Monday, 4 November 2013

Vampires: The Greatest Monsters in All Fiction

Vampires might be big business at the moment, but the very mention of the word is sure to start eyes rolling. They have been everywhere for too long. But given that recent output has put the vampires’ ball firmly in the court of teenage girls, are we done with them? All that drippy, angsty sex-play; all that teenage heartbreak?
Do not fear. Or rather, do, because they're still dead scary.
We have not had enough of the vampire, and we never will- our thirst for vampires is, like the monster’s fabled bloodlust, a thirst that can never be slaked.
The reason is simple: vampires are future-proof.
If, as monster scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states, “…a monster’s body is a cultural body… the embodiment of a cultural moment”, then a monster has to symbolise something that “rises above the common and singular fear of death” to become something more all-encompassing; something that goes to the heart of who we are and how we live.
If this is what we require of our monsters, vampires will rise from the ashes of our broken society at every turn of our twisting future, for they are the perfect foil upon which to mould our anxieties, fears and collective loathing.
Vampires have always been sexual, way before True Blood and Edward Cullen; think Carmilla and Christabel, written in 1872 and 1792. There is no escaping their sexual connotation: their act is at once oral and penetrative, involving blood-letting suggestive of both sexual maturity and the act of defloration. Our collective psyche will be forever branded with the image of the tuxedo leaning suggestively over a pale maiden, her lace whirling in the night’s wind as the twin phalluses of a gaping maw reach for her exposed flesh... But this reductive anachronism is not all, not nearly all; it is merely the foundation stone of an extraordinary and ever-evolving dynasty.
Some choice examples of twentieth century cinema: Near Dark, Lost Boys, Interview with the Vampire, Blade. To suggest that these films portray the same villain- or embody the same fear- is to miss the richness at the heart of the vampire’s fluid cultural threat.
Arguably the finest vampire film of all time, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark explores a specific aspect of vampirism; it’s blood-borne nature. In 1987, diseases of the blood were a common anxiety as the threat of AIDS swept across the world. Bigelow’s vampires are not pale, slicked aristocrats, they are urban nihilists; forced to eke out a living on the fringes of society, hiding fearfully from retribution and judgement. And just to make sure that the poisoning of innocent farm-hand Caleb’s blood is a clear enough subtext, his father cures him by performing a transfusion in his garage. Curing his blood disease! Could anything more accurately reflect the fears and hopes of a world under of AIDS’ looming threat?
Now a question: could this have been achieved with the zombie’s mindlessness? From the moment Bill Paxton’s Severen starts a bar brawl during Near Dark’s breathless opening, the answer is no. For this, we need the vampire’s sentience, will, self-loathing and drive.
Interview with the Vampire and The Lost Boys are outstanding examples of vampire tales that make use of vampires’ fabled abilities for their own dual ends: secondly to represent their cultural targets- but firstly to mess with their audience.
Everyone knows, or thinks they know, how vampires roll. So when events take a turn and the vampires start to move, we- the audience, the reader- think we know what we’re going to do: They can’t cross water, ok, let’s get over this stream and into this barn… they can’t go past mirrors, or see their own reflection, or something... Don’t you have to scatter seeds? Or steal a sock? Cos vampires are like, pernickety, right? They have to count the seeds, and they’ll spend forever looking for the sock… And garlic! Loads of garlic… or is it just anything that smells? I don’t know, but shit- holy water, right? Let’s hit the church, man! I’ll drive!
So, as in The Lost Boys, when the vampire walks in (uninvited, don’t they have to be invited? Jesus Christ, what are the rules here?) smiles at you and says “Garlic don’t work, boys…” what do you do? You thought you knew. You had a plan.
But the rules change. Vampire writers have a huge, dripping bag of rules they can play with, choosing with care which wet, stinking morsel to throw at their audience, misdirecting, falsely-securing…
There are no rules.
Can werewolves call on that arsenal of trickery?
Interview with the Vampire and The Lost Boys make an interesting comparison- near contemporaries that each make use of the vampire’s ability to fly. But while Interview’s vampires soar upwards, arms outstretched in a grand celebration of their power, The Lost Boys plunge headlong off a pier into choking smoke, fatherless boys throwing themselves with reckless abandon in an act of suicide; a rejection of their powers and their society.
Same power, different application, another twist of the cultural foil; hedonism vs. the absent patriarchy of the post-Reagan years. And for Near Dark’s blood poisoning, see Blade’s injections of serum; fighting off the call of his rotten blood, as the drug-user keeps his own wolves from the door.
Fluid cultural threat.
For current, drip-free vampire tales we can turn to graphic fiction; Jonathan Ross’ Turf and Stephen King’s American Vampire. These are razor sharp, gripping stories in which American vampires eviscerate their leeching European overlords. So here, the vampire tells the story of the birth of America, and in King’s Skinner Sweet (a candy-cane-chewing-cowboy-outlaw dragged into Hollywood’s roaring twenties) we have a stunning anti-hero who, all by himself, banishes the limp heartache of Edward Cullen into the crypt of shame.
The birth of a nation explored through vampirism. And these are the same monsters that deal so cleanly with hard drug use, with AIDS, with post-patriarchy, with aesthetic celebration?
With our current financial malaise, our victimhood at the hands of greedy bankers, gluttonous energy giants and heartless politicians who scoff at austerity as they slice up their suppers of baked swan, surely somebody, somewhere, is currently dragging cracked knuckles across a story featuring a Patrick Bateman-esque ruthless power broker, embodying this cultural moment, this shared loathing, feasting on our current misfortune?
And whatever happens next- whichever cultural anxiety plagues us in ten years, in twenty- the vampire will shift slightly in the shadows and return in a new form, a new shape, to scare us once again.
Don’t worry, they’re not dead, they haven’t faded into lovelorn retirement to lick the wounds on their broken hearts.

They’ll never die. That’s one of the rules. 

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