KinoKultura: Issue 32 (2011)
We are currently experiencing a “Vampire Boom”: the huge popularity of vampires in contemporary culture is unprecedented. A rapidly growing body of research about vampires provides various interpretations of the vampire’s cultural role and the explanations of vampires’ popularity. Vampires are considered as representing gender or race inequality, political oppression, imperial issue, suppressed psychological problems. However, the question persists: what is so special about vampires to make them so compelling for representation? And what is so special about our era that it has chosen the vampire as its cultural symbol? In order to answer these questions, I will compare post-Soviet and US vampires’ bestsellers—both fiction and movies—and consider how contemporary representations of vampires are different from those of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The most striking feature of contemporary vampire texts—whether film or fiction—is the following: we are looking at the events through the eyes of a vampire. The protagonist of the Russian cult vampire novel Night Watch by Sergei Lukianenko (1999), which was printed in several editions in the United States, is a vampire and the story’s narrator. The choice of the name for vampires in Night Watch is very telling: they are collectively called “Others,” stressing the fact that vampires belong to a different race. Humans cannot become such Others, just as they cannot grow into witches, magicians, or shape shifters populating the pages of Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor). The whole story is focused on the struggle between two vampire clans—Light and Dark—while humans are entirely instrumental and play a marginal role in the battles. The same role distribution between nonhumans and humans characterizes also the movie by the same title screened by Timur Bekmambetov (2004).In another famous post-Soviet vampire novel, Empire V (2006) by Viktor Pelevin, the main protagonist and the first person narrator is a vampire too. One can also refer to the very telling subtitle of Pelevin’s novel Story of a True Superman which ironically considers a vampire, and not a human, a true Superman.
In American vampire films and fiction, vampire holds the same strategically important position: a vampire is the main protagonist and often the narrator, whose feelings and emotions are central for the story. In Interview with the Vampire (Neli Jordan, 1994), the story is told by vampire Luis who was turned by a powerful and enigmatic vampire, Lestate. In the television series Kindred: The Embraced (John Leekley, 1996),the protagonistJulian Luna is the vampire “prince.” In Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) and in The Vampire Diaries (Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, 2009)the protagonists are either vampires or humans expected (as Elena Gilbert, a human heroine of The Vampire Diaries)—and willing (as Bella Swan, a human heroine of a novel Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, 2005)—to give up their human nature.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that vampires have always enjoyed this privileged position. If we compare the classics of vampire stories such as John William Polidori’s The Vampire (1819) or Aleksei Tolstoi’s The Family of the Vourdalak (1843), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) with contemporary vampire films or fiction, there is an important difference in so far as the vampire’s role is concerned. In these vampire classics, the stories are not told by a vampire in the first person. On the contrary, the role of monsters is functional and secondary—to seduce the human protagonist and to be a source of horrors or miracles. Human sentiments—and not those of non-human monsters—were the focal point of attention of writers and their readers from the mid-18th century till the beginning of 1990s when it was challenged by a new aesthetic trend. A non-human—the vampire, but also werewolf, witch, and shape shifter—forced people out of literature and films and thus created a new aesthetic system in which the writers’ and readers’ interests were focused on non-humans. Unlike their literary predecessors, contemporary non-humans eliminate humans from the text to become the dominant figures of the plot by whom and for whose sake the story is narrated. The main role of a non-human monster is to deny the importance of humans as an aesthetic ideal and to express deep disenchantment with the human race. This shift from men and women, formerly the heroes of literature and visual arts, to non-humans, makes the figure of the monster and especially that of the vampire, the most popular among nonhumans, and crucial to our understanding of contemporary culture. I conceptualize this new cultural trend as Gothic aesthetics. The proliferation of monstrous non-humans in contemporary fiction, movies and computer games is one important distinctive features—but not the only one.
As has been emphasized by critics, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Interview with the Vampire are stories that revolve around an adolescent on the brink of adulthood, experiencing first love, or a first mature relationship. The plot of Pelevin’s novel also deals with a young boy who gets turned into a vampire and passes from adolescence to adulthood, falling in love with a female vampire and reaching finally the highest level in the vampire’s hierarchy. The majority of contemporary vampire texts are coming-of-age stories. The main goal of such novels has always been to help adolescents become adults, according to the cultural norms of their time and society. Nevertheless, critics have not paid attention to the fact that it is the vampire, a nonhuman monster, who is guiding the coming-of-age humans through their rites of passage. Children acquire as their role model not a human but a non-human monster whose cultural meaning is to deny the humans’ right to exist. In other words, the generation of the Vampire Boom has vampires as their role models, as examples to follow.
