Past and recent vampires as symbols of changing sexual mores

Over the centuries, the vampire has undergone radical changes. From the Count in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel to the alcoholic New Yorker Sam in the 1997 film Habit, the figure of the vampire has evolved with society.

The girl went on her knees, bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive... I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips in the super-sensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes and waited- waited with beating heart.

---Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula, page 52

The personalities of vampires in recent movies reflect modern attitudes toward sensuality and pleasure. Emerging from the mists of our own collective unconscious, the Children of the Night represent forbidden rapture. After all, blood drinking is the oldest taboo of Judeo-Christian tradition because the blood was thought to encompass the God-given life force of a living thing. Even the consumption of animal blood was outlawed. Thus the connection between vampires and sin was forged.

Soon they came to stand for all of our transgressions- chemical addictions, sex addictions, egotism, greed, and vanity. We have praised them and cursed them in the same breath, grateful for the vicarious experience they afford us yet horrified at how deftly they mimic the monsters within our own hearts. The evolution of the filmic vampire mirrors cultural beliefs about eroticism and guilt. Through a careful study of this vampire, one can make out the veiled influence of the Puritanical guilt complex we inherited as Americans and its resulting psychological sadomasochism.

In order to begin this undertaking, it is necessary first to discuss our point of origin. Eroticized vampires existed at the very beginnings of modern Western civilization. For example, in ancient Roman literature, there were the Lamias. "They were a breed of extraordinarily bloodthirsty vampires, who seduced young men, had intercourse with them and attacked them at the peak of orgasm, drinking their blood with feverish delight" (Masters 196).

A study progressing forward from ancient Greco-Roman vampire myths would undoubtedly prove most fascinating; however, for the duel sakes of brevity and an emphasis on a far more recent age, the two main points of historical reference will be Bram Stoker's novel Dracula and its 1922 film adaptation, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror.

Thus, no attempt will be made to analyze the vampire as representative of non-Western cultural sex guilt. Contrasting modern characterizations of the vampire will include The Hunger, The Addiction, and Habit, three vampire films of the 1980's and 1990's. While the world of film abounds with other viable examples (among them Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, one of my favorite films), I have selected these three for their specific emphasis on the vampire as addict.

Beginning, then, with Stoker's Count Dracula, the vampire embodies untempered lust. His appetite has made him a monster, cursed to live outside of society, beyond the will of God. In the words of Jonathan Harker, "Have you ever seen that awful den of hellish infamy- with the very moonlight alive with grisly shapes and every speck of dust that whirls in the wind a devouring monster in embryo? Have you ever felt the Vampire's lips upon your throat?" (Stoker 422).

The Count charms beautiful young women from their beds to receive his kiss, seducing them into a state of wanton submission. He is the ruling alpha male, powerful, aggressive, and dominant. It is his desire that matters, not that of his devotees. This point of view reflects the sexual politics of its era. Women are passive receivers of sex, never equal partners or initiators. And while they may partake of some degree of pleasure, there is always some pain and suffering involved, at least in the beginning.

Moreover, the idea that one night with the hungry vampire can vanquish a young woman's spiritual virtue reflects the Christian ideology that virgin females are purer and more sacred than their sexually active counterparts for their likeness with the Virgin Mother of Jesus. In addition, the tale of the Old World vampire serves as a warning for adolescent girls. Forsake from the handsome stranger and love a boy whose family your family knows for the wanderer in fine clothes with an exotic accent will take advantage of you.

From the masculine point of view, this same idea signals a pervasive fear that you, too, could lose your woman to the powerful enchantments of another man evil enough to ignore your claim to her. Arthur Holmwood lost Lucy to the grave, and Jonathan Harker almost lost his Mina. Another implication here is the fear that a man who cannot fully arouse and pleasure his wife will lose her to one who can. Both Arthur and Jonathan were very noble men, but neither one could erotically possess a woman as could Dracula. The common threads running through all these interpretations of the novel are pleasure, suffering, and guilt. Interestingly, they are not separate entities but rather a trinity of facets belonging to the same experience, namely of an erotic encounter.

