Nov 21, 2009
These are not your grandmother’s vampires. They don’t wear capes. They don’t speak with thick Transylvanian accents. They don’t even always drink blood (although some do drink TruBlood™). They come young and old, good and bad, a full cross-section of our own society, yet … different. Apart from us, an exclusive subculture, parallel to ours, yet still preying on us. How has the vampire archetype changed? Why have these complex and often inter-buttressing vampire mythologies emerged only in the last three decades? What does this reflect about who we are today?
Of course, a lot of the original vampire folklore remains unchanged, and what has not changed is at least as important as what has. To start, a quick sketch and deconstruction of a traditional vampire (the “Dracula” archetype). A hundred years ago, vampires were literally monsters. Their defining characteristics include the following:
- They are men.
- They come from Eastern Europe, or some other place exotic to Great Britain and America.
- They have an air of worldliness and sophistication.
- They are charming and seductive.
- They are slightly effeminate.
- They are older, but not too old.
- They are alone; if they have a companion, it is never another vampire, always a subservient human under the vampire’s thrall.
- They have vast wealth of unknown provenance.
- They have superhuman powers and weaknesses: the ability to transform, super-human sight and hearing, a lack of reflection and a weakness for garlic, sunlight, crucifixes and holy water.
- They are immortal.
Sidebar: This last point has been reinterpreted; we now believe that tradition says a vampire can only be killed by decapitation or a stake through the heart. In fact, tradition stated that a vampire can never be killed; the stake through the heart (a sanctified piece of ash, maple, or hawthorne) was always hammered in place while the vampire lay sleeping all day in his coffin (which had to rest on the soil of his homeland). By hammering the stake through the vampire and into the ground below, one is able to keep the vampire pinned in place. He will continue to wake every night, but pinned in place and buried in a secret chamber, he will be unable to get up.
The portrait those characteristics paint is one of an older gentleman, refined and wealthy, yet twisted, preying on young girls. In fact, a vampire traditionally hungers for the blood of young female virgins — the sexual overtones of this relationship are not hard to see. The vampire drains the young woman of her vital force, turning her into a shadow of her former self and ultimately killing her. Call this the Modern Vampire archetype (as opposed to the Classic Vampire, who, like Nosferatu, was clearly inhuman, clearly a monster, and could not blend in with human society).
Perhaps the portrayal of the Modern Vampire archetype that has most seeped into our culture is Bela Lugosi’s performance in 1931’s “Dracula,” directed by Tod Browning. Certainly it covers all the points above. An added feature that Bram Stoker includes in his novel, and which appears in this film, is Dracula’s “wives” — three consorts who act as his seductresses. Who are these women? They’re not vampires — certainly they are not actively predatory in the way Dracula is himself. They’re not humans under his spell, as is Renfield, who is essentially a madman. Dracula’s influence works like hypnosis; the strength of his personality bends the will of others. But the brides of Dracula are just spectres; they float around in diaphanous gowns, looking ghostly but never uttering a word.
These brides can be unpacked along with the rest of the message of Dracula. Consider the central relationship (the original tagline for Browning’s “Dracula” was “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” And Dracula is not a love story. It is the story of a man who preys on younger women.
Imagine the story of Dracula, but with the supernatural element removed: a striking and sophisticated gentleman moves to England and meets his neighbours. There is something about him that unsettles most people. One young woman, already married to a young and headstrong but uncomplicated man, is fascinated by him. He woos her, luring her away from her husband, and arranging midnight trysts. She becomes entranced. But this gentleman does not love her; he wants to consume her, and soon her vitality is drained from her. That sparkle disappears from her eye, and the toll of this relationship becomes to great for her, and her life is ultimately in danger.
This is the root of the Dracula archetype, as it originally appeared in Western culture. It is a fable directed to young women of marriageable age, a warning of what happens when one rushes into a relationship with someone who seems, on the surface, to be charming and wealthy, but whose old-world values mean she will be repressed by her husband, forced into a subservient role, and her own hopes and dreams overtaken by the duties of playing châtelaine for her husband. Western values of the era that introduced “Dracula” were marked by the emergence of both individualism and especially feminism; women’s suffrage was constitutionally ensured in the US in 1920, fully granted in the UK in 1928, and “Dracula” came out just 3 years later. I don’t want to imply that suffrage in Eastern Europe lagged; in some cases it preceded even American suffrage. I mean only to emphasize that equality for women and the birth of feminist individualism were at the forefront of modern Western culture, and any outsider influences would be cast as repressive.
