Monday, October 31, 2005

Hallowe'en Extra: Fangs for the Memories

A few years ago I sold an article on vampires to The Peak magazine. Here it is, for your Hallowe'en reading pleasure.

Fangs for the Memories:
100 Years of Terror with Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Originally published in The Peak, Volume 14, Number 1
January, 1998

“Listen to them - the children of the night. What music they make!” -Count Dracula waxes poetic in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This year marks the 101st anniversary of the debut of Irish author Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel, Dracula. While Stoker’s tale is not the first to describe the exploits of fiendish drinkers of human blood - others include Lord Byron’s friend John Polidori’s tale The Vampyre, a tale from the Arabian Nights, ancient Greek and Babylonian myth, Rymer’s Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood, and Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic tale of lesbian vampires, Carmilla - it is the one that has been the most enduring.

Indeed, Count Dracula is one of a handful of characters in popular culture who is known to almost everyone on the planet. He has been the subject of a never-ending stream of horror films - among them Tod Browning’s Universal Studios classic 1931 version, Dracula, with the incomparable Bela Lugosi; the sequel, Dracula’s Daughter; and Hammer Films’ Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, with Christopher Lee. We have even witnessed the perfidy of Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, Countess Dracula, The Brides of Dracula, Dracula’s Widow, Lady Dracula, Mama Dracula, Old Dracula, the Son of Dracula, and, of course, Blacula, the politically incorrect vampire. For one who is confined to a coffin during the day, Dracula sure gets around. He’s even wreaked havoc upon the Wild West, in the cult classic Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula (which must truly be seen to be believed). Dracula meets his match, though, in the chop-socky epic The Seven Brothers and Their One Sister Vs. Dracula. Even Dracula has a hard time battling eight Kung Fu masters. And, inevitably, Dracula runs afoul of Abbott and Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi himself reprised his role as the Count for this feature.

The Count
Even children’s television has been influenced by Stoker - Sesame Street features The Count, a vampire who thirsts not for blood, but for more items to - well - count. The Sesame Street creators were very astute in choosing a vampire Muppet to teach counting, for according to folklore, vampires are obsessed with counting and can be confused by leaving poppy seeds or grains of rice near their coffin. When he sees the seeds, the vampire cannot help but meticulously count all of them - which usually takes all night, leaving the townspeople safe for another eve.

Vampires became TV heroes with the 1960s hit Dark Shadows and the more recent Fox series Kindred: The Embraced, both soap operas with vampiric stars. Other fictional characters have locked horns with Dracula, including Batman, Superman, and even Zorro. One of Dracula’s thematic offspring, Vampirella, is a beautiful young vampire in an improbably tiny red bikini who, despite her bloodthirsty nature, turns the stereotype on its head and fights for good rather than evil, vowing to hunt down her own kind. (She survives by drinking only plasma from blood banks, refusing to feed on innocent humans). Dracula, of course, is not pleased by Vampirella’s crusade and the two have an ongoing feud. The concept sounds kitchy, but some of the most talented creators in the comic book field, including James Robinson, Alan Moore, and Warren Ellis, have written the exploits of this character. Dracula’s face adorns everything from T-shirts to Pez candy dispensers to keychains to bubble gum cards to toys to postage stamps. Every Hallowe’en, the streets are filled with people of all ages masquerading as the good Count or one of his seemingly numberless progeny. His name is synonymous with evil and corruption; his dialogue (“I never drink…wine.”) is immortal. Now more than ever, the vampire - Dracula chief among them - is a captivating monster, attracting us even as our primal instincts insist we must recoil in stark terror. Why has Stoker’s tale remained a horror staple, even in our jaded, cynical, less superstitious era?

Dr. Ted Pitcher, a professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been studying Gothic literature for many years, teaching both in Canada today and at the University of Malaya during the early 1970s. I asked Dr. Pitcher about the novel’s appeal:

“Dracula is about the affirmation of a core of established beliefs and structures that exist in civil society. Cultural norms are threatened by an outside agency - in this case, the vampire - but in the end they are safeguarded by that core of belief and by faith - faith in God, His servants in the Church, and in authority in general. Dracula is dangerous and terrifying, but there are ways to defeat him: the stake in the heart, the garlic, the Cross. In other words, good triumphs over evil.”

