After the sad passing of Christopher Lee I wanted to think of a way to commemorate his life and what better way than talking about a role he played for almost 20 years; Dracula. Its late posting after the sad news was due to wanting to make the article as informative and structured as possible to give Lee the respect he deserves.
So I would like to dedicate this article to Christopher Lee; the man whose performance of the bloodsucker remains as a cultural icon of the vampire to this day.
It is no coincidence that vampires are called the living dead; the legend of the bloodsuckers never seems to die down. However, where the legend begins is not easy to pinpoint; most cultures appear to have had their own versions of vampiric entities long before Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819 or Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. Vampires have permeated out of myth and into popular culture making them real in some sense but with each portrayal of the vampire, what they are used to represent becomes something completely different.
Perhaps thought to be the key text when discussing vampires, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was used to revive the Gothic genre. Count Dracula was the epitome of everything the Victorian Britain wasn’t. The vampire was used to take advantage of contemporary issues of the day, one such issue was the fear surrounding the foreign Other, the vampire myth itself added to this fear as Britain was unaware of the Eastern European legends until then. By doing so, xenophobia was interlinked with the fear of the unknown. However, it is sexuality that sums up Broker’s vampires fully by depicting and interpreting human instinct that the sexually repressed British male ignored. Vampires were used as the physical portrayal of a sexual liberation thought to be highly dangerous at that time. However, the female vampire; Lucy is not viewed as threatening as Dracula. She remains passive in her hunt for blood by feeding on children without killing them, something that the 1960’s and 1970’s soon changed. The Hammer House of Horror Studios added to Stoker’s portrayal of the vampire by making female bloodsuckers an even bigger sexual threat than Dracula was. They were regularly presented as being busty female seductresses who would ultimately ensnare men with their bodies and looks. With a predominately male audience, it was a means to reinforce the heterosexual ideology of the time by sexualising women but also to suggest that sexually active women were dangerous.
During the 1980’s, a new form of vampire manifested itself through Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, heterosexuality was replaced with homosexuality, with male vampires feeding on men instead of the traditional female in distress. Additionally, discussing homosexuality in correlation with death ran parallel with the AIDs epidemic making vampirism the epitomising example of the HIV carrier in the 1980’s. Moreover, Rice writes Louis de Pointe du Lac as a sympathetic character rather than the monstrosities that were portrayed before it allowing readers to empathise with the man who had been ‘infected’ with this curse. In doing so, HIV carriers were perhaps viewed a little more sympathetically. On the other hand, they may have been viewed as something less than human. In the 1990’s Joss Whedon attempted to also change how a certain minority was viewed; women. Buffy the Vampire Slayer challenged gender norms with a female lead that fought off the bloodsucking undead while fighting every day high school issues at the same time. Not only did this mean that everything vampire was now not completely focussed towards a male audience but it also started to mean people began to discuss gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them within the horror genre. Nonetheless, it can be argued that despite Buffy challenging gender norms unlike other vampire platforms did before, women were still viewed as threatening (something that Whedon challenged later on within Buffy with her boyfriend Riley who felt emasculated by her ability to protect herself).
In 2005 Stephanie Meyer brought to the world another form of the vampire, similar to Rice’s portrayal, the main vampire presented was one that audiences could feel sorry for. Edward Cullen was a pessimistic vampire who was troubled by the fact that he has fallen in love with a human but does not want to condemn her to a life of vampirism to be with her. This is the same form of vampire that Harris used in her True Blood series with Bill Compton. These vampires represent a form of forbidden love that ultimately is a form of sexual fantasy where although humans shouldn’t be with vampires, can’t help but do so. Although, the vampire still follows the theme of sexuality, this form seems to struggle with the sexual liberation of Stoker’s and removes vampires as being a sexual threat all together. In fact, True Blood reverses the roles of man and monster by portraying vampires as those sought out by humans for sex instead. Additionally, it ironically twists which are the sexual threat when people are found killed by other humans for fornicating with vampires.
Most recently, the vampire has once more transformed itself, however unlike the others it seems to be paying homage to one of its original roots, Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Characters such as Adventure Time’s Marceline the Vampire Queen as well as the Canadian web series’ Carmilla (based on the Le Fanu’s original text) both present female vampires in a lesbian manner as Le Fanu did. However, both programmes have altered its reasoning to do so, unlike the 1871 Gothic novella, both contemporary series attempt to normalise lesbianism although the latter does so more explicitly than the former. This ultimately shows the changing societal opinions as lesbianism has come to be seen as an accepted sexual orientation whereas before it was seen as a monstrous act.
Perhaps most interestingly, vampires have also become used in order to define some people’s identity. With the option to be vampires in videogames such as The Sims series and Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, players can ultimately live the life of a bloodsucker. Additionally it was only a little less than a decade ago that everyone had a Facebook app that allowed you to ‘convert’ your friends into your own vampire coven online. However, some have taken vampirism as an identity outside of the virtual world and into reality itself. Fan clubs as well as communities for “real vampires” have been set up for those that relate to the creatures of the night.
It is evident to believe then that, throughout history, vampires have been appropriated for multiple reasons other than its original purpose; to explain the unknown. It is perhaps due to vampires being uncanny in the full sense of the word; a mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar that is experienced as being peculiar. Since people can ultimately relate to the vampire as something similarly human, they are perfect characters to imprint with; allowing subtle critiquing or reinforcement of societal norms of the time such as sexuality or gender. However, no matter when or where vampires are portrayed, one thing remains certain – through becoming part of not only Britain but the world’s cultural capital, the vampire myth, similar to the notorious monster itself, shall live on.