SEPTEMBER 19, 2014
AT HIS INCEPTION, the vampire was a solitary figure. Typically the occupant of sprawling gothic ruins atop a desolate mountain, he was pallid, fanged, and obviously monstrous, occasionally distinguished from other members of his cohort by red eyes and other dramatic deformities. Often, he hailed from Transylvania, sometimes from other remote quarters of Eastern Europe — if we never learned just where, it only enhanced his mystique — where he invariably had an estate and a family fortune of opaque origins.
He was enigmatic, otherworldly, always a foreigner or a visitor from abroad, maddeningly standoffish and stubbornly impenetrable. Lord Ruthven, the protagonist of John William Polidori’s 1819 novella The Vampyr, had “nothing in common with other men,” and Dracula of the famed 1897 Bram Stoker novel lived in an all-but-inaccessibly remote fortress. Nosferatu, the iconic vampire in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film of the same name, sported claws, pointed ears, and a hunchback. He was strange, sullen and reclusive — nobody’s prom date.
In contrast, today’s vampires have traded their capes for fashionable leather jackets, their claws for manicures — and they’ve taken a turn for the social, crashing all manner of gatherings. From homecoming in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to prom in Twilight, from college fraternities in The Vampire Diaries to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill in True Blood,vampires have rapidly become the life of the human party. They’ve infiltrated our institutions (Twilight’s Edward and The Vampire Diaries’Stefan attend human high schools), and dated — and even occasionally married — our own (Buffy’s Buffy and True Blood’s Sookie boast a string of vampire boyfriends, and Twilight’s Bella marries hers). Starting in the 80s with films like My Best Friend is a Vampire, The Hunger, and Vampire’s Kiss, we’ve witnessed a host of vampires who seek to fit into society. The contemporary British series Being Human goes so far as to center on a vampire named Mitchell whose foremost ambition is to pass for a human being: “I just want something good and normal,” he confesses to his human love interest over a bloodless cup of coffee.
The transition from Nosferatu, so grotesque and off-putting, to Mitchell, who is charming and approachable (if somewhat anemic), is striking: creatures of the night, once satisfied to exist on the margins of society, have irrupted into our communities, intent on assimilation. Vampires like Dracula and Nosferatu helped us make sense of ourselves by differing from us so obviously, so savagely. They were monsters who brought our humanity into acute relief, outsiders who opposed human communities on the “inside.” They menaced us by standing against us, threatening not to obliterate us but rather to alter us — to change us into something terribly, appallingly other. Confronted with their freakishness, we were relieved by our comparative compassion; by what struck us, in the throes of self-satisfaction, as our humanity.
But today’s vampires cannot be counted on to provide such a dramatic contrast with their human counterparts. Where the threat was once external, bearing down on us from without, it’s become internal, originating within — and if it is often imperceptible, masquerading as your high school lab partner or a stranger at the bar, it is that much more treacherous, that much better equipped to chip away at our sense of self. Once, we had vampirism — Dracula — on the one hand, and humanity — Dracula’s righteous opponents — on the other. Now, we have Mitchell of Being Human and Edward of Twilight — vampires who are not quite vampire, humans who are not quite human.
The vampire’s dramatic evolution began with his explanation. Early chroniclers of vampirism stressed its inexplicability, speaking of it in the hushed, reverential tones that theologians reserve for the miraculous. For them, it was an essentially felt phenomenon, a frenzy of dread and desire that could be experienced or endured but never theorized or explained. Early vampires, who occupied a liminal position halfway between life and death, halfway between human and inhuman, were beyond the bounds of rationality. Their status was therefore resistant to the sort of straightforward and often binary descriptions favored by the scientific establishment. “Life and death are mysterious states, and we know little of the resources of either,” says the doctor charged with treating vampirism in Carmilla, an 1872 novella featuring one of western literature’s first female vampires.
Earlier in the same work, which tells the engaging tale of Carmilla’s seduction — and consumption — of the young female protagonist, the narrator voices a fraught ambivalence that mirrors our own: with Carmilla, she “experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust.” The vampire’s intrigue was initially the product of her ambiguity, her incomprehensibility. She attracted us because she repelled us, and we enjoyed succumbing to her wiles only as much as we enjoyed resisting them. We were afforded the exquisite pleasure of a prolonged surrender only because we consented first to tolerate our prolonged victimization — and at the end of it all, to give ourselves over to the vampire was to yield to the allure of the utterly alien, to submit to the force of a mystery.