Thus there are two contributors that make men who fit the Modern Vampire archetype a bad choice for young women of marriageable age: agism and xenophobia. Dracula is much older than Mina, or his other female victims, but he is also a cultural outsider who does not hold Western values. So despite his wealth and charm, a young American man is a much better choice for her. The Dracula story boils down to a cautionary fable, directed at young women who are impressed by worldliness, wealth and sophistication: this man is not what he seems on the surface, he may be twisted, and he will drain the life from you. This brings us back to Dracula’s wives: they are not humans or zombies or other vampires, they are the spirits of other women that Dracula has used up — other girls like Mina who fell for his charms, only to be robbed of their spirits. They exist not as clearly defined beings but as physical reminders of the women who have come before, the lingering presence of old lovers, and a warning of what Mina will become.
This type of cautionary fable is not confined to vampire literature. I believe Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” fits precisely this same model (the rest of this paragraph contains mild spoilers, for those who have not read the book or seen the movie). This book was first published in novel form in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” was released, which could indicate that the theme was already permeating Western culture, waiting only to be boiled down and allegorised by Stoker. Stoker and James are both Westerners, but while Stoker, an Irishman, wrote about a Transylvanian, the American Anglophile James wrote his vampire character Gilbert Osmond as an American ex-pat living in old-world Florence. Isabel Archer, the protagonist of the book, is a young American woman who through various events has found herself not only on the cusp of her social debut, but also the heir of a vast fortune. Isabel’s animus is her desire to explore her freedom; she has both literal freedom to travel and do as she pleases, as well as a monetary fortune that symbolises this freedom in a more concrete way. It is for this reason that she declines two worthy suitors and makes her way to Europe. There she meets Osmond, and, encouraged by her duenna, accepts his proposal. Only too late does she learn that her duenna was a Renfieldian compatriot of Osmond’s, the mother of Osmond’s lovechild, and did not have her best interests at heart. Osmond proceeds to control her fortune and take away her freedom. Whether she is able to shake herself free from the machinations of the oppressive Osmond is never made explicit.
There are some striking similarities between “Dracula” and “Portrait of a Lady.” In both, a young woman who is either betrothed to another more suitable man, or has received proposals from them, becomes smitten with an older, more worldly man. These men exhibit superior taste, and have (or at least seem to have) mysterious sources of wealth. Both men have devoted helpers who arrange meetings with the young virgins they ultimately charm. These young virgins become entranced, in once case marrying, and in the other case engaging in an affair (albeit one symbolically removed through the metaphor of vampire / victim predation). Both young women find their vitality and freedom threatened, jeopardizing their promising futures, and are saved from themselves only through the intervention of loving family members.
The Dracula archetype of vampires persisted well into the 20th century. Faithful adaptations of “Dracula” were made as late as 1992, although that particular interpretation was perhaps too liberal with the homosexual overtones. But before the traditional Dracula archetype could be displaced, a new vampire mythology was already rising to take its place. Beginning with the expansion of the “vampire hunter” archetype, and followed closely by the creation of vampire societies, the second half of the 20th century took vampire myths in a whole new direction, one that has flourished into the cultural phenomenon we see today.
The first and most obvious shift we see is away from the vampire as a twisted lone monster, and towards the vampire that lives in groups, forming a distinct subculture (or parallel culture, since they are technically not a subset of human culture). I call this the Postmodern Vampire archetype. Some important landmarks:
- 1983 – The Hunger
- 1987 – The Lost Boys
- 1992 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (film)
- 1994 to 2002 – Interview With the Vampire (& sequels)
- 1995 – Vampire In Brooklyn
- 1997 to 2003 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (TV series)
- 1998 to 2004 – Blade (& sequels)
- 1999 to 2004 – Angel
- 2001 – Vampire High
- 2003 to 2009 – Underworld (& sequels)
These run the gamut from Gothic to action / adventure, but there is still a line of mythology that emerges when taken as a group. Contemporarily, there is:
- 2006 to present – Blood Ties
- 2008 to present – True Blood
- 2008 to present – Twilight (& sequels)
- 2009 – The Vampire Diaries
- 2009 – The Vampire’s Assistant
- 2009 – Daybreakers
There are still twists on the Modern Vampire to be explored, as in 2008’s “Let the Right One In,” and some hybrids like “The Omega Man,” “From Dusk Til Dawn,” “Van Helsing,” and “30 Days of Night,” but by and large this archetype has been abandoned for the vastly more popular Postmodern Vampire; the “Twilight” series is arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of the second half of this decade.
