Now that I’ve presumptuously declared the days of the terrifying vampire long gone, I
think it’s fair to ask, “Okay, smart guy. What are good vampire stories?” I’m glad you asked. A classic, truly scary vampire story must contain more than the threat of danger. It has to contain an invasion of the unknown. The vampire is something that the protagonists simply can’t get their minds around, because to do so promises madness. True, at some point the main characters have to accept what it is they’re up against, and I’d argue that this is the author’s (or director’s) greatest challenge: how to make mortal men and women willing to believe that the dead are hunting the living.
With that said, let’s talk vampires. I present to you a narrow, obviously subjective, and poorly researched history of the evolution of the vampire from chilling demon to dull sex symbol. This history may be wildly inaccurate, but I think it makes some valid points. It’s meant to be fun, so I hope I don’t offend anyone with differing opinions. Before we get stated, though, there is something I want to highlight. You’ll notice a Grand Canyon-sized omission in my list: Bella Lugosi isn’t on it. The reason for this is entirely due to my personal biases growing up. My first memories of Dracula on film were of Christopher Lee. When my parents introduced me to Bella Lugosi, the position was already being filled in my mind. I wanted nothing to do with Mr. Lugosi, because I was a Christopher Lee fan. The only time I would watch the original Dracula was when he was facing Abbot and Costello. So you can understand that, as unfair as it may be, I don’t place his iconic image on my list.
In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula. If you’ve never read it, then I suggest you addresses this oversight immediately. It is creepy, and there are some truly nightmarish scenes within. Dracula’s mysterious arrival in England is terrifying. The story is not without flaws, but nowhere within the novel will you find anything sensual about the living dead. Stoker’s Dracula isn’t looking for love. He’s evil. He’s after Lucy and Mina because he’s a monster.
In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Christopher Lee became Dracula. He might not have really resembled Stoker’s monster, but he was magnificent. There was no questioning his malevolence. He wasn’t looking for a date. Some of the imagery from these movies has scarred me for life (I remember one scene of a blood sacrifice to resurrect Dracula (Dracula: Prince of Darkness, 1966), and another where the vampire is impaled on a cross). Now, yes, I admit that while doing rudimentary research I found a 1972 film titled Count Dracula’s Great Love. But I challenge anyone to tell me they remembered this. The image of Dracula is of the most nightmarish of villains.
The late 1960s and the 1970s produced some truly enduring and and creepy vampires. In
1966, Dark Shadows hit the airwaves. Two interesting things about this: first, the original show was not supposed to be about the supernatural. But somehow, within a few months, Barnabas Collins entered the story. The other point, to my astonishment while growing up, was that Dark Shadows was a soap opera. Now, I’ll be honest. I watched reruns of this show in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To me, a soap opera was boring adults doing stuff on General Hospital and preventing me from watching the Transformers and GI Joe after school. And another confession: I don’t remember much of the Dark Shadows storylines. I just remember the image of Barnabas Collins, and how he mysteriously appeared to his descendants after enslaving the drifter Willy.
Jump to 1975. Stephen King published ‘Salem’s Lot. My first introduction to this was
through the made-for-TV adaptation which, although clearly flawed, caused me a LOT of sleepless nights when I watched it as a kid in 1979. The image of those vampires floating outside of windows, desperately trying to get in, still gives me chills. When I finally read the book, I found King’s descriptions just as terrifying. His vampires were everything vampires should be…evil and remorseless. Although the book incarnation of Kurt Barlow is quite different from the TV Barlow, there’s nothing sensual about either.
Then things start to change. At first, it’s not bad change at all.
1976, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire. This book was breathtaking. Rice is such a powerful writer that she manages to create vampires that can be both empathized with and reviled at the same time. Louis is a tragic figure, and Lestat his murderous, black-hearted mentor/tormentor. I had no problems at all with this book.
1985, The Vampire Lestat is published, and Anne Rice does the impossible: she transforms the maniac Lestat into an equally tragic character as Louis was in Interview. Now, at this point I’m still a fan of the genre, and (although I don’t realize it at the time), it’s because of two reasons: 1) Anne Rice is an amazing writer, and 2) the bandwagon is only just being assembled.
1987: The Lost Boys. I loved this movie. Horror and comedy combined to create a fun, but still acceptable vampire tale. And although the movie centers on the young, good-looking vampires, the sexuality is stifled pretty fast. None of the vampires are looking for love. Not even the head of the family at the end of the movie. His desire for a bride had nothing to do with love, but more with a blind, brutal need for a mother-figure for his murderous offspring. He didn’t love his intended bride. He wasn’t looking for a soul mate. All the real vampires were out for blood and cruel sport, so the formula worked.
1988: The Queen of the Damned. (WARNING, minor spoiler ahead for those that haven’t read this book) This, in my opinion, is where vampires “jumped the shark.” This first half of this book is one of the creepiest, best vampire tales I’ve ever read. The second half is easily the worst. I’m not going to spoil it for you, in case you haven’t read the books. But I will say this for those of you who have: all I could see was a vampire Justice League of America, or maybe Avengers. Awful.
The 1990s were a battleground of sorts between the undead sexual revolutionaries and the vampires that were really scary. On the big screen, you had From Dusk Till Dawn and Blade, which at least kept vampires as the horrifying creatures they were intended to be. On the other hamd, the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula came out, which was anything but Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The movie had some intense parts, but Dracula is essentially evil because he lost the love of his life, and we see glimmers of “goodness” when he tries to tell Mina he didn’t want to turn her because of how terrible being a vampire was (but Mina’s in love, so she was fine with it).
There’s plenty more movies, but after Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the dull, Tom Cruise-infested adaption of Interview with the Vampire, I abandoned hope for the growing genre. Plus, in 1992 Rice came out with Tale of the Body Thief, the fourth installment in the Vampire Chronicles. When I finally mustered the strength to read it, I found it to be “okay.” The story was interesting, but I couldn’t build up any enthusiasm for Lestat anymore.
So in the 2000s and on, the vampire transforms almost completely into a sexual beast. Kate Beckinsdale donned skin-tight leather and became an all-out vampire superhero (Underworld, 2003). I lost any interest in that movie when she nearly drowned. Did anyone else have a problem with this? The werewolf dude performed CPR on her. She’s a VAMPIRE. She’s DEAD. She doesn’t BREATHE.
Instead of embodying the terrifying and the unknown, they became bad boys/girls. The struggle between light and darkness became the struggle between “forbidden love” and puritanical social mores. In other cases, perhaps it represented a commentary on the trials of puberty. Or else, the stories center on the quest for eternal love. As more and more heroes become undead (remember, these are animated dead bodies that feed on blood to survive), the vampires have become too familiar. Too boring.
In the end, the vampire has lost all mystery. The sexy vampire has become an object of desire, or a literary mechanism to manipulate the personal desires of the reader/viewer. In other words, the vampires are the protagonists. Once, they represented the forces that we as humans (readers/viewers) had to unite against to survive. And part of what made that so terrifying is that the vampire was so cloaked in darkness that we (and the literary heroes we followed) had no idea the extent of the threat. Once, when the vampire first appeared on the stage, the mind reflexively recoiled, desperately looking for rational explanations for the supernatural events that roiled around the protagonists. But deep inside, we knew that something sinister had infected the world, and that tension between what the mind wanted to believe, and what it secretly knew but couldn’t face, is where the terror and tension came from. But today, that terror isn’t there. Everybody is a vampire. They’re hot. They’re desirable. The fundamentals of the genre (if that’s what it is) have changed. And I’m not a fan.