The aristocratic Old World Dracula fathered the far beastlier vampire of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, henceforth to be abbreviated as Nosferatu. "Because Prana films, the company that produced Nosferatu, did not purchase the screen rights to Stoker's Dracula, Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen- at least in part to circumvent potential legal problems- changed the names of the principal characters, developed a new set of physical characteristics for the vampire, and shifted the story from England in the late nineteenth century to Bremen in 1838" (Waller 177).

The resultant vampire, the Nosferatu, was much closer to an animal than a man in appearance and behavior. He was bald and long-faced with pointed chin and ears. His fingers were elongated also and taloned with sharp claws. The deep black circles around his eyes made his gaze far more chilling than that of the stately Count, but yet his violence seemed more random, less controlled and intentional.

Viewing this again through the spectrum of sexual mores, the Nosferatu is a man who has lost his intellect, self-control, and humanity to his lust. Everything he does from his first to his last waking hour of every evening relates to satisfying his need for pleasure. He is unable to focus on anything else because to him, there is nothing else. And once again, responsibility to protect his intended 'victim' falls upon another man. Be wary, gentlemen, of other men who might seek to ravage your woman, this story seems to say. And to the women, the message is much the same as in Dracula, only perhaps more fervent. Some men are sex monsters waiting to devour you. Be careful who you trust. Again, there is the paradigm of pleasure and guilt. There seems to be no third option of a female who seeks out the vampire's bite for the female is always the passive victim. Nor can she truly defend herself against this attack, except by means of her wits, as did Lucy Harker. Allowing the Nosferatu to drink from her as if she wanted him to do so, she tricks him to stay with her until the sun has risen. As the new day dawns, he dies from exposure to sunlight, and she dies from excessive loss of blood. The male sexual aggressor - perhaps here understood as a savage would-be rapist - has been vanquished, but at the cost of an innocent female.

Recent interpretations of the above characters reveal changes in sexual mores. One of the most fascinating trends is the vampire as drug addict. Tony Scott's 1983 film The Hunger had no overt reference to drug culture, but the vampiric characters had the look of 1980's cocaine chic. Thin and glamorous, pale and sleek, they could have been fashion models. Played by Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, and David Bowie, these vampires epitomize nightclub decadence. Also, David Bowie was himself an icon of 80's Hedonism. Deneuve's older vampire remains beautiful over the centuries, but her offspring, further from the original bloodline, eventually begin to age very rapidly.

Here, the trouble in paradise reflects the fears of the 1980's young adult generation that their wild behavior may have disastrous side-effects a few years down the road. Later in this essay, The Hunger shall be considered again as an example of the vampire as sexually uninhibited. For the time being, consider two more filmic examples of the addict-model vampire: 1996's The Addiction and 1997's Habit.

The Addiction tells the story of a college student who is attacked by a vampire in an alleyway. The newly born vampire, played by Lili Taylor, begins to neglect her studies, having discovered that the experience of having an addiction can teach her more about life than any study program. Her use of hypodermic needles in her feedings equates her with a glamorized, pseudo- 1990's Beat Generation Heroin addicted poet/intellectual. She finds meaning through suffering, both own and that of others. Once suffering has been idealized to the status of a revelatory experience, it becomes a viable means of obtaining pleasure.

This theme isn't a far stretch from the ecstasies of the saints or the masochistic punishments used by monks and priests long ago for spiritual atonement. The saints were racked violently, body and soul, when invaded by the Holy Spirit. The maniacally fervent Sons of God, for their part, whipped themselves and each other, beating their imperfections into numb submission. In much the same spirit, Taylor's vampire begins her quest for vital human experience. Like the saints and the monks, she discovers pain and pleasure to be alternate extremes of a circular spectrum, best enjoyed together. Her impulse may be Hedonistic rather than spiritual; nevertheless, her cynicism embodies religious sexual guilt, and her passion reveals the secret joys of self-abasement and submission, extreme interpretations of religious law.

