Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

Bela_lugosi_dracula

Psychotic Vampires

Over the past several months, and unrelated to the current vampire craze, I have re-watched some of the classic vampire movies: Dracula, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Nosferatu (both Murnau and Herzog), and even Shadow of the Vampire—a movie about making vampire movies. Although the prototype of the vampire goes far back in civilization, in some form back to even the earliest of civilizations, the modern rendition rests mostly on the imagination of Bram Stoker. I’ve been re-reading Dracula to recapture a sense of why this particular telling of the tale has become iconic. One suggestion that comes as I’m reading is that it presses the religious taboos of its Victorian era sensibilities. Indeed, Stoker consciously wrote religiously provocative elements into his story. Of course, in movie form the story is altered to fit the needs of both time and scope.

A character that transforms in these various films is Renfield, the lunatic. In Stoker’s original Renfield is the foil for Dracula himself, his devotion interpreted as insanity by the science of the day. At one point Dr. Seward, Van Helsing’s protege and the man in charge of Renfield, notes with clarion penetration, “for a strong man with homicidal and religious mania at once might be dangerous. The combination is a dreadful one.” Renfield is, as a servant of Dracula, complicit in both homicide and religious mania. He uses Christianesque language when referring to his master. In describing his devotion, Seward notes, “He thinks of the loaves and fishes even when he believes he is in a Real Presence.” To a generation raised without Bible, this confession makes little sense.

I have contended throughout this blog that religion and horror are intimate familiars. To understand the appeal of the vampire, one must explore the religious context. Surely the simple neck-biting and blood-sucking without religious underpinnings would soon grow tedious. It is the sense of mystery—most fully realized in religious thought—that brings the vampire to life in the imagination of a generation lacking traditional religion. Not to mix metaphors too intimately, but there is a dose of Melville to be mixed in as well. Renfield is the epitome of madness, blindly following where he believes he is called. But the reader knows how sadly mistaken he is. So it is that I return to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and in so doing find a form of true religion.

Vampire Jesus

It was a dark and stormy night. Well, so far that could describe most any night in April or May of this year. Anyway, I had just read about vampire-bots for the first time. Robots, like all machines, require a power source. Those I’ve witnessed up close require rechargeable battery-packs that are surprisingly heavy. I’d read that some robots were being designed to consume their own energy sources—mechanical and chemical eating, if you will. One dreamer figured that blood could work as a source of energy. A robot could be designed to take energy from blood, and thus arises the concept of the vampire-bot. I don’t think such an insidious machine was ever really built, but it is theoretically possible. It is also a reflection of a biblical idea—the life is in the blood. Ancient people tended to associate life with breathing. With no CPR, an unbreathing body was a dead body. Blood obviously played into the picture too, but precisely how was uncertain. Clearly a person or an animal couldn’t live without it. To say nothing of robots.

One of those dark and stormy nights I watched The Shadow of the Vampire. Surprisingly for a monster movie, Shadow had been nominated for two academy awards. Not really your standard horror flick, it is a movie about making a movie—specifically Murnau’s Nosferatu, the classic, silent vampire movie that really initiated the genre. The actor cast as Count Orlock, however, is really a vampire. The premise might sound chintzy, but the acting is very good with Willem Dafoe making a believable Max Schreck (vampirized). Stylistic rather than gory, the story plays out to the fore-ordained conclusion and the vampire disappears in the cold light of dawn.

When I was an impressionable child I was told what is likely an apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci. The story goes that the man who posed for Jesus in the Last Supper was also the model for Judas, after living a life of dissolution. Willem Dafoe, of course, famously played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. From Jesus to vampire. Both characters are bound by the element of blood. Christianity still celebrates the shedding of divine blood symbolically while the vampire takes blood (also symbolically). Although the vampire cannot endure the sight of the cross, the same man effectively played both sides of the mythic line, almost as if the apocryphal story came true. There are implications to consider here, and not all of them insinuate Hollywood. On these dark and stormy nights, we have something to ponder.