Because she fit into none of our preexistent epistemological categories, defying scientific analysis at every turn, we had no choice but to take the vampire’s implausible existence on faith. “It will take all your faith and veracity to believe my story,” the narrator of Carmilla warns. Her words echo a remarkably similar passage in Dracula, where Van Helsing urges us to “believe in things that [we] cannot.” Faith, he contends, is “the faculty which enables us to believe things which we know to be untrue,” and it is apparently as vital to early vampires as it is to the fictions in which they appear. Dracula and Carmilla were sustained by an atmosphere, an ethos, by our fear and our longing in addition to our blood. Neither fully dead nor fully alive, neither fully biological nor fully magical, vampires demanded of us something akin to blind acceptance.
In the 1800s, the vampires who subsisted on blood and belief were defeated with equally irrational weapons — with garlic, silver, and stubborn superstition. But ritual and prayer are no longer effective deterrents for modern vampires, who succumb to reason and science without putting up much resistance. In True Blood, researchers manufacture synthetic blood that allows vampires to “come out of the coffin,” and in The Strain, the new FX series that premiered several months ago, doctors from the Center for Disease Control study the vampire epidemic in state-of-the-art laboratories. Then there’s Buffy, patiently hunched over endless books in her high school library, running Google search after Google search, trying to understand exactly what she’s up against.
All of this scientific analysis has reversed the traditional sequence of the vampiric act. Once, vampires fed on us, transforming us into creatures of passion and excess in the process: in his 1857 poem, “Le Vampire,” Baudelaire describes himself as an unrelenting slave to love — a vampire; and in Goethe’s 1797 poem, “die Braut von Korinth” (“The Bride of Corinth”), a man who falls under the spell of an alluring but vampiric maiden is thereby damned, transformed into a ghoul. Now we’re the ones doing the transforming, turning vampires into paltry versions of ourselves. For our sake, they’ve renounced their blood lust, applied for respectable jobs, and dutifully agreed to take out the weekly garbage. (Buffy’s first love interest even faults her for making him feel “too human.”) Though we would never have mistaken misshapen Nosferatu, with his conspicuous claws and fangs, for a human, and though Dracula, the lord of an empty, decaying fortress, discomfited us from the start, vampires like Buffy’s Angel, True Blood’s Bill, Twilight’s Edward, and The Vampire Diaries’ Stefan have fooled many of their acquaintances, sometimes even their lovers and friends.
This privilege — that of being mistaken for a human — is often hard-earned. Modern vampires have had to fight for their humanity, both against reluctant members of the vampire race, and against their own deeply-ingrained instincts. In Twilight and True Blood, the friendly vampires battle the hostile ones; in The Vampire Diaries, vampire brothers Stefan and Damon duel it out, pitting one vision of vampire identity directly against another; and in Buffy, Spike, a reformed vampire with a sordid past, undergoes emotional and physical trials to recover the soul he lost when he was “turned.” What emerges is a picture of humanization as a process, an effort: humanity as neither a birthright nor a given, but rather as a conscious and laborious choice.
But if vampires are capable of opting into humanity, then humans are capable of devolving into vampires. Most of the monsters lurking beneath the proverbial bed threaten us with destruction, not with the perhaps more frightening possibility of our becoming otherwise. But vampires, who are similar enough to remind us of ourselves yet alien enough to disconcert us, torment us with a special brand of existential violence: they undermine our certainty in current iterations of ourselves. For centuries, they have peered into mirrors only to discover that they lack a reflection — the makings of an identity crisis if there ever was one. It is increasingly apparent that the makings of the human are present in them — and more alarmingly, that the makings of the vampire are present in us.
In The Strain, vampirism is inside our bodies, built into our biological makeup. In True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, and Being Human, it’s inside our communities, sitting in local cafés, or performing experiments in high school biology classes. It is both among us and within us, and, most importantly, it is a danger for us. Vampirism is no longer the province of religion because it is no longer an improbable work of magic. It has become a tangible possibility: a disease with specific symptoms, a condition with material consequences. In The Strain, humans infected with the vampire contagion develop a fever and lose their hair, then their genitalia. In True Blood, anti-vampire doctors infect vampires with “Hep V,” a strain of hepatitis that is genetically engineered from strains of hepatitis D.
