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Corruption, Seduction and Informed Consent

10 December 2008 1,380 Views 3 Comments author: Tracy McCusker

The 21st century vampire: angst or indigestion?

If you have been paying attention to the legion of video, blog, and professional reviews, or perhaps count yourself as a fan of Stephanie Meyer’s series (or, given the media saturation, merely have eyes & ears) you have no doubt witnessed the frenzy surrounding the Twilight release 1. While I am usually pleased to see vampire literature take its place in the public consciousness—often despite my own mixed feelings towards the quality of the material (see: Forever Knight, the Blade trilogy, Blood Ties)—Twilight, like CBS’s one season wonder CSI: Vampire 2, leaves me with nothing to hang my hat on. Aside from the amusement that one can derive from well-founded gripes about its borrowed looks, poncy hair, derivative plotline, anti-feminism, and its arguably latent pedophilic message, Twilight itself as vampire literature fails to deliver anything but a soft-pedaled misstep in the evolution of vampire literature over the past two centuries.

Vampires existed in the East and West as primal legends before they migrated into the Western literary consciousness in the 18th century. The history of vampirism is as diverse as the countries which number the legends. Laurence A. Rickels finds that within the body of vampire legend, there are four main histories for vampires: political, racial, or other groups of people already skirting by on the margins of society; alcoholics, who imbibed in life and who drank again in death; suicides whom were disqualified from burial in hallowed ground ; and the improperly mourned—individuals who could not receive last rites, mass-deaths resultant from natural disaster or slaughters that could not be properly buried, apostates, heathens, and bachelors.

“The vampire was [a] special someone who was not mourned properly. In many countries the view was popular that anyone who died alone, because there was no one around to care for him in his fatal illness, was bonded to his own return. The Gypsies also reckoned that a person whose solo dying went without seeing was bound to be back. That is why bachelors were so feared when they died. With vampirism, it’s mourning that’s at stake.” Rickels 1999, 3-4.3

This social-psychological history of the vampire fails to account for the tangled nature of vampirism; like Gawain’s endless five-sided knot, the vampire is bound together with witchcraft, sorcery 4, apostasy, and Christian religious rites. The mass hysteria that surrounded vampires in 18th century France were due to in part the percolation of reports of vampirism from Eastern Europe covered in major newspapers, sensational cases that captured the public imagination (including late-breaking revelations about the details concerning Countess Bathory’s 17th century exploits), and the unprecedented evacuation of corpses from the graveyards in Paris. Started in 1786 as a response to public outcry against the spread of disease, the Catacombs were created as a repository for the bones of the unearthed bodies. The processions of priests singing burial hymns alongside the black-veiled carts of bones for the two years of state-sanctioned grave-digging no doubt made an impression on the citizens of Paris—news of which reached across the channel. The Catacombs remained as a place of enduring interest, accruing visits from Napoleon III and his son in the later half of the 19th century. Yet it wasn’t these grim religious processions that created the impact; systemic unearthing of human remains from coffins uncovered deep gouges in the wood, as those who were dead enough by 18th century medical standards tried in vain to claw their way out of their graves. 5. Yet to single out one cause for the rise of vampire literature in the 18th century, and not speak of others is highly problematic. Just as the image of a single threat can capture the imagination of the time; so was the vampire was face of terror that galvanized the public’s attention in the emerging industrial colonial superpowers.

Pre-Raphelite painter Philip Burne-Jones's "Vampire" (1897).

