NOSFERATU AND LESTAT:

The evolution of the modern vampire

For much of this century the social and political mores of most people were still firmly Victorian. If anything, the undercurrents of sexual and sensual exploration and investigation that had characterised the late 19th century and given rise to Dracula and Carmilla, were lost to a new prudery and puritanism. Literary horror became moribund and there were precious few examples of the myth in the new media of cinema.

Perhaps this was a reflection of the times, and in particular, the horrors of the first world war. The fin-de-siecle obsession with spiritualism that had focussed upon sensuality and sensation, was utilised by many to gain comfort in the face of so many dead. Although superstition was rife - it was in this period that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle announced his belief in faeries - tales of vampires were unpopular. Whereas once they had been the reflection of the times, and its dark heart, society no longer had the stomach to face its own demons. There were a few notable exceptions: the author Fritz Lang wrote Lilith und Ly, a 1919 vampire film, now lost to posterity; but it was Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens released in 1922, starring Max Schreck and directed by F.W. Murnau, which exemplified the vampire genre of the time. Schreck's Nosferatu was quite unlike the romantic anti-heroes of Polidori, Stoker or LeFanu. Romantic visions of death were not acceptable at the time, and Nosferatu was a horrific figure, contorted and wreathed in shadow.

There were no further vampire films for many years and it was not until Bela Lugosi took on the mantle of Dracula in the 1931 film of the same name that horror began to reemerge. Dracula was followed soon after by Dracula's Daughter, against starring Lugosi. Dracula itself followed Stoker's plot relatively closely, and though Lugosi was not romantic in the same fashion as the romance that was sweeping Hollywood, he was not the almost animalistic monster of Nosferatu. Instead, Lugosi imbued in his Dracula a dark, intelligent menace, a certain charisma which while not overtly sexual, was as much as straitlaced 30s society could stand.

Once again, however, war stopped horror in the cinema and literature, as the horrors of reality overwhelmed society, and it was a different society that began producing horror and vampire films once more. It was 1957 before vampire films began to be produced again, and with renewed vigor. Many studios produced vampire films, including Hollywood, but the most famous films were produced by the English Hammer Films, and starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

The Hammer horror films were lush and colorful examples of the genre. The studio began with a version of Dracula: Lee's Count reverted to the smoother, aristocratic vision of Stoker instead of the rougher, darker versions from Schreck and Lugosi, his Count was malicious but smooth, evil but seductive. As the fifties were ending, the sexual and social mores of society were shifting across the western world, and opened the doors to renewed interest in vampires and horror. The sixties were a time of increased interest in the strange and the exciting, and vampires were an exotic shadow. Hammer films continued production well into the seventies, though quality dropped significantly, and a new vampire had emerged upon the scene: Lestat.

The vampire Lestat was the greatest shift in vampire mythology since Stoker's Dracula. Anne Rice, an American author, created in Lestat an anti-hero for the modern age. He was an attractive, sexual, intelligent rogue, and though much of the novel Interview with a Vampire was not set in the modern age, it was modern sensibilities that shaped him. Most importantly, Interview with the Vampire and subsequent novels had the vampires as the protagonists not the antagonists. Even in fiction such as Carmilla, where the vampire was treated with some attempts at empathy, she was still the enemy, and the story focussed on her effect on those around her, and attempts to stop her. In Lestat, although he was amoral, he was the heart of the novel, and his victims were mere backdrop.

Rice also introduced a further theme, previously absent from vampire fiction: the idea of remorse and regret. Although Lestat himself cares little, his creation Louis is wracked by guilt and loathes his chosen path. Before, all vampires were irredeemably evil: however elegant or romantic they had no conscience nor feelings. Most subsequent vampires, whether in film or literature, where capable of considering their condition, of feeling regret. They would be amoral or evil through choice, not simply due to their vampiric nature.

There have been several major vampire films or novels since Rice first wrote Interview with a Vampire. Vampire fiction has become a thriving sub-genre of horror, with writers such as Freda Warrington, Brian Stableford and Kim Newman; the cinema has seen The Lost Boys and Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark, both released in 1987 and both popular and cult hits, as well as Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, the film adaptation of Interview with a Vampire, From Dusk til Dawn, as well as numerous smaller films. It is notable that in the last two years there have been more vampire or vampire-related films made than in the entire period from 1896 to 1957. Vampires have also appeared on TV, including one-off adaptations, the ghastly (and fortunately short-lived) Kindred: the Embraced, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Canadian Forever Knight and the new UK serial Ultraviolet. People also roleplay vampires as angst-ridden goths, tortured by the Beast, in the roleplaying game, Vampire: the Masquerade, and its live action equivalent. Vampires are everywhere.

But why now? And why so popular?

We all need glimpses of the shadow, our dark side, but traditionally religion has taught that we should not only turn away from it, but treat it as taboo. The shadow is intrinsically evil and to be avoided, even in discussion. As religion has developed, and to some extent faded, so we are more able to contemplate our darker sides. Previously, the vampire was evil incarnate, to be fought, but with the arrival of the new vampire, we were offered the vision of evil redeemed. Given the horrors of the twentieth century, it is a compelling image.

Our lives are also deeply different from the lives of the Slavic peasants who first told vampire tales in the dark winter nights; from the salons of 18th century england where they shocked and titillated an insular and rigid society; even from the lives of our grandparents, overshadowed with war. With the emergence of the solid middle classes - and it is amongst the young of this group that vampires are most popular - most young people have lives of settled certainty or mindless tedium. Some break away and travel, some turn to drugs and others fantasise about the excitement of vampires, the glamour and sensuality they can only aspire to.

For vampires are glamorous. To a person living in a safe society, the concept of danger (as opposed to the reality) is remarkably attractive. We need sensation in our lives: if reality cannot supply it, then we must imagine it, and vampires are ideal for the purpose. Vampires are seen as wild and romantic free spirits, and people yearn for that, in stories and reality. To the Victorians, the idea of becoming a vampire would have been utterly horrific, but now some people fantasise about it, or even try and convince themselves they are really vampires. The tagline for The Lost Boys epitomises these feelings:

"Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire."

(c) 1998 Helen Steele


Home | SF | RPG | Academics | Links | Contact