Starting in the 1980s, and developing over the course of the last three decades, some changes appear in the way vampires are typically portrayed:
- They are men and women.
- They are locals, not outsiders (or at the very least they are of the same nationality as the humans / viewers).
- They often have a conscience (sometimes even a soul).
- They are no longer effeminate, or are less effeminate, and more closely adhere to the expectations of masculinity.
- They come in all physiological ages, even children (although this physical appearance may belie great age).
- They live in groups, often families.
- They are no longer immortal, and are in fact easily killed in combat by staking (often by crossbow), decapitation, and sunlight.
Some characteristics remain more or less unchanged:
- They have an air of worldliness and sophistication.
- They are charming and seductive (with the added characteristic of being brooding).
- They have vast wealth of unknown provenance.
- They have superhuman powers and weaknesses: they have lost the ability to transform, but retained super-human speed, strength, sight and hearing. Often the weakness towards garlic, holy water, and crosses is nonexistent.
The two most important shifts we see here are away from vampires as lone monsters and towards living in groups that form a microcosm of human society, and the development of a conscience, which produces the archetype of the “good vampire” (viz. Angel, Edward Cullen, et al.). I would argue that rather than a mere tweaking of the cautionary fable of the Modern Vampire, these changes represent the wholesale replacement of that model with an entirely new one, one with an entirely new set of implications and meanings. That is, the superficial elements of the sexual metaphor remain the same, but the underlying meaning of the Postmodern Vampire has nothing to do with the old Dracula myth.
The sexual aspect of the Modern Vampire was essentially an extended metaphor or allegory for the imposition of a man on an inexperienced woman, particularly one with weak defenses to his charms. This emerged in an era of sexual inequality; men had sexual dominance over women (I don’t think this needs much explanation, but consider as one example the legal nonexistence of rape within marriage). Thus one fundamental key to understanding vampires of any stripe is the hierarchy of the relationship between vampire and human. Vampires preyed on women who were unable to put up too much of a fight in more or less the same way men did in the sexual arena of actual humans.
With the progress of women’s rights, the sexual politics between men and women have changed, and now, at least in theory, men and women are on a level playing field, sexually speaking. Not only do men not “prey” on women in consensual sex, but there is an expectation that it is enjoyable for both partners, and sex is engaged in between two equals. How much truth there is to that is open to debate, I suppose, but at least compared with our Victorian ancestors, consensual sex today does not involve hierarchy in the sense of one person’s will overpowering the other’s. It stands to follow, then, that the Dracula allegory of sexual predation between unequal parties would disappear, and the female or human side of the equation now actually wants to enter into the relationship. In the vampire / human sexual dynamic of the Postmodern Vampire, the predatory aspect is all but gone.
The hierarchy, however, remains. Vampires and humans still constitute two different but unequal groups, and vampires, by virtue of their worldliness, sophistication, secret knowledge, wealth, and superhuman powers, are superior to regular humans. Therefore vampires, as a class, are superior to humans. The few exceptions to this rule, where vampire men and human women have relationships as equals, are achieved not by lowering the status of the vampire to that of humans, but by raising the status of the human: superhuman strength and agility (in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or psychic abilities (in the case of True Blood’s female human protagonist) are given to women in order to put them on more equal social footing. In all other instances, such as Twilight’s Bella and Edward, or The Vampire Diaries’s Elena and Stefan, the male vampire remains distinctly hierarchically superior to the human woman, in downright Harlequinesque fashion. This non-predatory yet hierarchic sexual relationship between vampire and human is made possible through the creation of the “good vampire” — a vampire who abstains from drinking human blood, and feels compassion for humans. It’s always an uneasy relationship, since the hierarchy must be overcome through the willpower and grace of the vampire, but it is very different from the predator / prey dynamic between Dracula and Mina.
Equally important is the fact that these “good vampires” exist within a supportive culture of other vampires. No longer the lone monster, today’s vampires have complex societies, with codes of conduct, and a hierarchy unto themselves. They are essentially fully-formed microcosms of human society. They are always (with the exception of Daybreakers) far smaller in number than humans. They live among humans, often interacting directly with them. Their culture is kept hidden, secret — not unlike the secret societies found in conspiratorial literature. In effect, they are a parallel subculture, one that is ultimately parasitic to human culture, but hierarchically above it.
