13 Ways of Looking at a Vampire

October 18, 2009
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

THE SERMON     

Children of the night. Lonely, brooding, pale beings who sleep in coffins by day and stalk their human prey by dark, doomed to immortal life of the body and denied the eternal life of the soul.  The capes.  The fangs.  Or these days, the leather jacket. The big hair and the heavy eyeliner. The piercings.

Vampires are back in a big way, my friends.  They're stalking the New York Times best-seller list, topping the lists of DVD rentals, dominating television and cable network ratings, and raking in hundreds of millions at the box office.   "The undead sure are lively," said cultural critic Johann Schneller. ("Bitten By a Vampire," The Week, September 11, 2009).  But why?

In a nod to Wallace Steven's poem, "13Ways Of Looking At a Blackbird," I'd like to call this reflection, "13 Ways of Looking At a Vampire." 

I:  The Vampire As Explanation

Medieval man and woman asked: why are we hearing groans coming from the cemetery at night? Why does that corpse look so ruddy of complexion, why are its hair and nails still growing?  There are simple scientific explanations for all of these questions, but our pre-industrial ancestors didn't have them. Life was scary, savage and random.  So: take a large dose of religious superstition, add the horrors of, say, the bubonic plague, and sprinkle with ancient legends of soul-sucking demons and voila, perfect recipe for a vibrant vampire culture.

Understandable enough for the fifteenth century, but why didn't the vampire legend fade into total, final obscurity with the advent of scientific knowledge, at least in a technologically advanced society such as ours?

II. The Vampire In Moral View, As Warning

In the novel Dracula, the hero Jonathan Harker's blood runs cold when he stands before a mirror and, although he knows that Count Dracula is right behind him, he cannot see the count in the looking-glass.  Vampires have no reflection.

Perhaps this is a metaphor that we like and need for our times.  I wonder: as we mortals reflect nowadays on the consequences of our own voracious appetite for other living things, are we identifying with the vampire? Unlike the vampire, though, are we capable of seeing ourselves? Are popular fictitious battles with the fanged demon perhaps a dramatic representation of the battles we are having with our own blood-sucking aspect?

III. Your Friendly Neighborhood Vampire

A psychological view.

This is the vampire you know personally. They suck all the energy from the room, they suck your life-blood in every encounter. There is something somewhat sinister about them that you can't quite put your finger on.   It's not just that this person is depressed or down on his or her luck – we all know people who are depressed and going through hard times, but that's not it.  The vampire you know (and this could be a family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor) simply consumes your life force while seeming to generate none of their own.  You feel limp and used after an afternoon with them.   You begin to dread their calls and visits.  But when you try to disengage from their embrace – to end the relationship-- you find, as in the classic vampire myths, that it takes work and cunning to escape their clutches!

In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Dr. Seward describes the final dispatching of the vampire Lucy:  "Then we cut off her head and filled the mouth with garlic."  Sometimes … you've just got to.

IV: "Vamp's Entertainment!"

The economy's in the tank! Unemployment is at record highs! We are in a period of social unrest.  Vampires are escapist fantasy, and an appealing anti-hero to the popular superheroes of comic books and the silver screen. Which leads directly to …

V. The Vampire Kiss

Vampires are nothing if not sexy, and sex is always good for the entertainment business. Bela Lugosi created the quintessential suave and sexy Count Dracula on Broadway in the late 1920's and then repeated his role on fim in 1931, and still makes women (and some men) swoon. The vampire is a  seducer, and literary and film vampires were out of the closet as bi-sexual or gay characters long before it was safe for real people to be. Who could forget the chemistry between vampire lovers Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in "Interview With The Vampire?"

You may remember the series "Dark Shadows," featuring the sexy, brooding Barnabas Collins.  Barnabas was the first popular vampire who expressed remorse for his ghastly actions -- and was therefore a perfect vampiric heartthrob for the Alan Alda "sensitive new age guy" era.  As an anonymous woman online recently wrote in a forum on the current appeal of vampires, "I can't speak for the teen girls, but I want a vampire boyfriend because he would at least leave me the hell alone during the daylight hours so I could get some work done and have lunch with my friends."

VI.  Vampire As Political Metaphor

In the 1980's, New Orleans author Anne Rice penned a remarkable epic series of vampire stories that began with her best-selling novel, "Interview With the Vampire."  Just as in Bram Stoker's Victorian England, where the contagious diseases tuberculosis and syphilis were rampant and readers found in Dracula a story of contagious evil to mirror their own fears of those diseases, the American public in the 1980's – which was highly anxious about the new AIDS pandemic— found in Rice's fantasy epic of sex and death and fear and immortality a gripping story that spoke to their contemporary concerns.

VII.  Vampire Outsider

Another view of vampire as political metaphor.

