Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween Iconography: the Vampire

DISCLAIMER: Unfortunately this post may be marred by a few puns.  This is unavoidable given elements of both my speech and writing patterns.  In order to avoid having to stop and say "Pardon the pun" or "pun intended" all the time, let's just take it as red, yeah?  For my part I promise not to say anything really tacky like "Fangs for reading" or "Fang-tastic!"  That would most likely make me, and you, vomit in our own mouths.
I suppose I had to do this eventually, as much as it pains me to do so.
I hate vampires.  I really do.  I want to not hate vampires, but the more I try not to do the more I do.  I think the problem isn't the concept of vampires so much as it is the annoying vampire fans that make me hate the vampires.  No matter how much I hate vampires, however, they are a part of the Halloween Monster Set, so I have to give them their due.
If I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it right, by golly.
Vampires are undead monsters that drink the blood of the living.  Probably.  See, it is really hard to say just what a vampire is anymore.  It is hard to say what one is historically, since so much scholarship is bogged down by pet theories and attempts to make something far older and more developed than it ever was.
We can say that blood drinking demonic entities of some form or another have existed since before written history.  We can also say that such are not vampires.  Much like the Chinese Hopping Ghost is not a vampire or a zombie, but gets described as such, it is far too easy to equate a cultural bogeyman from one culture with the cultural bogeyman of some other culture on the flimsiest of evidence.  I mean, mosquitoes drink blood, we don't call them vampires.
I've digressed.
Okay, let's start again...
The vampire is a popular horror monster running the gamut from extremely ugly monster to inhumanly sexy and attractive seductress of death, and has a veritable lunchbox of powers ranging from simple enhanced strength and immortality to the full Superman set with shapeshifting, mesmerism, flight, and maybe laser eye-beams.  The most commonly accepted set of vampire characteristics are as follows:
1. Immortal
2. Mind-control
3. Super fast
4. Super strong
5. Drinks blood
6. Burns up in sunlight
7. Aversion to holy icons
Any given work of fiction will, invariably, find a way to make its vampires "unique".  This is quite alright really as vampire fiction has been making the monster "unique" since it first became a viable commercial possibility.  Varney the Vampire had different powers than Dracula.  Both V and D were fully capable of walking in the sunlight, I should point out.  Vampires are clearly Halloween icons because they are spooky.  They are part of the undead crowd and as Halloween is about the time when the worlds conjoin and the dead walk among the living, it seems natural to associate vampires with the event.  When we think of a classic Halloween vampire, especially as a marketing ploy, we are probably thinking of Dracula as portrayed by Bela Lugosi.
Awww, so cute, where's my special little stake?
Opera cloak, widow's peak, maybe some is an iconic bit of visual shorthand, easily recognized when slapped on a package or worn as a costume.
Sure as hell looks like a Draclia to me!

Prior to John Polidori's "The Vampyre" in 1819, vampires were peasants.  There, I've said it, so all you Queen of Diggity Damned guys can fume a bit, but you will have to accept it.  This aristocratic vampire bullshit is just that, bullshit.  Vampirism was a condition restricted to the poor classes.  This was because vampirism arose from conditions of disease, poor health and improper burial practices.  The wealthy (nobles, for example) did not suffer from these problems.  Now the Wikipedia will tell you that notions of creatures that existed by feeding off of life energies, such as blood, are beyond ancient, but dammit we have to draw a line somewhere in making these definitions.  Here is my line: if a culture has yet to conceive of an afterlife then it cannot have undead and just using demonic spirits in general is too broad.  Got it?  Good.
So as I have noted, vampires come from the poor, rural classes.  This is important to note.  Cities were known for poor sanitation and packed living conditions.  A disease or plague would spread easily through the poorly ventilated streets.  People did not immediately cry "Upir!" when someone died.  In the rural areas where an entire village was serviced by a single churchyard and death (and subsequent burial) was far more personal, we find reports of vampires.  It seems only logical if we consider that living in an urban area you are not likely to be allowed to dig up the graves of the deceased to check for signs of undeath.  In a small community not only were such practices suffered to occur, they were positively indulged.  A typical comparison case would work as follows:
An individual, say a father, dies.  His body is turned over to a mortician if the family is moderately middle class, or kept at the home if they are poor.  For burial it must be taken to a churchyard or a graveyard if the city is large enough.  If very poor the corpse will be put in a pauper's grave or communal grave, left uncovered and dusted with quicklime (to speed up decomposition of the soft tissues) until the grave is filled.  It was common practice to unearth graves after several years (7 is a good number), remove the bones, clean them and place them in ossuaries.  Ground space recycling, man were our ancestors green or what?  If a close family member then fell ill suspicion fell not upon the deceased father, but rather on crap living conditions.  Things are tough all over, Osrick.  Since going to the public cemetery to exhume the corpse was not a realistic possibility, vampires just weren't on the menu of explanations for the "sudden" sickness of the family members.
An individual, say a father, dies.  His family cleans the body, sews a burial shroud, the church sexton (if it has one) digs a grave.  After the wake and visitations the body is interred.  Shortly thereafter the family members become sick.  Clearly the spirit of the dead father has come to haunt the living, as no one else in the village is sick.  Despite the fresher air and cleaner living conditions the family is getting sick and wasting away.  Could it be a lack of knowledge about communicable diseases?  Well, to be sure we should dig up the father's corpse and check to see if it is decomposing properly.  Of course we aren't experts on decomposition, so when the village priest agrees to the exhumation and we publicly dig up the corpse of the father and find him uncorrupted (not likely, but again we are not experts) and swollen with blood, his nails and hair having grown!  A strigoi!  An upir!  A vampire!  Now that we have seen this "evidence" we need look no further for our explanations and can begin the process of ridding our village of the threat.

