Living with the Undead: From Dracula to True Blood

October 30, 2009 by  

bigger photo of vampires_on_true_blood-13751Abraham van Helsing and his intrepid band of vampire hunters may have disposed of Bram Stoker’s creation Dracula more than a century ago, but these creatures of the night never really left us, preferring to stalk us in the shadows of our imagination, manifesting themselves in Gothic fiction, horror movies, and popular culture. Slowly but surely, they have emerged from their shadowy world and judging from responses to their most recent incarnations in Being Human, True Blood, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Thirst, Let the Right One In and Twilight, for example, they have glamored audiences and readers alike. With Halloween round the corner, the vampire has even managed to enter the hallowed confines of the BBC.

On 28th October 2009, BBC Radio 4, with Mark Lawson at the helm, hosted a special edition of Front Row. Mark Lawson was joined by Dacre Stoker, great-grandnephew of Bram Stoker; cultural historian, Dr. Helen Wheatley; Kevin Jackson, author of Bite: A Vampire Handbook and Toby Whithouse, creator of Being Human. Together, their discussion focused on the last 200 years of the vampire’s various manifestations in Western culture, notably Gothic fiction, cinema, and contemporary TV.

Dacre Stoker, who now lives in the US, discussed how he delved into his ancestor’s handwritten notes on the original Dracula novel to pen his sequel, Dracula: The Un-Dead, the original name of Dracula before an editor changed the title. The new book is the first Dracula story to be fully authorized by the Stoker family since the 1931 film starring Béla Lugosi. It has provoked a storm in the publishing world, selling for more than $1m (£575,000) to Dutton US, HarperCollins UK, and Penguin Canada. Dacre Stoker wrote the novel with the screenwriter Ian Holt, and a movie is also planned. In the new book, set in London in 1912, Quincey, the son of Stoker’s hero, Jonathan Harker, has become involved in a troubled theatre production of Dracula, directed and produced by Bram Stoker himself. The play plunges Quincey into the world of his parents’ terrible secrets.

We all know Dracula, or think we do, but there are many Draculas and still more vampires who refuse to be Dracula or to play him. An alien nocturnal species, sleeping in coffins, drinking blood, living in shadows, fearing garlic, crosses and daylight, vampires are too easy to stereotype, but it is their variety that makes them survivors. They may look marginal, feeding on human history from some limbo of their own, but they have actually always been central. What vampires are in any given generation is a reflection of the society at that given time. From the beginning of the 19th century to the present, vampires have been popular confederates of mortals. Since Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, the vampire has indeed traveled a long way, transforming himself from dreaded monster to our beloved albeit fanged anti-hero. Our fanged friend is now firmly part of our mainstream culture and popular imagination. The lion has truly decided to lie down with the lambs.

Klaus Kinski_Nosferatu.moviemaker.comjpgLiterary and film critics have long examined the attraction of the vampire, analyzing several common themes running through vampire literature and films, such as the role of women, taboos about sexuality, socio-political themes such as immigration and racial segregation. Undoubtedly, the vampire continues to serve as our mirror on which we project our fears, lusts and desires.

It seems that every decade has had some form of vampire rage, or is it more appropriate to use the term vampire-induced lust? However, 2009 seems to be the Year of the Vampire. Vampires, a seemingly highly adaptable species, can now be anything and everything. From the highly sexual bon vivant of the night in the Southern Gothic universe of True Blood, to the guilt ridden vampire John Mitchell in Being Human to the chaste sparkly creatures in the Pacific Northwest world of Twilight, the modern vampire has adapted with the changing times.

However, some things about the vampire remain constant, or it seems to. The modern true-blood-eric-postervampire embodies youth, romance, lust, vitality and strength. Our modern vampire almost always embodies dangerous love and forbidden lust, which is probably why every new generation of men and women want a taste of the vampire. The vampire story is as classic as the western, and like the western, it’s a genre whose pleasures lie in the minor variations. True Blood and its many imitations offer similar celebrations of love and lust with a pallid stranger. If we are to judge from Angel, Vampire Bill, Eric Northman, Lestat, and Edward Cullen, today’s vampires are modern day variations of the tortured Romantic anti-hero, a protagonist rather than an antagonist.

But was the vampire always this?

Legends of the nocturnal predator dates back several centuries, going back to the ancient world; these creatures underwrite our nightmares in both Western and non-Western folklores. Peter Dendle, an associate professor of early medieval demonology and folklore at Penn State Mont Alto, indicates that:

Vampire-like creatures are present in the earliest recorded writings […] In Greek literature, there isn’t a Dracula or Twilight character, but the idea of a soul-sapping, life-drawing creature in human or animal form exists in these writings.”

