Bram Stoker, an Irish author with an undeniably gothic reputation, once wrote in his famous novel Dracula: Oh, the terrible struggle that I have had against sleep so often of late; the pain of the sleeplessness, or the pain of the fear of sleep, with such unknown horrors as it has for me! How blessed are some people whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams (Stoker, 160). Throughout the years, many cultural crazes have come and gone. Doctors no longer wear bird masks with herbs stuffed up the beaks to protect from diseases. We no longer believe in the miasmatic theory of spontaneous growth. Even as we grow, we shed our belief in Santa Claus and the benevolent tooth fairy.
No matter how many advancements we make, however, there are always elements that stay behind through generations and societies. One of these elements is that of the vampire. I am not a fan of the word vampire– it sounds far too juvenile, and I wouldnt blame anyone who laughed at me for taking the topic so seriously. Even so, it is true that these gothic half-villains have latched onto our imaginations in many forms. Through movies, books, plays, and even academic journals exploring the topic, vampires have somehow managed to stay prevalent in our culture.
I believe this is because vampires represent what we want from our existence. We want the blissful sleep with the absence of nightmares. While some audiences may dismiss this as the obsession of Goth youth who handle their black eyeliner with a heavy hand, I am of the opinion that these creatures hold something of fancy for all of us. The final sentence in the novel Dracula reads, We want no proofs; we ask none to believe us! (Stoker, 444). It is this spirit of firm exclamation that guides to me to write about this convoluted topic. I dont want to explore the physical vampire as much as I want to explain why, as a civilization, we remain sickly fascinated with them. Everything about these creatures are what we, humans, want to derive from our existence.
Vampires have taken the literary scene by storm, evolving from the menacing Count Dracula in the days of Stoker to the lovely sparkling bloodsuckers that roam the streets of Forks, Washington in Stephanie Meyers Twilight saga. The simplest place to start explaining our communal obsession is in the physical realm. Vampires are perfect. Their skin is clear and everyone fawns over their beauty. They are lean and chiseled and will always stay that way: real people like Elizabeth Bathory believed these things so whole-heartedly, theyd kill to obtain the promise of eternal youth and gorgeousness. Creatures such as these dont spend time staring into an imperfect reflection in the mirror: they physically cant. They are very literally erased from the mortal struggle that is self-doubt.
With this inane perfection comes a double-edged deal: you dont need to fit into society at all, if you dont please. While some among us may have felt the lifelong desire to fit into society as perfectly as a piece of a puzzle, others may have spent time rejecting the commitments of societal normalcy. For example, the latest adaptation of Dark Shadows, where Johnny Depp stars as the ancient vampire Barnabas Collins, makes no attempt to conceal the abnormalcy of Depps character. Collins wears clothes that are severely outdated and speaks with the lilt of an English gentleman. David Putner, author of The Gothic, which is a book explaining the Eastern European Gothic styles of the 18th century, is quoted as saying: one of the most significant shifts in the movement is the vampires transformation from peasant to aristocrat (Putner 269). Many of the modern blood-suckers we see in the media are rich. This is a symbolic representation of their success in society, or conversely, a demonstration of how leaving behind civilization helped them achieve riches. It is envy that keeps these rich vampires in our mind and in our media.
Beyond the physical form of these creatures, they offer an immediate identity. When you are watching or reading a media that involves a creature that would fit under the term vampire, you dont really have to pay much attention to personality. Theyre actions and their names do that for them. When you picture a vampire, you picture a brooding fella like Mr. Edward Cullen, or possibly even a determined protector who is repeatedly cast to the edge of society. When you have such an infamous title as vampire, you dont have to play the game of creating an identity for yourself. I think this how many stereotypes about youth and vampire obsession got started: the youth found that vampires didnt have to work for their identity; their purpose in life. It acted like a balm for their angsty soul.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Belisa Vranich wrote an article for the Huffington Post in which she explained: Often people feel lonely, feel alienated, feel special, misunderstood, different at some point in their lives. Yes, vampires are loners, but they are perfectly comfortable with their solitary existence (Vranich 1). We can only imagine what it must feel like to be secure and comfortable, at all times, with your existence. This relates back to the quote I began with, spoken by Mina Harker at the opening of chapter 11 of Dracula. She was wishing for someone elses existence, yet did not know that what she was describing was that of a vampire. Her enemy. Could this be a gothic interpretation of the-grass-is-always-greener?
