Pathological Discourses of Fictional Ageing in Vampiric Myths

Marta Baldellow

Marta Baldellow

The figure of the vampire has been inextricably linked to the history of humanity since ancient and classical times as an embodiment of fear, otherness, evil and the object. Nonetheless, its manifestations in the domain of literature especially began to proliferate during the Victorian period.

According to critics such as Teresa Mangum, ageing became of special interest to Victorians, while the literary vampire became the quintessential personification of old age, displaying both its contradictory and oxymoronic traits as well as reflecting some of the stereotypical values often attached to old age.

The vampire is ultimately a being, apparently human, that does not look its real age. It is through deceit that the vampire pretends to be young, despite its blatant actual old age, thus defying moral principles and subverting any socially accepted standards as for how a young and an aged person should behave respectively.

Likewise, not only does the vampire problematise the social need to categorise people according to age by means of their appearance, but it also subverts the traditionally established dilemma which usually separates mind and body in old age.

A legacy of René Descartes’ philosophy in the seventeenth-century was his thesis of mind-body dualism, which argued that mind and body are distinct, because of the nature of the mind, which is a thinking and non-extended thing, is different from that of the body, which is an extended and non-thinking thing.

This argument has given shape to the problem of the mind-body interaction which is still debated today, and which is of relevance to ageing studies in so much as the decline of the body and the wisdom of the mind are concerned.

In his treatise on ‘Old Age,’ written in c.65 BC, which, according to Karen Chase, still resounded in Victorian times, Marcus Tullius Cicero already pointed to this difference between mind and body in relation to youth and old age stating: “For I admire a young man who has something of the old man in him, so do I an old one who has something of a young man. The man who aims at this may possibly become old in body — in mind, he never will.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero’s reference underlines the need to blend youth and age, as well as the differing effects of ageing on both body and mind. In this respect, the vampire is an embodiment of both youth and age, as it has a young appearance which hides a truly aged being.

Likewise, even though its body remains untouched by the effects of ageing, the vampire is often portrayed as haunted by an everlasting existence and the memories of an unusually projected existence.

The concern about ageing during the Victorian period necessarily finds its reflection in the proliferation of vampire narratives. Thus, it does not appear random that both ageing and vampire fiction began to attract attention in the nineteenth-century; underlining a strongly related link between them.

In the Victorian period, interest in old age can be seen reflected in a number of developments such as the central place given to institutions for the care of the elderly, the creation of the elderly subject as a category in medical discourse, and the recognition of a need for a public provision in old age.

The centrality old age acquired was also coupled with the elusiveness of old age as an experience, and both the power and powerlessness with which old age was often associated, which contributed to defining old age as a complex experience.

Karen Chase has also referred to the Victorian concern with old age stemming from the fact that, due to the improved conditions of life in the nineteenth-century, people were expected to live longer, life expectancy rose significantly higher, and people became more attracted to the prolongation of life, which at the time sharply contrasted with a notoriously high rate of children’s mortality.

Nonetheless, until the twentieth-century, living long was considered fairly exceptional, thus allowing old age “to be treated as non-normative,” to use Helen Small’s words. It is in this respect that, according to Robert Butler, the social disease of ageism began to take shape, and old age became endowed with moral judgements of mental or moral incapability in addition to declining health.

In the United States of America, the historian David Hackett Fischer even referred to the nineteenth-century as a period characterised by the cult of youth and a time where gerontophobia began to settle in.

Likewise, Thomas Cole also traces how the American cultural response to ageing shifted from the positive existential meaning of old age, as biblically sanctioned in the Puritan era, to the scientific normalised view of ageing which began to prevail later on, thus exploring the dualistic conception of old age as, on one hand, venerable due to religious moral, and on the other hand, dependent and infirm due to a presumable lack of moral restraint.

In this sense, public imagination had to contend with significantly contradictory images of ageing as a golden period as well as portraits of the aged as a mass of dependent people that began to menace the common welfare of the Victorian nation.

In this sense, in vampire fiction, protagonists are often referred to as heroic antagonists or living dead people, thus making use of contradictory terms which underline their oxymoronic nature, implying that they are endowed with a particular centrality while underlining their subversive nature at the same time.

In this respect, in vampire narratives, there is always a special concern not to trust appearances, as the physique of the vampire is by nature necessarily deceitful and its body matches neither its inward nature nor its actual age.

Similarly, before the nineteenth-century, coming to terms with an individual’s age was not an easy matter. A person was often considered old only when exhibiting behaviour that betrayed both physical and mental failure, or when the person’s physical appearance simply looked old.

