Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining Genre Talk here on The Novel Approach Reviews. Today, DSP Publications author Xenia Melzer has been kind enough to rustle up a brilliant and seriously informative analysis of—as you’ve probably guessed—vampires. And since October will be here before we know it, the timing couldn’t be better. So, we’ll stop nattering at you about it now and let you carry on. Enjoy!
THE SUBCONSCIOUS VAMPIRE
The stories about creatures living on human blood are probably as old as human lore itself. Be it the Aztecs who sacrificed the heart and blood of their enemies to their Gods, Indian Kali dancing on the heads of slaves while bathed in the stuff or certain Greek cults that baptized their newcomers with the blood of slaughtered animals. Not to mention Christian mythology where believers receive the blood and body of Christ during mass.
Blood seems to play a central role in human belief systems and that does not come as a surprise. Without it, we cannot live, a human that loses too much blood dies quickly. When a person is listless and pale, he or she is referred to as anemic – devoid of blood. Blood also states who we are. Even today it is important to come from a good family, a good bloodline. And what applies for us can easily be transferred to our animals: the better a horse’s or dog’s bloodline, the more it is worth.
Since the discovery of the various blood types, we are defined by blood on an even more intimate level. Certain blood types make us ideal donors or – in case of O negative – very rare creatures indeed. Physicians have learned to transfer blood from one human to another in order to save lives and ‘being bound by blood’ is the strongest bond we know.
An oath upon one’s blood used to be a valuable and respected currency and when dealing with the supernatural, e.g. deals with the devil, contracts are always signed with blood. Because blood is life, it is the symbol of continuity and both in the real and proverbial sense at the core of our being.
Gods of blood
The first stories about vampires appear as early as in Ancient Greece and for some time, Gods of blood and vampires existed alongside without much interference. On the one hand were the Gods like Kali or Ereschkigal (Sumerian/Assyrian goddess of war) who were worshipped for shedding human blood, on the other side were the vampires, wretched, undead creatures that stole the red fluid from unwilling humans and had to be eradicated wherever possible. It does seem that as long as there was a strong belief in blood-shedding Gods, the vampires were kept more or less in the closet. When people are worshipping a deity whom they are willingly giving their blood, there does not seem to be room for a creature on the other side of the scale that tries to steal it from them.
But with Christianity on the march, quite a vast number of vampire-like creatures evolved, especially in Eastern Europe. Beings like the Klopfer (a dead relative that comes back at night to knock on the doors of his/her beloved ones to drag them back to the grave) or the Wiedergänger (a dead person that sits on its prey’s torso and brings nightmares) represent early forms of vampirism that already had the undead component in common. Usually they were deceased family members that came back to haunt or tempt their still living relatives. The means of getting rid of them were as numerous as the kinds of vampires that existed back then. Every form had its own weakness. From decapitation to driving a wooden stake through their hearts, from burying the bodies on a crossing to burning them and scattering the ashes, many ways ensured that vampires stayed dead. Some of those methods as well as the vampires’ famous fear of silver (derived from the legend that the first vampire was Judas and he was turned for accepting the silver and giving his kiss to Jesus) and Holy Water survived and made their way into the canon of ‘facts’ about the undead, some of which authors use in their paranormal stories.
Back then the vampire was first and foremost a metaphor. It was the creature that had forfeited God’s will and was cursed with eternal life (people still regarded the afterlife/paradise as favorable to living in the flesh) that depended solely on fresh human blood. Like the devil, the vampire was an adversary of humankind that preyed on the innocent and was especially dangerous for those who were not firm in their belief. It was a crude, ugly demon that lacked the elegance we associate with it now.
Was the vampire already an avatar of our subconscious? Insofar as every demon symbolizes our desires and fears (especially in Christian mythology) it was indeed a mirror of the things hidden deep inside us. But as already mentioned, it was a very crude mirror, it existed to instill fear, not reflection.
Dracula – Reinvention of the vampire
With the onset of the Gothic movement in Victorian England, the vampire changed its shape dramatically. The first changes could be seen in France, where the femme fatale was the first female vampire that wasn’t an ugly monster but a beautiful, irresistible woman. The femme fatale was everything a woman at that time should not be and therefore everything the males desired and worshipped. Especially the sexual promiscuity of those vampire women was enhanced in paintings and stories. From a modern, feminist point of view, those females were truly liberated regarding their sexuality, but the price they paid for this freedom was beyond imagination. They lost their souls, were damned to kill the men that fell for them (a not very subtle threat to males not to stray) and, like Lilith who refused to obey Adam, they became demons. These first ‘new’ vampires culminated in English Goth stories like Carmilla, The Fall of the House of Usher, and, ultimately, Dracula.