In our culture, trends and fads come and go, often times before all of us even understand what was so great about them. Somehow vampires have stuck around for ages- from the consumption deaths of the 19th century to the new, fancy vampires of Charlaine Harris novels. Keeping with the explanation of envy as the reason for the vampires prominence, I think another valid point is the fluency of the vampire. Eric Nuzum, on behalf of NPR, wrote an article called Defining Dracula. Nuzum insists, In the 43 sequels and adaptations of Stokers novel, Transylvanias most famous son rarely appears the same way twice. He has evolved with the society around him. His physical traits, powers and weaknesses have morphed to suit cultural and political climates from the Victorian era to the Cold War (Nuzum 1). It is with this thought that we come to a complicated answer for a simple question. We keep the vampire in such popularity because it has changed to suit us. No matter what was valued at the time, the vampire shifted to encompass it. To always be one step ahead of humans, thus capturing our attentions, attractions, and jealousy. We as humans cant shift so seamlessly, but the undead icons of our seemingly gothic culture sure can.
Humans are not mechanical, systematic organisms who feel what they want and do what they should. Neither are our idolized bloodsuckers. In fact, every single vampire character that has been immortalized in media and literature was plagued by centuries of mistakes and doubts. Whether it be the insidious, gothic bloodlust of Count Dracula, the sadness that cloaks Barnabas Collins during his eternal slumber, or the isolation that the Cullen clan somewhat forces on themselves, they all feel it. It gives us hope that one day, someone will love and accept us. That one day we will pick up the broken, jagged pieces of ourselves and assemble them into a powerful force that lives above and beyond the normal good folk of society. This, in my opinion, is the driving force that the vampire has stayed around for such a long time.
Religion is another factor that can explain the popularity of vampires. Specifically, religion that is derived from fear of eternal damnation. It could be said that vampires were created by humans so that they may not fear punishment from God or other forces of their chosen religion. Vampires are evil: it was not a contested fact until they started to sparkle and save the day. They were creatures that humans could destroy, something to shove the fear of damnation on. When they were killed, the humans could rest knowing that whomever they believed in was admiring their courage and sacrifice in the face of evil. It was a way to get in the good graces of the universe, to rationalize the fear of consequence for whatever we had done.
Journeying back in time a little while, in Kentucky 1992, a group of teenagers shocked the world with their vampire cult. They sent parents into a frenzy, churches into hysteria, and shook the foundation of what a vampire was. Their cult, which was murderous and highly illegal, played an important role in the religious interpretation of vampires. The author of an article in The American Literary History journal, Teresa Godden, is quoted as saying, In the Bible Belt, the teenage vampire serves as a threatening image of family values gone awry– the child as a soulless killer, as homegrown horror (Vampire Gothic 1). What this serves to say about the vampires prevalence in our culture and media is that it is as much a warning as it is a point of envy: to be so far gone from your conscious and humanity that you can do whatever you please.
Closely related to religion is the idea of how we are told to live our lives, especially as children. We were told not to go too far into dark woods, to put reflectors on our bicycles and had curfews placed on us, effectively keeping us in the lights of our homes when the darkness reigns outside. It is highly possible that the vampire has stuck around for such a long time because the creature is an excuse to dabble in darkness. Still, it is socially acceptable. After all, Hollywood pumps out vampires onto the cinema scene constantly. Being interested in these comic-book creatures is a pretty benign way to express your interest in the things youre forbidden to explore.
During an interview for Wired magazine, Ana Lily Amirpour, the creator of an Iranian short film called Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which aired at the Sundance film festival, expressed her opinions on what, in its purest form, a vampire is. She said, A vampire is so many things: serial killer, a romantic, a historian, a drug addict- theyre sort of all these things in one (Why We Just Cant Quit Our Obsession With Vampires, 4). I agree heavily with Amirpours assessment of the creature, and I think the way she phrases her description does much more justice to the creature than simply calling it a vampire.
There is a humanistic quality to the vampire; the tortured soul of a poet that attracts a curious girl to the dark side of town or the menacing battle scars that dot the face of Vlad Dracul, the Impaler of old world Romania. I think the ultimate appeal of the vampire is going to end up being the universal quality that the creature has always brought with it. Vampires wear their scars on their sleeves, but we humans keep our own hidden under layers of sarcasm or moodiness. There is something to be said about being completely honest with the world: unleashing what you are for all to see and judge.
