When vampires first drifted, shadow-like, into popular literature in the early 1800s, this denizen of ancient folklore became an incarnation of the Nightmare Stranger–the alien ‘other’ who presented a threat to civilization itself. It was death reaching out to infect the living. The foreigner who defiled virtuous women. A pagan invader thriving where the light of God happened not to reach. In many ways Dracula, title character of Bram Stoker’s novel, epitomized this image.
However, the vampire is and remains a fluid metaphor. By the time Victoria died and her son Edward assumed the throne, the vampire was well on its way to becoming something else.
Curiously, this seems to have begun in earnest with the Dean Balderston play of “Dracula,” which tossed out the bestial old man of the novel for a sleek gentleman caller of sinister nature. This could not help but be a technical choice, at least in one sense. Having the play’s main antagonist off-stage so very much violated the tenets of theatrical productions of the era (it remains uncommon to this day). At the same time, if it were too obvious the foreign Count was the villain, then the rest of the characters come across as very stupid. The object here remained thrills, not farce. Which in turn meant Dracula needed to least feasibly appear sympathetic. More of a seductive Cassanova rather than a fanged rapist. This to some extent became even more obvious once expatriate Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was cast. A handsome, debonair figure in white tie and tails, his Dracula became an early sex symbol. Women were fascinated. Silent film star Clara Bow even rushed with some friends to see Lugosi’s performance, so much so she met him after the show wearing nothing but a fur coat over her bathing suit!
To see the difference between these two metaphors, all one has to do is watch the first two filmed versions of the vampire count back to back. “Nosferatu” looks like a zombie of a were-rat, literally bringing plague and madness wherever he roamed. A woman traps him, sacrificing herself so the healing rays of the sun can dissolve the creature. “Dracula” is one part seducer, one part drug dealer–a tempter who takes advantage of naivete to destroy innocence. Not a disgusting other, but a more insidious disciple of SIN.
For the next several decades of vampire film and literature this remained the abiding metaphor. The Spanish language Dracula made at the same time as Lugosi’s made the symbolism even more explicit. Helen Chandler became a sinister sleepwalker under the Count’s influence. Lupita Tovar went from virgin to wanton. Just as Dracula in other films of the period–Lon Chaney in “Son of Dracula” or John Carradine in “House of Dracula” and “House of Frankenstein“–seem like Mephistopheles, offering to buy souls for what at first seems like a good price. “Dracula’s Daughter” even took the idea further, with a vampire who regretted what she was but in the end contained too much evil for any redemption.
When Hammer began its Dracula cycle, along with some other vampire movies, the connection between undeath and various sins got explored more thoroughly. Once again Dracula himself was a tempter, sparking adultery and sacrilege in his wake. One way to trace Sir Christopher Lee’s excursion into the cape and fangs was to see how each episode increased the sin quotient. Relatively straightforward seduction of the innocent gave rise to apostasy, grave-robbing, patricide, satan-worship, sado-masochism and eventually to attempted genocide. In “Brides of Dracula” the association of vampirism with drug addiction became explicit, and the hint of mother-son incest implicit! Hammer vampire films would pretty much always find some new way to link vampirism with some of kind of personal sin–often sexual perversion (“Vampire Circus” actually hinted at pedophilia).
By the time we get to the television program “Dark Shadows” a logical aspect of vampirism-as-sin begins to be explored–redemption. If the vampire is a sinner, might not this creature (once human) seek atonement? Producer Dan Curtis didn’t see it that way, but he wasn’t really present when the writers and actor Jonathan Frid made Barnabas Collins a man capable of regret. Curtis wanted a straightforward creature of evil, as shown when he got to do the story his way in the motion picture “House of Dark Shadows.” But audiences loved melancholy Barnabas, the vampire eager for redemption. Just as they later fell in love with Nick Knight, one-time Crusader who embarks on a quest to be human again while paying society back of his sins. “Forever Knight” was about his struggles to do just that while serving as a homicide detective in the Montreal Police Department. All the while his sire, LaCroix, and former lover Janette tried to lure him back into the demonic fold. One of the fascinating arcs of the series was how Nick ultimately impacted them, how each of them in turn became slightly more humane, less sinful. Indeed, that staple of a vampire detective protecting those upon whom he once preyed became something of a cliche, or if you prefer a trope. When “Angel,” Joss Whedon’s spinoff series, was in development his Mutant Enemy Productions accepted spec scripts and informed writers to think about writing an episode of “Forever Knight” as a kind of short-hand. Vampires seeking redemption became the heart of Anne Rice’s hugely successful novel series, starting with “Interview With the Vampire.” It was central to the game and movies of BloodRayne (although in her case ‘redemption’ took the form of vengeance). “Moonlight” was built around the same notion, while “Young Dracula” was all about a young man desperately seeking to avoid the sins he believed himself doomed to commit (can we say Original Sin?).
Even Edward Cullen, the ultimate boyfriend of the “Twilight” series, is not as squeaky clean as assumed. The first book explicitly notes that for a time he went and hunted evil, murdering men. It left him with a deep-seated self-loathing that impacts many of his actions in the series. Stephanie Myers’ unfinished “Midnight Sun” makes everything so much more explicit–how Edward sees himself as containing two different beings, one the figure his foster father is and wishes Edward to be right along side the red-eyed monster lusting after human blood and doing all it can to break down the prison walls of Edward’s guilt.
That cycle of exploring sin–from temptation to sampling a wide variety then to satiation and a quest for redemption–was enough to fill the fictional pages and screens of the vampire tale for many decades. But it was hardly the end…