Vampires – Men and Myths
Posted February 23, 2010on:
Men and Myths:
The re-envisioning of the classic Vampiric Villain
Traditionally vampires have been seen as the metaphor for the “other”; the part of our world that we could not understand. This popular view point became canonical via Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That canon has been swept aside in the past few decades and the idea of the vampire as an “evil creature of the night” has been replaced with the vampire as “a romantic hero”. Often, the vampire is the protagonist of newer stories, the one in which we are supposed to feel more sympathy for than disgust. One of the most obvious literary examples of this phenomenon is Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice. Rice’s narrator, Louis, differs so greatly from the traditional Dracula that he even goes so far as to claim Stoker’s tale is merely a myth. Popular culture has taken the notion of the vampire and marketed it in a way in which the vampire is rarely feared anymore. Vampires have become romanticized since the days of Dracula – this phenomenon is due in large part to societies acceptance of “the other”; while we still live in a world where people still fear “the other” our society has come a long way in attempting to accept what they don’t understand – through popular culture and media sources an understanding of the vampire as closer to human and truly representative of our dark side.
The character of Dracula is two dimensional. Stoker felt no need to make him a sympathetic figure; Dracula was unabashedly evil. It was Stoker’s intention to make us root for Harker, Van Helsing and Mina and have no reason to look at Dracula or want him to come out on top. Anne Rice subverts the canon of Dracula; while she does keep some very important parts of the vampire canon – no sunlight, feeding on blood and decapitation. She completely throws out the mythical elements of destroying vampires that Van Helsing speaks of in Dracula – there are no cross issues, wooden stakes or garlic allergies among Anne Rice’s vampires. From Dracula to Louis from bad to good or better yet morally ambiguous; vampire lore and popular opinion has changed drastically over the years. As Crystal L. O’Leary says, “by moving the monster figure to the center of the work’s narrative, [it] allow[s] the monster to connect with the reader in an intimate fashion …” (O’Leary, 239). Shelley makes her protagonists vampires and the reader cannot help but sympathize with them and their “quest for identity and acceptance” which allows for a much more three-dimensional character than Stoker’s Dracula (O’Leary, 240). Rice clearly reacts to “restrictive genre conventions have their cultural analogues in the ways in which society defines any of the othered figures which the vampire can represent” (Harse, 252) with her sympathetic vampires of Louis and even Lestat – though he might be far less sympathetic than others in Interview with a Vampire.
Even after Rice’s sympathetic vampire protagonists made their way into the popular canon of vampires the idea continued and sympathetic vampire’s popped up all over the place. Either through humour or romanticized story telling these creatures became something akin to gods, not monsters, in our society’s culture; even in elements of humour the vampire is a sympathetic figure. Television and movies have taken the premise of vampires and expanded them into quasi-worlds with differing canons; some stay truer to the canon of Stoker than others. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampires are purely evil. More precisely, vampires are humans that are inhabited by demons; it is extremely important to note that the vampires in this universe do not have souls – that is human souls are absent with the exception of Angel and later Spike, all vampires in the Buffyverse (a common name for the universe in which these character exist) are inherently evil and must be removed from the earth by the vampire slayer (Buffy). The world of Buffy is a complicated one in which the characters strive for easy answers, good and evil or black and white, but there are clear complications – mainly Angel, the vampire with a soul. Angel is, until Spike later gets his soul, the only vampire in history that has ever had a soul; he’s also desperately in love with Buffy – his natural enemy. Angel, like Rice’s Louis (before Claudia), feeds on rats and pigs blood that he procures from a butchers shop; he doesn’t kill humans. The story of Angel’s soul is a long one; in a nut shell, he was once a regular vampire, one of the most evil ever to live but one day he killed the wrong person and a tribe of gypsy’s wanted revenge and cursed him with a soul. After Angel was cursed he spent around 90 years in solitude, afraid of human contact and his vampire nature, one day he saw a young girl who was to become a slayer and his life changed; he wanted to help her. There starts Angel’s quest for redemption and love; he finds a purpose in life and hopes that one day he can be saved from his past – redeemed (Buffy, Angel).
