Contemplation: Let’s Talk About Vampires

I recently began to reread one of my favorite Stephen King books, his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. For those of you not in the know, ‘Salem’s Lot is a vampire story, and, in my personally opinion probably one of the best vampire stories since Mr. Stoker penned Dracula.  I first read ‘Salem’s Lot when I was a junior in high school and was absolutely taken aback by how frightening it was.  I had encountered the portrayal of vampires in various forms at that point, but Mr. King’s creatures of the night struck me as something relatively different from the others I seen in movies or read about; Mr. King’s monsters in ‘Salem’s Lot actually made me feel scared of vampires again.

As a child vampires were always the one monster that I thought of as truly terrifying.  Werewolves might be a creepy concept if I was out in the woods, mummies just seemed silly, and I was not really familiar with zombies yet.  But vampires, these undead bloodsucking night beasts that cast no reflection, really creeped me out.  But as I grew older and experienced more and more stories of vampires, I became less and less enamored by what I had once thought of as terrifying creatures.  The I read ‘Salem’s Lot and once again I remembered what it was about them that had made them so terrifying.

Vampires are a hot item these days.  Between the success of television shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, the continued success of stories by Anne Rice, and the tame tween pop stories like The Twilight Saga, vampires can be encountered just about anywhere.  However, more often than not, I find myself disappointed in these modern portrayals of the creatures of the night (especially those lame-ass sparkly vampires from Mrs. Mayer’s novels).  Vampires, in there many current versions and narratives strike me as overwhelmingly de-fanged and marginalized as interesting and terrifying monsters.

It might be worthwhile to ask ourselves what purpose archetypal monsters like vampires play in our modern world?  Historically, vampires were folkloric creatures that demonstrated a fear of death, a lack of scientific knowledge about the decaying process, and a concern about the spread of disease.   Such was the historic concern about dead corpses rising from their grave that bodies actually were exhumed and desecrated by means like decapitation and burning.  In our present time, much of the folklore and myth, breed significantly from misunderstandings and a broader fear of the world, have receded.  We live in a more logical time in which the dark of night does not seem nearly as dark as it once had.  Yet we still maintain a fascination in the stories surrounding these imaginary monsters.  Even if the creatures themselves have changed over time, the overall interest has remained.

I suspect it is because in some ways we like the idea of being scared of “something” and so what better than  these beings that once actually terrified our ancestors?  Fear is a natural, if not uncomfortable, human emotion.  I suspect that for all of our logical and sensible faculties, we all take a degree of comfort in recognizing that our fear mechanize still functions.  A lack of fear in all ways, shapes, and forms seems like a unholsome and perilous thing.  Taking vampires in consideration, the biggest remaining fear is that concept of death as a necessary bookend to life.   The vampire is able to avoid that ultimate death, but usually at the cost of their overall humanity and with the gruesome prerequisite of regular sanguine meals.

While many portrayals of vampires in modern narratives may promote a kind of existential fear, I do not think that they really tend to elicit the overall dread and terror that once plagued peasants of the 18th European countryside.  More often than not, I find the vampires in our current fiction, television, and movies to be little more than moody mosquitos, who might cause a start with their disproportioned canine teeth, but lack an overwhelming ability to make a person unable to sleep.

If I had to list where I think some of the problems with vampires are, I would come up with a number of examples.  I shall go through them here:

