Vamps through the ages

By Jordyn Marcellus

It’d be an understatement to call vampires all the rage in 2009. The fanged phenoms have infiltrated young adult novels, television series and even the all-important tchotchke industry. For example, there’s can-based male sexual aids that look like vamp’s mouth and dildos that “sparkle in the sunlight” like a certain Twilight character would- if he wasn’t so limp and sexless.

Vampires have never been out of style for long. Ever since the first major published work, Bram Stoker’s 1897 epistolary novel Dracula, the vampire has been skulking in culture’s shadows. While it didn’t reach any level of critical acclaim, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu also helped the vampire take a chunk out of culture.

From there, it was a continual boom and bust cycle as other horror icons fell by the wayside. Mummies became the subject of rollicking action films while Michael J. Fox became a basketball playing werewolf, but vamps have still remained a popular cultural artifact.

“The interest in vampires waxes and wanes,” says Jeffrey Weinstock, professor of English at Central Michigan University and author of an upcoming book on vampires in film. “It really hasn’t ever gone away entirely. I read an interesting article that, at least in the U.S., that when the Democrats are in control of congress that vampires are popular and when it’s Republicans it’s zombies.”

While Dracula was an antagonistic creature- scary, foreign and stinking of death- modern vampires are beautiful, tortured souls who feel sorrow and pity for their actions. In Twilight, Edward Cullen doesn’t want to turn Bella into a vampire. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel vies for Buffy’s affections because she’s a symbol for good and redemption, everything that Angel couldn’t experience in his villainous past as Angelus.

“Some, most of them, inhabit human traits,” says Meredith Woerner, pop culture blogger for and author of Vampire Taxonomy. “Vampires, while they used to be villains, now can inhabit the role of the tortured anti-hero. It’s a more interesting role- they can be misunderstood by society.”

With the help of the 1970s Hammer films and Anne Rice, vampires were allowed the chance to be heroes. Because of these influences, immensely popular characters like Spike, Edward and Angel found an audience. Weinstock believes that these ’60s and ’70s films, along with Rice, have helped turn the vampire from a villain into a particular type of hero.

“That’s what I think precipitates of the vampire as a monster that doesn’t need to be expelled, but as a kind of anti-hero to be admired,” says Weinstock.

Vampires, too, touch on a lot of important social issues through their very character. Like any monster, vampires reflect society’s worries. Weinstock argues that vampires play on society’s concern in multiple contexts, offering a vessel to discuss numerous issues at the forefront of modern culture.

“Vampires condense into one physical form a number of social concerns and desires,” said Weinstock. “Most notable, vampires are all about sex. They’re far and away the most sexual of monsters. Equally they’re about ideas about race- vampires are all about blood, bloodlines and contamination of blood.”

While these aren’t solely present in modern works, these issues do come out many different times in fictional accounts. The differences between the vampiric Cullens and the lycanthropic Blacks in Twilight are night and day. The Cullens are high-class, Edward himself driving an Aston Martin.

“You could similarly argue [vampires are] all about class,” says Weinstock. “The way that the vampire has consistently been presented is as an aristocrat that feeds off of the populous. . .”

Woerner, though, approaches it from another perspective. As a fan, she sees vampires as a different force: a monstrous force blending into society.

“Vampires can be anyone,” she says. “Unlike something like a zombie, where they’re always a zombie, vampires can be hidden in line with you at a coffee shop. It’s exciting.”

But if vampires are a study on class, racism and sexual issues, why have they become so popular? They’ve been a popular movie monster and literary figure, but always in cycles. From the days of Count Orlock in Nosferatu and the Hammer films of the 1970s, to Blade and Buffy, vampires have wormed their way into the fiction industry. It is only recently, with the young adult fiction boom and Twilight, that vampires have come to the forefront of popular culture again in a big way.

This recent surge is unsurprising- while the vampire cuts an appealing figure, its main value currently is in the cash it brings.

“My sense is that the current craze will crest soon, and there will be a period when vampires will be less prominent. They’re so engrained in popular culture, it’s kind of inescapable . . . The operative term is to exploit [vampires]. There’s money to be made. As long as they continue to generate revenue, there will be interest to produce more vampire films and books.”

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