Dracula has thematic similarities with legends of other lands. For example, in Indian tradition there is the tale of Vikram and the Vampire. Vikram, the hero, must outwit the baital-pachisi, a bat-shaped blood-drinking spirit that can enter and re-animate corpses - much like Dracula re-animates the Occidental dead. Vikram’s tale was a recent hit on Indian TV.

In Malaysian mythology, vampires take the form of langsuirs, flying demons who are created when a beautiful woman dies in childbirth. Langsuirs don’t use fangs to drink blood - they have holes in the backs of their necks, through which they drink the blood of children. However, they can be stopped by the simple expedient of stuffing its own hair and fingernails into the hole. After this is done, the vampire may even be redeemed and rejoin the community as a useful member - a fate far more benign than usually awaits Western vampires. Another Malaysian vampire is the hantu kepala, or head spirit, who jumps onto a victim’s head and sucks blood until the prey turns pale and dizzy.

Ancient Greece, of course, had the famous lamia, and Homer alludes to the existence of vampires in the Odyssey. In all of these cases, the legends follow Dr. Pitcher’s rule - that is, there is an established way of dealing with vampires that will preserve the innocent from destruction and reaffirm the society’s core structure of beliefs and norms.

Dr. Pitcher goes on to say that some of today’s fascination with Dracula can be attributed to popular authors like Anne Rice, who has reinvented the vampire myth and made what was once fearsome somewhat domestic. The vampires of the late 20th century are handsome or beautiful, charismatic, charming, well-educated, and generally well-meaning; they simply have an affliction that, after all, they did not ask for. With the domestication of the vampire, this creature has become perhaps the safest of monsters to dream about - for, after all, the vampire’s promise is eternal life. This, Dr. Pitcher asserts, can be quite a temptation, given the alternatives. Who wouldn’t want to look like Brad Pitt (star of the film adaptation of Rice’s Interview With the Vampire) - forever irresistible to women - even if it means giving up the joy of days in the sun? It would be hard to resist some of the beautiful female vampires that prowl Edmonton’s streets at Hallowe’en. The threat of death holds its own terrible eroticism.

The original vision, of course, is far darker. Count Dracula is not handsome in Stoker’s novel. Charismatic, yes - but he has terrible breath, a pale complexion, grotesquely long fingernails…in short, he looks like the walking dead, not someone that we would want to emulate. For a good screen adaptation of Dracula, refer to German director F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic, Nosferatu. One look at Dracula as portrayed by Max Schreck will convince you that life as a vampire is a fate worse than death. Or, check out the more recent Francis Ford Coppola version of the myth, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dr. Pitcher’s personal favourite. Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Dracula in this film also depicts the Count as a ghoulish, terribly aged tragic figure. Both films are more faithful to the novel than most of Hollywood’s product.

Part of the novel’s endurance may be attributed to its connection to real history. The character is based, of course, on Vlad Dracul, or Vlad Tepes, a.k.a. Vlad the Impaler, one of the most sadistic, brutal tyrants in history. Nikolai Ceausescu, the ruler of Romania until the fall of Communism, held Tepes up as a hero - and, more chilling, even the common people of Romania still regard Tepes as something akin to a George Washington-like figure. In 1976, the 500th anniversary of Tepes’ death, Romanians celebrated his “glorious” victories of the past. The real-life Count Dracula massacred thousands of people, most of them innocent civilians - and yet, even today, he is lionized in some parts of the world as a hero.

In the face of such madness, perhaps Dracula, the novel, provides us with a way to imagine that we have some small measure of control over the real horrors that loom over us every day. Monsters like Tepes are difficult for the common man to overcome, or even to relate to on any level - but if we fictionalize the monster, give him vulnerabilities, and deliver the means of defeating the evil into the our own hands, our faith in the basic decency of humanity can be reaffirmed. Perhaps we can sleep at night, if we hang onto our clove of garlic, or our Cross, or our .38 filled with silver bullets.

Far from being a bad influence on children, then, with its gruesome imagery and erotic overtones, the novel is actually rather traditional in its support of established authority figures. We can all be tempted by the vampire, and we can all fall victim to the vampire, but we also have the power within us to purge the beast and stand in the light of day once more, safe and unafraid.

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