  • Vampires having Existential Crisis:  This stereotype is entirely too overplayed in modern fiction.  The vampire who is conflicted by his/her immortality and need to feast on human blood in contrast to retaining the sense of humanity that once defined their personhood.  This kind of vampire story might have been interesting once or twice in that it differentiated from vampires as simply cold-blooded killing machines, but after awhile it has become tired and empty.  I would say these crisis of character are the most debilitating portrayal of vampires in that it really removes any degree of fear worthiness.
  • The beautiful vampire: This often goes along with the above.  Not only does the vampire have to deal with the issues of remaining “human” but they are also “cursed” with some absurd degree of attractiveness.  Admittedly, the allure of vampires has been around for a long time.  There has long been a sexual element to the creatures.  However, traditionally this has been more of an unnatural glamour of sorts, used to entice and enthrall unsuspecting prey rather than a broad characteristic of the undead.  What has happened all too often in recent portrayals is that the focus is all on how beautiful the vampire(s) is, and not on the fact that this is a predatory creature that is longing to take a bite our of some poor human’s jugular.
  • Vampires who are Not Evil:  Along with the two above reasons this portrayal really get’s my goat.  In my mind vampires should always be evil things.  It should be part of their nature.  If they are not evil by nature then of course they are bound to have existential issues with the nature of thier being.  But if their nature is just cruel and vicious, then really they shouldn’t take issue with thier need for human blood.  I do like vampires that are not entirely beastly, but have some mote of intelligence which they use for one purpose, that being the acquisition of more humans to feed upon.  this manipulative quality can make a vampire even more evil than just as a blood thirsty monster.  It is part of what made Dracula such a lasting success.  If a vampire is good, then he/she is not really a monster at all, and boring in my book.
  • The diminishing of vampire weaknesses:  It seems like a lot of more current portrayals have taken away from vampires’ various vulnerabilities.  Some are immune to holy items, some don’t mind garlic, and some can even wander about under the light of the sun with no apparent unease.  Like the existential crisis, this might have been neat once or twice, but now it is so often done that when I vampire in a modern story explains about the misconception of a supposed vulnerability, I feel like asking, “who really now thinks that that was actually supposed to hurt you anyways?”  It is good to make sure that our fictional monsters have weaknesses.  This grounds them in a sense.  It forces them to work their terror within the confines of certain rules, and it furthermore gives people an opportunity to combat an already impressive foe.  Taking away from these weaknesses makes the vampires seem more unstoppable on one hand, but also seem unreasonably powerful, which makes them kind of boring.  Of course they are going to defeat the humans, because they can withstand just about everything short of a nuclear explosion.  COntrary to common assumption this does not create greater tension or suspense, but instead allows the creator of the story to get away with having to work around difficulties for the vampire itself.  Creating a really terrifying vampire that still has the normally expected vulnerabilities takes a wider degree of creativity.  I am okay with limited degrees of overcoming weaknesses.  One I particularly like, is that a vampires weakness to holy symbols, holy water, and holy places, is directly in proportion to the amount of faith vested in these things.  As such, a devout priest may be able to wield a crucifix against the children of the night with great success, while an atheist with some “holy water” might just get ol’ Dracula wet.  Beyond that though, I like my vampires to hate garlic bread, wear gold instead of silver, get real nasty sunburns, and have a strong aversion to sharpened wooden objects near their heart areas.
  • Scientific explanations for Vampires:  This is a bit more recent inclusion into the vampire mythos.  Explaining vampires as a product of either some sort of contagion or genetic mutation.  Personally (and perhaps interestingly as an atheist and skeptic of real world claims of the supernatural) I like my vampires to be supernatural beings, or, better yet, to be left unexplained altogether.  Zombies make wonderful monsters to be explained by some terrifying virus, but for vampires I kind of find it tiresome and, once again, taking away from the frightfulness.  When you explain things with a natural cause like a disease, you create this sense of “well maybe we’ll find a cure.”  However, with an unnatural or unknown cause, a means of removing the beings in far more elusive and difficult.  One of the few recent vampire stories I actually liked was the film version of 30 Days of Night (I have not read the comics so I can’t comment on them), in part  because the vampires are left relatively unexplained, they just appear and act like terrifying horrible monsters and that worked perfectly for me.  Sometimes things are better left unexplained.  Sure it is okay to have some speculation and thoughts about it, but leaving it open and unknown creates other forms of drama and suspense and allows for a broader sense of mystery in the world. 
  • Vampires Who Can survive Without Human Blood:  Look, if your story has a vampire like this ten you suck (and not like a vampire sucks blood, you suck in the sense that you are a lame piece of shit who has annoyed me).  For vampires to be at all interesting in my opinion they need to feed on human blood, exclusively.  Often times it is the moody existential crisis riddled vampires who make do feeding on the blood of things like rats and pigs rather than draining a human.  This annoys me.  Vampires are supposed to be monsters and that which is supposed to make them monstrous is the insatiable appetite for human body fluids (specifically the red body fluid).  You take that need away and basically you are left with a long living superhuman who has entirely too much time to bitch and whine about how shitty it is to be a vampire.  Fuck you Edward!