Humans never feel free to do this: they dont want to end up being the goof in the back of the classroom drawing haphazard skulls on their anemically pale forearms, wearing their differences out there in the open. In Russian culture and literature, the vampire was a harsh reminder of the importance of conformity. If you think about the political and social climate of Russia in the late 18th and 19th centuries, youll find it was a strict country that valued complete obedience, especially to authority and the norms of society. The common vampire for Russians to believe in was a heretic. The people who strayed from the common religious or social beliefs of the time were shunned, even in death and the afterlife. Vampires dont have to obey the norms of culture, nor can anyone shun them more than they can themselves. Count Dracula did not hide the fact that he was a monster, once Mr. Jonathan Harker had put the pieces together.
Culturally, I have yet to examine what vampires mean. What does it show us about our societyand ultimately ourselves that we keep these pale, bloodsucking people in our media? From the outside, it looks like were missing something. We remain so obsessively fascinated with late-night tours of Romanian palaces and the whisper of a velvet cloak belonging to a cold-blooded vampire lord.
Vampires were born out of the desire to explain things that we could not yet understand for ourselves. One of the most iconic cases of this reasoning is that of a young girl named Mercy Brown, who perished in Exeter, a small Rhode Island town, in the 19th century. The Brown family had been troubled by consumption for many years. The disease, which turned out to be an infection much like tuberculosis, killed most of the Brown children and Mrs. Brown in short years. The only children left were a young man named Edwin and his sister, Mercy. Mercy fell ill with the almost-always fatal affliction shortly before Edwin also succumbed to consumption. When Mercy finally passed on and was buried, somehow, her father started to believe what the townsfolk had been murmuring: she wasnt completely dead. It was not that she had been in a coma and woken up buried in the ground. It was believed that she had returned to earth to claim the rest of her family. To prevent this, Mr. Brown went to unthinkable measures, guided only by his fears and grief. For the Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker concludes the story simply: Undeterred, the villagers burned her heart and liver on a nearby rock, feeding Edwin the ashes. He died less than two months later (The Great New England Vampire Panic, 4). The gruesome example of the Brown family serves to prove that vampires, like many other supernatural phenomenon, were used to explain what society wasnt yet ready to diagnose in the physical realm.
Belief in something has always comforted us. Whether it be in the form of Sunday church services or quiet afternoons spent being thankful for your family, humans have believed in something ever since the dawn of time. And we will continue to believe in things. I am not about to insist that everyone believes in vampires. I personally dont. What I am clearly insisting is that they give us something to believe in: the possibility -a little seed of an idea- that there might be more to our existence.
In a weird, twisted, way, it is quite possible that we keep vampires around because they are comforting to us. We have all been raised with the legend of Count Dracula, be it in the form of a cartoon like Hotel Transylvania, or the creepy stories told to us by sinister siblings. The things with which we are raised have a way of sticking with us and we have been raised with vampires.
Our ancestors, those who lived in a time of entire families perishing by consumption, believed in these things. There is a fascination that many people holdknowingly or unconsciously- with the days of the past, where things were simpler. Vampires, on the surface, are the simplest of creatures. They drink our blood to live, and then they retreat swiftly to their caves or mountain-top dwellings, only to be seen in the dead of night.
These creatures provide comfort beyond a religious-like belief that our ancestors held dear. They allow us to explore and put a name to what we believe in. As we explore the lore and history of these creatures, we develop ideas about what we believe.
Beyond this, I love to think about one more basic implication of our belief in these creatures. They dont judge. They let you leave whatever situation youre in and join them on amazing adventures. They wont shun you because they have been shunned. They wont abandon you because society has abandoned them. These are the unconscious thought processes by which we can explain our love for the vampire.
We will never stop loving these creatures. They have wormed their way into childrens picture books, classic literature, contemporary novels, movies, music, and even clothing and apparel choices. For something to stick around for so long, it must mean something. The vampire transformed itself from the corpse of a loved one rising to destroy you to the sparkling immortal that whisks you into the woods and away from your responsibilities.
There are so many reasons why we insist on keeping these reincarnations around. We envy their freedom, we admire their bold demeanors and how rules dont apply to them. We inspire to be as blunt and honest as them. Well never know for sure whether our sickly fascination lays rooted in science and possibility or fantasy and solidarity.
In a way, this is how it should be. The mystery of the vampirein all its many forms- was never solved, so why should we try? As humans, when something is solved, it is no longer valuable to us. Its done, its past. It is a piece of history. But vampires are our history because we have not explained them. They remain so prevalent in our minds and in our Halloween costume choices because there is no pressure to be reasonable and real with ourselves.
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