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Vampires, vampires, everywhere!

From the Twilight films to the HBO series True Blood, from the alternative rock band Vampire Weekend to the TV series The Vampire Diaries--indeed, from Count Chocula on cereal boxes to Sesame Street's Count von Count--you would have to live in a coffin not to have your path regularly crossed by vampires.

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In New Orleans, thanks to novelist Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles sagas on the page and on the screen, it seems one can't throw a stone without hitting the undead. New York is vampire ground zero in the 2007 Will Smith-driven movie, I Am Legend, the third adaptation of Richard Matheson's apocalyptic 1954 novel about a world taken over by vampires. California is Nosferatu Central, teenage-style, in The Lost Boys (1987) while vampires take on the Heartland in director Kathryn Bigalow's vampire western, Near Dark (1987). Even Alaska is vulnerable--exceptionally so, given its prolonged winter darkness--in the bloody 2007 cinematic adaptation of writer Steve Niles and illustrator Ben Templesmith's vampire comic book miniseries, 30 Days of Night.

Lest one think vampires are merely a domestic concern, Sweden has a vampire problem in Let the Right One In (2008), which puts an unusual spin on the familiar boy-meets-girl story: The young teenage girl is actually an aged vampire. The 2009 South Korean release, Thirst, creates vampires as a result of medical testing gone awry while the Russian fantasy epics Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006) include vampires among a host of supernatural creatures. In any number of modern imaginings, vampires have gone global: In True Blood as well as the Blade, Underworld and Twilight franchises--to adapt Percy Bysshe Shelley's famous phrase--the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" no longer are poets but vampires.

Vampires, vampires, everywhere. Why? What explains their persistence--and appeal? Here are a few possibilities about the strange attraction of the monstrous undead, principles that my forthcoming book, Vampires: Undead Cinema (due out from Wallflower Press in late 2011), develops in much greater depth.

Principle I: Vampire narratives are always about sex

Vampire narratives are always, inevitably, about sex--although what each has to say obviously will vary depending upon time and place. From the "vamps" of the Theda Bara school who populated the silent screen of the early 20th century and "monsterized" aggressive female sexuality to the lesbian vampires of Great Britain's Hammer Studios productions of the 1970s to the leather-clad sexiness of vampire Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld films from the last decade, and from the suave sophistication of Bela Lugosi's Dracula in 1931 to Christopher Lee's animal magnetism in numerous incarnations mostly in the 1960s and '70s to the softer model of contemporary masculine perfection of Robert Pattinson in the movie adaptations of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels (Twilight, 2008; New Moon, 2009; Eclipse, 2010), the power and danger of sex have undergirded and energized the vampire cinema. That erotic charge, at least in critic David Pirie's estimation in his Vampire Cinema (1977), constitutes the films' primary appeal. Vampires, in short, are undeniably the sexiest of monsters.

Vampires provide representations of tabooed sexuality to establish and reinforce proper sexual roles. Vampires are, quite simply, very, very naughty. They are seldom decorously heterosexual, monogamous, and respectful partners. Rather, they are polymorphously perverse seducers who, in film scholar Richard Dyer's estimation, evoke the thrill of "forbidden sexuality." Vampires are undisciplined forces of desire outside cultural networks of socialization. Driven by sexualized thirst, they devour the life force of their partners. Vampires are pure id, libidinal energy incarnate, and this makes them both dangerous and dangerously attractive.

Principle II: The vampire is more interesting than those who pursue it

Ironically, the undead are, to borrow from contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek, more alive than we are. In contrast to us, the vampire lives for pleasure alone and is a figure of excessive--thus, threatening--enjoyment, an uncanny surplus that transgresses social expectations and highlights the precariousness of gender codes. Vampires are imperial, selfish, domineering, and intensely physical. Lurking beneath the human facade is pure animalistic energy. The vampire's power and potency (the vampire is driven not just to feed but also to reproduce) are both frightening and alluring.

Those who seek to destroy the vampire, the agents of cultural repression, cannot help but seem priggish and impotent. The Van Helsings, Jonathan Harkers, Arthur Holmwoods and Quincy Morrises of the world seem boring juxtaposed against the smoldering sexuality of, say, Gary Oldman's titular Dracula (1992) or any of actress Ingrid Pitt's luscious vampire incarnations for Hammer Studios. Dreaded and desired in equal measure, the vampire is sexier, more interesting, and more commanding than the forces of cultural stability that seek to expel it, which in part is why we won't let it die.

