Vampire Onscreen in the Late-1980s and 1990s Cult Shows

Vampire Onscreen in the Late-1980s and 1990s Cult Shows
© Photograph by Michał Klimczak

The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a renewed interest in horror and dark fantasy series on TV. Emerging in part due to horror cinema’s most visible, grisly and commercially saturated decade, horror anthology shows such as ‘Tales from the Crypt’ (1989-96), Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-90) and the weird, gothic mystery ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-91), all reveal a distinct shift in television production.

These shows demonstrate the specific targeting of audiences by way of blending populist entertainment and niche genre-specific programming. As Jowett and Abbott note, “throughout the 1980s and 1990s horror often emerges as a form of ‘quality’ television drama appealing to an upscale audience” (Jowett and Abbott, 2013: 6), literate in its generic style and aimed at a target, rather than general, audience.

As Helen Wheatley suggests, there is an evident borrowing of styles at work on TV during this period, as “the generic hybridity of the gothic drama [such as ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990-1991)] is understood as intertextual bricolage, one of the identifying traits of the postmodern” (Wheatley 2006: 167). By the mid-1990s, this overt postmodern bricolage of “mix[ing of] horror, action, comedy, and melodrama” (Jowett and Abbott 2013: 9) finds popular expression and cultural traction in shows such as ‘The X-Files’ (1993-2002; 2016), ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997-2003) and ‘Angel’ (1999-2004), privileging generic fluidity and playful intertextuality.

Despite the proliferation of TV horror in this period, the vampire television show had not yet achieved the level of prominent cultural visibility that it would later in the decade. Vampires, as we shall see, remained a consistent televisual presence but largely a subdued one; during this period, shows such as ‘Forever Knight’ (1992-1996) achieved some commercial success, but did not yield the overt and sustained pop culture response which later series such as Buffy enjoyed.

Out of the plethora of television series that celebrated horror on the small screen between 1987 and 1998, this article focuses on two horror shows, ‘Friday the 13th: The Series’ (1987-1990) and ‘The X- Files’ (1994-2003), alongside an evident transition of the TV vampire in episodes of ‘Tales from the Crypt’ (1989-1996) and ‘Quantum Leap’ (1989 – 1993), where each series represents the slow and steady evolution of the TV vampire in very divergent ways.

Featuring as ‘Monster of the Week’ interlopers (alongside other recycled monsters of the gothic and horror canon), these vampires straddle two very significant decades in horror culture, and each show uses the vampire to broadly either reaffirm its literary origins, or to contest and satirise undead archetypes on screen.

Why focus on these particular series and these particular television vampires? Vampires are an expected trope on television, and have varied from gentle representations such as Sesame Street’s Count Von Count to gothic soap operas with Barnabus Collins (Jonathan Frid) in ‘Dark Shadows’ (1966-71), to monstrous invaders as found in the TV film/mini-series ‘Salem’s Lot’ (Hooper 1979).

What is of original scholarly interest here is the inclusion and evaluation of specific instances of TV vampire guest-appearances outside of the vampire-centred series, exploring marginal vampire figures often overlooked in vampire studies. These specific series feature episodes that document the TV vampire’s screen evolution, and the swift shift from reverence to mockery, from appropriation to derision, of Stoker’s Count Dracula.

As horror and science fiction shows flirting with gothic stock characters and human monsters, both ‘Friday the 13th: The Series’ and ‘The X-Files’ hinge upon their own unique (yet broadly similar) frameworks — a young duo investigate cursed objects, discover conspiracies and unexplained phenomena — and only feature vampires as occasional marginal monsters amongst a diverse set of fantastic creatures.

Despite such limited screen time, the TV vampire’s fleeting presence nonetheless provides insight into the state of the contemporary undead outside of vampire-centric films, novels and television series. Spanning a very important period in the history of horror cinema and television more generally — from the decline of second-wave slasher films in the late 1980s, to the evident popularity of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ on television in the late 1990s — during which time the recuperation and romantic transformation of the vampire in cinema and popular culture gains traction, these series articulate the waxing and waning of the Dracula template for guest-spot TV vampires in their exploration of vampires onscreen.

Vampire cinema in the 1980s was explicitly focussed on the MTV generation, giving rise to the teenage vampires and vampire hunters in ‘Once Bitten’ (Storm 1985), ‘Fright Night’ (Holland 1985), ‘Near Dark’ (Bigelow 1987) and ‘The Lost Boys’ (Schumacher 1987).

Moving away from the increasingly sympathetic and middle-aged Draculas of the 1970s, and the as-then un-filmed introspective ‘Interview with the Vampire’, vampires became the cultural shorthand for a disaffected youth, attempting to find meaning and self-expression in a culture that had abandoned them to the Reaganite nightmare of corporate America.

Following on from the ‘leaderless 1970s’ (Auerbach 1995: 165) with its plentiful array of Draculas and new articulate fledglings, 1980s vampires inherit a landscape that is devoid of a master vampire to call its own; crushed by neo-conservative forces that suffocate rather than celebrate vampire diversity, there exists no new Dracula to define or spearhead a counter-narrative in the decade, frequently leaving these fledgeling vampires to burn up in the searing sunlight of Reagan’s family-values styled “morning in America”.

Nina Auerbach notes that Anne Rice’s vampires, who rose to particular literary prominence in the 1980s with her bestseller sequels to 1976’s ‘Interview with the Vampire’, are consumed with their history and heritage, in a decade where vampires were “defined by their origins rather than their plots” (Auerbach 1995: 172).

For Rice, vampire legitimacy is a bifurcated worldview between the undead obsessed with their longevity and rich cultural ancestry (an exhaustive feature in her ongoing ‘Vampire Chronicles’), and the illegitimate young offspring in thrall of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ and his ilk in popular culture. Neil Jordan’s film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire (scripted by Rice and finessed by Jordan without a screen credit) also puts Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, and his cultural ancestry, firmly in the literary past, casually dismissing Dracula’s cultural ubiquity and authority in the 20th century as merely “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman” (Jordan 1994).

Despite Rice’s desire to suffuse the undead with an ancient heritage — a clumsy yet defiant attempt to paper over the cracks that her vampires are problematically “new” fledglings themselves — while overtly appropriating contemporary modes of modern cultural authority via technology and MTV, Rice’s material is deeply insular and exclusionary, vehemently denying other undead histories in favour of her own undead canon.

In order to identify and legitimate the inclusion of the TV vampire’s occasional appearance on non-vampire television series, the cultural shorthand, generally speaking, is to engage and cite some connection to the master vampire template of the 20th century, ‘Dracula’. These quotations can be explicit and immediate, via costuming or nominal citation, or they can be implicit, through rewarding fan-knowledge or parodic reference with hyperbolic visual cues.

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