Please note: this post is the second entry in a series on horror and why we love it. To read the first entry on ghosts, please click here.
I love vampire stories, but I do not, in general, find them frightening. I’m not sure why, exactly, as they would seem to pose a much more immediate and certainly physical threat than ghosts (which, you’ll recall, I tend to find terrifying). Historically, the image of the vampire has been a consistently violent and dangerous one. Oh, well.
Like ghosts, there is some form of vampire lore found in most known cultures, though the names vary greatly. Called strigoi in Romania and vrykolakas* in Greece, these undead blood-drinkers lurk in the shadows and the darkest nights seeking fresh nubile victims to slake their never-ending thirst. Or something like that. For centuries, vampires lived almost exclusively in folk tales as the result of an evil person’s death, or a witch’s curse, or a demon/ghost possessed corpse. Also the concept exists across time and cultural lines, the specifics of what makes a vampire vary based on the culture’s understanding (or lack thereof) of death. The Eastern European concept of the vampire spread across Western Europe in the early 18th century, leading to widespread fear and superstition. Bodies were burned, corpses were staked, people were accused of being blood-drinkers…the whole shebang.
The first major shift toward a modern concept of the vampire began in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori and solidified in 1897 with the publication of Bram Stoker’s now famous Dracula. Stoker named his titular character after the Wallachian ruler, Vlad III (known posthumously as Vlad the Impaler), thus creating a connection between the two that has become a legend unto itself.
*this word originally meant “werewolf” and also has ties to witch lore. Kind of a catch-all bogeyman term.
Why They Inspire Fear and Fascination
The quick, easy answer is “death.” Humanity has always been both afraid of and fascinated by death. But whereas ghosts can provide hope for a life after this one and provide a means for working through our issues with the past (and MAN did Victorians have issues with the past), vampires offer something else entirely. Sticking to the more modern concept of vampires for the time being (as to do otherwise would be to tackle far too vast a topic for this little post), from Bram Stoker and Anne Rice to Dracula 2000 and Twilight, the vampire is all about desire.
Often an unsatisfiable lust for blood is accompanied by an intense loneliness, a desire for vengeance, or some form of taboo or otherwise forbidden love. For those of us still healthily afraid of the dark, their dwelling places inspire unease. They are, quite literally, the things that go bump in the night. But I would argue that vampires have enjoyed such a strong hold on modern audiences not because of the fear they inspire, but because of our fascination with what they offer. Because of the taboo forbidden-ness of them. Because of the blood and desire and hypnotic power they bring with them that stands in direct opposition of our safe, structured, diurnal realities.
A Few Fine Examples
Disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive or even representative, but rather contains some of my favorite entries in the genre. Nothing more.
Dracula by Bram Stoker – This one’s a no-brainer. It’s a classic, the original, and really quite eye-opening to the importance of reading/writing shorthand.
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Incredibly well-grounded in history and folklore, this tale whisks you off around the world in search of answers to a very frightening question: do vampires really exist? It’s great fun and scary to boot!
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – I hardly know where to start with this one. It’s incredibly subtle and well-crafted. Even my brothers who aren’t big fiction readers raved about it when I loaned it to them and still talk about it years later. It’s smart and it sticks with you for a while. Read it. Think on it. No regrets.
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – You’re surprised? Please. It’s Stephen King. And really quite good.
The Hunger by Whitley Strieber – this novel should be required reading for vampire fans and details some of the less-considered difficulties of being a modern vamp.
Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, and L.J. Smith are all big names in this genre, but I haven’t read enough of them to (or in some cases have read enough not to) recommend them. But they’re there, if you want them!
Let the Right One In – Be sure to see the original, not the remake. While the remake is not bad as far as remakes go, the original is something truly special that you don’t want to miss out on, whether you’re a vampire fan or not. This is a movie for people who like good movies.
Dracula Untold – I went to the last showing on opening night in my town, and am so glad I did. While the writer in me has just a coooooouple questions about the logic of a few character decisions, overall I thought the film was great. Luke Evans does a truly fine job as Vlad and draws the viewer back to an understanding of Vlad as the man behind the legend. Much of the film is surprisingly historically accurate (as these things go), and the subtle ties to Bram Stoker’s work made my nerd heart really happy. Go see it!
Daybreakers – I love this movie. That’s all. The story has a surprising amount of heart, is a solid thriller, and contains far better acting than one might expect. I bet you’d like it.
30 Days of Night – This one is more true horror than the others on my list. It’s dark, violent, and stylized with animalistic rather than charming vamps. The graphic novel upon which it is based is pretty freaking freaky, too.
Only Lovers Left Alive – although very different from all the other films on this list, Only Lovers Left Alive deserves a spot mainly because it does something the others don’t: it tells a love story. An old love story. A love story older than history and longer, too. Tilda Swinton is mesmerizing as always, and Tom Hiddleston brings a kind of poetic and classical depth to his brooding and disheveled character. This is a film that requires a great deal from its viewers, but is ultimately rewarding. I’m not sure I really understood the film while I was watching it, but after a few days’ chewing it all fell beautifully into place in my mind. Not for everyone, I’d say, but very well done.
See also, Daywatch/Nightwatch, John Carpenter’s Vampires, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Blade, Dracula 2000 (because of reasons), and Cronos.
I know this list is far from complete, so what are your favorite vampire flicks and why? Tell us in the comment below!
**This post was originally published on October 13, 2014**