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Vampire Literature, Mythology and Fear of Immortal Affairs

Vampire Literature, Mythology and Fear of Immortal Affairs
© Photograph by Natalya Pchelintseva

Vampires may very well be immortal. The question of if they exist in our physical world or not has no effect on their longevity and the role that they have played in literature and therefore, upon our society as a whole. Literature, especially fiction in all its forms, has evolved over time and across nations and so the vampire has inevitably followed. The legend of the vampire sprung from many sources across the globe-spanning human history and so it continues to evolve, shifting to fit the anxieties and mysteries of the past and the future. There has been perhaps no creature as aided in world domination as the vampire, which has managed to make its way into every genre imaginable, from romance to biographies.

The concept of the vampire as we know it today has steadily evolved over time and place. Tales and ideas of vampirism can be found long before what we know as “literature” ever came into being. In her book ‘The Lure of the Vampire’ (2005), Milly Williamson insists that they are “personifications of their age […] always changing so that their appeal is dramatically generational” (29). There are many ideas of why the vampire has persisted within the human psyche for so long. In ‘Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture’ (2009), Mary Y. Hallab states that “the fascination of the vampire lies in his being both human and supernatural” (4). There is perhaps an element of truth to this, as we can see a similar undying fascination with zombies — creatures that are also both human and something completely out of the realm of the laws of nature as we know them.

In Matthew Beresford’s ‘From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth’ (2008), he also acknowledges that the vampire as we know it has drastically changed over time and attributes its persistence in our world to the feature that seems to unify all versions of the vampire as we know it: fear (12). Although not all vampires are as “scary” as they once were, they still breed fear, especially that of death and its ambiguously captivating antithesis, immortality. Mary Y. Hallab attributes this ongoing fascination with the vampire to people’s inability to accept death (4). It is death’s finality that many people have a hard time facing head-on. There is something both terrifying and soothing about a loved one being able to return from the grave. Perhaps part of the fear of this scenario is based on the guilt that one experiences from not being able to come to terms with such a basic cosmic force. This may prove true ten-fold in today’s society, in which it is a common belief that one can prevent death as long as they know how (Hallab 6).

Vampires help bridge that in-between space of life and death that causes humans so much anxiety.

Mary Y. Hallab takes a deeper look into this essential “otherness” of vampires that makes them so enthralling. “The vampire has mythical significance as an in-between creature of this and the ‘other’ world, hinting to us that such a world might exist, for the very reason that the vampire refuses to go there” (6). The concepts of life and death are eternal, as they represent an inescapable cycle that all mere mortals must pass through. The vampire’s ability to be the proverbial clog in such a cosmic wheel is unlikely to lose its ability to grasp the minds of humanity any time soon.

Vampirism and its common attributes go very far back, to before there was the word “vampire,” which compacted the characteristics that we currently know so well into one being. Many mythologies carry figures with vampiric traits. Kali is a blood-drinking mother goddess in the Hindu religion while Yama is the Tibetan lord of Death (Twitchell 7). In Egyptian mythology, there is a warrior goddess named Sekhmet who drinks blood (Skal 12). It is clear that these connections have been made on the basis of two of the currently most observed traits of vampire kind: immortality and a thirst for blood. Vampirism has even been harkened to resemble the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, due to its underlying dark, sexual themes and otherworldliness (Hallab 6).

Mythology steadily worked its way into folklore, where the vampire took more of a solid form, but still varied greatly across cultures. A vampire could be virtually anything, and be created by an absurd variation of things, and therefore, could be extinguished in just as many ways. In Greece, there was a creature called the Lamia, which was a female demon who drank the blood of children (Skal 12). These demons later became more popularly referred to as Succubae, female demons that drained the life force of men through sex. This belief followed the Greek culture to Rome, where Lamia, also known as striges or mormos, was believed to be followers of the dark idol Hecate, goddess of witches (Beresford 20). The Labartu of Babylonia and the aswang of the Philippines also drank the blood of children (Beresford 20). In mythology, and in the dawn of folklore as we know it, vampires were mainly of a demonic nature. James B. Twitchell defines them as “a demonic spirit in a human body who nocturnally attacks the living, a destroyer of others, a preserver of himself” (7).

Even though some of these vampiric creatures were of a demonic origin, there were many things that mortals could do to become, willingly or not, one of the undead. Most of these had to do with the church, which used local superstitions of all kinds as the groundwork to suit their ideas of morality (Twitchell 14). Examples of these included not being buried in unconsecrated ground, which could be a result of committing suicide, dying unbaptized, or being excommunicated (Twitchell 9). Copulating with a demon, being born as the seventh child of the same sex, being born on Christmas, or even being born with abnormal teeth were also signs that you may be, or become, a vampire (Twitchell 9). These are only a few of the endless possibilities that folklore tied to the curse of vampirism. It is clear to see that most of these “signs” of evil were raised by the church and the age-old issue of social peculiarity (Twitchell 9). Of course, some tales did extend beyond “explainable” reasoning, such as what may be considered one of the oddest concepts concerning vampires, which was the belief that even fruit, in particular, watermelons and pumpkins — could, in fact, become vampires (Beresford 10).

Folklore was not able to specifically define the vampire, because it was based on varying cultural beliefs and superstitions. These were somewhat bridged by Christianity, solidifying the themes of blood and immortality (Twitchell 13). This was perhaps the reason why vampires were often closely related with a large host of other “evil” beings, including witches, werewolves, and ghosts (Hallab 1). Some believed that those who were werewolves in life became vampires when they died (Beresford 25). There can be an etymological connection made between the Turkish word for witch, uber and the Slavic upir or upyr, which lent itself later to the word as we know it today, vamyr, or more commonly, a vampire (Beresford 8). Perhaps the most important defining feature of the vampire of folklore is the fact that they were most often peasants, something that changed dramatically as they made the leap to modern literature (Skal 22).

