The image of the vampire is such a pervasive one in twenty-first-century visual and literary culture that it is difficult to imagine a point of tabula rasa, where a potential cultural consumer does not already hold some preconception of pale skin and pointy teeth in reference to the vampiric.
Since the vampire moved from its folkloric origins to the printed text some two-hundred and fifty years ago, and famously into the English language with the works of John Polidori, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker, the figure of the vampire has become a stalwart of Western culture.
From its early incarnation as Stoker’s eastern-European count and Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, to its more recent realization as rebel without a pulse, the vampire has found many faces, many representations, and many metaphorical meanings which have allowed it to enjoy a consistent presence within English language society, or perhaps more tellingly, as this society’s “outsider” and “other.”
It is this notion of the vampire as other which proves most constructive in understanding the vampire’s continued presence within our cultural sphere, yet it is also this, which provides for its most paradoxical fascination.
When we first think of the vampire, the traditional images of the monster spring to mind. Images of the undead, pale-faced and pointy-toothed, feeding on unwary humans, sucking their blood and changing them into nightmarish creatures that sleep in coffins, indulge their desires, and revel in breaking the taboos of civilized society. Positioned as a marginal figure, one existing at the edge of what is deemed normal, acceptable and safe, the vampire embodies the foreign and the unfamiliar.
In a literal interpretation, vampires are representative of the fears of the cultures which produce them. In this sense, the vampire can be seen through its most basic characterization as the bringer of death.
Consistent in all tellings of vampirism, from folklore to filmlore, is the understanding that the vampire feeds by sucking the life force from its victims, with this most commonly translated through their need for human blood.
A superficial reading of the vampire then defines it as that most common of monsters, one which threatens to exploit the fragility of the human condition. It becomes literally the monster in the dark, in the closet, and under the bed. Yet while such a reading of the vampire seems logical, even self-evident, it is certainly not the sum of what the vampiric figure represents in both its past and present incarnations.
To pry only a little deeper into the fears which the figure of the vampire embodies, we see the extension of our fears of the dead through an association of the vampiric with the spread of contagion and the pain of disease, be it nineteenth-century fears of consumption and syphilis or late-twentieth-century fears of HIV and the AIDS virus. Yet as much as the literal monster of the vampire is representative of our fears of what might go bump in the night, the vampire is also open to any number of metaphorical meanings and readings.
The vampire has then come to embody not only the oblique fear of death and those who bring it, but also a variety of behaviours, conditions, and associations which are deemed outside of or unacceptable to the society they describe. In this way, to a Marxist, the vampire may represent the monster of monopoly capitalism, foreign ownership, and in general the “bloodsucking capitalist;” while to a xenophobic society it may represent racial difference.
The vampire then stands in for the literal outsider to society, representing the fear of nonconformity. In this sense the vampire does not necessarily only represent that which we find horrific, but also that which represents an illicit desire.
As Jörg Waltje explains, the vampire embodies humanity’s greatest hopes and desires: beauty, strength, and immortality. While these elements do not produce fear in the same manner as the vampire’s associations with death, they represent outsider behaviour which threatens the stability of the society. This understanding of the vampire’s dual-threat is taken up by Sarah Sceats who argues:
“Vampires represent what we both fear and desire; they evoke a marginal world of darkness, secrecy, vulnerability, excess, and horror. Whatever they are, it is positively Other.”
Sceats identifies the vampire as embodying the other that exists in comparison to the structured norm of Western society. This other takes on the role of the horrific in the monstrous death of the vampire, yet it also produces the other through those elements of the vampire which represent the forbidden and illicit desires of the sanctioned social order.
The vampire then comes to represent the unwanted fringe or the threatening dissident. The rebel, the addict, and the white-collar criminal: those elements of society which destabilize without necessarily instilling the same fear as those traditionally disruptive elements of the murderer and the violent criminal. These subversive elements are too signified by the vampiric other.
The vampire as society’s dark other then represents its excess. In his chapter on ‘Limit and Excess’, Omar Calabrese speaks of qualities of eccentricity and excess, which respectively place pressure on and break through the boundaries of dominant society.
Calabrese approaches ordered society as a cultural system with discernible limits — limits which could be stretched or breached through certain acts and behaviours that are not accounted for by the dominant system.
It is within these acts that we find the vampire. According to Calabrese eccentricity, exemplified in his chapter by haute couture fashion, places pressure on a system without undermining its stability. He explains it is then excess “which destabilizes a system through breaching its boundaries and destroying its limits.” It is this excess, what Calabrese explains as the “exit from a closed system,” which locates the other as that which is not part of ordered society and in so doing locates the vampire. As the vampiric other personifies those aspects excluded or rejected by society, its existence in itself denotes excess.
In particular, we find the vampiric excess expressed in its common association with the erotic, or more specifically with the overly, overtly, and exotic erotic. As Calabrese argues, “It is widely appreciated that erotic excess is an appropriate way of questioning and disturbing a value system.”
The erotic and more specifically the overtly sexual has long been a taboo within Western society. Where deviance in most areas of human behaviour unsettles and places pressure on a value system, creating a moment of Calabrese’s “eccentricity,” deviance in the erotic or sexual creates scandal. It is this scandal, Calabrese explains, which produces the excess which moves past the eccentric and succeeds in breaking the boundaries of the socially acceptable.