Bram Stoker’s famous character was very much a child of its time, representing everything that Victorian society feared. But because this was also a very romantic era, the figure of the vampire underwent some drastic changes. Gone was the crude, demonic appearance, gone were many of the restrictions the Klopfer and Wiedergänger had to deal with. On the outside, this new vampire was a respected gentleman of society, rich and well-mannered with some eccentric tics that could easily be overlooked. His weaknesses were defined explicitly – cannot survive sunlight, aversion to crosses and Holy Water – and his strengths described in detail. He was now a shape-shifter, able to control the minds especially of women, a charmer who moved through society without effort and who was able to make slaves of any human he desired. A formidable enemy that required a skilled man of science – and not solely of belief – to defeat him.
One of the things that Bram Stoker detailed in his book was Dracula’s impact on women. His three stunning vampire brides set aside, when he starts feeding on the innocent friend of Minna, she turns into a lusty, voluptuous woman that tempts all the males around her. Blood and sexual prowess are mingled in a way that we still find in our vampire figures of today.
The Victorian vampire is also one of the first that can be truly seen as a mirror of our subconscious. He dwells in the dark, where, according to Freud, our ‘id’ lives, and he does all the things we might dream about but never actually do. He is our desires made flesh, our dark twin, rigorously held in check by our consciousness. In the end, Van Helsing, the new, scientific representative of an entire era, defeats Dracula, the avatar of everything intuitive and primal, granting him death in a stunning and breathtaking showdown. In his last minutes Dracula is, for the first time, also a tragic figure that deserves a certain amount of pity. He is grateful that things have finally come to an end and in a way, this marks also the change of times. Modern reason, the belief in science, the fact that even God can be questioned, now are all part of the stake that is driven through the heart of a creature that evolved in times of superstition and unquestioned belief systems.
Bram Stoker does not only make the vampire more sexually appealing, he is also the first to directly ask the question whether eternal life is really that alluring and if it is worth the price. From this point on, the vampire as a creature could only whither in the harsh light of scientific reason or change into something even more powerful.
The modern vampire
For some time, the vampire seemed to have vanished from our minds. Literature dealt with other problems, and creatures like Frankenstein and Dracula were nothing but famous icons of Gothic literature. Ironically it was a new scientific development that brought the vampire back into our lives. When filming was invented, one of the first and most popular silent movies made was Mernau’s Nosferatu soon followed by Dracula. As in literature, the vampire underwent the same changes in film. Nosferatu was depicted as a monster, a creature with long fingernails, bat-like ears, big teeth and a pale and appalling complexion. He truly was a demon. Then came Bela Lugosi’s characterization of Dracula and the image changed from monster to foreign gentleman wearing an opera cape. The way Lugosi portrayed the famous vampire influences our mental picture of the count to this day.
In the ’70s a series of interpretations of the story followed that changed his face again. After that the vampire was reduced to being a horror item in B-rated splatter movies until Anne Rice came along and introduced Lestat de Lioncourt to the literary world during the ’80s. Lestat first appeared in Interview with the Vampire, a book where one of his offspring, Louis, tells his story to a human journalist and depicts Lestat as a cruel, willful creature with childlike whims and no real grasp of reality. In the second book of the series, The Vampire Lestat, he gets the chance to tell the story of his life. The reader learns about the tragic events that led to his becoming a vampire and the reasons why his character turned out to be like this. For the first time, the focus is on the vampire as an evolving, constantly changing character. It is no longer necessary to save an innocent woman from his grasp, because somehow, we can understand his hunger. The viewpoint has completely changed and the line between human/vampire gets blurred. And because they live forever, their relationships can be viewed in an entire new light. Things that are unforgivable in the human world merely leave a dent—if anything at all—in the vampire cosmos. Holding a grudge for more than fifty years is just not worth the effort. This new kind of vampire allowed a new viewpoint on relationships, new theories and experiments about and on the complex feelings that make us human.
When Interview with the Vampire hit the big screen with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise as the leading actors, the old Dracula had finally found its way into our modern times. It had turned into an unbelievably good-looking sex symbol and even came to terms with modern science. Our wild, dark subconscious was now out in the light, our desires no longer hidden. We had finally lost our deep-rooted fear of our ‘id’ and replaced it with respectful awe, tinged with uneasiness.
