), Blood: The Last Vampire (2000), and To Die For (1989), focus on the violent aspects of the vampire. In the television series Forever Knight, the enigmatic vampire LaCroix exhorts his companion Nicholas, a vampire attempting to regain his human state, to “feel the animal inside of you.” More especially he goes on to encourage raw pleasure without the burden of ethics and killing without conscience. Here, the central theme of the new vampire mythos is the transformation from sex to violence (Day 2002 and Rickels 1999). The focus shifts from the controlling of sexual instincts to controlling the predatory ones, which arguably remains one of the defining problems of Western civilization in to the 21st century.

The vampire today is not only the metaphor for uninhibited sexuality but it is also the warning of what happens when those urges are not kept in check or expressed in a suitable social manner. Ironically, in an age where the status of women is generally more equalized than it has ever been, the vampire is still usually male and his victims typically female. This vampire represents the male social domination over women and, in many cases, the act of ‘feeding’ takes on an equally sexual meaning. The vampire is a sexual predator and often his target is a woman who has no chance of defending herself and often ends up in a situation that takes another male, often another lover of hers, to rescue her from. This is a large part of the character and story that is Stoker’s Dracula and what is accepted as the quintessential vampire concept. The woman is portrayed as in the vampire’s thrall and spiritually unable to resist. Very similar in many aspects to the older folk tales of vampires regarding women’s spiritual weakness toward anything unwholesome, the vampire demonstrated here only adds the characteristic of being overtly sexual. The human man in the situation is therefore called upon to be the hero and save the women in distress. The vampire is rape, the vampire is violence and murder, the vampire is power over another, and most especially the vampire, although a monster in the dark, is us. The writer, Nina Auerbach, paraphrased this malleability simply as, “Every age embraces the vampire it needs”.

In exploring the modern vampire concept, Dracula remains a central figure. Whether it is a retelling or a complete reinvention of Stoker’s character, movies like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Dracula (1931), Dracula 2000 (2000), and his appearance in To Die For 1 and 2 (1989 and 1991), let us know that he is still the quintessential vampire concept. In contemporary media, interpretations of Dracula change in relation to the mythos within which he resides. In Dracula’s first transformation, about 60 years after the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, he becomes the protagonist ready to be freed from the constraints of an outmoded, repressive, Christian-imaged past (Day 2002 and Toufic 1993). He is still anachronistic but the lure of modern city life is enough to break the cycle in which he often finds himself. In a second transformation he becomes the romantic gentleman vampire, first made popular in the 1930’s and then resurrected in the 1970’s. In this incarnation Dracula is also the vampire of need and desire where the more animalistic and bestial natures of the vampire are drawn out. In the third and most recent transformation, Dracula has joined the rank and file of vampire characters and has become integrated into the greater scheme of the modern vampire mythos at large. For the vast majority of these stories the element of the slayer, usually portrayed by a Van Helsing-style character, has been kept but has been altered to fit the new character of the vampire. With Dracula no longer the tortured protagonist, the slayer is free to be personified as the hero once again, although he is generally outclassed and must overcome great difficulties and risk life and limb in order to triumph (Day 2002 and Gordon/Hollinger 1997).

At last, the postmodern vampire arrives. No longer a kind of escapism as much as a form of expression, the vampire is once again changing to fit the current times. In truth, post-modern is a difficult label with which to bind the vampire mythos, since postmodern is a term which is being used to identify literature and art as it is becoming, and not as it is. This shift in the popular thinking and style of modern America has led and currently is leading to the vampire concept as it will be. The vampire of today, like many monsters in modern fiction, is no longer the outsider but begins his narrative from the inside and the traditional perspectives of the fantasy/horror genre in which the vampire currently resides are also changing. Many recent works involving the vampire mythos are breaking down the traditional binary thinking of vampire and human (Day 2002). The vampire is thought of in terms of its relation to the greater whole of humanity and not necessarily in relation to an interpersonal conflict with an individual.

The vampire concept is also beginning to lose its clear-cut distinctions between good and evil. In its former role as the ‘other’ it guaranteed the presence of good but this is no longer necessarily the case. Evil is not simple and neither, now, is the vampire and since it is no longer clearly demarcated as evil, it is not so easy to simply destroy it (Holte 2002). In fact, in anthologies like McNally’s A Clutch of Vampires (1974), Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1975-1995) series, and Christopher Frayling’s Vampyres (1991), the very existence of Evil itself is questioned. Literature and film is becoming comfortable with an increasingly uncomfortable character. The vampire is still in between something (almost liminal in a sense), but the audience is no longer certain what the vampire is in between. The concept, however, retains the aspects of re-birth and renewal into a different existence but the aspect of being ‘damned’ is much less emphasized. Here, the vampire continues as a symbol into the future, still the reflection of our times and the representation of our fears and repressed compunctions. As our fears and compunctions change the vampire will remain as our collective metaphor for them and will be, as always, whatever we need it to be.

 

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