If we lived in an urban area we'd not have vampire problems.  We'd have sanitation, employment, scurvy and rickets problems, but not vampire problems.  We'd also more easily accept the passing of someone as we would be moving farther and farther away from the intimate rural lifestyle.  Despite these ignoble origins, vampires captured the imaginations of the inhabitants of the English speaking world, as evidenced by the publication of Polidori's story, the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire, and Stoker's Dracula.  Although vampire stories are rarely set at Halloween, or exclusively so, they are monsters and therefore  part of the whole Halloween package.  When we look at Halloween costumes we see a wide array of choices, including the cheap (in quality, price or both), the classic and the popular.  The popular costumes each year will reflect a certain amount of media influence.  That is to say that top grossing movies that can produce costumes (like Pirates of the Caribbean or Twilight) will and those will be popular in the Halloween following their debut (Iron Men and Spider-Men and Hulks abound, and a Harry Potter or Voldemort is never far behind).  The classics include ghosts, Frankenstein's monsters, werewolves and "Dracula's".  Vampires are a perennial favorite and come in many varieties and the influences of pop culture will always be present.  As such they can look like any of the examples below:
Number 3 turn to the right please and read the card.  "Bitch better have my money, yo."  Thank you number 3, back in  line.
See how they are so varied but all still vampires?  What is really required for a vampire?
Fangs?  Optional actually.
Undead?  Pretty much, but the idea of "living vampires" exists in Slavic peoples.
Sleep in a coffin?  See "Undead" above.
Turn into bats? Optional.
Drink blood?  Basically, yeah, but it doesn't have to be drinking blood.
Burn up in the sunlight?  Not originally, not in Dracula even, but post-Dracula yes, usually.
I could keep going, but the gist of it is that there are many accepted vampire traits and you can use any of them or discard them as you like.  With so much variation it is no wonder that modern "scholars" feel justified in "tracing" the "origin" of the vampire back to Ancient Egypt and before, even though such evidence either does not exist or has been "found" by liberal research practices.  The name is very young, probably of Slavic origin, maybe through Greek, and the concept is not much older.  Certainly demons, some that drink blood, others that destroy life, have existed for as long as man has conceived of death, but this does not make them vampires.
The popularity of vampires is such that they have made the transition from monster to hero, in a manner of speaking.  There are superhero vampires, sexy vampires and morally ambiguous vampire protagonists who are iconoclastic individualists who nevertheless manage to win over the hearts of otherwise normal but poetically justified social outcasts.  We could write a book, nay volumes about bloody vampires, but I've only so much space or interest personally, so let's wrap up by saying that vampires are as much a part of the modern Halloween setting as Jack O Lanterns, witches, bedsheet ghosts and trick 'r treating.  Whether they are silly fun:

Teenage fantasy whiner:

Or classic Lugosi

They remain a popular image in art, decorations and costumes for the Halloween season.  Sometimes it's cheapass (a 'costume' from the drug store consisting of a plastic Dracula medallion and some fake blood) and other times it is elaborate and expensive made of crushed velvet and leather, but no matter what, the vampire has been a popular choice since at least the mid 20th century and will likely remain so for a long time to come.

There, that wasn't so hard, now was it.  Bloody vampires.

Until next time, keep those pumpkins lit...and some garlic handy as well.



  1. Hmmm...well I am not a huge Vampire fan, I'll just go ahead and confess. I mean they're okay, but I have a strong aversion to blood, so anyone that drinks that nasty stuff is just not very high up on my list. And I do tend to like a more romanticized version too I'll admit....but NOT the nambi-pambi, uber-angsty Twilight versions that glisten in the sun. I'll leave them to the tweenyboppers!

    Speaking of Vamps...I just saw an article on my MSN homepage that said Prince Charles is claiming to be related to a vampire? Have not read it yet...but sounded like something one might expect out of a crazy royal! Ha!

    As for puns...I love puns good or bad! And those 'Fang-tastic' and 'Spook-tacular' ones don't really bother me at all because as a greeting card designer....those kinds of goofy puns are the ones that sell well....go figure! With that being very best friends are intelligent with nicely snarky/sarcastic senses of humor just like you! (not mean spirited at all, just sharply dry and astute) and those are my favorite types of people! So your puns are not lost on me! :o)

    Hope you and the lovely Frau Punkenstein are enjoying the high holiday! It's gone by SO quick for hiss!

  2. Wendy, I appreciate your comments. Frau Punkinstein and I are a bit concerned that the weather will not favour us this Saturday, which is the slated bonfire night, so fingers crossed touch wood and a little bit of Appalachian Granny magic and maybe it will be okay.
    Greeting card designer is so much more interesting than IA Consultant, which is what I do for my bread and cheese, I can tell you. And to think I was going to be an English professor...tch. So that's one more vote for ignoring Twilight; I heartily approve.