In ‘The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century English Literature’ (1988), Carol A. Senf states that, “initial changes in the folklore vampire came during the [Age of] Enlightenment” (144). The Age of Enlightenment was a period that began in the seventeenth-century and continued to the end of the eighteenth-century. Also known as “The Age of Reason,” it was a time when people began to think of things “rationally,” and became focused on explaining the world around them. The first documented case of an individual being accused of vampirism occurred in 1727 in Serbia. A returning soldier named Arnold Paole claimed to have been harassed by a Turkish vampire (Skal 26). In 1746, the biblical scholar, Antoine Augustin Calmet was appointed to investigate the legitimacy of the accounts of vampires that were beginning to pile up. His studies were published and became very popular in Western Europe. It is believed that his work became a great source for the Romantic writers, such as Bryon and Stoker (Hallab 8). By the end of the eighteenth century, the English vampire was defined as a “devil’s spirit which had possessed the body and trapped the soul of a dead sinner” (Twitchell 8). By the turn of the eighteenth- into the nineteenth-century, the vampire had made its way into the “cultural mainstream,” and began its work at attracting the attentions of some of the best-known writers, artists, and thinkers of the time (Senf 164).

In James B. Twitchell’s ‘The Living Dead: A Study of the Vampire in Romantic Literature’ (1981), he describes vampires as “one of the major mythic figures bequeathed to us by the English Romantics,” and as “probably the most enduring and prolific myth figure we have” (Twitchell ix).

From the way that the vampire has transcended the centuries, this is surely not far off. Perhaps the most significant change that took place over the eighteenth- to the nineteenth-century concerning the vampire in literature was the change from “bloated peasant” to the “suave aristocrat” (Hallab 7). Vampires went from being superstitious explanations of things such as the sometimes startling stages of decomposition and premature burial, to creatures that lived in the minds and works of writers and thinkers, taking on the metaphoric importance and allowing people to really “meet” the creature that had so long been on the outskirts of human knowledge.

Carol A. Senf states that “the literary vampire originated during a period when Romantic literature emphasized the power of the individual” (144). This changed the background of the vampire from a pawn in the battle between God and Satan and gave vampires individualized and personalized issues, making them appear somewhat more human than they previously had (Williamson 31). This finally brought the definition of the vampire more clearly to “a human that does not die” (Hallab 10).

Matthew Beresford attributes the ingraining of the vampire into literature to four main texts: ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) by John William Polidori, ‘Varney, The Vampire’ (1845-1847) by James Malcolm Rymer, ‘Carmilla’ (1871) by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, and ‘Dracula’ (1879) by Abraham Stoker (Beresford 115). ‘The Vampyre’ is often considered the first vampire story in which the vampire appears as an aristocratic figure (Beresford 116). The story is known to be very macabre and fitting with the style of the time, for the vampire is the victor, after killing many innocents (Beresford 119). ‘Varney, The Vampire’ is occasionally acknowledged as “creating” the horror genre. It used many folkloric elements of vampirism, but also added the theme of sexuality (Beresford 121). It was with Varney that the bite of a vampire took on a sexual meaning in literature. In this story, it became a metaphor for sexual intercourse or rape (Beresford 122). Despite this, Varney was also the vampire to first openly regret his vampirism, which was a big step in the evolution of the vampire myth because it created a sense of sympathy in the reader, something that would become central to the vampire in later literature (Beresford 123).

‘Carmilla’ is blatantly known for infusing the vampire subgenre with the theme of lesbianism, and is often described as combining the sexuality of ‘Varney, The Vampire’ with the horror of ‘Dracula’ (Beresford 125). This story also took a turn by portraying the vampire as a young, innocent girl who is somewhat unaware of her vampirism for part of the book (Beresford 125). Until this point, vampires — at least from folklore through the Romantic period — had been predominantly male. In ‘Carmilla’, the victim is a young girl who is bitten not by a masculine agent of darkness who slips into the shadows of her room and ravishes her with his sparkling teeth, but a woman who does just the same (Beresford 126).

Undoubtedly, the most famous piece of vampire literature is Abraham Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. It eclipsed practically every tale of vampirism before it (Williamson 5). As was the case with ‘Carmilla’, ‘Dracula’ was published in the midst of the Victorian era right after the decline of the Romantic period of literature. It was at this point in time that the vampire really began to build momentum, as the Victorian era was known for its preoccupation with the idea of death (Senf 145), and sexual repression (Williamson 3). ‘Dracula’ is credited with allowing nineteenth-century readers and writers to explore forbidden topics, such as sex and immortality while pretending to be frightened and taken aback (Hallab 3).

People have also been able to read into ‘Dracula’ in many different ways, deriving all sorts of conclusion from it, from a denouncement of the tyranny of patriarchy to an underhanded comment on the corrupt powers of the aristocracy or bourgeois capitalists (Hallab 2). Despite its possible “deeper meanings,” ‘Dracula’ has changed the way that people viewed vampires. Also an aristocratic figure, like ‘The Vampyre’, ‘Dracula’ was a figure of frightening power.

The nineteenth-century was known for vampires of an evil nature. They killed those whom they victimized (Senf 145) and none were heroes (Senf 151). Even their sexuality did not stem from a place of romance, but from a time when eroticism was still part of the underbelly of the literary scene (Senf 152). In the twentieth-century, everything changed for the vampire. Tales of vampires went from meagre handfuls to bucket loads over the last century. Everyone wanted a vampire of his or her own, as it was a creature human enough to personalize and transcend genres, but also supernatural enough to entertain them endlessly.

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