Way back in the 1840s, the penny dreadful (rightfully named–each chapter cost a penny and most had all the literary merit of an insurance company’s internal memo) Varney The Vampyre introduced a brand new idea in vampire fiction. Given the youth of the genre, that doesn’t sound quite so impressive. On the other hand, it goes hand in hand with the other trope Varney pioneered–the reluctant nosferatu. The title character, while arrogant and ruthless, felt disgust at his state. He even approached the (initial) heroine of the tale, Flora, with a legend–the idea that if he were to find a willing human bride, then he might cease to be a vampire. One big chunk in the middle of this 200-plus chapter tome consists of Sir Francis seeking a bride with exactly that in mind.
For the record he never manages it, so whether his plan would have worked remains in doubt.
Here we have the first literary vampire who sought a way out of his condition. Others followed, although not in great numbers. Countess Zaleska in the film Dracula’s Daughter made a kind of cinematic history that way, becoming the first such creation in a movie to look for (and fail to find) a cure. John Carradine’s Dracula in another universal film, House of Dracula, also sought out a scientist seeking for a cure–although in his case it seems (somewhat confusingly) to be either a means of getting close to a young woman or perhaps to corrupt the brilliant scientist who went on to successfully cure the Wolfman. Barnabas Collins in the first film and both television series of Dark Shadows looked for a cure as well, eventually succeeding not once but twice! Surely a record. Most likely, this was also the first such success. Later two other characters in Dracula The Series lost their fangs due to some extraordinary circumstances (it looked at the series’ end as if a third had also been cured, maybe). A female vampire in the syndicated (and terrible) program Night Man managed to become human again. In the otherwise remarkably gritty Near Dark two vampires again walked in the sun via what must surely be the most deus ex machina means ever–a simple blood transfusion. Really. That is all it took. Of course in The Lost Boys the moviemakers hedged their bets–Michael and a couple of others weren’t full vampires yet because they hadn’t killed anyone. In the Poltergeist The Legacy television series, the exact same loophole was employed. Smallville featured vampires who were in fact mutated by kryptonite, and in that case a cure did become available.
Interestingly, two questions almost immediately spring to mind in the midst of all this. How are these vampires cured? And why do certain vampires look for a cure?
As far as the first goes, most ‘cures’ seem scientific in nature. As in the film Daywalkers (and to some extent the Blade Trilogy), undeath is looked upon a disease which at least potentially can be cured. Usually this is a matter of blood. Treat the blood, cure the disease. Sophie in Dracula the Series (played by Mira Kirshner who’d go on to play vampires twice more on The Vampire Diaries and then the 30 Days of Night sequel) had the great good fortune of being bitten by a vampire with a rare blood infection. Somehow that infection allowed a counter-agent to work. Likewise Dr. Julia Hoffman treated a “strange cell” in Barnabas Collins’ blood, via a series of injections. It took time, but seemed to work in the end. Again, the idea was that undeath was a disease. Such was the technical premise anyway. Such lay at the core of Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend as well (which, unlike all but the first film adaptation, explicitly had the world overrun by vampires).
Another method–that which began with Varney–sees vampirism as a spell to be broken. The love of a virtuous woman, a sufficiently rare mystical object (that was a premise behind one episode of Young Dracula in which the Count’s son seeks to find a way to avoid becoming a vampire), interrupting the spell of transformation, or perhaps some kind of specialized exorcism (seen in the film Scream Blacula Scream!)–all these served in one way or another as a means of at least attempting to cure immortality at the price of drinking blood.
Therein lies a clue as to answering the second question.
Why would anyone look for a cure? On the one hand, that seems a tad odd–a cure for immortality? For superpowers? For invulnerability to all but a few specific weapons? Ah, but consider then what kind of Faustian immortality is involved. Isolation, loneliness, the constant fear of discovery, the raw ugliness of capturing fellow human beings so as to bite them and swallow their blood? John Ajvide Lindqvist noted that when he began thinking about the story that became Let The Right One In, he soon concluded that being a vampire would be hell. And so it would–for anyone except an animal and/or a sociopath. Friends, family, even ordinary strangers but fellow human beings who become in a vampire’s eyes food.
Drama equals conflict, often equated with tension. Such to some extent defines vampire stories as it does all other genres. When the vampire is nothing but a monster, in effect a combination of a Bond villain and the title character in Jaws, then the conflict becomes a straightforward us vs. them. The antagonist opposes the protagonist. As written, this makes up the bulk of Dracula as well as many (perhaps most) tales of the undead. When one considers the viewpoint of the vampire, however–to treat that character as a Faustian figure, someone locked up in a monstrous state–then we have a more interesting story in many ways. Just as most fictional serial killers find themselves eclipsed by Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (tellingly, director Jonathan Demme described Lecter as a good man trapped inside a madman’s mind), so we find more conflicted vampires inherently more dramatic. The Baron’s mother in Brides of Dracula, the Sheriff in 30 Days of Night, Angel and Spike in the world of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Barnabas Collins himself as well as his enemy paramour Angelique (turned into a vampire in punishment, she went through the most elaborate efforts to find a cure for herself). When exploring that kind of vampire, one obvious dramatic direction to explore is escape, a means of regaining one’s lost humanity. A cure, in other words.
Seeking such becomes a fine potential story in and of itself. Forever Knight centered around a 700-year-old vampire police detective desperate to find some way out of his undead state. He rarely came anywhere near it. Most episodes focused more on tiny little efforts to atone. In the end, he seemed to conclude the only real way out for him was death. (Interestingly another character in the series did cure her vampirism–and that cure seemed utterly mystical, depending as it did upon a bond of love consummated over time).
But of course, most often the only cure for being a vampire does turn out to be the True Death. Elizabeth in the third film of the Dracula trilogy even became the focal point of the climax, as she begged the man who loved her to let her die.
Other dramatic possibilities abound of course. Look at the television series Angel, in which the title character was accidentally cured of his hated vampire state. In a twist worthy of Joss Whedon, Angel decided to seek a cure for the cure–not because he liked being undead but because he felt he could not redeem himself, i.e. defend innocents, without the powers granted by being a demon. When the “Shonshu” prophecy promised mortality as a gift, his reward for eventually earning forgiveness, the man looked forward to that with intense hope and wonder. Yet, tellingly, when the only way he could save huge numbers of people was to sign away any hope of that prophecy coming true, he barely hesitated.
Frankly, that would seem to give a hint about just how full of potential such a plotline remains. Let us hope some writers and directors pay a tad more attention to that.