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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
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
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).
(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
Munster and Sesame Street's Count von Count.
Looking sharp is a mainstay of the Dracula-based vampire.
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
(From left) Lina Leandersson in Let the Right One In (2008,
Magnet Releasing); promo art for The Lost Boys (1987, Warner
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.
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.
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