As a matter of fact, those authorities responsible for deciding when to give aid to the elderly, as was the case with the Poor Law Guardians, did not label anyone according to their chronological age alone. Instead, as Teresa Mangum asserts, individuals were assumed to be ageing when they manifested a set of conditions such as behavioural infirmity and physical deterioration.

In this respect, Helen Small has also noticed the disparity existing between chronological age and the individual’s physical conditions or their consciousness of the process of ageing, which is a basic feature which often characterises the literary vampire, claiming that “the age we feel is not necessarily the same as our calendrical age, nor is it the same as how we are perceived, or how we register ourselves being perceived by others.”

As a result, medical studies began to focus on specific signs that would aid in categorising somebody as past his or her prime.

In his volume ‘Disciplining Old Age: The Formation of Gerontological Knowledge’ (1996), Steven Theodore Katz examines the impact of medical studies on the perceptions of old age in the Victorian period and considers how they paved the ground for the establishment of geriatrics and gerontology at the beginning of the twentieth-century.

The body gradually became fixed through the description of a set of biological signs that would ultimately be considered as indicators of health or deterioration. In this respect, medical approaches usually entertained two contradictory perceptions of how old age befell.

According to the so-called vitality model, old age was perceived as the gradual oozing away of limited energy and ability, and conversely, another theoretical model argued that old age emerged suddenly as a result of a grand climacteric, which implied physical collapse, loss of sexual identity and mental deviance.

This dichotomy between gradual or sudden transformation also features in fictional accounts of the vampire’s process of coming into being, which varies from a gradual transition such as in the loss of innocence and initiation into vampirism of formerly angels of the house like Lucy in Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ or Laura in Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla,’ to the almost instantaneous transformation of the living to the living dead, following baptism by another vampire such as in Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire,’ as Louis is transformed by Lestat de Lioncourt, and thus, Louis transforms Claudia into a vampire child.

Likewise, men and women were deemed old according to different criteria. Men were often perceived as old in relation to their ability to work, whereas women were considered old according to their reproductive capability rather than their productive potential.

Likewise, in vampire fiction, male and female vampires come into being into their new existence as a result of different conditions. Male vampires are often transformed so as to help other male vampires and increase their number and their power, while female vampires are often transformed when they gain insight into their own sexuality and thus become fallen women.

In Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with the Vampire,’ Lestat de Lioncourt, Louis and Claudia travel to Paris where they meet Armand, the leader of a gang of European vampires.

Conversely, early poems and short pieces in the vampire tradition already portrayed female vampires as temptresses. As cases in point, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ‘Die Freundin von Corinth’ (‘The Bride of Corinth,’ 1797), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’ (1797-1800), and Pierre Juler Théophile Gautier’s ‘La Morte Amoureuse’ (‘The Dead in Love,’ 1836) are early exponents of women’s overt sexuality enthralling young men.

Women making advances towards men had necessarily to be depicted as female vampires and thus fallen women trespassing moral boundaries that were banned to pious and virtuous angels of the house in Victorian times.

From a sociological perspective, the focus of attention on ageing in Victorian times seemed to respond to the fact that birth rates began to drop while the population of those who were over forty began to rise significantly.

Even though life expectancy did not really increase during the Victorian period, the growing number of aged people began to attract unprecedented attention in the news, the government, the medical profession, and especially literature, thus creating a false impression that the United Kingdom was growing old.

In this sense, as Teresa Mangum asserts, ageing and the aged can be interpreted as an eminently Victorian media event.

However, this overwhelming feeling that the nation was growing old also contributed to shaping an ongoing discourse of ageism at the time.

The elderly were perceived as past the age when society accepted dependency on individuals, and thus the aged began to be held in contempt for a period especially characterised by progress, production, initiative, scientific breakthroughs and imperial expansion.

It was a time mostly characterised by change and speed; values that have been traditionally associated with youth as opposed to old age. Moreover, changes in legislation in the 1870s reduced pensions and pressured families to take care of their elders through private initiatives.

As Teresa Mangum argues, “changes in the law harshly cut back pensions, coerced families to care of older members, and pressured old people to support themselves.”

Likewise, cultural ideas at the time such as Thomas Robert Malthus’ theory concerning population growth, Samuel Smiles’ volume promoting individuals’ self-help or Charles Robert Darwin’s evolutionary theories, contributed to an echoing Victorian discourse of the old as eventually sucking the blood of their young relatives, and by extension, of the whole nation, to draw a parallel with the literary vampire figure again.

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