It may seem strange at first that it was in English literature in the 19th century that the vampire was transformed from the damned soul of the suicide haunting the local crossroads, or the local Hungarian noble with fetish bathing habits, to an international superstar. In the 18th century, the vampire was mostly a figure on the literal fringe of society; most weary travelers encountered vampires in Greece, Hungary, or Styria. Yet in the 19th century, the vampire through the work of Byron, Polidori, and Stoker, became less a marginalized figure nibbling away at the edges of society on the edge of the civilized world 6; he established a presence in London first as the Byronic caricature of Lord Ruthven, and later managed the feat of moving his earth into the heart of London in Stoker’s Dracula through Jonathan Harker’s diligent real-estate service. Just as the vampire found itself relocated from the marginal edges of empire to the heart of urban industrial, Stoker set in motion the Gothic tradition of locating vampires in Transylvania (in earlier drafts of his novel, Stoker had used Le Fanu’s setting of Styria), which was known in Britain as the “vexed ‘Eastern Question’” whose “endemic cultural upheaval and its fostering of a dizzying succession of empires”7. As a seat of unrest and with a position along the “frontier” of Eastern European civilization, Transylvania was a prime locale for focusing Britain’s geopolitical fears, itself a tiny seat of a dizzying empire—the 19th century equivalent of a very familiar American fascination with Iraq.

While the subtext of the vampire tale has its roots in the anxieties of Britain’s high-octane colonialism, it is in the text of the vampire tale that we find the beating heart of vampirism: corruption and seduction. At the heart of every 19th century vampire tale beats a corruption (if the character is male) or a seduction (in addition to the corruption if the character is female). In Stoker’s Dracula, female sexuality is muted—Lucy isn’t an overtly sexual creature; her demise comes about because of her “sleepwalking” to the place where Dracula rests. Yet the anxiety surrounding female sexuality is palpable; the most outrageous, blood-thirsty threats in the novel are the brides of Dracula, whose main threat to Jonathan Harker is a sexual one, rendered in fairly straight-forward prose:

I was afraid to raise my eyelids, but looked out and saw perfectly under the lashes. The fair girl went on her knees, and bent over me, fairly gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal, till I could see in the moonlight the moisture shining on the scarlet lips and on the red tongue as it lapped the white sharp teeth. Lower and lower went her head as the lips went below the range of my mouth and chin and seemed about to fasten on my throat. Then she paused, and I could hear the churning sound of her tongue as it licked her teeth and lips, and could feel the hot breath on my neck. Then the skin of my throat began to tingle as one’s flesh does when the hand that is to tickle it approaches nearer–nearer. I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited–waited with beating heart. 8

Jonathan’s seduction—the only male in Dracula to encounter the threat of seduction—arguably does not break the binary of vampire corruption for men / seduction for women. Stoker’s usage of feminine details, the emphasis on Jonathan’s “lashes” and “languorous ecstasy” in addition to his completely inert role in the scene (he lays on his back as he waits for the three “young women” to ravish him), casts Jonathan in the passive role that in the 19th century would have been coded feminine. When Dracula defends Jonathan against the Brides advances, he claims Jonathan’s body as his own—“Back, I tell you all! This man belongs to me!” (43). The ownership that Dracula exerts over Jonathan’s person has precedent in the femininization of colonized people in Imperial rhetoric; colonized people are weak (“feminine”) and cry out for colonization because of this inherent weakness and desire to be dominated by a stronger (masculine) influence. (Does Imperial rhetoric sound like a narrative of fetishist domination?) Dismissing the rhetoric as cartoonishly sexist, however, would be a massive disservice to the power that this dialog had in the rhetoric of colonial literature and peoples 9 and what power were invested in these tropes of seduction. This seduction of the flesh— if the character is female, or cast into the feminine role by simply being a victim of a vampire—paves the way for the corruption of the soul. When Dracula offers up his own blood, instead of being saved, the victim is damned as undead. This type of non-death mimics the Christian trope of the souls rising from the dead on Judgment Day; however, instead of rising from the dead on the promised day to be received into Heaven 10, Dracula and his newly minted vampires rise from the dead to leech convert after convert by rituals of taking the body and blood of the vampire into an endless cycle of feeding and (in)human desire.

