February 8, 2010
Once upon a time, the living dead were scary
JOHN J. MILLER
A trailer for the new movie Daybreakers invites us to “imagine a world where almost everyone is a vampire.”
That shouldn’t be too hard. It seems like we’re already living in one.
Vampires are everywhere. At the start of 2010, the four novels in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series ranked Nos. 2, 4, 5, and 9 on USA Today’s list of bestsellers. They’ve held spots in this range for a couple of years — it might be said that they’ve refused to die — and recently they’ve spawned a pair of films that have grossed more than half a billion dollars combined. More are on the way. Plenty of other recent books (Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead) and movies (Cirque du Freak, Jennifer’s Body) also have featured the bloodsucking undead. On TV, The Vampire Diaries is the most-watched show on the CW network. True Blood has aired on HBO for two seasons and has commitments for two more. It recently launched a jewelry line. A clasp necklace with rubies shaped like drops of blood retails for $1,295. One of the hottest rock bands of the moment is Vampire Weekend. Its latest release, put out on January 11, quickly became the most downloaded album on iTunes.
I dig vampires as much as the next guy who has read Bram Stoker’s Dracula three or four times, goes out of his way to watch monster movies, and thinks “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus is one of the coolest songs ever recorded. Yet the present ubiquity of vampires is too much, even for me. Once upon a time, vampires were creepy and haunting. Now they’re yawn-inducing bores. Perhaps they’ve finally reached their cultural expiration date. At the very least, they should crawl back into their coffins and give the rest of us a break.
H. P. Lovecraft, the great 20th-century horror writer, explained the aesthetics of terror: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The problem with vampires is that there’s nothing left to fear because there’s nothing left to know. At one point in their progression through pop culture, it took a purveyor of arcane wisdom like Abraham Van Helsing to defeat them. Nowadays, every fifth grader has memorized the fundamentals of vampire slaying: crucifixes, garlic, sunlight, and so on. They’ve become Halloween clichés.
But that’s not the worst part. Vampires probably can survive a certain level of familiarity as long as they also remain menaces who want to puncture our necks and steal our souls. Lately, however, too many vampires have taken a kinder, gentler turn. They’ve gone from sinister villains who deserve to have wooden stakes pounded into their chests to tender-hearted friends and lovers who yearn for our compassion. The main character in Daybreakers is a guilt-ridden vampire hematologist who wants to find a cure for vampirism and save humanity. In Twilight, the pouting male protagonist slurps the blood of animals so he doesn’t have to stalk human prey. Both of these guys also have great hair — and not on the palms of their hands, like the original Dracula, who also smelled really bad. The fashion-plate vampires of today are undead metrosexuals: sharp-dressed men with sharp teeth.
These vapid vampires have traveled a long way from their sources. As with so many legends that arise from old folk traditions, the precise origins of vampire tales are pleasingly obscure. They have their genesis in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, as well as rough corollaries in many other cultures. In the 18th century, Goethe wrote a poem about a vampire. In the 19th century, British writers began to appropriate the concept. The first popular story in the genre, “The Vampyre,” by John William Polidori, was published in 1819. The first really good vampire story — i.e., one still worth reading today — is Carmilla, an 1872 novella by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Then came Bram Stoker. His 1897 novel Dracula is the work against which all vampire stories, on page and screen, are compared and contrasted. A generation later, movies breathed additional life into horror’s best franchise: Nosferatu in 1922, Dracula in 1931, and a never-ending stream of sons, brides, and reboots.
The quality of all this has ranged from the slapdash to the iconic — and the genre’s resilience has demonstrated the enduring power of vampire mythology. When done well, these books and films can be first-rate pieces of entertainment. An Edith Wharton character once said ghost stories appeal because they offer “the fun of the shudder.” Vampire tales provide the same thrill. They also present rich opportunities for allegory and metaphor. On one level, they can be about Transylvanians who shape-shift into bats. On another level, they can deliver messages about mortality, addiction, parasitic relationships, sexual taboos, and blood-borne epidemics.
Just about every accomplished writer of horror has dabbled with vampires. Stephen King’s second novel, ’Salem’s Lot, published in 1975, is about a small town in Maine and its harrowing encounter with the living dead. In many ways, it’s a tradition-bound book: King always has paid homage to his genre predecessors. More important, the story itself is traditional. The plot boils down to a confrontation between good and evil. Human beings are on the side of truth and light while vampires prefer deception and darkness.
About the same time, however, other writers took a different approach. They began to write stories from the perspective of vampires. Anne Rice wasn’t the first to do it, but her Interview with the Vampire, released in 1976, became the most popular and influential of the type. It twisted the entire genre around. Suddenly, vampires lobbied for our sympathy. Good? Evil? It’s complicated. With Twilight, the transformation is complete. Vampires aren’t fiends who threaten us with eternal damnation; they’re handsome hipsters whom our daughters want to date.
The trend isn’t isolated to vampires. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the 1957 book by Dr. Seuss, the Grinch is cursed with a heart that is “two sizes too small.” This is the only motive he needs to wreak holiday havoc. In the more recent film version starring Jim Carrey, however, the screenwriters invent a background story for the Grinch. It turns out that his rage at the denizens of Who-ville is entirely justified. A similar inversion fuels Wicked, the novel-turned-musical inspired by The Wizard of Oz. It lets the Wicked Witch of the West tell her side of the story. When we see things from her point of view, we learn that she’s not malevolent but misunderstood.
The evolution of vampires, Grinches, and witches is a variation on the theme of defining deviancy down. There was a time when we knew a monster when we saw one — and understood that some nasties need to have their heads chopped off and their mouths stuffed with garlic. Nowadays, however, vampirism and its related maladies are just alternative lifestyles. Condemning them is an unforgivable rendering of judgment and a crime against the imperatives of moral relativism. A society that has trouble recognizing monsters in its art probably will have difficulty identifying terrorists at its airports.
And its horror stories will become bloodless. When everybody’s perspective is equally valid, vampires lose their bite. We may have gained friends, but we’ve lost enemies — and a world without enemies is the stuff of a dull utopian fairytale.