Vampires have a special place in literature, art, and popular culture. Historically, the myth of vampires resulted from our ancestors’ poor understanding of the processes that occur inside a decomposing body. At a certain stage of decomposition, the corpse inflates, creating the illusion that it fed on the living. Beliefs in creatures feeding on human blood are so ancient that it is difficult to determine their origins, and there is historical evidence showing that these beliefs existed in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance.
In 18th-century Europe, cases of mass hysteria where people exhumed corpses to burn them forced the authorities to launch scientific investigations into the existence of vampires. Scientists concluded that the bloodsucking undead were only a product of popular superstition and tomb profanations were outlawed.
In Gothic literature, vampires made their first appearance in The Monk by Matthew Lewis before becoming an emblematic character of dark Romanticism. Byron introduced the theme of vampirism in his poem The Giaour (1813):
But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
John William Polidori, one of the closest friends of Byron, created the iconic image of the undead aristocrat in his novella The Vampyre (1819). Female vampires also haunted 19th-century literature (The Dead Woman in Love by Theophile Gautier; Carmilla, In a Glass Darkly, by Sheridan Le Fanu). After Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the vampire became associated with the concept of otherness. Dracula comes from Eastern Europe, and he also comes from the past, which makes him not only alien, but also anachronic. He is a reminder of our medieval past, viewed as dark and violent, and he is also representative of a non-Western culture.
The vampire represents the other, the heretic, the deviant, the marginal, the immigrant, the homosexual – anyone who belongs to a minority and is perceived as a threat to the established way of life in a given society.
A text key to understanding the evolution of the vampire as a fictional character is I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. I would strongly recommend reading Matheson’s book as the film adaptation by Francis Lawrence (2007), despite its qualities, betrays the spirit of the novel. Matheson uses a postapocalyptic setting to portray an extreme case of xenophobia. A pandemic decimates the human population all over the world, and the most horrific aspect of it is that the dead, transformed into vampires, return from their graves to infect the living. Robert Neville manages to survive this apocalypse by barricading himself during the night and, during the day, he hunts and kills the undead. He doesn’t even suspect that, meanwhile, his foes are developing their own culture, and that he, Robert Neville, gained in this culture the status of a legend: he became the incarnation of death.
The theme of vampires enjoyed a phenomenal success after the publication of the Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. An important trend in this type of literature is the humanization of the undead; nevertheless, they always remain a source of fear. Particularly popular are narratives in which vampires revealed their existence to the human society, for example The Southern Vampire Mysteries by Charlaine Harris and the TV drama inspired by this series, True Blood (2008-present). This kind of fictional universes allow an interesting commentary on xenophobia, racism, religious intolerance, drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and other burning social problems.
The times when vampires were merely a product of superstition are long gone; nowadays, these beings are part of our popular culture. They represent the liminal state between life and death, the past and the present, the normal and the transgressive. They are “the others”, the barbarians, the Goths who live at the borders of our “civilized world”, who frighten our safety and our way of life; yet they are also our image in the distorting mirror of our collective unconscious. They are projections of our repressed fears and desires.
From The Gothic: 250 Years of Success by A J Blakemont. Copyrighted material.
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