The corruption / seduction dichotomy in the classic vampire stories of the 19th century thus present us with a spate of narrators who are the unwilling victims of vampirization. They speak from a place of victimization in prototypic trauma narratives that use the journal format and the historiographical recreations of “factual” events in order to reconstruct alternative histories. In Dracula, several viewpoints are provided through typewritten diaries and phonographic records. This journal format of Dracula provides a sheen of “truthfulness” over the narration, since the journal entries appear at first to be an unconstructed recollection of Jonathan Harker’s experiences in Transylvania. Unlike Dracula, Le Fanu’s Carmilla narrative presents itself as a journal-like “case” from Dr. Hesselius’ “collected papers” (72). Both of these stories use journal-like elements to create a more personal atmosphere where the reader is encouraged to identify with the speaker—and a readerly tendency exists to not prosecute journal entries with the same alacrity as traditional narratives. While the victim would seem to offer the most reliable narration that he or she has the capacity to tell, the act of victimization (real or imagined) creates an inherently unreliable narrator; he or she only has their feelings of powerlessness and helplessness through which to view their narrative. The entire narrative twists around the paranoia that the traumatic act engenders. Like Freud’s melancholic individual in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), the incoherence of the trauma and the inadequacy of grieving create a psychological loop, in which the individual relives the trauma in new guises, until the event consumes one wholly, or it is transformed into a source of new strength.

In Stoker’s Dracula, whose victims are overwhelmingly female or feminized males, this source of new strength is not—and cannot be—personal strength. Rather, the new strength of the victim is embodied in the formation of Van Helsing’s techno-brotherhood: a group of individuals (specifically men helped along by Mina Harker in a secretarial role), who operate outside of a nation’s sovereign law using modern technology to combat an evil that the state itself cannot fight—the metaphor of the body politic, disease, and the techno-brotherhood as a sort of anti-body works quite well. Van Helsing’s techno-brotherhood acts independently of nation in its defense, covering up the unnatural death of Lucy and the death of Mrs. Westenra through the production of fake inquest papers—requiring a technical knowledge of bureaucracy and medical procedure, as well as the skill to forge documents. The techno-brotherhood’s source of power then is half vampire-fighting lore, half-bureaucracy-fighting procedure, the efficacy of the group assured only as far as it can remain secret, invisible, undetected. While Stoker’s Dracula only implies the threat, like an anti-body in a body whose immune system has the potential to mis-fire, the bureaucracy-thwarting methods that the Brotherhood pioneers pose a threat to sovereignty of the nation after its limited purpose of destroying Dracula has passed. Once the apparatus of the vampire hunters has been constructed, what will safely dismantle the fighting force?

It is in the 20th century’s most fully realized bridge between the old and the new, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), that the question of the techno-brotherhood’s potential threat is most keenly posted. The opening of the film, with the Turkish Crescent falling across the map of Eastern Europe like a shadow – and our Dracul still the hopeful Vlad the Impaler, fighting back the expansionary Turk for the glory and grace of Christian civilization himself falls from the role of Defender of Civilization to Damned Undead through the strictures of the Church bureaucracy failing to grant his beloved—a suicide—burial in hallowed ground. The parallel between Dracula, fallen defender of the faith, and Van Helsing’s techno-brotherhood is treated as potentially problematic, given the willingness of Van Helsing to take up the role of vampire slaying and pursue it without regard for law or custom. That the group self-dismantles—diffuses in most part into the ‘safe’ channels of love, marriage, and reintegration into British society—puts the question to rest, for a time.

Herzog's Nosferatu does beg the question, can evil actually be that angsty?

As a bridge between 19th and 20th century vampire literature, I find it quite exceptional that only Coppola’s Dracula manages to produce this type of parallelism between vampiric threat and failed defender threat of the techno-brotherhood. The majority of Dracula adaptations, remakes and sequels focus on the seduction / corruption of female sexuality, and thus posit the the inherent goodness of the techno-brotherhood. Ignoring for a moment the bifurcation of vampire lit with the seeping into the narrative, for the first time in history, the sympathetic perspective of the vampire—for the most part, 20th and 21st century vampire literature takes the techno-brotherhood as given. The inclusion of the techno-brotherhood in the first half of the 20th century was a spottier proposition than it became in the second half; yet even though much of the early 20th century film lacked techno-gadget porn, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) still show nascent signs of the techno-brotherhood, even though mob-mentality and nihilism render them mostly ineffectual. Reveling in their prowess, film and television hunters in the latter half of the 20th century created virtual paeans to the individual-technocrat-operating-outside-of-society with the increasingly long shots of preparation, loving camera takes on the spit-polished chrome arsenal of the hunter, and emphasis on the research of arcane facts, names, dates, faces, places of the How-Tos of Vampire Hunting.