In the HBO series "True Blood," vampires are out and proud, no longer living in secrecy but dwelling among mortals in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana.  So that they won't have to feed on human victims, they take a Japanese-produced synthetic blood called "V," – which, coincidentally, can give non-vampires a real high and is illegal for them to possess. The vampires are discriminated against by the humans who fear their power, making this series not only a sexy good time with a terrific Romeo-Juliet subplot involving a vampire/mortal love affair, but a clever allegory for how American society treats minority communities of many kinds. 

And speaking of which…

VII.   Vampires From Across the Border

It is a part of vampire legend that a vampire cannot cross a threshold unless invited to do so.

Interesting.

Listen to the rhetoric employed by conservative talk-show hosts about immigration, immigrants, undocumented workers, and health care for either.  I guarantee that you will hear the words "sucking the blood from the American taxpayer" at least once during the conversation. As our society becomes more dramatically diverse and we feel our resources dwindling, and as we struggle to find solutions for the myriad challenges posed by new waves of immigrants, I think we can expect vampires to remain popular. They're too useful a metaphor for fear-mongers to fade into obscurity anytime soon.

VIII.  Virgin Vampires For the Abstinence-Only Era

Here's a new one. This most recent vampire craze was set off by Stephenie Meyers' book Twilight, set in drizzly Forks, Washington (a tiny town near Seattle)  and featuring a mopey teenaged girl named Bella and a super-hot young vampire named Edward.  In the Twilight series, the gimmick is that Edward is too virtuous to ravish Bella and drink her blood. In fact, he lives in a vampire nest where all the vampires have vowed not to feed off of humans.  They jokingly refer to themselves as "vegetarians."  Bella and Edward are the perfect romantic couple for the religious right virginity- campaign-abstinence-only crowd… their relationship is all about pining and longing and not much more than that.

Please forgive me, Twilight fans, when I confess that I couldn't get through even the first book (there are four in the series).   I have learned that Bella and Edward eventually get married and even have a child later in the series.  The plot contortions that make this possible are too lengthy to explain here, but I have been assured by fans of the series that their long-awaited consummation is very gratifying.  

All I can say is that this is certainly a brand-new development in the vampire genre.  Vampires have been around in one form or another since ancient times, and this is the first popular vampire legend featuring a monogamous, married one.  I think somewhere, Count Dracula is weeping tears of blood.

IX. -XIII.  The Vampire As The Wounded Child

My last ways of looking at the vampire come from my favorite vampire movie, the 2004 Swedish film, "Let the Right One In." In this haunting little film, set in the suburbs of Stockholm during the winter of 1983 or 1984, a deathly pale, white- haired 12-year old named Oskar --who lives alone with his mother in an apartment complex --  makes the acquaintance of Eli, a young girl who lives in the same apartment complex.  Eli, we soon learn, is a vampire who is cared for by a man named Hakan, who has been providing human prey for Eli to feed on.

Eli is an androgynous figure, a spooky, slim little thing with scraggly hair and eyes like caverns. Like all child vampires in the vampiric lore, she is a terribly poignant character because she reminds us that no one is born a vampire: vampires are made by other vampires.  After this happens – after they become vampires themselves – vampires have a parental regard and loyalty to their "makers" – an interesting and disturbing metaphor for the generational continuity of family violence, cruelty and dysfunction.

Monsters are not born monsters – they are made monsters, the vampire reminds us.  For who would choose such a fate?

Oskar and Eli become close friends, finding in each other solace for their mutual loneliness and strangeness.  We see Oskar being bullied by brutal boys at school, and we see Eli storm and rage against Hakan, begging him to get her fresh blood.  Without it, she grows weaker and more emaciated, the shadows under her eyes cutting into her face so deeply that we can't help but ache for her.  X. The vampire as wounded and vulnerable child who evokes our most unwilling pity.

In the climactic scene of the film, Oskar is lured to the school swimming pool where he is met by the bullies, who try to drown him. Eli, whom we think has left town, flies in and takes a bloody and terrible vengeance on them.  XI. The vampire as protector.  How does our shadow side protect us? Is the monster all evil, or does it have some useful function? How do we make the monster "work for us," so to speak?

We see Oskar riding on a train, loaded with bags and a large box. It is daytime. He smiles out the window at the passing landscape.  A tapping in Morse code comes from within the box.  It taps out "k-i-s-s." Kiss. Oskar taps back: k-i-s-s. "Kiss."  Oskar has become Eli's protector, as she has become his.

And so, XII.  The vampire as the shadow aspect of ourselves that we keep hidden away in a box, but which, when we become intimate with it, may in some ways be worthy of our love and protection.

XIII.  The last view of the vampire.

"Children of the night.  Such music they make."

When the vampire appears again from the shadows of our collective unconscious, it invites us to consider : to what, and whom, are we giving our life-blood?

And where, and from whom,

are we just swooping in… and taking it?