With another Halloween approaching, children of all ages are thinking about what to wear to earn their treats. There will certainly be some dressed in capes and fangs as vampires, but this creature of the night has long been more than a once-a-year monster.
The vampire has historically appeared precisely at times when we most need to identify, or to put a face of horror on, that which threatens us.
The current vampire madness has given us much choice in identifying our scapegoat for the conflicts of the 21st century. For the younger consumer, there is the “starter” vampire, Edward Cullen, in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. Edward’s sparkly visage is not only pinup poster fodder; it gives contemporary tweens a safe understanding of things that go bump in the night. Although he is a vampire, Edward is unthreatening in his attractiveness. Even his car, a Volvo, is safe and reliable.
Charlaine Harris’ “True Blood” series, however, places her imagining of the world of Others in the multicultural town Bon Temps, where vampires have “come out of the coffin” into the world of the living by drinking the synthetic blood, Tru Blood. Her vampires are sexual, and raise questions of social prejudice and acceptance.
My fascination with the fanged revenant began with Jonathan Frid’s portrayal of Barnabas Collins in the 1960s gothic soap opera, “Dark Shadows.” Barnabas was fodder for my childhood nightmares: refined and educated, but also ghoulishly pale and fanged.
What I failed to realize then was that the popularity of the vampire on television and in movies was a reaction to the political and cultural upheaval of the Vietnam era and culture wars at home.
Vampires at once fascinate and terrify. Their bite promises eternal life, but at what price? Once “infected,” we become parasites, undead who feed on the living. Modern images of vampires often portray them as young, handsome and often “foreign,” whether as the iconic Transylvanian count or the misfit high school student in the “Twilight” series.
Perhaps the most famous vampire, Bram Stoker’s Dracula from his 1897 novel, was portrayed as an ethnic profile of an Eastern European Jew, immediately recognizable as the pogroms in Russia forced thousands to seek refuge in Europe.
Bela Lugosi’s suave, tuxedoed count in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, “Dracula,” was the first American vampire film. His heavily accented rendition of “I never drink wine” gave American moviegoers both chills and an escape from the Great Depression. But this Dracula was also the foreign monster, an enemy we could all identify, fear and despise.
Decades later in the 1980s, while the U.S. was in the midst of an economic recession and AIDS was threatening to become a pandemic, Anne Rice brought us the memorable vampires Lestat and Louis. Her reimagining of the vampire myth in the middle of yuppie, corporate America in “Interview with the Vampire” provided readers with an escape from the ubiquitous upsetting stories spouting from 24-hour cable news.
Again, the vampire provided us with almost human embodiments of evil, an antidote to the helplessness we felt in the face of actual threats to our security and well-being.
What does the future hold for vampires? As vampires in past decades have become able to live in daylight and withstand the sight of a crucifix, a century from now we might see the myth further transformed to describe a global phenomenon, with nations uniting against a worldwide siege.
A timeless myth, the vampire story hundreds of years into the future might depict the creature as the primary inhabitant of planet Earth.
Introducing students to historical figures such as Vlad Dracula, a medieval “Christian crusader” battling invading Muslim Turks in Wallachia, is exactly what I do in my class on vampires at The University of Texas at Austin. The course also traces the occurrence of the vampire in Russia and Eastern Europe in tandem with periods of strife. It is not coincidental that Vladimir Putin has repeatedly referred to Chechen rebels as “vampires.” Undoubtedly the need to identify our enemies as vampires will live as long as the myth.
For young vampires on Halloween, though, we can avoid their tricks with a simple treat.
Thomas Garza is a University Distinguished Teaching Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Austin American Statesman.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) October 29, 2014