In the 19th century, Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula used metaphors of sexuality in a century when it was difficult to write about it explicitly and through that process sexualized the vampire as a male predator stalking young maidens. Polidori’s The Vampyr, a short story published in 1819, was one of the first to take the folkloric vampire and turn him into a suave killer who preyed on aristocrats. Although hardly a great work of literature, Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood, a serialized Victorian ‘penny dreadful’, published anonymously between 1845 and 1847, is equally responsible for introducing many tropes popular in later vampire fiction, representing an important link to the development of Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Two decades later, F.W. Murnau adapted Bram Stoker’s story in his film Nosferatu, einebela_lugosi_as_dracula_aboutmovies Symphonie des Grauens (1922). Better known to English-speaking audience as Nosferatu: a Symphony of Horror, Max Schreck’s portrayal of the bat-like, creepy vampire is unlikely to strike terror to the hearts of modern audiences. However, it is undeniable that, in Schreck’s performance, the vampire is decidedly gruesome and unglamorous, providing a stark contrast to the sexy, sensual vampires of today. We have only to pause for a moment here and contrast Schreck’s vampire with True Blood’s Vampire Bill or the Viking vampire, Eric Northman, to realize just how far our fanged companions have come in adapting themselves to modern society.

At the same time, as both Kevin Jackson and Dacre Stoker explain, a lot of what we take as the gospel truth within vampire mythology actually dates back to F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. For example, the myth that the vampire crumbles to dust or bursts into flames when it comes into contact with sunlight or daylight was invented in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). In contrast, Bram Stoker’s Dracula does not burst into flames. In fact, daylight and sunlight does not harm him; instead, Dracula is said to merely lose his powers in daylight and is unable to shape-shift. To respond to modern myths of the vampire, Dacre Stoker consequently had to revise Bram Stoker’s original vision of the vampire mythology so that Dacre’s Dracula is now affected by sunlight.

At the same time, while certain aspects of the vampire mythology have been tweaked, an undercurrent remains where basic details of vampire lore remain unchanged. As Kevin Jackson and Helen Wheatley both clarify, the vampire has, in the last 200 years, become the repository of all our social fears, for example, fear of blood, sexuality, foreigners, and women, along with changing notions of masculinity. And one thing has remained constant with our fascination of the vampire. As Toby Whithouse indicates, one of the most enticing aspects of the vampire is that they are titillating, wild, untamed and ultimately un-tameable creatures:

“[Vampires are] uncensored creatures […] creatures of pure appetite and impulse […] It’s a Romantic idea of the troubled isolated mysterious stranger.”

In short, we can trace our modern day vampire back to the 19th century Romantictrue_blood_couple_m movement. In the hands of the 19th century Romantics, the vampire is transformed into the persecuted individual, an angst ridden James Dean of his day. The vampire, no longer the evil enemy, is now transformed in Romantic Gothic fiction into a sympathetic individual who struggles with himself, his identity and who is tormented by guilt. In short, he is transformed into an existential anti-hero, becoming a Byronic poster-boy for men and women who similarly struggle with their identity and therefore identify with the vampire’s search for identity. The Byronic Lord Ruthven in Polidori’s story therefore shares several common traits with Lestat. Both are enchanting companions.

In short, our modern vampire tales retain the basic features of the vampire mythology but as Helen Wheatley suggests:

“The most successful of vampires […] are those that are exceptions to the mythology”

From Dracula to the True Blood vampires, it seems that vampires have shifted from evil antagonists to sympathetic creatures. As Anne Rice explains in an interview during the BBC discussion, the vampire:

“is the perfect metaphor of a lost soul, creatures of the night, wandering in the darkness constantly being drawn to life and yet having to destroy that life. […] not being able to find any real redemptive possibilities in life.”

Now, unlike their odious ancestors, instead of emerging from the grave with hunks of flesh falling off them, our modern vampires are simply hunks. But apparently, they also have a story to tell us, or so we’re told.

grey suited eric 2As was discussed during the Front Row debate, it could be argued that the metaphor in Twilight is bourgeois respectability and chastity: the hero and his middle-class family in Forks, Wash., have forsaken their inhuman appetites and only occasionally feast on small animals – the vampire equivalent of turning vegetarian. In Twilight, chastity is applauded, sexuality feared. In contrast, we can safely say that the True Blood vampires are anything but chaste. Licentiousness abounds in glorious technicolour; and the potency of sexuality in its various manifestations is embraced wholeheartedly. Emerging from the coffins, our True Blood vamps can safely feed on a synthetic blood and are now a minority demanding passage of a Vampire Rights Amendment and equal rights. No longer dining out on human’s blood, they can stalk humans for other, shall we say, safer sources of entertainment.

