No creature of the night seems to excite the western imagination quite like the vampire. While others like Frankenstein and the Mummy have lost their lustre over the years, vampires abound in books and films. In the local video store, the horror shelves are stocked with films like ‘The Lost Boys’, and posters proclaim the release of ‘Fright Night II’.
With the original ‘Dracula’ to ‘Interview with a Vampire’ at the local bookstore, vampires appear to be more than a passing fad. The key to this appeal is complex. An examination of our fascination with vampires leads inexorably into the shadowy conflicts and tensions so much a part of our human condition.
I do not intend to delve deeply into the origins of the vampire here; suffice to say that they are ancient, possibly prevalent long before their appearance in Slavic folklore of the early Middle Ages (Wuttke 149). These legends saw vampires as maleficent sprites — amorphous spirits with evil intentions. Since these dangerous spirits were believed to be afraid of fire, the wary shepherd took care to keep a fire burning nearby just in case.
While the legend itself undoubtedly caught the imagination of people from early times, it was not until Bram Stoker wrote ‘Dracula’ that the vampire captured a larger audience. ‘Dracula’ as a concrete personality gave focus to the ancient legend. Unlike the earlier nameless sprites, Dracula could be seen, heard, feared, and even admired — especially by those readers who were unfettered by moral misgivings.
Many aspects of Dracula excited the imaginative reader. He was suave, handsome, and cultured. He had old-world charm, wealth, and undeniable sex appeal. In fact, he might have been the sort of date you could bring home to meet the folks if not for is a tragic flaw. Overall, there had never before been a character with so many striking traits; the sheer force of his personality filled the pages of Bram Stoker’s short novel.
In part, it was this fascinating combination of contrasting traits that piqued the reader’s interest, yet there is far more behind the appeal of the vampire than merely Dracula’s engaging personality. The salient reason that vampires hold a lasting appeal is that they allow readers to circumvent four primary psychological tensions.
These centre in four areas: 1) sexuality, 2) mortality, 3) the battle of Christianity, and 4) the lure of the occult. Readers can indulge their unconscious desires in these areas without directly challenging the moral precepts that hold these desires in counterpoise.
The primary tension is between sexual license and sexual repression. We can see that Dracula’s ladies were pretty sexy for their time. “The fair woman came close and bent over him until he could feel her breath upon him. In a way, it was sweet, but under the sweetness was the bitter smell of blood” (Stoker). Here the sexual attraction and moral aversion serve as a metaphor for the psychological tension between desire and culturally nurtured inhibitions. Further, three sexual practices which are often outwardly discouraged in our western culture are hinted at.
The first practice involves the bisexual impulse exhibited by vampires. Even from the earliest treatments of the vampire in literature, this tendency has played an important role in the sexual nature of the undead. A second practice stems from the vampire’s need for excessive exogamy.
Since the vampire’s partner is human, the sexuality represented here is more than interracial it is a sexual relationship between human being and spiritual creature of the night. The final practice of vampire sexuality involves its oral nature. This connection to human sexual practice is probably apparent here without further comment, we might recall the discovery of Levi-Strauss that many primitive cultures use the same word for sexual intercourse and eating (Stevenson 142).
Our western culture’s xenophobic tendency and its overall sexual inhibition directly contrast with the sexual liberty represented in the world of the vampire.
A second major tension exists between the perceived natural order and the unnatural order presented by the undead. The natural order is represented by the cycle of life and death. Vampires live in a shadowy world that transcends this cycle unless, of course, they become careless and are destroyed by their antagonists.
Few desires are as enduring as the wish for immortality. Vampires offer the reader a glimpse of this god-like attribute. Imagine living through countless generations in perfect health. You might have known Wellington personally or sat in court as Mozart conducted his divertimenti. You might have traded letters with Benjamin Franklin or stories with Gertrude Stein.
You could plan to experience events twenty generations from now. While these thoughts contradict the natural world, fiction creates its own world with its own rules. We find in vampires a sense of immortality, and the fantasy has a deep appeal for many.
Of course, the dominant tension between the natural and unnatural order for our western culture is represented by the struggle of Christianity against the powers of darkness. Vampire legends stand in direct opposition to Christianity but build on Christian symbolism. Not since the time of Milton’s Satan has a creature of darkness come to life with the force and vitality of Dracula, and the vampires that followed continue in his tradition.
In the apocryphal battle that inevitably follows, the Christian forces, representing the natural order, have a number of weapons in their arsenal. They have the cross, which works both as a talisman and as a stake to sanctify the earth into which it is driven; even the earthen body of vampires can be reduced to lifeless dust by using the stake in this second manner.
Additionally, they have the power of the sun and its light to defeat the undead. This light can be seen as the light of Christianity that can banish any hint of darkness through its illumination. The Christian forces also have holy water in addition to their faith to combat these creatures of the night (Garlic is one of the few banes to vampires not directly traceable to Christian tradition.)
In counterpoise, the forces of the unnatural have the cover of night and darkness.
In opposition to the Christian tradition, they make human blood their own inverted Eucharist also, contrasting to the Christian tradition, the power of transubstantiation lies within the vampire’s inner nature rather than in the blood itself.
Vampires also have the ability to change forms at will, and they have the physical strength to match the spiritual strength of the devout as a representative of evil, the vampire is a serious challenge to the heroes so serious that the reader is never quite certain until the end which will come out on top.
The archetypal battle between the forces of light and darkness exerts a strong fascination on many readers.