[written by speculative author, artist and reviewer Simon Marshall-Jones]
Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula unleashed the figure of the immortal, vampiric Count upon the public in 1897 and the book has never been out of print since. And, over the intervening 113 years, it’s also unleashed a steady stream of countless (and some, in fact, very much Countless) books, stories, films, television shows and at least one stage musical, Dance of the Vampires, for which we have to thank Jim Steinman of Meatloaf fame [music] and Michael Kunze [lyrics]. Despite ever-changing trends in each of those media, the vampire has managed to keep gripping the public’s imagination, plus the book that started it off is still being bought and read. And, of course, it’s even entered the fashion and musical subcultures, most notably in the Goth scene (complete with fangs, in some cases).
Why have vampires fascinated people for over a century and why do they still have the power to do so? What is it about this particular creature that has such a hold over us?
It’s partly because of the personal attributes of the vampire itself – primal, beholden to no-one, rule-defying, ageless and, most importantly, immortal. Stoker portrayed the aristocratic Dracula, the archetype of all vampires in popular culture, as the epitome of evil and decadence, his immortality seen, not as something to be desired, but as a punishment for his affront to both God and nature. That was why he could only inhabit the nocturnal hours, making him unknowable and dangerous, but in a way that no-one could ever be in a civilised society (especially late 19th century Victorian society), and incredibly thrilling to boot. He was also a representative of a world that was gradually succumbing to the progress of science – a sign that people of his type were soon to become a source of misty-eyed nostalgia. The old order was crumbling, even if people were unaware of it at the time. Within the space of just two decades, the whole of western society had suffered a major seismic shift in the wake of the First World War.
Add to that he is very much the typical exotic foreigner – after all, he was the scion of Eastern European nobility, and as such elevated, unreachable and distant. In these days of cheap travel, we tend to forget that there was a time when even travelling to our nearer European neighbours was an arduous undertaking and could only be afforded by the rich. Anything beyond the borders of Western Europe, anything vaguely ‘Eastern’, in fact, was considered exotic, simply because of their inaccessibility and remoteness. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was very much a product of its time, the product of an age of expansion and exploration, where borders, both physical and metaphysical, were expanding.
And there’s a clue in there as to why vampires continue to fascinate and mesmerise us – that central thesis, the exotic outsider, can be adapted in so many ways. Whether it’s the last remaining member of a lost aristocracy or a brooding teenage blood-substitute-sucker who’s probably going through perpetual puberty, they’re all outsiders to one degree or another. Every re-imagining gives us something that we can relate to, something relevant to our particular times, and is a response to the current zeitgeist.
And how our vampire archetypes have changed since Bram Stoker’s times! The latest incarnation, for instance, are those to be found peopling Stephenie Meyer’s hugely successful Twilight series of books and the films adapted from them. They’re no longer the supernatural creatures from another time and place; they’re broody, angst-ridden teens who have the same problems with life, love and adults who don’t understand them as the ones in real life do. The kind a lot of us come across every day; and let’s face it, teens do often feel like they are outsiders, torn between the carefree days of childhood and the looming responsibilities that will be theirs once they become adults. They’re still immortal and they’re still bad, but they’ve also become thoughtful, caring and sensitive. Whatever you think of them and Meyer’s mangling of vampiric ‘canon’, they have brought a whole new generation of vampire-lovers into our midst. It is to be hoped that at least some of them will go on to explore the vampire ‘tradition’ in horror literature and discover what it’s really about.
Along the way we’ve also had superhero ninja vampires, biker vampires, lesbian vampires, and everything in between. And that’s their appeal – their sheer flexibility as an archetype. Vampires, more than any other monster staple of horror literature and cinema, more so than zombies, for instance, have changed to suit the times and the prospective audience that is being aimed for. Even back in late Victorian times, the vampire was the focus of vicarious thrills in a strictly-corseted and regulated society. The vampire serves exactly the same purpose today, albeit he has been neutered for the most part, the fangs blunted and has been made safe for mass consumption (especially the teen market). They’ve been made shinier, slicker and sparklier.
In many ways, vampires, despite some of their somewhat questionable dietary needs and habits, appeal to us because they have BECOME like us. The only difference is that they just that they happen to have seemingly superhuman attributes. They reflect very human desires which would, in effect, make us nothing less than our own gods, standing outside the circle of society. So, how does immortality sound to you? Pretty damn good, I think. How does never aging appeal? It happens to appeal mighty strongly, sir! What about being hard to kill (apart from the whole stake through the heart and spontaneously combusting in sunlight thing)? Nice, could come in handy when robbing that 24hr convenience store for cigarettes and booze. How does not having to conform to any of those pesky norms and laws authority-figure types keep banging on about? I’ll take some of that, thank you very much!! How about some of that snappy, elegant sartorial attire? Hit me up, baby! Okay, vampirism does have a downside – having to visit the blood-donor clinic every so often for a snack and having to stay indoors on a lovely sunny day when you could be partying on a beach somewhere with the local talent do tend to put a dampener on the idea. But, on the whole, you have to admit that most of the aforementioned appeals immensely.
There are those who have gone one step further, and fully embraced the vampire ‘lifestyle’ and ‘culture’ as their prime mode of expression in their own, everyday lives. The Goth culture, especially, has taken to the whole vampirism riff wholeheartedly. Whether it’s to be considered silly or just a bit of harmless fun is irrelevant in this case (although I tend towards the former myself), it just goes to prove that the vampire has become a solid part of popular culture like no other horror creation has before or since, with the possible exception of the zombie, or rampaging giant lizards intent on stomping Tokyo for the zillionth time or massively steroidal gorillas doing a spot of freeform skyscraper climbing.
One thing we can predict from all the above, though, and that is that sometime in the not too distant future, we’ll have yet another popular re-envisioning of the vampire, once again taking its cue from the prevailing winds of whatever’s happening in the world. What form that reshaping will take is anybody’s guess; just be assured that, whether it’s two years or twenty into the future, it will happen. No doubt we will have a chorus of those saying that it doesn’t conform to the ‘canon’ or the accepted mythology. But those people will miss the essential point of the vampire, a point that has enabled it to survive the last century and become a media and cultural icon, an icon that has, appropriately, achieved its own immortality: that, just like a virus, vampires have the capacity to adapt and change to their environment. And they will continue to do so for the next 113 years at the very least.