I can still recall the very first vampire movie I ever saw. I was twelve years old, and the movie was a heavily edited version of Hammer Films’ The Brides of Dracula. I know it was heavily edited because it was broadcast on TV during the afternoon in a one-hour time slot. That’s the only reason it got past my mother’s acutely protective censorship. I don’t recall many details about the film (I’ve seen it many times since then, of course). I just remember how it made me feel.
I have no explanation for my lifelong obsession with vampires. It simply appeared, full-blown, in 1968, a year which seems to have molded my developing psyche with the speed and permanence of a lightning bolt glassifying sand. Shortly after my thrilling exposure to gorgeous David Peel’s fangs and sensuous tongue-bite, I discovered the daytime serial Dark Shadows, whose introduction of vampire Barnabas Collins made the show a sensational hit. For me, a daily dose of vampires was like a free supply of dope to an addict. I would never recover.
So I’ve been in the vampire game for a long, long time. I was something of a teenage social outcast, so I pursued my private passions with great energy. I launched into a self-directed study of all things vampiric. I found and read Montague Summers’ folklore compendium, The Vampire in Europe. I persuaded a dubious librarian to let me check Dracula out of the adult section. I read it in a single sitting, and still regard it as the greatest thriller ever written. I collected anthologies and pored through library references (anyone else old enough to recall The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature?). I learned a lot about traditional vampire folklore, “real vampire criminals,” vampire fiction (almost all of which I read, because back then, I could actually keep up with it) and vampire movies.
But I became a highly critical thinker on the topic. The more I learned about vampire folklore, the more I related it to other areas of study, such as urban legends, paranormal phenomena, social movements, and psychology. I found that I disagreed with a lot of the common clichés and pat summaries of “where vampire myths come from.” The more vampire fiction I read, the less I liked it. None of it went deep enough, in my opinion. None of it really got vampires right.
This fanatical quest has been going on full-blast and full-time for more than forty years now, so I pretty much qualify as a raving vampire curmudgeon at this point. I write vampire fiction to suit my own tastes, and I’ve sternly recused myself from discussing vampires in public because I will probably jump down someone’s throat within five minutes. But my company, By Light Unseen Media, publishes all types of vampire fiction by diverse authors because I appreciate that other readers have different tastes than mine.
The vampire trope is vast and complex and serves many purposes in our culture. The current wave of popular vampire mania is just the most recent in a series of them since the early 19th century. One of the earliest swelled in the 1820s after the publication of John Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” and its subsequent stage adaptations. The “vampire trap,” a trap door in the stage floor that enabled an actor to “vanish” was invented for these plays.
In the 1840s, the serialized “penny dreadful” Varney the Vampire was the Twilight of its day, mesmerizing audiences who inhaled its weekly installments for some two and half years. Think guilt-ridden, angsty vampires are new? Varney spends the book deploring his evil impulses and finally commits suicide by throwing himself into an erupting volcano. (Sunlight didn’t harm vampires in folklore or fiction until F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent film Nosferatu invented the idea. Varney didn’t have a lot of options, because no matter what killed him, moonlight brought him back.)
Vampires faded in popularity during the later 19th century. Dracula was published in 1897 to mixed reviews and poor sales. It was the stage production in the 1920s that launched a new wave of vampire enthusiasm. Think sexy vampires are new? Dracula, the stage play, left women swooning in the aisles and made Bela Lugosi a matinee idol. The show’s revival in the 1970s did the same for Frank Langella.
Classic horror films of the 1930s kept vampire fandom alive until they ran out of steam and dribbled away into parody and comic relief. The 1950s, like the late 19th century, was an era in which science, industry, rationalism and religious conservatism colored popular trends. But vampire mania was reborn in 1958 with the Hammer Films Dracula series and then, in 1966, Dark Shadows. Barnabas Collins was never intended to be a romantic hero. He was originally written as a stone-evil villain and slated to be staked at the end of actor Jonathan Frid’s standard 12-week contract. But millions of fans were ready for a romantic vampire. The fans, not the show’s producers, made Barnabas Collins the sexiest man undead.
Vampires faded from fashion again during the 1970s, until Anne Rice presented us with vampires who were both evil and sympathetic, and made us identify with them by writing in the first person point of view. The Anne Rice flavored wave was subsequently marked by lots of vampire fiction with first person narrative and sociopathic antiheroes. By the 90s, readers had tired of Anne Rice and vampires in general, and during this slow spell we started to see more “good guy vampires” who avoided preying on humans and interacted with society.
Then we got past the millennium, when paranormal romance and YA really started to take off. Since then, the sky has been the limit.
It always amazes and discourages me that so few people seem to realize how varied and old the vampire genre and all its tropes are. I often see new writers boast about how different or unique their take on vampires is, just because their version isn’t a love-struck teenager or a caped man with a pompadour and Hungarian accent. In every case, without fail, the supposedly “new and different” idea has been done many times before. The “angsty teen vampires” that everyone either loves or hates right now aren’t some tired old cliché; they’re the newest trend in vampire fiction. They will, inevitably, be supplanted by some other angle.
Of all cultural archetypes, vampires are the most personal. They evoke deep responses from almost everyone. No other trope is so adaptable, so varied, and so complex. I expect that in another year or so, we’ll see a “dry spell” in which vampires fade from popularity and something else–witches and wizards, I’d guess, something akin to Harry Potter–will enjoy the ascendency for a while. But the vampire will be back in force before long. Historically, these “dry spells” have seen the publication of the most original and creative takes on the theme, like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in the 50s or Suzy McKee Charnas’ character Weyland in the 70s. I’m eager to see what unexpected twist on the vampire tale might lie ahead.
Inanna Arthen (http://inannaarthen.com) is the author of Mortal Touch and The Longer the Fall, first and second in The Vampires of New England Series. Book 3, All the Shadows of the Rainbow, is scheduled for release in 2012. Inanna owns and operates By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), a small press dedicated to fiction and non-fiction on the theme of vampires. Both those books and other can be purchased through those links.
Now for the Worldwide Contest: Inanna will be giving away signed paperback editions of both books, Mortal Touch and The Longer the Fall, to one lucky commenter. To enter this contest, say “I need the Vampires in New England series” and provide your email address. Good luck. Contest is void where prohibited by law. The contest ends on October 31st at noon Eastern time.