“You’d better not sparkle in my vampire club.”
– Voltaire, Vampire Club, Twilight Version
Okay, seriously, you guys. What’s with all these ridiculous vampires? I thought when “Twilight” was over, that would be it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good vampire story. To me, though, a good vampire story has a vampire in it that’s, you know, scary. I find myself wondering how vampires went from folkloric demon to sparkly Prom King, and I think I found a pattern.
Imagine an evolutionary chart. At the start, there’s a terrifying undead bloodsucker who can claw its way out of a grave and kill everyone you care about. A little further along, there’s a creature like Max Schreck’s depiction of Count Orlok in “Nosferatu.” Still weird and creepy, but humanoid. Next on the chart would be the modern depiction of (post-Bram Stoker) Dracula; cool and classy, but with an edge of danger and power. Also, he doesn’t really look like a monster; just an intimidating older man. Then, you’ve got the Anne Rice vampires, who are more human than monster. They do horrifying things, but they’re aware of it and some of them feel guilty about it. They’re young. They lead lavish, sexy lifestyles, and are known more for their glamour than they are for their bloodsucking. The next big vampires to come along are essentially goth high schoolers from all those 1990s teen vampire movies. And then, Edward.
So, over the years, vampires have gone from ancient to youthful, scary to sexy, and amoral to angsty. Why?
To a degree, it’s about marketing. Today’s audiences aren’t really shocked by anything anymore. We’re jaded and detached, so the story of a horrible monster that’s killing everyone isn’t going to sell. What sells, sadly, is sex appeal and flashiness.
This is perhaps the most evident when comparing various depictions of Dracula. Bram Stoker wrote about a creepy old man. Bela Lugosi acted as an unnerving but stylish charmer. Contemporary pop culture portrays Dracula as either young and sexy* or a parody of previous depictions (thus implying those depictions are now culturally irrelevant). Is it any wonder that vampires are expected to be pretty now?
But what about their personality? Vampires are monsters. They don’t need to have inner turmoil and all that. Things changed when vampires became the good guys. Every story needs a relatable protagonist with fears and insecurities, or at least a mission beyond “subsist upon the blood of the living.” In the old vampire stories, the protagonists were the humans. The humans were the underdogs, as they were no match for a vampire’s speed, strength, and hypnotic powers. More importantly, the humans were, well, us. They didn’t need to be humanized with stories of angst and lost love and all that. So why shift to making stories where the vampire is the hero?
The answer may lie in why we think vampires are so cool. Vampires have supernatural powers and are dangerous because those powers are used to hunt humans. There are good-natured creatures of legend that are harmless to humans.
Faeries and angels have cool powers too, but those stories aren’t as compelling because they’re just not badass. Vampires are badass. Ironically, it’s that badassery that made us tame them to suit our stories. We love vampires so much that we want to be like them, and so now we make movies and write stories where vampires have become like us.
So, now we’ve got ourselves a story about a relatable, human vampire. That still doesn’t explain why our modern vampires seemingly spend all day at the gym and all night writing bad poetry. Why are there no nerdy vampires? Where are the socially awkward, not-traditionally-attractive, giggle-at-bad-jokes kind of vampires? My guess is that vampires still need to exert some kind of power over us. Just as ancient demons were intimidating because they were so much stronger, the modern vampire in high school is intimidating because s/he is so much cooler. A vampire has to be aloof, because they need to be out of reach. That’s what makes them cool. We’re attracted to vampires because of curiosity, and so even modern vampires need to maintain an air of mystery. They can’t be unpolished. Ever.
But look at how they’ve maintained that over their evolution. Vampires have always had more power than humans, but the form of that power has changed based on what society values. In ancient times, it was physical strength and prowess in combat. The Victorian vampires displayed power through their wealth and style.** Today’s vampires are powerful in a casual social sense, or in other words, they’re popular.
So, does this mean we are doomed to forever suck the life out of our favourite legends? Can vampires ever go back to being scary? I say, yes, but it’s going to take some creativity. For one thing, I’d like to see the humans as the protagonists again. You can’t be afraid of something with which you identify, so we need to stop writing the vampire as the proxy for ourselves or for our dream date. Vampires should be the enemy, or at least a symptom of a greater problem.*** Secondly, we need to give vampires an appeal beyond a great body or a lot of money. That’s not really the core of why we like them. We like vampires because they have cool powers, they’re masters of style, and they’re dangerous.
With today’s CGI techniques, there’s no reason to not have a completely awesome vampire battle scene. We shouldn’t be casting Johnny Depp as a vampire, either. We should be casting people like Ray Park or Jackie Chan or, you know, people who can actually do cool things with their bodies. Maybe Johnny Depp can fight the vampires. That’d be awesome.
The important thing is that we realize what made the vampire legends so cool in the first place. Once we get a handle on that, we can stop bankrupting an awesome tradition. “Twilight” might have been a financial success, but it’s time to shift away from all that. If you’ll excuse the pun, there’s far too much at stake.
*Like in “Dracula 2000”
**Hence, classy Dracula.
***As is generally the tradition in monster movies.