Principle III: The vampire always returns

The vampire may be staked to death or reduced to ashes by the sun at the end of El Vampiro (1957), The Horror of Dracula (1958), Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Blacula (1972), Fright Night (1985), or Dracula 2000 (2000), but all that's needed to revive him is a little blood, a voodoo ritual, or the removal of a cross from the corpse. Even if the vampire is destroyed, some trace or essence invariably survives--Dracula's ashes in The Horror of Dracula or his DNA in The Mark of Dracula (1997).

The vampire always returns because it is our creation, and we won't let it rest. It is our prodigal son, returning home, bearing with it and giving shape to deep-seated anxieties and tabooed desires that may vary with the times but never vanish. To "taste the blood of Dracula," as the title of the 1970 Hammer Studios film demands, is in a sense redundant because Dracula's blood is already coursing through our veins.

However, each time Dracula is unleashed upon the world he embodies a new structure of feeling, a different awareness, an altered set of fears and desires. Bela Lugosi's Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 version is a suave Old World aristocrat. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1974), Christopher Lee's Dracula is a corporate CEO concocting a virulent strain of Bubonic plague. In director F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), the monstrous vampire Count Orlok is conquered by the pure, virginal blood of a woman who surrenders her body to the vampire, martyring herself in the process. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and the TV series it spawned, the vampire is also vanquished by a woman, but a stake-wielding, hip teenager who is far from passive. America always gets the vampire it deserves, opines Pirie. More to the point, each generation of filmmakers creates the vampires it desires.

Principle IV: The cinematic vampire is always about technology

In vampire narratives, when people start sickening and dying, the vampire is first suspected and then confronted, and the inevitable question gets posed: "What is it?" The answer--usually provided by an expert on occult matters, a Van Helsing figure (the monster hunter first introduced in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula), but sometimes provided by a book of arcane lore--is a necessary preliminary to developing a response to the vampire's predations.

Whether vampirism is caused by viral contagion or demonic agency, and whether the antidote is an inoculation or holy water, the determination of what the vampire is and how to deal with it leads to a consideration and sometimes revision of epistemological paradigms and to an engagement with technology. Tools range from the traditional crucifix and communion wafer to the sort of light grenade Hugh Jackman wields in Van Helsing (2004).

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The vampire thus is, perhaps in an unexpected way, a sort of cyborg, defined in relation to and, in many cases, produced by particular technologies of detection, determination, and destruction. Vampire narratives thereby function as referendums on the inadequacies, perils, and promises of modern science and technology.

Principle V: The cinematic vampire condenses what a culture considers "other"

Vampires resist all-encompassing, one-to-one metaphoric interpretation. It is too reductive to say the vampire is the metaphorical embodiment of sexual desire, capitalist exploitation, viral contagion, or virulent xenophobia. Rather, the vampire is an "overdetermined" body that condenses a constellation of culturally specific anxieties and desires into one super-saturated form.

Dracula is certainly about sex, but is also in professor/critic Stephen Arata's estimation about race--about "reverse colonization" in which culturally inferior others from the backwaters of central Europe infiltrate the heart of the empire. And True Blood parallels vampires coming out of the coffin with homosexuals coming out of the closet--plus raises questions about race and class because of its rural Louisiana setting. What makes the vampire so potent is its concatenation of sexual, racial, and technological anxieties and longings--a sort of Rorschach inkblot of culturally-specific dread and desire.

Principle VI: We are all vampire textual nomads

None of us can simply watch a single vampire movie. Instead, we are watching many vampire movies simultaneously, comparing the new representation with the old and looking for winks that acknowledge a rendition is participating in and revising an established tradition. We are all "vampire nomads," to adapt an idea from cultural theorist Henry Jenkins; we range among a profusion of vampire texts, considering one in light of others.

Vampires have so colonized Western cultural imagination that one need not have read Stoker's Dracula or seen even a single vampire movie to know the basics: Vampires drink blood, come out only at night, can transform, are destroyed with a stake, etc. There are, at this point, no vampire virgins. We are bitten from the moment we see Count von Count on Sesame Street or Count Chocula on a cereal box or experience our first Halloween.

The vampire, therefore, is a ready-made metaphoric vehicle whose potency derives from its intrinsic connections to fear, sex, science, and social constructions of difference.

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock is professor of English and director of the English graduate program at Central Michigan University. He is the author of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Scare Tactics: Supernatural Fiction by American Women and has edited academic collections of essays on topics including South Park, Edgar Allan Poe, M. Night Shyamalan, and American ghost stories. He also has edited four volumes of the fiction of American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft for Barnes & Noble. Email him at Jeffrey.Weinstock@cmich.edu.

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Author:Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrew
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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