The underlying structure of the Postmodern Vampire mythology begins to emerge. They are superior to us — innately superior, by virtue of their vampire biology, as opposed to being granted superiority by their accomplishments or their wealth. They exist totally separate from the rest of human culture. Their culture is complex, but mysterious and hidden from us. They see us as a resource. But they are not incapable of falling in love with us. This description is equally apt for describing a modern plutarchy.
Plutocracy is rule by the elite or wealthy. It is marked by high disparity between the rich and the rest of society, combined with low social mobility. I propose that a growing awareness of the existence of plutarchy and a diminishing belief in the “American dream” of equal opportunity underlies our changing mythology of vampires. As consciousness of class inequality in North America expands, the ruling elite is metaphorically transposed onto the mythology of vampires.
The old class consciousness of North America was founded on the belief that hard work and luck would allow any citizen to ascend the ranks of society to become a leader of industry. There was no inherent barrier between the upper class and the rest of society, it was believed; money was the sole factor in determining a person’s class, and if you could accrue enough of it, either through effort or even winning the lottery, you could become a member of the upper class. New class consciousness reveals this as a myth. Even a lifetime of hard work earning a good salary will never put the average person within reach of joining the elite. The disparity between the elite and the rest of us is too huge in financial terms to be made up — and the financial aspect is only part of what makes the elite the elite. There is an inherent superiority to the elite; this idea has no tradition in America, but can be seen quite explicitly in the concept of monarchy. Certain people are born to rule, by virtue of some inherent superiority; this was sometimes figured in terms of religion, as the king of England’s role as God’s appointed representation of the head of the church, an appointment passed along by inheritance. In other cases, as with the absolute monarchy of India, the king derived his authority solely from hereditary rights. In North America, there has never been a tradition of inherent inequality, but there is a growing awareness that membership to the elite is best (or only) achieved by being born into it.
Like the aristocracy, vampires are superior not only because of their power and wealth, but because of some inherent — in the case of vampires, biological — appointment. It is a self-justifying quality, one that is preserved through the secrecy of the society; laid out for everyone to see, the superiority of both aristocrats and vampires would become banal. But kept mysterious, this inherent quality works like magic. It is this inherent quality separating “us” from “them” that underlies the Postmodern Vampire: the biological distinction between humans and vampires symbolizes the unbreachable gap between the elite and the rest of us. There is absolutely no class mobility between vampires and humans; they are distinct groups with no common members.
Or nearly so. There are two exceptions: the hybrid (aka “daywalker”) and the human who becomes a vampire. While the hybrid (viz. Blade) is merely a basic Robin Hood type, the human who becomes a vampire is the central focus of the Postmodern Vampire myth. A repeated pattern appears among Postmodern Vampire stories: a young woman falls for a mysterious man, who is revealed to be a vampire. He is drawn to her as well, although the exact nature of his attraction remains vague. He withdraws from her, ostensibly for her protection, and the more he withdraws, the more intense her passion becomes. He justifies his inaccessibility by explaining that his love endangers her. The only acceptable conclusion to this situation is for the young woman to become a vampire.
And who wouldn’t want to become a vampire? They’re rich, they’re gorgeous, they live forever, and most of all, they exude an aura of cool that places them alongside rock stars (and in some cases, they actually are rock stars). But the transition from human to vampire is not to be taken lightly. This young woman must be thoroughly vetted; even then, she is often converted to a vampire only against the wishes of the vampire authorities. The transformation into a vampire is one-way. She will have to leave her old life behind, never again seeing her loved ones. It is often painful. Worse — just to make the point as explicit as possible — she must literally die in order to ascend to vampire culture.
The transition from human to vampire is so profound that not only does it involve death — a human can never become a vampire without help. No amount of hard work, luck and willpower can turn a human into a vampire. The only access to vampire culture is through a familiar, a member of vampire culture who is sympathetic, and can protect the human while showing her the ways of vampire society. In other words, to act as chaperone; to vouch for the young human, to guide her, and to educate her. Consider the implications if you replace the word “vampire” with “upper class.”
An example by way of inversion: in the 1997 movie Titanic (again, spoilers ahead for anyone who managed to miss this), characters are sharply delineated by class. They are explicitly divided into first class and second / third class, with those divisions being socioeconomic as much as architectural. There’s a lot of class politics in the film, but for the purposes of this example, consider the role of Rose to be the good vampire, and Jack the human aspiring to vampirism. It is only with Rose’s help — getting past the security of the first class threshold, obtaining the proper clothes to give him the appearance of an upperclassman, and being taught the ropes of high society — that Jack is able to “pass” at all. The apex of this first class society is dining at the captain’s table. Jack is adept enough to survive conversation, but needs guidance choosing the proper fork. Of course, Jack is fundamentally not a first-class person, and no matter how convincing his posturing, he is, at heart, a third-class person and always will be. The price of his deception and ambition is death. In dying, however, he does symbolically become a member of the upper class, by fusing with the character of Rose.