The hunters themselves are given a place beyond reproach. They are held up as masters of their trade by being either undeniable badasses, like James Woods’ Jack Crow in John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), undeniable half-vampire badasses, like Wesley Snipes’ Blade (1998, 2002, 2004), full vampire badasses scourging the menace of the other Other in Underworld (2003, 2006), badasses-in-training like Christina Cox’s Vicki Nelson in Blood Ties (2006), the on-the-road badasses like the Winchester brothers in Supernatural (2005-present), or Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). While vampire films had asked us in the past to behold the seduction of an opera-caped Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931), or split our allegiance between a svelte Christopher Lee and an intense Peter Cushing in The Horror of Dracula (1958),

Badass Exhibit "A"

Badass Exhibit A

the modern vampire flick asks us to embrace the military virtues of “group morale and gadget love” whole-heartedly 11. The blood-hunting of the vampire seems quaint—antiquated—against the seduction of the prestige and control of the technocrat hunter.

The question of the techno-brotherhood posing a problem to the host societies is very rarely treated because the nature of the vampiric threat in the 21st century is one of unfettered replication. Unlike the relatively scarce vampires in Stoker’s Dracula, the threat of the vampire in the 20th century has quietly grown from the danger of transfer and singular replication of evil in Herzog’s Nosferatu, to the orgy of circulation and contagion that rivals zombie flicks in the spectacle of the Reaper hordes in Blade II and the veritable banality of week-nightly vampire risings in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While Rickels claims of the singularity of the vampire threat lends itself to film and not to television, his view of the vampire is inherently limited by a twentieth-century view of the vampire film as being about the vampire. The threat of vampiric expansion in late 20th century / early 21st century films, like the circulation of blood or money, repeats like Freud’s uncanny double on steroids. No longer does the vampire stalk and seduce a single Mina or Lucy; s/he in true post-global fashion threatens to expand year after year to survive, and at a certain tipping point, burn like wildfire through hosting populations that can no longer self-regulate this expansion. The threat of the vampire through this lens lies not so much in the corruption of flesh, as it does in the corruption of the mechanisms of growth, expansion, progress—in a word, capitalism. 12

Within this confluence of vampirism and expansionary growth, the adulation for the techno-brotherhood from vampire literature is all bur inevitable. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) in recent memory lacked the techno-brotherhood—or cared nothing for it—as it explored the sexual dynamics between individuals in the metaphor for vampirism as AIDS. Paradoxically The Hunger treats vampirism as an avatar for an auto-immune disorder passed between a binary pair of lovers at any given time, but treats vampiric

If you're going to make a vampire flick -- and chances are pretty good, if you're reading this article, that you're going to -- Rule 1 of Vampire Club: Do Not Waste David Bowie.

As much as we all want to waste David Bowie's talent in vampire film, the results are often disheartening when realized on-screen.

reproduction through the lens of seduction Susan Sarandon’s Sarah Roberts by Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam as a singular event. The stable of not-alive, but not-dead dessicated lovers in Miriam’s harem emphasize the vampiric threat as, not as pandemic, but as a consequence to risky (and deviant) sexual experience of individuals. The lack of the techno-brotherhood thus plays into the message of individual sexual responsibility of The Hunger. Susan Sarandon reclining on a beach-front hotel vista at the end of the of film perfectly encapsulate the film’s interest in viewing vampires as asymptomatic disease carriers, risky not to society as a whole, but only those foolish enough in this modern day and age to fall under the thrall of the superstar vampire’s (and by extension our own) sexual hunger.

