Eleanor Bourg Donlon
“I didn’t like it. It wasn’t serious enough.”
It was a reasonable enough comment out of context, but with my knowledge of the subject under discussion (i.e., the virtues and vices of a raucously goofy film about melodramatic vampyres, ancient curses, and heroes and heroines acting in a highly improbable but impassioned manner) the moment was rather piquant. Why would one go to a film about vampyres and expect it to be serious? Isn’t that rather like expecting a profound and coherent sociological message from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein?
There have been quite a few “serious” vampyre films in recent years: from the critically-acclaimed Interview with the Vampire and the burly, oversexed vampyre-werewolf soap opera of the Underworldseries to the nauseating teen-drama Twilight. In each, the notion of a group of undead beings who go around sucking blood, lacking reflections in mirrors, and avoiding sunlight (or not avoiding sunlight, depending on how many of the traditional rules about vampyres they endorse) is honestly and seriously entertained.
The real problem with so many of these films is actually they are both too serious and yet not serious enough. In the midst of taking themselves so damned seriously (the profanity is apt when speaking of the nosferatu), they become seriously unrealistic. (Says Abbot: “I know there’s no such person as Dracula. You know there’s no such person as Dracula.” “But,” quips Costello in response: “does Dracula know it?”) They are so desperate to invest the metaphysically denuded world with some sort of meaning that they end up dressing in modified Lugosi garb and speaking in husky, tremulous tones. This is symptomatic of a pervasive problem: as we have completely lost the sense of the sacramental nature of reality, we attempt to convey the preternatural through fantasy and costume. The more conspicuous the spectacle and more gaudy the display, the clearer it is that we are dull to its true presence. On the one hand we superficially embrace the supernatural under the guise of the fantastical; on the other, we completely reject the metaphysical backdrop proper to any such foray into vampyrism. And—pacedrooling Edward Cullen fans—it is the latter which truly makes such nonsensical nightmares resonate with viewers.
The dark origin of the notion of vampyres is hidden in the mists of ancient mythologies and folklore. For all intents and purposes introduced into Western European parlance in the eighteenth century, it would take nineteenth-century imaginations by storm, culminating in John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), James Malcolm Rymer’s penny-dreadful epic Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1845–7), and the consummate work of vampyric literary brilliance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). By the latter work particularly, the cinematic marketability of black-cloaked, sleek-haired Romanian counts was assured. Accuracy in the adaptation of Stoker’s novel was in no way a requirement—a precedent the result of which may be seen in the fact that the vampyres of today are virtually unrecognizable as their ancient or even their Victorian forebears. There is little of Lord Ruthven to be seen in incessant shots of Kate Beckinsale’s leather-ensconced backside. And thus it is with the rest in the glut of vampyric offerings on the market today.
What was the legendary fascination of the vampyre? It was a conflicted mass of spiritual insights and anxieties. Here was a creature who represented an unholy union of life and death, a parasite drawing sustenance from the blood of others, an eternal, doomed, brutal creature, preying upon the living, drawing them (if the going account accepted various theories of vampyrism as an inevitable contagion) into the hell of the undead. The overtly sexual threat and the threat of foreign invasion were present as well, though not to the degree that literary critics would like us to believe.
From this we will see there is a lot more at stake in the vampyric character than is commonly conceived. There is a sacramental intensity which is rarely realized in book or film: vampyrism as the anti-Eucharist. Stoker’s Dracula plumbs this deeply (though with some dogmatic inaccuracy). As I said in an article for the Saint Austin Review (StAR) (with apologies for quoting myself—it is more commonsensical in this case than attempting to rephrase sentence by sentence for the sake of perpetual originality):
The satanic nature of the Count is rendered all the more terrifying because of his undeniable physicality. […] The human life of Christ made daily physical and intimate communion with God possible—beyond even the Old Testament experience of Enoch, with whom Renfield [the lunatic fanatically absorbed with Dracula] compares himself: “he walked with God.” After the ascension of Jesus, mortality and the supernatural returned to their separate spheres. The Eucharist transcends this division; as the actual sacrifice of Calvary occurring mystically in an unbloody manner, the sacrament brings the reality of a past action into the reality of a present. In a dark mirroring of the sacrament, Dracula is a super-physical being in whom a supernatural power is lodged. The Eucharist is the ultimate transformative and life-giving agent (John 6:58); vampyres consume blood to perpetuate an undead eternity. The blood on the cross was given willingly (John 15:13); vampyre victims do not submit of their own volition. They are hypnotized, entranced, or otherwise reduced to an altered state of consciousness. Dracula as Satan is thus elaborately developed: engaging in an anti-sacrifice and an Anti-Eucharist, Dracula is the Apocalyptic Anti-Christ who comes to collect souls and set up an alternative eternity to that promised in the New Testament.
This vein of meaning is almost always neglected by modern films. Stoker fell into the trap of Manichaeism: though Count Dracula is vanquished in the end of the novel (in a scene which is intriguingly anti-climactic), in many ways he appears as powerful as God. He is conquered in an almost perfunctory manner, as if the form of the novel rather than the reality of Divine Omnipotence demanded it. But modern films do not even venture into this problematic territory. Usually God is removed from the equation entirely—thereby sucking the very life out of the story. Consequently, vampyres are left as vaguely trendy (cf. leather pants, dark make-up, and brooding facial expressions) but conflicted outsiders. With the modern decline into an engorging solipsism, the vampyre phenomenon has been reduced to angst and anemia; hence the rise of the patently absurd notion of “good vampyres,” waiting for a half-witted, mentally negligible teenage ditz to come along and “understand” them.
This particular image of the vampyre has particular moral significance which its resonance with the modern Gothic subculture demonstrates. In their rebellious embrace of ugliness and scariness, Goths endeavor to pathologize the normal. This is the anti-morality agenda fiercely pursued by so many in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: to turn the moral tables in favor of perversion itself. Normal behavior is what is diseased, while the perverse is really normal—that is to say, it is what we all really would want, if we could just break free from the constraints of our negative belief systems. It is no accident that self-proclaimed “queer theorists” are so eager to associate vampirism with a homosexual lifestyle, acting upon the demonic isolation of the former and the pervasive loneliness of the latter to take yet another step in the campaign to obscure the act/orientation distinction. In fact, such associations directly victimize those the theorists purportedly seek to defend. The Christian seeks to love the sinner and hate the sin; there is no love to be found in the fellowship of vampyres—especially not with fake vampyres who are not evil, merely misunderstood.
In the midst of so much anti-moral contortion, overdone emotion, and special effects, there is a complete neglect of what gives the vampyre his proper consequence: the sacramental drama, from which we derive our sense of eternity, of man’s quest for beatitude and the battle against the forces of evil—all of which can only be understood in the context of the Divine Reality and the bloody glory of the Cross. Perhaps someday the true dramatic potential of vampyrism will be fully realized. (There are no silver-bullet solutions, but I have a notion of how it could be done—and perhaps someday I shall have the time to do it.) For now we can only sigh and shrug off the bloody silliness of the whole vampyre genre—now, perhaps, in its twilight.