Another vampire in the Buffyverse is Spike; though not a regular character until season four of Buffy, Spike’s journey from evil vampire to morally ambiguous spans over the entire series. “As the latest in a long line of sympathetic vampires, Spike’s textual construction rearticulates the dualities which fictional vampires have long embodied: the simultaneous expression of erotic repulsion and attraction; a fear of and desire for the ‘other’; the ambivalences of a troubling of a troubling ontology figured through a creature that is neither dead nor alive” (Chinn, 2). Spike is easily the favoured character among Buffy and Angel fans and by the time both series ended he had the largest fanbase of either show. It’s not hard to understand why; as Williamson says, “like other sympathetic vampires before him, Spike cannot hide his suffering behind a sardonic pose; and like the vampire Lestat, nor can he submerge his desire to be redeemed, to be good and to love” (Williamson, 292). Rice’s canon influences many vampire stories in the last few decades and while her sympathetic vampires are vastly different than those in the Buffyverse there are some distinct similarities; just as Williamson stated – the patriarchal familiarity between Spike and Angel mirror’s that of Louis and Lestat (Williamson, 282). Some can’t quite grasp the reason behind Spike’s popularity but Williamson illustrates that “vampire fandom reads Spike as this vampire, rather than Angel, because of Spike’s stark outcast status that has marked him as a creature of pathos to a far greater extent than the hunky, brooding and conventionally tall, dark and handsome Angel, who wears his conscience on his sleeve and thus leaves little to the subtextual imagination” (Williamson, 289). These two sympathetic vampires in the Buffyverse share many traits with Rice’s Louis and Lestat but they differ in the textual explanation of vampirism in the two canons. In the world of Buffy, as stated, vampires are inherently evil – there is no question of that – as they are without souls. The fascination with this pathos of the vampire is a clear indication that our culture wishes to find ourselves in everything we can; vampires are merely representational, in the modern world, of the dark sides of ourselves that we are afraid to show. This fear ignites the phenomenon of the sympathetic vampire; the vampire who, say, fights on the side of good and chooses not to drink human blood or in Spike’s case a vampire who is effectively neutered by a government group and is no longer able to drink human blood (Buffy).
In this search for the revision of the canon evil vampire we find characters like Spike and Angel who litter our television screens with a mythological other that we are intended to feel sympathy for – from Stoker to Rice and Rice to Whedon popular culture finds itself searching for it’s own identity through the identity of these outside ‘other’ creatures. The romanticized vampire that exists to day is a far cry from Stoker’s two dimensional evil count while staying closer to the new canon; the canon of the sympathetic vampire. Whedon takes his cues from Rice and Stoker – evil and sympathetic vampires alike make their way into his canon. It’s the classics, however, that make the myth of the vampire the true phenomenon that it has become today; that reaction writers have to being told that ‘this is how it is’ by Stoker’s tale. In essence the modern vampire exists because popular culture has a fascination with their own darkness and the pathos that accompanies them; the journey.
Various Episodes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Dir. Joss Whedon. Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, James Marsters, David Boreanez. The WB/UPN. 1997.
Various Episodes. Angel the Series Dir. Joss Whedon. Perf. David Boreanez, Charisma Carptener. The WB (CW). 1999.
Amy- Chinn, Dee., and Milly Williamson. “The Vampire Spike in text and fandom: Unsettling oppositions in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 8 (2005, 275 – 288).
Williamson, Milly. “Spike, sex and subtext: Intertextual portrayals of the sympathetic vampire on cult television.” European Journal of Cultural Studies. 8 (2005, 289 – 311).
O’Leary, Crystal L. “Trascending Monstrous Flesh: A Revision of the Hero’s Mythic Quest.” Journal of Fantastic in the Arts. 13 (2003, 239-249).
Harse, Katie. “Sick of Count Dracula: Scott, Carter, Rice and the Response to Stoker’s Authority.” Journal of Fantastic in the Arts. 13 (2003, 250-257).