This meteoric rise of the vampire into the realm of superstar and the increasing awareness of the female perspective at the end of the 20th century–and by extension, female sexuality—add a new twist to the corruption / seduction model of vampirism: the idea of choice. In Stoker’s Dracula, there was no room for informed consent. Lucy sleepwalked into Dracula’s arms; Dracula invaded Mina’s room as mist and penetrated her, a good chaste British subject, unwilling. While vampire cinema has been content to revel in the orgy of hunting—and my familiarity with modern vampire lit, mostly relegated to genre offerings like Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, being slim—it has been mostly in the realm of vampire television that the strides in exploring female sexuality have unfolded. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blood Ties, and the precursor to both shows Forever Knight, the idea of informed consent plays out between the object of sexual desire and vampire—which more often than not, is a hunter / vampire binary pair. In Forever Knight, we are treated to the scenes of vampirization of Janette and Nicholas; Janette, a prostitute, is offered by the vampire La Croix the ability to revenge herself upon her tormentors by—not an offer to wreck bodily vengeance upon them 13 living her life “well” to spite her enemies. When the individuals are “brought across” into vampirism, they for a second experience a near-death experience, wherein they are offered a choice to die as a mortal, or to live as a vampire. While Janette dismisses the idea as “not a choice,” Nicholas’ struggle with his vampirism leads him to pursue a similar near-death experience in order to come to this point of choice again.

In seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy endures three vampiric bites: one of corruption (the Master, who needs a Slayer’s blood to rise), one of seduction (Dracula mesmerizes the Slayer in order to taste her), and one of informed consent between herself and her vampire lover Angel. This moment of sexual intimacy comes on the heels of Angel’s corruption after achieving a moment of pure happiness with Buffy, and falling into depravity. While the old models of corruption and seduction are present in Buffy, the reversal of the corruption trope in Angel’s fall and the informed consent between Buffy and Angel for the vampiric bite that restores Angel to health complicate the easy idea of the vampire bite being an automatically dangerous, loathsome thing. Whereas Stoker’s Dracula condemns Jonathan Harker’s desire that the Bride would “kiss me with those red lips” as an inherently dangerous seduction, the paradigm is completely shifted to one of Buffy consenting to the vampiric bite out of necessity and desire to save Angel’s (un)life. While the stakes are perhaps not as high as Buffy’s, Vicki Nelson’s consent to the vampiric bite in Blood Ties again follows on the heels of the need for the vampire Henry Fitzroy to be saved from his hunger. As in Buffy, Henry’s bite is not fatal; Vicki’s consent is not treated as a carte-blanche for vampiric rape. Within the domain of the female perspective, it is usually the female hunters that are portrayed as capable of the choice—even if that choice is for the vampire’s bite. Although we are told that Henry in Blood Ties only feeds on the willing; these willing “civilians” are rarely, if never, given screen time. The choices we are meant to care about as an audience—the choice which we are told that is the most dangerous, the most titillating—is the choice of the hunter to give in to the bite which she attempts to eradicate. The implication of the statement is that as unaffiliated civilians caught between the warring powers of vampires and techno-brotherhoods, we are merely choosing to take one side or another. This postmodern relativism is not sustained in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where with few exceptions vampires are Evil Evil Evil and the hunters are the Good and the Beautiful. However, Blood Ties imagines this kind of relativism in the baroque, single-lord of a single-land vampire model. Those bitten are merely those smitten; the threat of vampiric spread in Blood Ties is little to none.

If this survey raises any particular questions, I hope they are: if this is where 19th and 20th century vampire literature have been, what’s left for a 21st century vampire to do? As zombie literature and contagion have arguably assumed the mantle of popular horror fascination in the past twenty years, vampire literature critics sometimes fall prey to the postmodern angst that no individual worlds of imagination are left to create for vampires to inhabit. While I personally don’t subscribe to this point of view, I can’t help but feel this mantra rings true for a certain brand of uninspired American vampire fiction. Twilight and Moonlight are born out of the rehashing of old vampires themes, hybridizing the vampire narrative with doomed romance and police procedural that was done with more charm and more flair in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Forever Knight ten years ago, or Vampire Knight and Blood Ties within the past two years. By failing to address any new turns of vampire fiction they have, in essence, lost their power to enthrall anyone with a true taste for the depth and breadth of the genre.

