Taming the vampire: From Stoker to Meyer

I remember, many, many years ago now (over 35, if you must know), badgering my mother into buying me one of the now iconic Aurora model kits that were all the rage back then and, no doubt, the despair of parents. This particular one’s subject was the Dark Prince of Transylvania himself, Dracula, and that, I think, was one of my very first encounters with Bram Stoker’s literary creation and my first meeting with the word ‘vampire’. I also recall buying and reading a cheap reprint of the book, along with Frankenstein, published by the same imprint. I remember being simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the vampire – even then I realised that he was the antithesis of everything that being human meant and that therein lay his allure. Of course, I couldn’t quite articulate that in the way I can now – had you asked me what I liked in particular about this creature, no doubt I would have shrugged and uttered the deeply enlightening “I dunno”.

Little did I know then that, a few decades hence and after more than a couple of false starts and devastating stops, I would find myself involved in the horror scene, where vampires  (along with their bedfellows zombies and werewolves) still have a major role to play. In the intervening years my fascination with vampires had waned considerably, although I stoked it occasionally by watching the odd vampire film. I’ve even met the occasional real-life person who’s convinced they’re an actual vampire, and they’ve quite unselfconsciously told me that they are (bless their little black cotton socks). I have also come across people who appear to be unhealthily obsessed with vampires too. However, in literary and cinematic terms, in the intervening period the monster has gone through all kinds of incarnations and re-imaginings, but all seemed to retain the essentials that constituted what I’d grown up with thinking vampires to be: a nasty, amoral, predatory and thoroughly uninhibited creature who thought little of considering humans as nothing more than sustenance. The Blood is the Life indeed. From Bela Lugosi’s hammy overacted interpretation (upon which the Aurora model was based) through to Near Dark’s vagrant band of itinerant bloodsuckers, and from Christopher Lee’s Hammer  House of Horror version with its frisson of forbidden sex and similarly lustful undertones (heaving bosoms and all that), and onto the hybrid human/vampire motif in Blade (along with the particularly nasty vampires he opposes), this beast in human form has always retained an amorality (note: not an immorality – in their own way, vampires cling to a species of morality, albeit twisted, in our eyes at least) and a predatory instinct engendered by what is essentially a metaphor for a physical addiction – i.e. they need blood in order to survive. Plus, the vampire just doesn’t care one jot about the humans he feeds on – they’re nothing to him, just like ants are nothing to us.

But things have changed vampire-wise in the past couple of years, and I don’t think it’s necessarily for the better.  Yes, everything evolves and changes over time, and a new angle on an old subject can breathe new life into whatever it is and bring new fans in. That, to me, is a given. In my opinion, however, you can go too far sometimes. The latest re-envisioning of the vampire has turned him into something completely alien and un-vampire-like.  They now suffer from psychological turmoil and experience pangs of conscience whenever they have to feed on or interact with humanity. It all started with Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (I bypassed the whole Anne Rice thing, not being interested in the least), where the Angel character was cursed to experience human emotions and feelings whilst still being a vampire. Despite that, he still supped on human blood, albeit sourced from a hospital blood-bank. Whenever he turned into Angelus and gave vent to his true vampiric nature, he was everything that these undead creatures are supposed to be. The inner conflict arose from having been cursed to feel what a human feels despite innate instinct and this is what drove both character and plot. We all know, however, that what people really wanted to see was Angelus letting rip.

And then came along Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Admittedly, I’ve only watched the first film, mainly to see what it was all about, and not read any of the books. I hated every second of the film (to the point of disgust). It appeared to be an exercise in ‘taming’ the vampire, to make him more palatable and sociable. The whole point of the vampire is that he’s completely and utterly unsociable (and antisocial too), a trait arising perhaps from the fact that he is immortal – we may think, in a moment of wishful daydreaming, that it would be a wonderful thing to live forever, but on every level it’s anything but. You would see all the people around you get older and die, some peacefully and others not, and that fact alone makes your prolonged existence a burden of lonely millennia. He also rages against God and all that he stands for, preferring to live alone in the shadow of darkness, the antithesis of light. God, to him, means puny humanity, who is his sole prey, and the life which courses through their veins.

Meyer is a Mormon, and this has led me to think that what she is doing is essentially attempting a rehabilitation of the vampire, perhaps attempting a sort of ‘Christianising’ of the creature, or offering the beast a form of salvation by bringing him/her within God’s purview. The fact that Dracula himself, the ultimate vampire, denied his faith and abjured the Christian God mitigates against the very idea of the vampire taking on anything like ‘Christian’ traits – that’s what was so horrifying to late Victorian society, that Stoker’s creature had turned his back on the comfort of religion and that he had willingly and deliberately removed himself from the light (okay, in our increasingly secular society, the impact of such a notion no longer holds quite as powerfully). Meyer has freely admitted somewhere that, in the creation of Twilight, she never referred to ‘traditional’ vampire lore, in essence taking the concept of the undead creature and coming up with her own version. What we’re left with, however, is something utterly at odds with what many of us have grown up with, as well as contradicting what various strains of folklore and mythology have said about them. Yes, her books and the films spawned from them have been something of a media phenomenon, and she’s garnered a great deal of success and money from it – it’s what many of us in the genre aspire to and in that respect I say good on her. But (there’s always a but), I think she’s ruined and emasculated forever the vampire as it has been known for centuries, and taken away his balls.  In its wake there have been whole truckloads of other writers jumping on the admittedly lucrative bandwagon to bring out similar tomes, where the traditional monsters of old have now become the ‘victims’ of some cosmic injustice and are fighting against type, erasing all the mythology and their attendant motivations in the process.

What appeals to me the most about the vampire trope is that constant war between the agents of physical and spiritual darkness in our midst, and humanity. There’s no room for a truce or accommodation here: it’s either kill or be killed. Furthermore, as a species we seem to be fascinated with the more extreme elements within our own society, the outcasts and murderers, the sociopathic killers and psychopathic dictators, and in some respects the vampire is all those but writ considerably larger and reflects that fascination. At base, they also represent the part of ourselves that we willingly suppress so that society is able to function properly. Reading stories about the ‘traditional’ vampire lets us indulge in those fantasies of being totally uninhibited, even if at the end of the tale we cheer heartily when he/she finally gets vanquished. There’s always going to be a small part of us that goes green with jealousy at the thought of not being accountable to authority, whether social, governmental, religious, or whatever, and just doing what we feel like doing.

Vampires, or at least those that I am familiar with, are transgressive, predatory beings with no conscience, barely registering a twitch when draining the life out of a victim. There’s no angst, no inner conflict about whether he/she should or shouldn’t, just pure and utter instinct. They simply don’t care. Humans are food, not a reason to register with a therapist for a couple of sessions. It’s what we as readers find most repellent, and yet simultaneously, so attractive about them. Add in the fact as well that they live outside the circles of what we call society and civilisation. The Count himself, for instance, was the epitome of sophisticated civilisation, and he used his considerable charms, both physical and otherwise, to lure his victims with. I feel that the idea that vampires have gone all ‘sensitive’ on us is anathema to everything I’ve read, seen or ‘know’ of them. I admit that I’ve lost interest in vampires, feeling that he’s changed out of all recognition and definitely not the creature I made as a model all those years ago – mind you, I would pay to see a ‘traditional’ vampire make absolute mincemeat of an Edward Cullen-type.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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