The Evolution of the Vampire

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

 

The Evolution of the Vampire

I’ve always loved vampires.  There’s something about a good vampire story…  But in recent years it just hasn’t been the same.

Vampires, you’ve changed.  You used to be cool.  What happened to you, man?

I.  Pre-Literary:  “Bar maid! Bring me stronger ale! And some plump, succulent babies to eat!”

Back in the day, vampires were monsters.  That’s it, plain and simple.  They weren’t conflicted-tormented-I-don’t-want-to-eat-the-ones-I-love, and they weren’t even suave stylish I-can-kill-you-before-you-blink-without-a-hair-out-of-place.  They weren’t pretty.  They weren’t sexy.  They were monsters.  Vampires were corpses–dead bodies–that killed the living.

One of the earliest legends is the Semitic/Babylonian story of Lilith, the first wife of Adam who swore emnity with the children of Eve (us).  Lilith was said to live on the blood of babies.  For the Greeks and Romans, vampires were pretty much interchangeable with witches, who either ate children or seduced-and-then-ate unwary young men.

The medieval era saw vampire legends become codified.  Vampires (according to folklore) were not a seperate race of beings, and you did not become a vampire by being bitten.  It was who you were in life that made you a vampire after death.  Vampires were said to be the bodies of evil people, witches, or suicides (which is why suicides were pre-emptively beheaded and then buried at crossroads).

II.  The Romantic Influence:  Dead Sexy

The first vampire story in English was The Vampyre by John Polidori.  Polidori had just had a falling out with Lord Byron, and the evil vampire of his story–the suave aristocratic Lord Ruthven–bears an uncanny similiarity to Byron.  This was one of the first times that a vampire was seen to be handsome, rich, and noble… though still very much evil.  (Ruthven binds the protagonist with an oath of noninterference before the protagonist knows what Ruthven is.  Ruthven then proceeds to marry and feed on the protagonist’s sister.)

Also developing throughout the Romantic Era is the idea of vampires as sexual beings.  With a few exceptions, the early legends were fairly asexual: the vampire was a monster that wanted to eat your babies.  But Ruthven couples his feeding with marriage.  The bite–now a neat double-pinprick, a penetration–is often on the neck or breast.  From Polidori on, the vampire now targets beautiful young women.  (Even female vampires; it has been suggested that Le Fanu’s Carmilla has lesbian undertones in the vampiress’s choice of exclusively female victims.)

Which sort of distances vampires from their “monster” status.  Vampires are sexy.  Most monsters are not.  There are very few romance novels written about falling in love with a zombie and meeting her family (and nearly all of them are written by one very peculiar kilt-wearing librarian of my acquaintance).

Then, of course, came Dracula.

Stoker’s was the last vampire story of the Romantic Era.  He took elements from Polidori and Le Fanu and ran with them: Count Dracula is aristocratic like Ruthven, sexual like Carmilla, predatory like Varney…

Dracula introduces some crucial developments to the vampire legend.  It was the first time vampirism was approached as a contagious disease–where one fed on by a vampire becomes a vampire themself (such as the ill-fated Lucy Westrake).  As a disease, it is partly combatable through science, via blood transfusions and the like.  And it depicts vampires, beings of folklore and pastoral legend, existing in an Industrial Victorian era of steamships and telegraphs and medical science.  The vampire had become modernized.

III.  The Late Twentieth Century: Whine and Dine

The twentieth century echoed and re-echoed with the impact of Dracula–the silent film Nosferatu, the Bela Lugosi film adaptation.  For a while, vampires were the kings of scary.  And then…

Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire was a unique take on the vampire legend.  Instead of an evil being reveling in his evilness, the central character Louis is a tormented, conflicted character–haunted by the moral implications of the predatory aspect of his existence.  He tells his life story to the unnamed reporter–but when the reporter asks to be made a vampire himself, Louis flips out at him, angry that he’s learned nothing from the story.  Louis is brooding, melancholy, and ultimately depressed.

Which is fine for this book–the monster-as-victim was a new take on the genre.  Or at least, it would be fine for this book… if every vampire protagonist since hasn’t been a Louis.  Every vampire protagonist since (save Rice’s other character, the anti-hero Lestat) has been melancholy, morose… whiny.

“Oh, look at me!  I need to kill in order to live, but I don’t want to!  Look at me, I miss the sunlight!  Why oh why do I have to be such a monster, with no-one to love me!”  *whinge* *whinge*

I understand why, of course.  Dracula, Carmilla, Varney, Orlock, and Ruthven were all antagonists.  Louis, Nicholas Knight, Angel, Selene, and Edward Cullen are protagonists–and the reader/viewer has a harder time identifying with a protagonist who is an unrepentant monster.  So all the vampire protagonists must be reluctant monsters, and reluctant = whiny.  Many don’t even drink human blood anymore: Angel drinks the blood of rats, Nicholas drinks bottled animal blood, Blade has his serum injections, and I think Selene takes some kind of blood pill.  (I won’t subject myself to that movie again to find out.)

It’s just become such a formula, such a cliche.

“Oh, Louis, Louis. Still whining, Louis. Have you heard enough? I’ve had to listen to that for centuries!”  –Lestat, to the Interviewer

IV.  The Twenty-First Century: Heaving Bosoms and Vegetarians

And now vampires are at the top of the charts again, but not for being the badass scary face-ripper-offers that they once were.  Now it’s all about the romance.  Blech.

Listen, I’m a former (read: recovering) Goth.  I can understand and appreciate a good story of tragic forbidden love.  And a vampire is an awesome person to have a tragic forbidden love with, Romeo-and-Juliet-style.  I mean, what pathos there is in loving someone who loves you back–but might accidentally eat you if they get a little peckish!  Some of the better moments from the anime Trinity Blood or from season three of Buffy The Vampire Slayer come to mind.

But something in the Twilight series just turns me off.  Maybe it’s how mainstream it is.  (Chris’s Inner Goth says: ‘If it’s mainstream it probably sucks.’)  Maybe it’s how all the actors in the movie trailers have PETULANCE permanantly ingrained on their faces.  Maybe it’s because it’s set in a high school (and if I’m a kick-ass vampire, tell me why in the name of Caine the Bloody Father am I going to go to high school?).  Or maybe it’s just how very romance it is.  This is like, if Dracula had been written as a TV movie for WeTV or the Lifetime Channel.  Or if it was a Harlequin Romance novel–complete with cover featuring a vampire in a puffy shirt and a woman with heaving bosom.

I don’t know, man.  I miss the days of a good vampiric anti-hero.  Give me Gerard Butler’s Dracula (Dracula 2000): seducing women, breaking necks, cursing God, summoning storms…  Give me Spike from Buffy Season Two (when he and Dru were the head villains, before he got a soul and went all Angel Part Two on us).  When I read or watch a story about a vampire, I want someone that could either be my deadliest enemy who I’d stake in a heartbeat, or (more rarely) my most powerful (though never-trusted) ally.  Somehow hair gel and vegetarianism and “Oh Edward!” never entered the equation.

“Hey guys… I don’t want to be a dick or nothing, but… Aren’t vampires supposed to be badasses…?  Aren’t you going to… cut off our faces and drink our blood?”

Blech.  Blech blech blech.

I’d love to see less vampire protagonists in modern movies.  Give me more vampire villains–that’s how vampires were meant to be.

Maybe someday I’ll read the Twilight books.  Maybe someday (though far less likely) I’ll see the movie.  Though, to be honest, I think I’d rather take the time reading Twilight would have taken and instead re-read Stoker’s original Dracula again.

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