Yet there still exists in the nexus of sexuality, the Other, and geopolitical ambiguities of the 21st century a fruitful array of material to explore. With the advent of post-colonial lit and the fascination with the voice of the Other in the later half of the 20th century, the voice of the vampire has become one of increasing literary interest. In Forever Knight, Angel, and Buffy, we are treated to vampires who no longer fit into the evil/good binary of 18th and 19th century literature; rather, they exist in some nebulous area between hero and villain, human and vampire. In Coppola’s Dracula, the figure of the vampire is ascribed to a person who breaks down racial barriers and belongs to many cultures at once, just as Dracula can easily move from his radically traditional Transylvanian culture with little effort into fashionable society of Victorian London with the donning of a fetching hat and sunglasses. Paradoxically, while popular media usually portray the figure of Dracula as a strong Eastern European male, Dracula is invariably played by a strong British / Italian / American actor. In Coppola’s Dracula, the fear of future American domination creates the enigmatic figure of Quincy Morris, who through his possible contact with Dracula outside the purview of the novel, the film, and the camera lens, is implied as another possible vampiric figure. In the 20th century, American geo-political and military domination as a super-power leads to interesting parallels between American dominance and vampirism. Within the original framework of the Eastern Other as the vampire, the vampire now seems weak in the face of American power. However as America takes on the role of vampire, colonizing other countries with clones of our corporate consumer culture, the America-as-vampire exerts an even stronger presence in the world than what one vampire could hope to wield. The greatest advent in 21st century vampire literature is the question that recurs in almost every vampire flick or television of the past ten years: in the grand scheme of things, isn’t the sexual / community threat posted by the vampire actually very small? In my opinion, this is the question that drives the very heart of 21st century vampire literature. And whose answer I cannot myself locate precisely within the nexus of the political and the personal threat of vampirism, whose trauma arises anew in each generation to feed and nurture the next crop of vampire literature.

Edited by Brian Jewell

  1. A quick survey of opinion at Playtime falls in disfavor against the series: see more from Brian Jewel, Matt Schneider, Alex M., Kiera Chapman
  2. Less appropriately in the thematic sense, but more correctly in the factual sense, titled Moonlight. I am waiting with baited breath for next season’s announcement of Law & Order: Vampire Crimes or Vampire Legal.
  3. Those familiar with Rickel’s penchant for bad puns can bet that last one was intended. I apologize now and in advance for any other puns that may be thusly inflicted.
  4. For reasons that won’t be covered in the limited space of this article, charges of witchcraft and sorcery are different in gender bias in the West, and as completely separate entities in the East. For more, see: the 18th century Soulstealing hysteria in China.
  5. A guidepost as to the state of medicine in the 17th century: circulation had been only recently re-discovered in Europe in 1628.
  6. Civilized world, as defined by Western Europe, was necessarily a Christian one. It was at the edges, where the Muslim Ottoman Empire came in contact with Eastern Europe that instability and fears of infiltration ruled the day.
  7. Stephen D. Arata, “The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization.” Dracula: A Norton Critical Edition. p.462-3.
  8. Stoker, Norton Critical Edition, 42-43. Fanfic writers, eat your hearts out.
  9. For more on feminization of colonized people in colonial literature, see: Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.
  10. Look out for the next installment: the Harrowing of Hell—Jesus as the prototypical Undead
  11. Rickels, 91.
  12. Editor’s Note: An interesting exception: in the British TV show Ultraviolet, the vampires form their own techno-brotherhood and plot to modernize their feeding by establishing human battery farms. IIRC they complain about humans ruining the environment and say we need to be kept in check.
  13. Though given Janette’s verve for feeding, we can imagine there was some of that, too.

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