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Vampires: the Bad, Beautiful and Ugly
It seems there is no end to the appetite for vampires, in books and movies, vampire conventions, themed parties and trips to Transylvania. Every generation seems to unleash a new breed of a creature that has its roots in the folklore of many cultures. The vampire has had many names; the vrykolakais (Greece), the striagoi (Romania), and the chupacabra (Mexico). Vampire-like creatures exist in the lore of Africa, the Americas and Asia. Vampiric lore flourished much in Slavic cultures, and our contemporary word “vampire” is derived from their many distinct names. In literature and film, the vampire has been called Dracula, Orlock and, believe it or not, Varney. The definitive vampire is Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel published in 1897 and republished many times since. The pale-faced, dark-cloaked snarling count who can kill with one bite of his fangs would seem to be all-powerful. However, the vampire is quite a limited creature and can only be active within certain strictures.
Home sweet home....
The rules of Dr. Van Helsing
It took Dr. Van Helsing from Stoker’s novel to set out the rules by which vampires operate. The vampire can kill with a single bite. Outwardly human, the vampire is very strong and has the power to “shape shift”, that is, to assume the form of other animals, usually a wolf or a bat. This latter form endows him with the power to fly. He can morph to particles of dust and transport himself on moonlight rays. However, he does not cast shadows or reflect in mirrors, a quality that leaves him in danger of betraying himself. His only diet is blood and he cannot abide even a ray of daylight. He must sleep during daylight hours on a bed of his native soil, usually in a coffin. He can live freely in his own home (castle or dungeon) but can only enter another house if someone inside invites him in. He will not cross running water or walk on consecrated ground. Other repellents or “apotropaics” include garlic and crucifixes. Place a spray of wild roses on the lid of his coffin, and he cannot leave his bed. A mortal can destroy him by running a shaft of wood through his heart, yet a willing follower can revivify him after centuries with a quantity of blood. Although seemingly immortal, the vampire is, in the words of Van Helsing “more prisoner than the slave of the galley, than the madman in his cell.”
The ememy within...
The vampire in folklore and literature
Vampires are monsters born of our atavistic fears, among them invasion. In the past and even in some parts of the world today, people feared invasion. There was ever the dread of dwindling resources, not necessarily in times of famine, and also the all-pervading fear of contagion. There was, and still is, the need for an “other” to blame when the stock market fails or school places are in short supply. There is ever a suspicion surrounding the person who looks and talks “funny”, who keeps strange hours and eats unorthodox food. However, as much as we fear the other, there is ever a dread that the real enemy may lie within. Illness in a community was often blamed upon a dead person or persons returning to feed upon the living.
Traditional vampire folklore may have its origins in the discovery of uncorrupted corpses in vaults, swollen and ruddy with gas, the retracted skin giving the appearance of hair, teeth and nails that seemed to have grown. The hideous appearance of these corpses struck a chord in peasant societies that associated ugliness with evil. As time went on and society changed, new challenges arose alongside age-old fears of contagion and invasion. In 1764, the philosopher Voltaire reported on the burgeoning world of trade and finance, on the “men of business” who suck the lives of “the people”. However, new philosophies were also emerging. In 1757, writer Edmund Burke had published A Philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, a treatise on aesthetics. The summation of Burke’s philosophy was that the human psyche loved the sensation of fear, so long as we experienced it on safe ground. This was a rejection of the scientific certainties of Enlightenment and gave birth to an entire new genre in literature, the gothic novel. Of this were born the novels of Anne Radcliffe, Horace Walpole and Mary Shelley. In 1819, Lord Ruthven gained fame for his novel, The Vampyre, setting a fashion that has prevailed, ever since. Out of its murky, folkloric origins emerged the glamorous and aristocratic Count Dracula. In the soot and steam of the late 1800s, Bram Stoker tapped on a longing for something pale-skinned, far away and dangerous. Evoking the legendary Vlad “the Impaler” Dracul, he placed his creation in a castle amid the pine-clad Transylvanian mountains. Dracula’s cousin, Elisabeth Bathory, lived in nearby Hungary.
Children of the night
Vampires live on in our heads, existing because we want them to. But modern vampires are not mouldering corpses or historic aristocrats, remote in both time and place. It is far more frightening to place vampires in our midst. Every large city and small town is capable of harbouring a member of the Undead; all it takes is a willing assistant, a crate of earth in a cellar and a steady supply of would-be victims. This is the psyche that has given rise to Buffy, the slayer of vampires, to the rampaging vampires of Anne Rice, to the fashionable young things from the imagination of Stephanie Myers, and the terrifying child vampire of Thomas Alfredson’s extraordinary movie, Let The Right One In (2008). And there are many more. Part of the fun inherent in a vampire book or movie is witnessing the protagonist defeat the monster while playing by the rules. On a daily basis, we defeat our own personal monsters, by looking for weaknesses in their apparent armour. It is simply an emotional release to sit back and watch a movie hero doing it. The vampire is a reminder that no matter how dire or dreadful a situation seems, even the powerful have limitations and there may be a way through by playing on these. Whether derived from literature or folklore, the contemporary vampire is a creature to pin all of our longings for super-powers on to, our feelings of awe and dread, and our need for a continual supply of scapegoats.
Let the right ones in
The vampires we create reflect the preoccupation of an age. In her essay, The Psychology of Horror and Fantasy Fiction, Katherine Ramsland explains how the vicarious destruction of fictional monsters and horrors is the symptom of a healthy consciousness that would otherwise be destroyed by conformity. After all, what else are the political and corporate strictures that we abide by every day - for example, starting work at nine am - but the same set of artificial limitations we impose on the Undead? Left unchecked, this tidal wave of contemporary dos and donts threatens to engulf and destroy us. Our need to grapple with and win over those creatures born in psychic darkness is the flipside of our humanity, of feeling emotionally refreshed and thoroughly alive. It looks like vampires are here to stay, and we have the luxury of deciding which ones to invite into our lives.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by JN Williamson, Robinson Publishing, 1987