The BBC’s Being Human, in contrast, offers the Dracula myth in a different chord: it’s structured less as a love story than as a buddy film. Three young friends share a house in Bristol, England, as well as secrets. They also happen to be a vampire (Mitchell), a ghost (Annie), and a werewolf (George) who together forge a friendship that turns out to be thicker than blood. Being Human takes these predators’ anguished remorse and their consequent search for redemption and humanity seriously. But it still manages to find the humor in their predicament as these monsters in human form struggle to blend into normal life that includes work, going out on dates and having the tedious neighbors over for drinks. As in HBO’s True Blood, the vampires in Being Human have infiltrated every walk of society, even the police force. And similarly to Vampire Bill in True Blood, we also see how Mitchell, the dark-haired vampire in Being Human, struggles to tame his blood thirsty cravings in an effort to align himself with the human race. 

As in True Blood, all three characters in Being Human are highly appealing, but the charm of this British show lies in the delicate balance of engrossing drama and disarming humor; it’s witty in an offhand, understated British way. For example, in one scene, we see Mitchell, who has no trouble attracting women, encouraging George to find a girlfriend; but George is too full of self-doubts. When Mitchell asks, “Is that Jewish guilt, or werewolf guilt?” George glumly replies, “They’re pretty much the same thing.”

bill and sookieTrue Blood also puts vampires in a modern setting for comic effect, and in Seasons 1 and 2, it also showcases a romantic hero torn between human love and his inhuman cohorts, but the feel of the HBO show is quite different. It gleefully combines the vampire genre with murder mystery, high camp, droll humor and romantic fantasy. Based on the Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris, the HBO television adaptation is steeped in Spanish moss, unbounded sexuality and steamy Louisiana exoticism.

HBO’s True Blood sees our eponymous heroine, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), the telepathic human barmaid and modern sleuth who lives in the fictional small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, amid an ever-expanding cast of vampires, shifters and other exotic supernatural creatures. The formula of a small-town life regularly disrupted by the supernatural world, and some mind-blowing sex with vampires, has propelled HBO into its planned Third Season and Charlaine Harris through nine Sookie Stackhouse novels. In HBO’s True Blood, part of the tension arises from the dynamic between the ‘good vampire’ versus the ‘bad vampire’. We see an example of this in Season 1 episode 3 when Sookie visits Vampire Bill only to discover to her horror that there are vampires who refuse to mainstream, unlike Bill Compton to whom she finds herself increasingly attracted.

Pale and lustful, the vampires of True Blood are not much more creepy than the small-town cranks, misfits and sexually deviant oddballs who gather at Merlotte’s, a dive bar in Bon Temps, Louisiana. But, unlike Max Schreck’s vampire, these Louisiana vamps are certainly more beautiful and charismatic. Vampire Bill (Stephen Moyer), for example, has a courtly reserve to him, one he has kept up at least since the Civil War. Helen Wheatley explains the attraction of Vampire Bill who, to date, represents the ‘good vampire:

“[Bill Compton] combines incredible strength with an old-fashioned courtliness. [He] is incredibly powerful and dangerous but this is contained in an old world charm.”

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It seems that our fanged friend, the vampire, has truly been generous in allowing himself to be the never-ending source of stories, myths and drama down the centuries. Mutating from odious monster, misshapen hunchback to a modern 21st century heartthrob, our beloved vampire has remain with us through thick and thin down the centuries. In Louisiana, we see our current incarnation of our fanged friend in all his titillating power. Just witness True Blood fans’ heated responses to the Viking vampire Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) and we can say without a doubt that our fanged friend has succeeded in glamoring us. Again. But lest we forget, it is also the women of Bon Temps whose metabolisms run rapid with an equally insatiable appetite.

In True Blood, we seem to have come full circle and returned to the heady stories of those vampires of yore, whose insatiable carnal appetites are such that it cannot be refused. True Blood doesn’t give a hoot about bourgeoisie respectability or chastity. Judging from the last episodes of Season 2, it only cares whether we really are who we sleep with. The sex is served up in such lurid, technicolor voluptuousness that viewer satiation is guaranteed. With sexually permissive humans and vampires, True Blood certainly doesn’t feel like anything we have seen on television to date.

SOURCE: BBC Radio 4 Front Row

Photo credit: HBO Inc., moviemaker.com

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