Vampires are among my favorite literary and movie monsters. And, no, I’m not talking about the sparkling, simpering teenage heart-throbs of Twilight, or even about the sexy, shirtless vamps of True Blood; I’m talking about the real, seductive, evil bastards that want to turn the world into a walking army of the undead, with themselves at the head. I’m talking Dracula, Carmilla, Count Orlok, Lord Ruthven. I’m talking about vampires.
Myths and stories about vampires have been around for centuries: mythologies encompassed the idea of incubi and succubi, male and female demons respectively who visited people at night. There are records of women claiming that they became pregnant by the intervention of incubi in the dead of night; male “nocturnal emissions” were sometimes blamed on succubi seeking to drain the male of his “life force.” But vampires as the literary aristocrats we know and love didn’t appear until John Polidori’s short novel The Vampyr. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, a barely concealed version of Lord Byron, has many affinities with what we think of now when we think of vampires: an aristocratic gentleman of vague origins, Ruthven appears in society and promptly seduces just about everyone (including the narrator and the narrator’s sister) with his excellent manners and strange good looks. Of course, it turns out that Ruthven has made a pact with the devil and has transformed into a vampire, forced to feast on the living to continue to survive. Polidori’s book is overwrought, a weird attack on Byron as a tale of an aristocrat literally draining the lives of those around him. Later literary vampires include Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a thinly veiled tale of lesbianism, and the King of Vampires himself, Bram Stoker’s remarkably influential Dracula.
One of the things that ties almost all literary vampire stories together, however, is the undoubted evil nature of the vampire as a character: whether an aristocratic gentleman, an older-than-time Count, or a young and waifish woman, vampires are still demonic. They’re still bad, and usually they’re still pretty disgusting, even if they conceal their decadence and decay with a veneer of aristocratic respectability. They’re the ultimately selfish monster, made monstrous by their own drive for consumption. Unlike those pathetic monsters that are bred, these creatures are born into their monstrosity. They are monstrosity incarnate. So why, of all the monsters we have lived with for so long, are they the ones we most long to save?
The saving of the vampire began as early as the first proper adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Although Max Shreck’s Count Orlok was not exactly a lovable vamp, he was pitiable: his desperate desire for love is what ultimately kills him. But Dracula became truly romantic in the Hollywood adaptation Dracula, in 1932. Although Bela Lugosi would enshrine old Drac for all time, his Count was a fundamentally tortured figure: sad and desperate to die, he survives only because of a natural instinct for self-preservation. One gets the sense that Dracula doesn’t particularly enjoy being a vampire (young women in flimsy nightdresses notwithstanding) as he gives speeches about the terrors beyond death. Far from being the nearly decaying old man of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula becomes a romantic, tortured figure, attractive and vaguely foreign. He’s tragic, his monstrosity a cause for pity first and terror second.
This tragedy would be replayed in different forms over the course of the next few decades. The evil nature of vampires seemed to change with the times: in the 1950s, Christopher Lee brought badness back to Dracula in his extended series of films for Hammer Studios. Lee’s vampire is unequivocally evil, extending his reign across generations until he finally starts a Satanist cult in the 1970s. Frank Langella gave his Dracula tragic proportions once more, on both stage and screen, romanticizing the Count and his quest for a loving bride. Vampires seem to shift between being the forces of evil, and fundamentally pathetic figures – romantic, desperate for love, desperate to die. Most recently, the vampire has once more become a tragic figure: the Twilight novels and films built on the revivification of the vampire that began as early as Langella, or as late as Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In a more adult vein, Jim Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive posed real questions about what it could mean to live forever, while TV shows like True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and the short-lived Dracula continue to try to walk the line between evil and romantic.
But the major issue that all of this media must grapple with is that the most interesting character in the story is also the most evil. It becomes a choice either to indulge the evil, and ultimately punish it, or to try to turn the vampire into a multi-faceted figure of tragic proportions. Vampires have been treated as tragic because we cannot bear for them to be otherwise – they’re the strange, dark undercurrent of society, the aristocrats we long to be and hate in equal measure. They’re charming, erudite, attractive; they’re dangerous, but it’s a danger we love because we recognize our own desires in them. They are, after all, backed by tradition and ancestry, born into positions of wealth and power. They’re consumptive forces who need never apologize for their consumption because that’s just how they are. In order to handle our affinity for vampires – the sense that the vampire is what we both loathe and love – we try to make them into sympathetic figures.
When we saved the vampire, we removed it from the undercurrents of fear. No more were these creatures there to form our deepest, strangest terrors, but rather they were there to be pitied and, ultimately, saved. But there’s something even more disturbing in this saving of the vampire, because it essentially shifts the blame for the vampire’s depredation from the monster itself. It’s not really their fault, is it? The vampire is evil because the vampire must be evil, so it’s really not evil at all. It’s a sad character, to be pitied, to be loved. The tortured vampire is a creature who did not want to be what it was. Drink blood, destroy the weak, prey upon the innocent, but really, it had to do it. It’s just made that way.