Attempts to pathologize vampirism — either by framing it as epidemic or by targeting it at a biological level — amount to attempts to defend our biological integrity; to defend, as it were, our borders. By relegating vampires to the realm of the diseased, we cast ourselves as paradigmatically healthy. We affirm that we are model organisms — and we thereby affirm that vampires are deviant, an unwelcome variation on an unadulterated human theme. The Strain and parts of True Blood are an exercise in nostalgia for the time when vampires were clearer enemies and humans clearer heroes. But even in these narratives, the specter of vampirism lurks within us and within our communities, a constant reminder that we are always on the verge of yielding to darker seductive forces.
In some ways, the ongoing shift in popular vampire narratives tracks the transition from a religious to a secular conception of self. In the 1800s, when restraint and self-denial constituted the core of what it meant to be human, carnality and monstrosity presented themselves as the most salient dangers. To give into temptation was to cede a central aspect of one’s humanity. The Victorian emphasis on sexual purity accounts for the persistent strain of debauchery that ran through the early vampire narratives, where vampires paid their victims nocturnal visits, leaving a tangle of bloody sheets and ruined reputations in their wake.
In works like Dracula and Carmilla, vampirism was intimately bound up with sexual violation. In the face of human reason and rationality, vampires experienced a love so intense that it consumed its object, changing the beloved into a creature with similarly insatiable appetites. Carmilla describes her transformation into a vampire in this curiously moving passage: “‘I was all but assassinated in my bed, wounded here,’ she touched her breast, ‘and never was the same since.’” For her, vampirism represented a sort of sexual awakening, an initiation into the world of unabashed eroticism.
The message, if unsubtle, is in equal parts appealing and appalling. To a readership unable to satisfy its cravings, such literature must have been relieving: it presented the chaste with a means of simultaneously condemning and indulging the depravity it couldn’t quite admit to wanting. Carmilla’s victim writes confusedly of “a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence.” When Carmilla “murmured words […] like a lullaby in my ear,” she “soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms,” she confesses.
The strain of homoeroticism originating in Carmilla — a remarkably progressive strain for such an early work — remains alive, or at least undead, today. Vampires have a way of bringing out the taboo in us — and an even stranger way of humanizing it. In shows like True Blood, set in a southern town where a church sign proclaims that “god hates fangs,” the parallel between vampires and members of the LGBTQ community is clear. In both cases, a minority has been vilified in virtue of its unfamiliar tastes. Just as it did in Victorian gothic literature, vampirism introduces a hunger that seems foreign to us, only to reveal that this hunger demonstrates an unexpected familiarity.
In the age of Dracula and Carmilla, we exorcised vampiric deviance easily enough, driving a stake through its heart and thereby repudiating the parts of ourselves that we didn’t endorse. That put a quick end to the sexuality that we recognized as our own but could not accept or embrace. But as vampires become more and more like us, as characters like The Vampire Diaries’Stefan and Twilight’s Edward proved themselves more and more humane (often more so than many “real” humans), we find it more and more difficult to disentangle the human from the vampire, us from them. The question is whether we have become more vampiric — or whether humanity, whatever that means, was this fragile to begin with.
The Strain opens with a voiceover that is as enlightening as it is twee: love, the voice hypothesizes, is what “defines us, what makes us human.” But the show proceeds to call this claim into question, presenting us with a series of loveless humans and a vampire who, in a bizarre gesture of devotion, returns to her father’s house (only, of course, to kill him — love, the voiceover reminds us later, “feeds on us” and we “feed on it,” no matter how “wrong, how sad, or how terrible”). The boundaries of humanity prove maddeningly hard to fix, especially for the CDC researchers, who are flummoxed by the pathogen. When one of them decides to kill off infected parties to prevent the spread of the disease, his partner storms off in disgust. There is disagreement here, not just about the legality of the CDC’s actions but about the point at which it is appropriate to exclude someone so entirely from the realm of the human. “That was just a body controlled by a virus,” one doctor protests after he kills a vampire, but his coworker insists that the vampire was still human — human enough, anyway, to have some claim to our compassion.