The vampires’ critical role conditions further differences between fiction and films influenced by the Gothic aesthetics on the one hand, and those created in the previous epochs on the other. If we look, for example, at the relationships between vampires and humans, we find that the vampire’s attempts against humans in vampire classics—be it Stoker’s Dracula or Tolstoi’s The Family of the Vourdalak—were perceived as illicit and aberrant crimes.
In contemporary vampire texts these relations are completely different: humans are vampires’ natural prey and food. In Night Watch, vampires, as well as other non-humans, get their might, magical power and skills by entering into a specific level of existence, the Gloom or Twilight which is inaccessible for humans. However, human feelings and emotions are also used by vampires to recharge their powers: the Dark ones use negative emotions such as pain or anger, the Light ones use positive emotions such as joy. The distinction between Light and Dark vampires is totally superficial, entails no moral restrictions and makes no major difference for humans. Sucking energy is not the only way to use humans as a resource: vampires also suck human blood. In Pelevin’s Empire V, humans have no other role than that of the vampires’ cattle: culture and civilization are nothing more than vampires’ inventions, allowing them to rule over humans, sucking their blood and minds. The relationship between humans and vampires is summarized by a vampire protagonist in a following way: “Humans live with the illusion that they can eat what they want, when they want and as much as they want. This is fundamental for their self-respect. Humans simply do not know that they are just a link in a food chain for us, vampires.” In Twilight the relationship between humans and vampires is theorized thus: vampires fulfill a kind of natural design as predators who hunt for humans, in the same way as humans hunt for beasts, for game.
This relationship to vampires is brand new. For centuries, vampires and werewolves, witches and shape shifters incarnated horror and mortal danger for humans. In vampire classics, even if some of the vampires look beautiful and seductive at the first glance, later they reveal their true nature by transforming into horrifying monsters. The vampire’s beauty was used by the writers and producers to sharpen the contrast between their appearance and their evil powers. Human victory over vampires, human heroism, will and integrity in fighting against them was celebrated by authors and their readers.
Every contemporary vampire saga claims that vampires are gorgeously beautiful and irresistible because of their elegance and refined taste. Humans are inferior to vampires not only aesthetically. Vampires possess all kind of magical powers that ordinary people can only dream about: vampire can fly, they can read the mind, foresee the future, move matter with their mind. If humans are compared to vampires, such a comparison stresses the ugliness and clumsiness of the human protagonist. The example of Bella Swan from the novel Twilight is very telling. This clumsy girl, an ugly creature when compared to the female vampires, possesses the only quality which attracts her beloved vampire and makes her irresistible for him: it is the smell of her blood. As opposed to humans, vampires belong to “high culture”: they have every artistic talent, and their intelligence and social skills are superior to that of humans as are their other abilities (not to mention that they are always advanced in the social hierarchy). In other words, vampires represent an undeniably compelling aesthetic ideal.
It would be a mistake to interpret the contemporary vampire – as well as other nonhuman monsters - as allegories of human vices and virtues. Their function in the texts is critically different from animals in fairy tales: they deny the significance of humans as objects of art. As Pelevin emphasizes in his subtitle, monsters are not to be mistaken as incarnations of a Nietzschean Superman. On the contrary, the appeal of nonhuman monsters to the readers and viewers is conditioned by their non-belonging to the mediocre human race. This wins them the sympathies of writers, creators, film directors and audiences. Profound despise for humans is at the heart of all contemporary vampire texts. For example, in Empire V, a vampire claims that vampires created humans for milking them. The contemporary idealization of nonhuman monsters symbolizes a radical rejection of humanity.
These attitudes towards vampires challenge our understanding of the place that humans occupy among other creatures. If humans can be thought of as food for superior, and not only more powerful but also aesthetically more attractive—even if imaginary—beings, then this is a sign that the status of humans and humanity has been altered. It puts an end to the idea of human exceptionality.
The vampire incarnates the radical rejection of humanity and its values yet in another important respect. All vampire stories consider vampires as the living dead, even if many of contemporary vampires do not sleep in their coffins as they used to over last two centuries. This old vampire custom remains intact in some contemporary cases like, for example, The Interview with a Vampire or Van Helsing (Steven Somers, 2004). However, in many other texts it has been substituted by a fear of sunlight—in The Vampire Diaries vampires are protected from sunlight by magical rings; in Kindred the Embraced and The Queen of the Damned (Michael Rymer, 2001) vampires are destroyed by sunlight; and in Twilight the only reminder of returning to coffins is that the vampire’s skin gets blinking in the sunlight. But there is no confusion concerning the crucial fact: vampires are living dead. As Damon Salvatore, the main vampire protagonist of The Vampire Diaries, puts it: “I like being a living dead person.” And this fact has grave consequences for contemporary culture.
