Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Vampire Essays pt. 1

Steph Meyer represents the latest in a long line of culturally devalued allegorical representations.  The vampire was, originally, a symbol of death, decay, and fear.  Vampires were, almost universally, peasants.  This was due to a link between the origin of the monster and burial practices as well as a link between how epidemics are created and spread.  In both cases the wealthy, usually given elaborate funeral rites and buried in grand tombs are not as susceptible to plague, disease and, let's face it, death.  It was peasant fear of death, coupled with the superstitious lack of 'scientific' knowledge that brought about such beliefs.  Throughout history we can assume that learned men have long denied the 'monsters' and 'chimera' of the common man.
We can trace, through literary evidence, the change in vampire characterizations to Lord Byron, who himself wrote an unfinished poem about a vampire, but who inspired his personal physician, John Polidori, to write his own work, The Vampyre featuring a decadent nobleman who preyed upon the blood and life force of the nubile.  It seems clear to all scholars that Lord Ruthven, the monster about whom the piece was written is so closely based upon Lord Byron himself as to be a caricature of sorts.  Starting with Polidori's tale and moving through the whole Victorian Era's gothic literary scene the vampire ceased to be a peasant nightmare and became a suave, upper class sexual predator.  Given the mores of Victorian life (sexual repression in public, depravity in private, a more-Puritan-than-Puritan attitude toward morals, the birth of British stoicism) and the reality of the class chasm in Victorian England (vast colonialism had led to Empire, the growth of an extremely wealthy middle class that created a wider gulf between it and the poor classes, who were crushed under the combined bootheels of irresponsible capitalism and nobility employing ever greater pomp to justify circumstances) it seems only proper that the monster that preys upon the peasants in the night should be seen in the urban environment as coming from the 'monster' that preyed upon them in the daylight hours.  While Polidori's work and the later Penny Dreadful Varney the Vampire (in every way the equivalent of modern paperback serials were the Penny Dreadfuls, this, really is the birth of both Anne Rice's series and Meyer's series) both predate the Ripper murders in Whitechapel, it is unavoidable that we should see links between the concepts of the shift from an allegorical symbol of death that haunted peasant villages becoming a sexually charged predator and the eventual sensationalism of the prostitute slayings of Jack.  Given again the Victorian mentality, we understand that to the Victorian Era English person, properly reared, prostitution was not a crime resulting from economic hardship, but was a sign of the sin, licentiousness and lust of women (the same charges were not, publically, leveled at the clients of said ladies of easy virtue).  Lusty women, the doctors of the day stated, turned to prostitution to sate their unnatural lust and depravity.  In such an environment of twisted sexual morality we find what may be the birth of unhealthy interest in sexual deviance (still with us today) conflated with human predation.  Lord Ruthven was a not-so-thinly veiled reference to Byron, known for his licentious and libertine behaviors (reputed, at least) and the following work, Varney the Vampire, introduced the 'sympathetic' vampire.  The sexually charged portions still existed.  By the time Stoker wrote Dracula at the end of the century, the public perception, especially in the urban environments, toward this monster had changed.  Part of this was due to the published works mentioned above and part of this was due to the field in which the seeds of the notion were planted.  The notion of 'undead' in the form of vampires was a relatively recent addition to England.  The vampire was we know it, and as the English speaking world came to know it, has its origins in Slavic and Baltic cultures.  The word had only been in use in print in English for maybe 1 or 1.5 centuries by the time Dracula was published.  It was not a traditional English monster.  Therefore anything the authors wished to do with it was fair use.
This brings us to the 1960s and 1970s.  Well, the 1930s really.  Universal touted Dracula (the 1931 film) as a love story and by hiring Lugosi, previously a leading man in Hungary, they created an undeniably attractive monster (re-watch the original 1931 Dracula and see a still young Lugosi at his best, rather than the tired junkie with which everyone is familiar and my point becomes clear).  This tradition continued trough the Hammer films, which starred the commanding and aristocratic Christopher Lee and so on.  Adaptations of Le Fanu's Carmilla (which predates Dracula by over 20 years) focused on the lesbian subtext of the novel to create sexually charged films to attract audiences looking to be titillated.  Sexual predation was now firmly a part of vampire lore, as was the sense of otherworldly 'attractiveness' the monsters possessed.  This continued throughout the 70s and 80s as vampires became a symbol of licentious sexual desire (predation had been sublimated totally) and more and more sexually charged work was created to fulfill the fantasies of women and men alike.
Until two works changed it.
The Lost Boys managed to play straight and subvert the current vampire tropes at the same time, by making the vampires both 'sexy' in a cool counterculture sort of way and at the same time disgusting monsters. 
Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles began with 1976's Interview with the Vampire and would not see a sequel for almost 10 years (publishing dates, not writing dates).  In this series, which started rather straightforward but inevitably became 'superheroic' in tone, Rice created sexually ambiguous, but again otherworldly attractive monsters who can be sympathetic, but eventually elicit not our sympathy, but our desire to be 'superheroic' ourselves. 

The inherent dangers of combining conditional reality with an 8th grade education...

I had a real conversation with a guy at work sometime ago where he questioned the ability of a vampire to sire a child with a human woman, noting that being dead the vampire would not have the bloodflow or, presumably sperm count, to complete the deed.  This is an unfortunate example of a little knowledge (8th grade level biology) coupled with the conditional reality problem that makes all fantasy writing exist in the first place.  People are perfectly willing to accept a person coming back from the dead and walking around, sparkling, and having superpowers, but have a hard time accepting procreation of same.  This is illogical.  It does illustrate, however, that the current level of 'scientific' knowledge of the human population has an effect on how they see their monsters (for a more in-depth discussion of that I am prepared, believe me).  People are 'smarter' than they used to be (rather, people have a set of unproven beliefs different from what they once had, which were just as good and more intuitive besides) and so their monsters must be as well.  The monsters change, the allegories change and eventually they are no longer even monsters.  Meyer has created the next level in her evolution of the monster-form.  From allegory for death, to sexual predator, to sexual libertine to finally allegorical "safe sex".  The safest sex.  Until the book where her own deviance asserted itself with the birth of the vampire baby jesus, or whatever, she hooked her readers by providing a 'perfect, pure love'.  Queen Victoria would have approved most heartily.  The Safest of all Sex, the nonSEX.  Vampire=Promise Ring!

This is where we are culturally.  We are neutered.  We are castrated.  We are gelded tigers in gilded cages.  We are a species of ADHD kids distracted by only our own brilliance like a parakeet looking in a mirror, blissfully unaware that the reflection is our own.

That got quite a bit more nihilistic than I intended.


  1. This one was interesting, very interesting...

  2. Thank you. It was an e-mail I sent to a friend a few months back. I edited it a bit to make a post of it.