All it takes is a short walk through your local library or bookstore to see how integral the vampire legend has become to the popular imagination – and this says nothing of cinema. In our last installment, we (partially) examined the potential of this genre from a Christian viewpoint. This week’s approach will be somewhat different: namely, how have portrayals of vampires in fiction changed over the past few decades and what might this indicate about the direction of the larger culture? Just what lies behind our instinctive fascination with these imagined, ghoulish beings?
Returning again to Bram Stoker (for all intents and purposes the “father” of the modern vampire genre, though this status would probably have embarrassed him), the original draw seems to have been the potential of vampiric characters as compelling antagonists. The “charismatic” portrayal in Dracula had some precursors (primary examples being John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla) but in its time would have broken new literary ground for the “union of opposites” embodied in its villain. The vampires of traditional folklore were largely mindless monsters driven by hunger – the equivalent of today’s “zombies”. The unique chemistry of Count Dracula came from his status as a cultured, aristocratic nobleman of impeccable manners, keen intelligence, and superficial charm – all of which acted as a veneer over his true nature as a soulless monstrosity of decay and death. This also provided a powerful symbolism regarding similarly charismatic individuals in the real world – decades “psychopaths” came to the forefront of public consciousness.
In contemporary times, however, this no longer applies. The genre has evolved (one might even say “mutated”) to the point where vampiric protagonists are just as – perhaps even more – common than antagonists. I could mention the Twilight saga at this point, but its only minorly emblematic of the shift. If I can harken back to last week’s analysis for a moment (see Dreams of Living Death – Part 1), the Twilight vampires are more-or-less portrayed as Marvel/DC Comics-style mutants, with an almost completely naturalistic explanation for their condition and abilities. The spiritually problematic elements, ironically, only crop up when werewolves are introduced into the story (their origins are explicitly supernatural, with an explanation rooted in Native American religion), but that’s another topic for another time.
The more appropriate example, in my view, would the 2014 film Dracula Untold, starring Luke Evans. It does, after all, market itself as a “prequel” of sorts to the original Stoker novel. I’ll issue a disclaimer at this point that I have explored the film only through its Wikipedia summary available here as well as a few select clips available on YouTube (as far as I ever intend to go at this point). But the plot as I perceive it is a bizarre pseudo-historical storyline that attempts to explicitly link Count Dracula with Vlad the Impaler (largely believed to have been Stoker’s inspiration for the character). The real-life Wallachian prince is reimagined as a loving family man and a tragic, sacrificial figure who willingly becomes a vampire to save his people from the invading Ottomans – the exact opposite of the sadistic tyrant he actually was (just some of his actual history is available here .
Furthermore, this portrayal directly contradicts the stated backstory of Stoker’s original character:
“I have studied over and over again since they came into my hands, all the papers relating to this monster, and the more I have studied, the greater seems the necessity to utterly stamp him out. All through there are signs of his advance. Not only of his power, but of his knowledge of it. As I learned from the researches of my friend Arminius of Buda-Pesth, he was in life a most wonderful man. Soldier, statesman, and alchemist – which latter was the highest development of the science knowledge of his time. He had a mighty brain, a learning beyond compare, and heart that knew no fear and no remorse. He dared even to attend the Scholomance [a legendary school of black magic in Transylvanian folklore – the Devil himself was the instructor], and there was no branch of knowledge of his time that he did not essay.” [Dracula, 311]
One could go into further detail regarding the movie’s plot, but I would summarize as series of extremely bad choices by the title character, resulting from severely skewed priorities. The most prominent of these is a warped and sentimentalized view of love that causes him to value his wife and child over his own soul. In some ways, see the film as a presenting a portrayal of these things in order to speak against them – perhaps even an underlying theme on the peril of using evil means to achieve “good” ends. The ending, however, still implies that the protagonist ultimately had his heart in the right place.
The fact that our cultural creators are willingly to drastically pervert history itself in service to the vampire-as-hero ideal says much about the psychological impulse behind it. This view has much in common with the romanticized portrayal of gangs and organized crime in films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (for anyone seeking a real picture of organized crime, I would recommend Connie Fletcher’s 1992 classic What Cops Know). You can also find parallels in the continuing veneration of bloodthirsty tyrants like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong as well as the cults surrounding murderers like Che Guevara. This even extends to serial killers. As British author and social commentator Theodore Dalrymple has observed:
“Imprisoned serial killers of women are often the object of marriage proposals from women who know nothing of them except their criminal record. This curious phenomenon indicates the depths to which self-deception can sink in determining human action. The women making such offers presumably believe that an essential core of goodness subsists in the killers and that they are uniquely the ones to bring it to the surface. They thereby also distinguish themselves from other women, whose attitude to serial killers is more conventional and unthinkingly condemnatory. They thus see further and deeper, and feel more strongly, than their conventional sisters. By contrast, they show no particular interest in petty, or pettier, criminals.” [City Journal]
What seems to underlie it all is a deep-seated sentimentality that actively rejects objective truth, reducing the deeds of evil-doers to a statement that “they’re just misunderstood.” It ties in perfectly with our culture’s current obsession with alternative lifestyles.
But I believe the true root runs much deeper. As Solzhenitsyn once said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Our stories are ultimately a reflection of who we are. Once you understand the appeal of the vampire, you can quite easily understand the continuing adoration so many hold in the modern world for tyrants and murderers. As fallen human beings, we instinctively look at both types of creatures with envious eyes. Which of us, at one dark moment or another, hasn’t dreamed of wielding the very same power?
There. I’ve written not one but two posts on vampires. Let’s all move on and close this chapter on our lives.
Join me next week as we continue our journey through the Uncharted Corners of Heaven and Earth.
P.S. No, my next post will not be about werewolves.