According to contemporary vampire texts, death opens up the chance to get turned into a vampire, the constant desire of Bella as well as Elena (in the novel The Vampire Diaries by Liza Jane Smith). Unlike in vampire classics, when turning into a vampire meant becoming a horrifying, disgusting monster cursed by God and posing a threat to his own family, these girl protagonists are not afraid to become vampires. On the contrary, nowadays turning into a vampire, into the living dead, means achieving aesthetic perfection and immortality: “I would give up everything to become a vampire!” These exclamations of vampire fans published on fan sites testify that this idea is well received by the generation of the vampire boom. The exceptional popularity of vampire—living dead—could be interpreted as a symptom of an important cultural problem: vampires incarnate and promote the rising cult of death in contemporary society. And this is an evident and weighty reason for their growing popularity.
Because the vampire incarnates a cult of death, s/he becomes a perfect hero acting in manmade nightmares that are widespread in fiction, films and computer games. If a nonhuman monster—and especially a vampire, a living dead—is the main symbol and ideal of Gothic aesthetics, its cultural form and plot is the representation of a nightmare. Over the last decades, plunging into the feeling of a nightmare has become an important cultural demand, a requirement for the popularity of countless cultural products and projects. Mistrust of “anything real” and contempt for “anything human” create an atmosphere highly suitable for the promotion of the nightmare as a new popular genre.
Night Watch, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Van Helsing, X-Men, (Bryan Singer, 2000) Charmed (John T. Kretchmer, 1998-2006) as well as so many others vampire movies have several features in common in so far as their production is concerned. As in a picturesque nightmare, we see flying monsters following the hero or heroine, dream-like magical powers exercised by monsters, a plot organized around a pursuit and coupled with horrifying atrocities and violence. The overall intention is to violate our sense of time and space in order to create the impression of being totally disconnected from reality, to confuse reality with the nightmare. In addition, the protagonists are constantly having dreams which are designed to be confused with reality, especially when these dreams affect the plot development. Flashbacks, doppelgangers and repetitions creating time and space disorientation, special effects helping to communicate dizziness and vertigo, visual and sound effects are brought together to make the viewer feel dizzy, disoriented and disconnected from reality, wandering in a manmade nightmare. Contemporary fiction and visual arts thus imitate the nightmare because audiences want to experience them. The simulation of the main features of the nightmare as a specific mental state and an eagerness to experience a nightmare while watching movies, reading fiction and playing computer games is what makes these products so appealing for the audience.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s two important tendencies in literature and visual arts merged to create a new powerful trend, Gothic aesthetics. First, the imitation of the feeling of the nightmare in the audience became the main goal of a number of literary texts or visual arts works. Second, nonhuman monsters acquired the role of the new aesthetic ideal. Almost all vampire texts as well as several of these labeled as “horror genre” share these two main features: they are manifestations of Gothic aesthetics with its thirst for nightmares and rejection of humanity.
The rise of Gothic aesthetics in the 1990s that occurred through a coincidence of several trends and factors was greatly stimulated by the creation of the new visual and sound technologies reinforcing suspicions that cinema is a means of inducing the viewer to an unconsciousness dream state (Metz 1971, 1977) and that cinema creates unique conditions for representing nonhuman monsters (Kittler 2001). Gothic aesthetics—a powerful cultural trend—makes us see the world through the eyes of nonhuman monsters. Naturally, what we see are horrifying nightmares.
2] As I have shown analyzing representations of nightmare in classical literature, a specific set of artistic devices that I call hypnotica, is needed to imitate the feeling of the nightmare through a work of art. (see Khapaeva 2010: 76-99, 115-120, 228-234). I have outlined also the emergence of a new cultural pattern conditioned by Gothic Aesthetics which I call the culture of nightmare consumption. By culture of nightmare consumption I mean a current tendency to compel audiences to experience a nightmare through fiction, movies and computer games. See Khapaeva 2010: 280-286
Khapaeva, Dina (2010), Koshmar: literatura i zhizn’, Moscow: Tekst.
Khapaeva, Dina (2009), “L’esthetique gothique. Essai de comprehension de la société postsoviétique,” Le Banquet, 26, Juillet-Septembre.
Khapaeva, Dina (2007), Goticheskoe obschestvo: morfologia koshmara, Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie.
Kittler, Friedrich (2001), Optische Medien, Berlin: Merve
Metz,Christian (1971), Langage et cinema, Paris: Larousse.
Metz, Christian (1977), Le Sigificatif imaginaire, Bourgois.
Dina Khapaeva © 2011
|Comment on this article on Facebook|