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Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Modern Vampire

Bela_lugosi_dracula

 

As I mentioned two weeks ago, there is a fairly solid dividing line in history that separates the werewolves we have today (those that change under the full moon, can only be killed by silver, take a half-man half-wolf form, and spread their curse through bites) and the werewolves of the past (change whenever they want, can be killed in the normal ways, take the form of a wolf, become a werewolf through magic ceremonies, etc). That dividing line was the wolfman horror movies of early Hollywood. Before Hollywood we have the old kind of werewolf, after Hollywood we have the modern beast, and the differences between the two are so great that you can argue that they share nothing except the name. Vampires have an extremely similar story, only their dividing line comes in 1819 with the publishing of the short novel The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Polidori’s book is the first place where we see a high society, handsome, rich, and suave vampire who masquerades as a human and sucks the blood of beautiful maidens all over Europe. The book, and a popular play based off of it, sparked a vampire craze in Europe that we could emphasize with today. Just as our current vampire craze has spawned off numerous book series, tv shows, and movies about vampires Polidori’s book inspired numerous plays and novels that expanded on his original vampire, the dashing and dangerous Lord Ruthven. Most of us think of writing from previous centuries of consisting solely of stuffy old “classics” or great works of literature that are far more serious and sophisticated than the commercial trash that is printed today. The truth is that previous centuries had just as much commercial fluff and sensational pop works as we do today. One such work from the 1840s was Varney the Vampire, a serialized story telling the tale of a vampire from week to week. Varney was roughly equivalent to what we might consider comic books today, as it consisted of short stories that emphasized action, horror, and suspense.

Being a work of popular fiction that was written by multiple authors over its run, Varney wasn’t particularly consistent in regards to its vampire lore. The creation of Varney himself is muddled, with several competing origin stories that appear throughout the series. In one account we learn that Varney became a vampire when he betrayed a friend and then killed his own son in a fit of rage, which harkens back to the old vampire legends about great sinners rising from their graves to feed on the living. Another edition has Varney being created by a scientist using electricity a la Frankenstein. Varney often had conflicting abilities and motivations, but from that mess of a work many of the modern vampire tropes were born. Varney has two fangs, leaves two puncture marks on the necks of his victims, has super strength, can hypnotize people, and can turn others into vampires. Perhaps most notably Varney is the first sympathetic vampire in the world; we see the stories through his point of view, and he regularly regrets what he has become. He even attempts to cure his “condition” and eventually commits suicide by throwing himself into a volcano. This is an incredible breakthrough; before this point all vampires, even the Polidori’s, were viewed as either mindless monsters or incomprehensible creatures of pure evil. Varney turns all that upside down by asking what it would like to be a vampire and still retain your human mind, your human memories, and your human outlook.

In other words, Varney brought angst to the vampire mythos. So, The Vampyre made vampires suave and sophisticated, and Varney added angst. That leaves one primarily modern character trait of vampires to go: sexuality. In 1871 a slightly more sophisticated vampire serial appears, titled Carmilla. This story itself is pretty long and suspenseful and full of foreshadowing and all that, but for our purposes it can be easily summarized: a young woman becomes friends with another young woman and then later they discover that one of the young women is a vampire and along the way it’s highly implied that she’s a lesbian as well. This story is notable on two points: introducing the idea of vampires who are hundreds of years old but appear to be children (because they died young) and vampires as sexual creatures. The vampires of the old legends, being revenants, are certainly nothing you could easily think about sexually, and though the vampire in The Vampyre woos women it is only for the purpose of devouring their blood. This is the first story where we get the strong impression that vampires carnal desires could extend to more than just hemoglobin. This 19th century vampire progression finally culminates in what we now consider the crown jewel of vampire lore: Bran Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Dracula gives us the first appearance of arch-vampire Count Dracula himself, and pulls together all the scattered vampire tropes the past century had been throwing out there. Dracula is a suave and sophisticated aristocrat, who not only hungers from blood but also possesses several vampire wives, bringing female vampires and sexuality back into play. True, there is little angst seen from Dracula over being a vampire, but there is certainly a lot of angst among the main characters after Dracula turns Lucy into a vampire of her own. Here we are also supplied with the now traditional modes of hunting vampires: garlic, staking through the heart, holy water, the whole nine yards.

However, Dracula was not a commercial success in its own time. Stoker died in poverty, and arguably Varney or Carmilla were both far more popular during their respective runs. Why then is Dracula the most famous vampire book ever written? Why does its ideas and themes still run through the vampire mythos to this day? Why is Count Dracula more famous than Carmilla, or Varney, or even Lord Ruthven? The answer, as with werewolves, is movies. In 1922 the German film Nosferatu was released to the public. The movie itself was pretty much a take for take adaptation of Dracula but with names changed to avoid having to pay the Stoker estate. Now, the film is important on its own (as we shall see) but it is also responsible for inventing one of the most enduring features of the modern vampire mythos: the vampires vulnerability to sunlight. Before Nosferatu vampires had little trouble walking about during the day. Lord Ruthven wasn’t bothered by it, Carmilla merely disliked it, and all sunlight did to Count Dracula was weaken him slightly. However Nosferatu, deviating from the book, shows the vampire being defeated by the dawn of the sun, whose light causes him to burst into smoke. This weakness to sunlight would by picked up by the vampire stories to come, until we reach the modern day where you can find nerds everywhere complaining about how the sun doesn’t hurt Twilight vampires.

The film was a massive success, and Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement. She won her case, and every copy of the film (except for one that survived to the modern day) was destroyed. However the film was so popular that it was soon followed by a stage version which toured Europe and spread vampire fever. (Fun fact: the stage play is where the Count Dracula started wearing that ridiculous black cape with the super high collar. The purpose of the collar was so that the actor playing Dracula could turn his back to the audience and seem to disappear against a black backdrop, creating a spooky effect. Somehow, the silly cape stuck with the character.)

Eventually the play toured the US where it caught the attention of Hollywood. Young producer Carl Laemmle Jr., after seeing Nosferatu’s initial success legally bought the movie rights from the Stoker estate. In 1931 the famous Universal movie Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was released to huge commercial success. Since that film was released the book Dracula has never gone out of print, and the legacy of Count Dracula was set in stone, along with the all the other “modern” vampires he had come to represent.

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