Vampires: The Nightmare Strangers
Someone asked why I thought vampires remained so popular and intriguing. My answer: Because the undead make such a fluid metaphor.
Consider; when they first entered into the Western literature and art–with John Polidori’s “The Vampyre.” For much of the next century, vampires popped up in art and theatre as well as different stories. “Varney the Vampyre” was a Victorian version of “The Vampire Diaries” in many ways–each chapter/episode costing a penny and the series lasting as long as the audience numbers made it worthwhile. “Bride of the Isles” was only one of many theatrical versions of Polidori’s tale, many linking the vampire antagonist explicitly with Satan. If “Carmilla” by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was a movie, it’d be what, in cinematic terms, we’d call an art-house film. Eventually, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” made its appearance.
Certain factors show up time and again in these early tales, as the vampire evolved into a new icon of our collective unconscious. Initially, the vampire of people’s imaginations resembled what we would call a zombie–this walking corpse eager to eat and/or rape you. With the arrival the 19th century (or–I would argue–the Industrial Revolution beginning to be felt) this changed. Vampires were no longer stinking peasants crawling out of their graves. Rather, they became curiously compelling foreigners.
This last is key, at least in English-language stories. Among its many innovations, “Dracula” may be the first novel by a British writer to have a vampire who was herself British, –Lucy Westenra. Up until then, all vampires were foreign. Lord Ruthven, who seemed English, was first encountered abroad and the plot essentially deals with how the lead–Aubrey–gradually finds himself trapped in a horrifying dilemma, realizing his so-called friend is nothing at all as he seemed. In other words–he was not a gentleman, despite his pretensions to the contrary. He was some kind of other. A nightmare stranger. Even Sir Francis Varney may or may not be English simply because so many different stories of his origin litter the text.
My belief has grown that early vampires were precisely that–nightmare strangers. Invaders into the good civilized Christian lives of others, threats to all that was wholesome and sacred:
Ruthven destroys both Aubrey and his sister, while Sir Francis Varney plagues the Bannerworths and Dracula wipes out the Westenras. Carmilla attacks the young women of different families, perhaps tellingly those without brothers therefore the most vulnerable. That they seem to be her own family adds extra spice to the horror.
Although rarely commented upon at the time, subsequent commentators easily see how vampires of the 19th century seethed with sexual taboos. Beautiful young women were almost always their targets, usually unmarried. No coincidence Ruthven devoured Aubrey’s sister on their wedding night, or that descriptions of Sir Francis Varney’s assaults read like rapes. Carmilla certainly seems to have lesbian overtones, while Jonathan Harker is threatened with penetration by the Count himself (after the ‘threat’ of group sex outside of marriage vows). Keep in mind also the traditional association between spilling blood and the loss of maidenhood.
Although visitors coming to a vampire’s lair began with Dracula’s castle, the main thrust of the story is about a foreign nobleman’s invasion of England. Likewise other fictional vampires of the period find ways to deceitfully enter their victims’ abodes, the place where everyone is supposed to be safe. More than anything else, this belief in a vampire needing permission to enter a home resonates because of this very threat–the vampire as invader. Folklore says little in this direction, but it makes a pervasive trope in one way or another.
In an age of scientific wonders and unbelievable advances–the steam engine, germ theory, gas lights, mass production, railroads, the telegraph, photography, etc.–the vampire also represented not science, but folklore and alchemy. To the Victorian mindset, mankind was doing their Christian duty to spread the light of civilization and its wonderful achievements to an unenlightened world. A vampire seemed worse than medieval, worse than mere ignorance–he seems an active agent of darkness, infecting the modern world with superstition.
Many believe in a kind of Christian karma–that God will reward the virtuous and punish the guilty. “Poetic Justice” came to be an expectation in literature (many of Shakespeare’s plays were re-written towards that end). But the vampire was a walking, talking version of the trials of Job. He would invade your home, bringing plague and misfortune, sometimes madness or even damnation–through no fault of the victim! No one asked to become a vampire. Those who seemed satisfied with their condition come across as cruel, evil individuals. Yet others seem to despise it. Sir Francis Varney certainly does. Carmilla evokes terrible melancholy about her state, describing it as “exquisite humiliation,” while even Dracula when finally killed looks startlingly at peace.
The modern Japanese horror classic “Ringu” includes a vivid image of what kind of danger looms for its characters–chaos, in the form of the sea that surrounds their islands and ever seeks to reach in, shredding the carefully created order. Likewise “Dracula” offers precisely what the vampire was in the dreams of so many of his age–an insidious foreigner, corrupting all that was good from shadows, only emerging from them to lie or infect, to taint and ravish and erode.
But of course the Victorian Age ended in time. With it, the metaphor of the vampire changed as well…