The vampire—that bloodsucking defiler of the innocent—remains a powerful cultural archetype more than 100 years after Bram Stoker's Dracula first delivered an ancient Eastern European superstition to a global audience in 1897. Vampire sightings occur every few minutes in today's media, with dozens of new movies, TV shows, books, blogs and websites devoted to the children of the night. We have cereal-trademark vampires and teen vampires and martial arts vampires and private investigator vampires. What gives? Beyond that endlessly appealing forbidden sex and death thing?
Vampires materialize from the shadows, forming adaptable villains for varied narratives of corruption. They're changeable stunt doubles who stand in for the real problem—whether it's immigrants flooding into countries where they aren't wanted, or the infected carriers of fearsome diseases and plagues, or symbols of the lost purity of virgins. Vampires appear at times of social flux because we can project whatever we like onto them, creating concrete visualizations of intangible fears and threats. The unpredictable and ever-present dangers of terrorism, global warming and a dreadful world economy have created a climate of widespread social anxiety. The vampire endures because an enemy with a clear-cut set of ways to defeat it—drive a stake through its heart, cut off its head, burn it—presents a tidy, easy-to-achieve solution.
Nosferatu vs. Dracula, two cinematic vampire archetypes compared. (graphic: Angela Riechers)
The visual language of vampires is remarkably consistent, derived from two distinct types: Nosferatu and Dracula. Transfusing and mingling these types—one gruesome and the other sophisticated—allows the vampire metaphor to remain flexible and suited to situations from horrifying to comical. The changeable forms of the vampire—human, bat, wolf, green fog, swarm of rats—parallel his ability to represent a wide range of woes.
The vampire Nosferatu (1922) inspired Spike Press's poster for the band Vampire Weekend (2008).
Nosferatu (1922), the first cinematic portrayal of a vampire, looms over us, corpse-like and ghastly—the true undead. His fangs extend from his top incisors, like a rat's (which is fitting since the movie uses a plague metaphor throughout). His burning eyes are mesmerizing, his fingers taper into fearsome talons, his attire is most kindly described as grave-wear. Other vampires that seem at first glance to be 100-percent Dracula often borrow at least one detail from Nosferatu. His all-out gruesome look is not usually literally translated to the others, though; the only recent one as consistently repellent in appearance as he, without any of Dracula's more alluring components, is Eli, the child vampire in the Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008). Even when she's just standing around, she's scary. Her little friend Oskar says, “You smell weird,” and we don't doubt it for a moment.
Mr. Burns on The Simpsons (top) parodies Gary Oldman's vampire in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992, Columbia Pictures).
The portrait of the sexy, cultured vampire arose from the Romantic era in full swing when Stoker penned Dracula. Its continuing popular appeal can be traced to Bela Lugosi's suave appearance in the 1931 film, with his dramatic cape, medallion on a ribbon around the neck, widow's peak, white tie and tails. The elegant vampire type lent itself easily to parody, creating a sort of harmless, neutered vampire. Watered-down and safe for children, this vampire doesn't recall the frightful Nosferatu. Think of Grandpa Munster and Sesame Street's Count von Count.
Looking sharp is a mainstay of the Dracula-based vampire. The Hunger's (1983) perfectly-coiffed Catherine Deneuve substituted couture for a cape, neatly avoiding the camp trap. Vicious little Tom Cruise as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994) flounced around in campy dandified elegance (when he wasn't a festering, flaming cadaver, that is). In Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula (1992) Gary Oldman alternately depicts a terrifying Nosferatu-like figure in the world's longest-trailing red cape and a top-hatted Victorian fop. But I like the Simpsons' parody of him as Mr. Burns even better. How about the biker-chic outfits of The Lost Boys (1987)? Though laughably dated today, that full-on '80s leather-and-mullets style translated the look for a younger contemporary audience.
(From left) Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In (2008, Magnet Releasing); promo art for The Lost Boys (1987, Warner Bros).
Fangs are perhaps the most obviously critical component of vampire typology—although, surprisingly, Lugosi's Dracula did not have them at all. Later vampires introduced the familiarly fanged canine. Cereal-villain Count Chocula mirrors Dracula in almost every way, but his fangs sprout down from the middle like Nosferatu's (though the most recently redrawn character has them blunted into a squared-off shape, looking more like Bugs Bunny dressed for Halloween). Most portrayals of vampire dentition hew to a single pair of long dagger-like canines. On the TV show Blood Ties (2007) the vampires flash an extra set of chompers. In The Hunger, vampires David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve are fangless, deploying tiny, wicked Egyptian ankh pendant-knives to do their bloodletting. (Yet Susan Sarandon's arm is mysteriously perforated with two distinct round holes the morning after her visit to the fabulous vampire townhouse. Accessory fangs?)
When they aren't being pilloried as infectious/corruptive agents or disease vectors (providing numerous medical metaphors: the plague, AIDS), vampires are often portrayed as outsiders or misfits: they long to fit in, to be like everyone else, to be loved. Since they stand in equally well for temporal and confusing life stages as they do for world issues, vampires are ideal for teen-based shows, movies and novels. Right now we can be entertained by teen-vampire football players and slackers and prom dates. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, released in time for Halloween, features John C. Reilly as an older vampire who offers an apprenticeship to a teen searching for a life path that won't make the expected stops at college-job-family. Becoming a vampire will give him membership in a different sort of family, though—a typical postmodern, alternative, non-traditional one.
(Clockwise from top left) Dracula-inspired Count von Count from Sesame Street and George Hamilton in Love at First Bite (1979); Twilight's Edward Cullen (2008, Summit Entertainment); True Blood's Bill Compton (2008, HBO).
The current crop of teenage vampires is typically square-jawed, dark-haired and sensitive—a conflicted Byronic male in love with a mortal girl he (usually) doesn't want to corrupt. Fangs, like the other kind of arousal, appear only at the moment they're needed. Some teen vampires take an almost abstinent or vegetarian approach to their diet, preferring to feed upon lower life forms because a remaining shred of conscience causes them to feel guilty about taking human life. True Blood's (2008) Bill Compton is trying to make do on a diet of synthetic blood imported from Japan. Edward, of the Twilight saga, sticks to animal blood. The tortured Stefan in The Vampire Diaries even writes of his feelings in a (centuries old) leather-bound journal. The last scraps of humanity left in these guys give them audience appeal as bad boys who maybe can still be redeemed through the power of romantic love. Teen vampires' struggles against their dark natures win the sympathy of adolescent viewers on their own difficult journeys to adult identity.
No matter what metaphor is in use, vampires represent a threat offering a fool's bargain. They pit our human desire to defy the ravages of age and death through immortality against their cruel and bloody disregard for others. Still, we find entertainment in these seductive invaders whispering of eternal youth, because in a way they are familiarly reassuring. Although we can't prevent their arrival, we know what to do when vampires fly in the window or onto our screens—assuming we trust ourselves to resist the allure of the forbidden. The vampire has always been sexier than a mummy, better-looking than a zombie, sleeker than a werewolf. It isn't surprising that he's held on to his status as attractive all-purpose villain for so long. He's a compelling jack of all trades in the category of cinematic monsters; as an audience we continue to offer up our delicious necks to the vampire rather than putting out garlic to ward him off.