So we are no longer terrified—but why are we so fascinated? The vampire is a part of ourselves, a representation of our dark side. It is also a stand-in for everything we would like to do or be but do not dare. In many ways, the vampire is our idea of freedom. The first series to explore this new image of the vampire was Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. It revoked the old conflict, human vs. vampire, but at the same time twisted it. Now the beautiful young woman was not the helpless victim but the strong, dangerous heroine. The first season was like a replaying of the entire history of the vampire, starting with a scene where a gorgeous blond woman kills a trusting young man who wishes to steal some kisses from her and ending with the death of the Nosferatu-like ‘Master’ at the hands of a 16-year-old Buffy who has no time whatsoever to deal with the ‘hypnosis crap’. The old vampire is replaced by a new type that is much more human-like than before. As another reminiscence to the old stories, the vampires in Buffy have two faces. One normal, human face and a crude, monstrous one when they show fangs. To make things even more interesting, the story introduces a vampire with a soul, a contradiction in itself, and a character that allowed for numerous interesting thought plays. Cursed with a soul and haunted by his cruel actions as a soulless demon, Angel struggles for redemption. What started as a side-story soon became part of the main plot. The tortured Angel worked out perfectly and fed into the process of us getting to terms with our subconscious. The things our dark self wishes to do may liberate us—but they also come at a price. Angel was the perfect canvas for discussing deeply philosophical questions such as the meaning of true regret and forgiveness. Juxtaposing this broody, dark character was another vampire that made it from season 2 to the end of the series. Spike was introduced as a villain, offspring of Angel and truly evil. With his easygoing, devilish charm that made even his worst crimes appear in a mild light, he gained many fans. In the course of the series he also gets a soul—typically for him it is the result of an accident—and he deals with the whole matter in an entirely different way. Instead of brooding over what he has done and flailing himself for his cruelty, he simply gets on with his life, making a clear distinction between soulless demon and feeling vampire. He shows us another way of dealing with our dark side, allowing it freedom and following a very attractive philosophy: Je’ne regrette rien.—I regret nothing. This is the slogan of the French Foreign Legion that subsumes the whole trouble we still have with our subconscious.
In True Blood, a vampire series invented by Charlaine Harris, the reflecting qualities of the vampire are used almost to excess. The author herself said that she used vampires to portray a minority and the problems they have to face gruesomely remind us of some of the more recent discussions that have shaken Western society. In the TV series, the producers go even further, making direct references to pressing social issues while at the same time giving them a light air, because, ‘vampires are not for real, are they?’. At one point in Season 3, a very old vampire named Eric seduces the husband of his sworn enemy in order to get retribution. Before the two get physical, they have a short exchange that plays with the audience’s expectations and social restrictions in numerous ways:
Eric: It’s been some time since I last did this.
Talbot: With a man?
Eric: With a vampire.
What makes this scene so remarkable is not the two really handsome men getting down to it in a very graphic way. It is the manner in which they interact, the easy nonchalance with which they accept what they are and use it to their full advantage. They are content with their identity, just as we should be content with our dark side.
About the Author
Xenia Melzer was born and raised in a small village in the South of Bavaria. As one of nature’s true chocoholics, she’s always in search of the perfect chocolate experience. So far, she’s had about a dozen truly remarkable ones. Despite having been in close proximity to the mountains all her life, she has never understood why so many people think snow sports are fun. There are neither chocolate nor horses involved and it’s cold by definition, so where’s the sense? She does not like beer either and has never been to the Oktoberfest – no quality chocolate there.
Even though her mind is preoccupied with various stories most of the time, Xenia has managed to get through school and university with surprisingly good grades. Right after school she met her one true love who showed her that reality is capable of producing some truly amazing love stories itself.
While she was having her two children, she started writing down the most persistent stories in her head as a way of relieving mommy-related stress symptoms. As it turned out, the stress-relief has now become a source of the same, albeit a positive one.
When she’s not writing, she teaches English at school, enjoys riding and running, spending time with her kids, and dancing with her husband. If you want to contact her, please visit either her website, www.xeniamelzer.com or write her an email: email@example.com .
On behalf of me and Co-pilot Extraordinaire Elizabeth Noble, thanks so much to Xenia for the fascinating post, and thanks to you, Awesome Readers, for spending some time with us. See you next time!