The vampire/addict in Habit, however, begins his journey with no delusions of enlightenment. He simply cannot handle his life sober. Abandoned by his woman, he stumbles drunkenly through life, too heartbroken and depressed to try to help himself. Sam's life seems to take a turn for the better, however, when he meets Anna, who bites his lip to draw blood while kissing him good night on their first date; however, she becomes a substitute for his alcoholism. He quits drinking, but he is now addicted to Anna and her wild, blood-fetishist sexual behavior.

The conscientious lack of mainstream glamour in this film reflects the aesthetics of what one might call 'alcoholic chic.' With his chipped front tooth, greasy dishwater blond hair, and frequent blackouts, Sam is the deeply wounded soul searching for peace in emotional oblivion. The message here is cautionary, as well. You wanna lusty vixen for a sex partner? Fine. But watch out. She'll destroy you. Certainly this attitude pervades films about dominant females. Consider Glenn Close's role in Fatal Attraction or Sharon Stone's part in Basic Instinct. The sexually dominant female is portrayed as vicious, cruel, and psychologically unstable.

Considered as encoded sexual morals, these films offer many bits of information. Firstly, pleasure leads to addiction. Don't have too much fun, or you won't be able to do anything else. And once you're addicted, the rest of your life will fall apart. Secondly, as alluded to in the preceding paragraph, these films also display more modern sexual practices.

In all three, we have a female stalker character: Catherine Deneuve's bisexual vampire in The Hunger, Lili Taylor's intellectual seducer of her own professor in The Addiction, and the apparently bi-curious, very sexually aggressive Anna in Habit. In fact, in the words of Sam, "She (Anna) jerked me off on our first date." Indeed, she did, in the middle of a public park, then left him unconscious from blood loss after having bit his lip and thigh. Perhaps the implication here is that sexual deviance is what leads to addiction. Anything outside the norms of society is so intensely pleasurable that conventional, or 'vanilla sex,' will never again suffice.

In the three aforementioned films, the vampire retains the beauty of the Count, in most instances, as well as the beast-like attitude of the Nosferatu. This melding of characteristics has bred the addict vampire, beautiful and seductive yet overwhelmed by primal appetite. As a model for progressions in sexual behavior and standards, this implies that despite our physical differences from animals, we are nonetheless animals within; however, unlike the animals, we still punish ourselves afterwards or feel as if someone should punish us. The undercurrents of illicit pleasure and its disastrous results represented in these films underscore that point very powerfully.

Indeed, even what some may consider the most deviant forms of sexual behavior, namely extreme sadomasochism and domination/submission, achieve their effectiveness by capitalizing on Puritanical guilt. When whipped and beaten for our sexual recklessness, we are freed to become ever more reckless. The physical punishments of sadomasochism and the humiliation of submission satisfy the guilt response and permit the animal brain to do what it will. Also, the contrast of pleasure and pain, freedom and guilt, creates a powerful tension, making each opposite seem more extreme. The greater the pain, the greater the pleasure.

This is the irony of sexuality often explored through the vampire. His eternal night is the sexual underbelly of society, where the forbidden fruit is the main entree of every meal. A realm of excess devoid of spirituality, it is both our heaven and our hell. The dualism of the vampire's existence mirrors the dualism of humanity. We desire and degrade the same subjects with equal fervor. We feel guilt at our pleasures and feel pleasure for our 'virtuous' guilt. And this paradigm shall perpetuate itself into infinity, for hypocrisy, duality, and irony are our birthrights as self-aware, reflective, 'high order' beings who possess all the appetites of every member of the animal kingdom.

Source: written by Michelle Engel


Fanged Films

USA, 1974
It Lives By Night / Die Blutsauger / Angel of Fear / It's Alive
USA, 2007
Impaler (photo: Tray White)

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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