The difference between the sexual politics and class politics of Portrait of a Lady and Titanic could not be more striking. They ostensibly portray characters who lived roughly contemporaneous lives. Yet while Isabel must contend with rigid European mores, and her vampire takes the form of a hateful older gentleman, Jack’s vampire is female, young, and sympathetic to people in the lower classes. Isabel is a victim of a vampire who preys on her freedom, while Jack is a victim only of circumstance, and his vampire is blameless in his failure to make the transition.
The underlying shift in sexual and class politics is instructive. Now, there is no threat that the wealthy suitor will try to control the young human woman and suck her will to live. Now, there is only her desire to be transformed into a member of this hierarchically superior secret society. In that sense, vampires are the new Prince Charming.
Another example, this one uninverted: Cinderella versus Bella Swan of “Twilight.” Cinderella was quite literally a peasant, wearing rags and doing menial chores, when through a stroke of fortune she was able to meet a handsome prince. Ultimately, his love for her (along with some help from luck manifest as her fairy godmother) was able to transform her into a princess. The peasant girl transformed into princess motif is not exclusive to Cinderella; Snow White, the unnamed girl from Beauty and Beast and many other fairytales all share the pattern of a young woman who meets (or more accurately: is met by) a prince who falls in love with her beauty and is able to elevate her to the position of princess. The unlikelihood of this scenario ever coming to pass in reality is obvious, but the story is a fantasy of ideal marriage, created for an audience of young women.
Bella, similarly, is met by Edward, who at over a century of age still ventures to highschool for some reason. He falls in love with her, and while he is at first reluctant even to interact with her, he can’t resist her charms. He resists turning her into a vampire, but ultimately concedes, with the consent of his family, on the condition that she first become his wife. At this point it becomes obvious that there is some underlying prudishness to this tale; if the act of biting is a metaphor for sex, why would a vampire wait until marriage? Of course the answer lies in both Edward’s virtue — he is not a predator, after all — and in the author’s strict Mormonism.
The Postmodern Vampire, then, is not a predatory older man who wants to control a young woman and rob her of her virtue, but a Prince Charming of the aristocracy who genuinely loves her, and wants to protect her while undergoing the ascension from the lower classes to the elite. The fundamental and irreversible physical nature of this transformation underlies the fact that mobility between classes — whether it be from a poor family to a rich one, or from human to vampire — is profound, and only achieved with the help of a sympathetic figure already in good standing among the subculture.
Following this analysis, vampire society as a metaphor for plutarchy could only have evolved in an era where the concept of aristocracy — a class of people so fundamentally different and superior that there is virtually no mobility between them and everyone else — is emerging in parallel. The financial crisis set off by the subprime mortgage problem has drawn into sharp focus the difference, and the separation, of top-earners and capitalists from the rest of us, not only in their income and lifestyles, but in their values as well. They seem to hold us in contempt — can we be surprised that the idea of the aristocratic class as a bunch of bloodsucking vampires has exploded in the past few months? Or that young women who still long to ride off into the sunset with Prince Charming should hope that a member — a young, sympathetic member — of this hierarchically superior superclass would fall in love with her and let her leave her old life behind?
The hierarchy of vampirism, originally based on cultural invasion and sexual predation, is now based on sexual equality and class predation. In Daybreakers, vampires literally keep humans for agriculture, farming them for their blood. The peak oil metaphor is overt, but another allegory, that of a ruling class living off the productivity of a subjugated class, is just as apt. That capitalists control the oil supply of the US and Canada means these two readings can occur simultaneously.
But surely the vampire obsession is just a craze; as surely as the threat of invasive Transylvanians intent on seducing our daughters passed a century ago, the threat of a parasitic overclass (even one that offers the hope of princesshood) will get tired as well, as these issues bubble up from the cultural subconscious and become part of the cultural dialogue. Is it any wonder that all these vampire cultural artifacts emerge from the US and Canada? Britain likes its zombies, giving us 28 Days Later, Shawn of the Dead and Dead Set among others, but it lags in the vampire department because their class consciousness is already well established. In time, whatever underlying messages are encoded in complex American vampire mythologies will also be aired, and the vampire fad will fade.