I will take a break from listing my gripes with modern vampire portrayals (though I could probably come up with some more if I wanted to) and now mention the few cases of more recent vampire stories that I think of as succeeding fairly well (almost all of them have some of the failings I list above, but overall I’d say they do okay).

  • ‘Salem’s Lot:  We’ll start off with this one because it is what got me onto this post in the first place.  Admittedly ‘Salem’s Lot is getting a bit dated ( it is almost 40 years old), but I still think that this is the modern vampire story that sets the bar for all others.  The vampires in Mr. King’s novel are truly monsters with a remorseless attitude and that insatiable hunger.  They are actually frightening (especially the floating creepy children vampires), they are actually evil, and they actually feel like uncompromised vampires.  This is the story for people who feel like I do, and think that the state of vampires in fiction is currently in disrepair.
  • 30 Days of Night(film):  As I mentioned above, I found this to be a good film portraying vampires.  It has a bit of the existential stuff near the end, but for the most part the monsters in this movie rock the full on terror and destructive qualities that I like in a good vampire story.  The movie is overall successful in its creepiness and it adheres pretty well to the more traditional vampire mythos.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer (television series):  This popular TV series has a number of failings on the vampire front (most significantly Angel, and later defanged Spike) but overall it isn’t too bad.  The vampires adhere to the general rules of vampirism. They are actually evil and blood thirsty.  They have a definite supernatural origin.  However, most of the vampires in the series are kind of wimpy and weak and so they never really come across as all that terrifying.
  • Lost Boys:  Another one that definitely has its faults, but does succeed in keeping the vampires actually pretty evil and vicious as well as maintaining their vulnerabilities.  Ultimately it is a pretty campy 80s flick, but it mostly gets its vampires right (even if they are not all that scary.  Sorry, but it is hard to really be afraid of Kiefer Sutherland).
  • The Blade Series:  Again, these have some issues, most significantly Mr. Blade himself, but it does keep vampires as pretty evil horrible creatures that like to drink from human necks.  I give these points for being willing to stick to the gruesome violence all too often left out of vampire stories today.
  • Let the Right One In (Swedish version film):  Next to ‘Salem’s Lot I think this is my favorite modern portrayal of vampires.  It does delve some into the existential and romantic vampire (kind of) but it does so in such a refreshingly original way that I feel like I can forgive it.  Not only does the vampire adhere well to vampire rules, but she is also utterly terrifying.  I’d love to read the novel this film is based on to see if it accomplishes the same degree of suspense and dread that movie did.  To date I have avoided watching the American remake of this movie because the Swedish version was so flawless in my opinion. Really this is quite an exceptional vampire story.

What else?  I’d love to hear other suggestions of good vampire stories.  There are times, as somebody who tells a lot of stories in his head, that I try to think of what kind of vampire story I’d like to tell.  I can say, with some certainty, that if I were to ever write my own vampire story, I’d work very hard to avoid the above listed failings.  I’d be disappointed with myself if I didn’t.

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~ by Nathaniel on January 17, 2012.

One Response to “Contemplation: Let’s Talk About Vampires”

  1. Really liked this post and weirdly having stated on a number of occasions that I love the true depiction of vampires as evil beings eg. 30 Days of Night, The Lost Boys and Salems Lot, I find myself caught in the trap of wanting to write about evil vamps, yet increasingly riding on the romantic wave. I try and achieve a bit of a mix thesedays, I have goodish vamps and very bad vamps and don’t ever want to lose sight of the bad ones. Great post.

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