The vampire, and more specifically the vampire’s bite, has long been associated with the erotic. The penetration and oral fixation of the bite, as well as its associated reproductive and infective potential highlight its explicit sexual connotations. The bite promotes the possibility of the transference of venereal disease through a sexless penetration and with this the sacrilege of the virginal “re-birth.”
The action of the vampire’s bite becomes in itself the explicit erotic act and, through its simultaneous position as the fulfilment of desire and the cessation of hunger, it creates scandal. Further, the scandal of the erotic is then linked to the sexual deviant and the necrophilic act. At once sexualized the vampire’s bite is always and unavoidably linked also to death.
Bram Stoker explores the equating of death and excessive sexuality famously in his novel ‘Dracula’. In telling of the death of poor Lucy, Stoker writes:
She seemed like a nightmare of Lucy as she lay there; the pointed teeth, the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth — which it made one shudder to see — the whole carnal and unspiritual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity.
The image Stoker creates of Lucy couches her new erotic appeal within her post-mortem, if immortal, form. Here the erotic is linked to death and the scandal of “the mockery” made of Lucy’s formerly chaste form is instilled within those qualities which attract as they disgust.
The excess which is produced by the vampire is further revealed in Stoker’s description of Lucy as he describes her as the “nightmare… which it made one shudder to see.” Along with the eroticism of Lucy’s vampiric form, Stoker highlights the vampire’s horrific quality. Here again Calabrese’s assessment is useful. As he explains, “Next to sex we find violence or, more generally, Horror.”
Violence, as with erotic excess, destabilizes the social system through the production of the horrific and the creation of fear. This is again an element of the vampire’s bite as the vampire’s insatiable hunger unleashes death or rather un-death on its victims, producing horror in its infection and destruction. Through its constant recourse to the scandalous, the vampire is unavoidably position beyond the stable society. Reliant on excess for its existence, and breaching the limits of ordered society with every meal, the vampire is unavoidably other.
The power of the vampire’s bite in positioning the vampire as outsider and outcast from the socially acceptable is highlighted in more recent times in the castration of such pop-culture vampires as Angel and Spike in the television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003). Angel with his soul and his wish for an ethical vampiric lifestyle, and Spike with his government-issue behavioural modification, are removed from the vampire’s bite and from its associated eroticized and violent excesses.
While both Angel and Spike are ultimately incorporated into the “Scooby gang,” which stands in as the show’s construction of a dominant social system, they can only find a space within the social system of the Slayer and her friends once they have turned to a desexualized and de-victimised food source — animal blood obtained from butchers.
While the removal of the vampire’s bite vastly reduces the scandal of the vampiric, even these neutered vampires remain transgressive creatures as Calabrese’s ultimate signifier of excess. In addition to the excesses of the erotic and the horrific, Calabrese locates the figure of the monster itself as the ultimate signifier of social excess. He states:
“The monster is a constantly destabilizing element because it is either “too much” or “too little” in both quantitative and qualitative terms when compared to the norm.”
The vampire is inarguably a monster but more importantly, it is a monster within Calabrese’s understanding of that which is “too much” or “too little” when compared to the human norm. The vampire specifically is both too little and too much when compared to the living and the dead: not alive enough to live but too spry for the dead.
The vampire is further too much compared to the human in social terms, imitating the behaviours of the human but in excess. Hunger and desire, no longer satiable, are indulged without restraint and become literally a display of excess.
Calabrese then positions the monster as that which exists beyond the boundaries of a structured system. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger further this positioning of the monster suggesting the monster itself functions to construct the boundaries that a society dare not cross. They argue, “For this is one of the functions of our monsters: to help us constrict our own humanity, to provide guidelines against which we can define ourselves.”
The vampire then suggests a doubly disturbing force. Undeniably a monstrous figure, a literal demon, the vampire is located beyond the ordered system. Yet, the nature of the vampiric, in its imitation of and familiarity with the human creates a figure which both exists outside of the social norm and yet which relates closely to it.
Hollinger highlights this connection between vampires and the deconstruction of boundaries explaining, the vampire is “the monster that used to be human; it is the undead that used to be alive; it is the monster that looks like us.” The association of the human with the vampiric highlights the power of the vampire as a transgressive figure. It is at once outside of and yet familiar to the norm.
By constantly breaching the boundaries of society, of corporeality itself, the vampire locates itself within excess, beyond society and distinctly as the other.
Having established the vampire as a transgressive and excessive other, it is then ironic to find that in the twenty-first-century the vampire is comfortably located within the gathering of friends and the assurance of community.
At the turn of the millennium, the vampire has increasingly become not a creature of fear but one of sympathy and emulation. In particular this aspect of contemporary vampire culture becomes apparent through a discussion of the vampire within online spaces and virtual communities.
As such a discussion of the performance of the vampire online, and specifically within the custom-designed Vampire application on the social networking site Facebook, provides insight into the new positioning of the sympathetic vampire.
The Facebook vampire communities highlight the irony implicit in the positioning of a transgressive and marginal figure in the performance of social ritual.