The Changing Image of the Vampire

November 23, 2009 by  

bela_lugosi_as_dracula_aboutmoviesMention the word ‘vampire’ a few years ago and no doubt an image of a sharply dressed aristocratic Dracula-type man comes to mind. He’ll probably have a thick Transylvanian accent, a long, flowing cape and dark features. We certainly owe a lot to Bela Lugosi for this image of the smooth talking, suave vampire.

Over the centuries, the image of the vampire has changed and evolved with the times, reflecting the specificities of the local cultures and belief systems. For example, in ancient times, the callicantzaros, a Greek vampire, had long fingernails and would attack only around Christmastime, using its long nails to tear people to pieces. The Sumerians had similar stories about vampire-like creatures and blood-sucking demons. Underlying all these stories is the belief that vampire-like creatures are soulless, and in some cases, mindless killers.

As most of you will recall, before we had the movie star vampire of Bela Lugosi, for example, we had Polidori’s The Vampyre and Stoker’s Dracula. However, prior to these vampires of Gothic fiction, it is said that the character of Dracula is based on the historical figure of Vlad III, Prince Wallachia, otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. According to Eric Nuzum, Vlad’s last name was ‘Dracula’, a reference to the religious order founded by his father. Roughly translated, this means ‘Son of the Devil’. However, it has also been said that both Polidori and Stoker probably based their vampire on Baring-Gould’s account of the ruthless female serial killer Countess Elisabeth Bathory, who was convicted in 1610 for murdering 80 young women so that she could bathe in their blood.

When Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, the Aristocratic Vampire made his appearance,

“His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose….The mouth…was…rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth….For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed….The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor….His hands were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point.”

Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Dracula, has likened Stoker’s Dracula to Walt Whitman as they share the same appearances: thick mustache, large nose and profuse white hair. Stoker’s hero also happened to be Walt Whitman. On the other hand, Graf Orlock, was decidedly monstrous and odious. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, released in 1922, Max Schreck plays the vampire Graf Orlock.  Shreck as Orlock is a different vampire entirely. He is decidedly more loathsome. Far from aristocratic, he has talon-like fingernails, a mouthful of hideous teeth, long, pointed ears and glaring eyes.

While most vampires in Gothic fiction has been decidedly male, Sheridan le Fanu introduced us to the female vampire in Carmilla. However, the Aristocratic Vampire is one that is stuck firmly in our minds whenever we’re asked to summon up the image of the vampire. And according to Nuzum, with his cape, slicked back hair and thick accent, Bela Lugosi is the quintessential vampire. We can see how this image of the vampire and of Dracula has remained with us in, for example, Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the Dracula the vampire in countless Hammer Horror Films.

Further, Nuzum also introduces another category of vampire, namely The Cold War Vampire. As Nuzum indicates,

“His motives are unimportant and he was seen as pure evil. In fact, in the 1966 movie Dracula: Prince of Darkness, the character has no lines at all but rather just hisses throughout the entire thing.”

In the 1970s, as Nuzum asserts, we come to the era of the Disco Dracula where

“[The vampire] was updated with a ‘70s hairdo and an overtly sexual vibe […] He wasn’t so much evil as he was randy.”

To these categories, we could supplement these by adding another category, namely that of The Comedic Vampire. Cast your minds back to Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, for example. Indeed, the act of turning a horror movie into a satire or a comedy is hardly new. Starting with Abbot and Costello in 1948, the gothic idea of vampires was spun into something of comedic genius. However, it was in 1967 that Roman Polanski released The Fearless Vampire Killers, now firmly a cult favourite. In Polanski’s film, his vampire emerges as a conundrum underscored by a paradoxical humor. The story arc follows Professor Abronsius and his apprentice as they hunt vampires in Transylvania. After witnessing a kidnapping, the Professor and his apprentice track down the culprit to a castle filled with dangerous seduction, sexuality and death. The viewer is confronted with all the familiar archetypes from vampire fiction. Nonetheless, through the vampire, this film introduces satirical comedy and irony. Through the act of subversion, humans are also hardly above reproach especially when they appear as hapless negligent hunters.

Fast forward to the 1990s and we encounter the Emo Vampire in Buffy the Vampire Killer. According to science fiction writer Charlie Jane Anders,

“Joss Whedon (Buffy creator) was a major pioneer of the ‘emo-vamp’ which are broody, stalky, ‘dangerous’ yet kittenish vamps […] Of the two vampires on the TV show, Angel had soul and spent most of his time repenting the sins of his past and Spike spent most of this time pining away after Buffy and helping the good guys.”

bigger photo of vampires_on_true_blood-13751Indeed, Angel emerges as a template of the contemporary vampire. As a once super-bad vampire, Angel spent the preceding decades spreading death, hatred and destruction across the world. But when the gypsy curse forced his human soul to return to his vampire body, Angel regains his conscience and spends most the Buffy series attempting to atone for his many sins. With the emergence of the Emo Vampire, our beloved monster seems have become truly defanged, appearing like a victim destined to do good. Perhaps, we could add the vampires Edward Cullen (of the Twilight series) and Mick St. John (of Moonlight) to this category? We should ask ourselves this question: are these reformed characters really vampires – the predatory creatures who have epitomized depravity, perverse sexuality and moral corruption for more than two millennia – the creatures we have come to fear, loath and love?

It could be argued that today’s new breed of virtuous vampires, as characterized by Angel, Edward Cullen and Mick St. John is a far cry from the anti-hero of the Romantic literary movement. The anti-hero, by contrast, is morally ambivalent who gets our sympathy precisely because we want to sympathize and empathize with his conflicts. Think Lord Byron, Heathcliff, James Dean or Mr. Rochester and we have an image of that brand of anti-hero.

Anne Rice uses this template masterfully in her Lestat novels. Taking a cue from real and fictional Romantic anti-heroes such as Faust and Lord Byron, Rice romanticizes vampires as dark, tortured anti-heroes who were ‘turned’ into monsters against their choice. Vampirism for them is a curse, an affliction; a state of being that separates them from humanity, which for them is a state of grace.

Flash forward to the present and we have the Lustful Vampire. Within this true_blood_couple_mcategory, we also find the vampire who has integrated himself into society. Think the sparkly day-walking vampires of Twilight and the vampires of HBO’s True Blood and we have our modern vampire who seeks to walk amongst us humans. However, apart from having vampires who want to integrate, I think it’s far more accurate to classify our present vampires as the Lustful Vampire. In Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood, we encounter vampires who are alluring, charismatic, attractive and driven by sexual urges.

It seems that in the True Blood vampires, we now encounter a psychosexuality truly contemporary and of our times. The original qualities that made the traditional vampire in Stoker’s Dracula and le Fanu’s Carmilla a threat in the 19th century – particularly their eroticism and unconventional behavior and sexuality – now makes our 21st century vampires appealing and sexually provocative to contemporary viewers.

Once a monstrous Other in the last two centuries which saw vampires stealing our women, converting them into a threat in themselves, our contemporary 21st century vampires are now fully integrated. Within the fictional Southern Gothic world of the True Blood, our vampires are now sought out by fangbangers and others who seek to ingest their blood which is known for its aphrodisiac qualities. Oh, how times have changed! In Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer) and Eric Northman, Viking vampire (Alexander Skarsgard), we encounter the lustful vampire whose vampire sexuality has a strong bias toward a traditional masculine paradigm of sexuality. With changing times, the image of the vampire has truly undergone an upgrade.

SOURCE: The Evolution of the Vampire

Picture credits: HBO Inc.,