Part One of a lecture given for CofC FYE program
It’s not shocking to note that vampiresare popular. In fact, its probably too late to note it. We are maybe even past the tipping point of their popularity, firmly as we are now in the middle of the zombie zeitgeist.
But vampires have mattered, and continue to matter, because they answer questions (or, as I’ll suggest, actually attempt and fail to answer questions) that the 20th century asked.
Monsters are, in effect, creature of context. They are hardwired into history, born with historical events, born out of specific historical contexts of trauma, danger, anxiety and real world horrors. This is the basis of Monsters in America…that the monster is in no sense a simple psychological phenomenon but embodies, sometimes in a very literal sense, the terrors of history.
I’d like to try and put the story of the vampire in the broader context of the 20th century. The vampire also speaks to one of the basic realities of the 20th century…what we could call the postmodern condition or, in more straightforward language, the crisis of belief that the real world horrors of the last one hundred and twelve years has caused.
Much of the last century has been about the unraveling of convincing stories. This includes two of the biggest stories western culture has liked to tell 1.) the Christian narrative of redemption 2.) the notion that science and rationalism promises a gradual improvement of human life. These are the two primary narratives that history has made it problematic to believe and that our own desperate needs make it hard not to believe.
Is it possible to believe in a capital-H history or a Capital-S science or a capital-R religion? The shock of two world wars and all the related atrocities that attended them made things with capital letters sucked all the meaning out of the cultural room. Once you had been in the trenches, life seemed like nothing more than a gigantic scream.
Its no accident that the 20th century horror film was born in the aftermath of war and so many of its images, even today in fact, owe their terror to the reality of modern combat—what it means that modern medicine has made it possible to survive wounds that previous would have ended life.
One of the fictions that war produced was the fiction of the vampire, beginning with Nosferatu in 1921. After Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula, the living undead would begin to populate transatlantic culture, finding fresh victims of their allure everywhere.
I think vampires are central to the crisis of postmodernity, to the sense of change and to the belief that narratives have lost their weight and meaning. In effect what I want to suggest is that Vampire fictions offer a way out of some of the quandaries of the postmodern condition, for believers (of all stripes and unbelievers (who also come in many stripes). They don’t tell a total story about life, death and immortality but they do tell a story that borrows from some of our basic human myths.
If I could put it rather starkly, we love them because they are both Christ and antichrist; they proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God and His Saints but also announcing the death of God. This also means that they can serve very divergent purposes depending on who uses them, reads them, interprets them.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be seen as part of this crisis or at least presaging the crisis. The crisis of faith had begun in the 19th century after all with Darwinian evolution and changing methodologies in the study of history, folklore and anthropology forcing a reexamination of many traditional beliefs of western Christians.
Stoker’s novel feels like a book that wants to impress us with its awareness of the modern condition. The heroes of the novel, the fearless vampire hunters, are all obsessed with gadgetry of various kinds, have a love affair with the telegraph and study train schedules like they are Holy Scripture. Van Helsing himself is more scientist than wizard.
And yet, the novel insisted that Dracula’s existence in Victorian times confirms the reality of faith. When Van Helsing describes the mission of his vampire killers, he calls them “ministers of God’s own wish, that the world and men for whom His Son died will not be given over to monsters whose very existence defames him.”
A similar kind of disjunction occurs in Nosferatu. Professor Bulwer (the Van Helsing figure in Nosferatu) is clearly a scientist and one deeply affected by notion of natural selection. The vampire, frequently show as crossing the border between the animal and the human, is suggested as a kind of triumph of natural selection and Bulwer illustrates this to his students by showing a Venus Fly trap, a kind of “vampire of nature.”
But there’s a complication here. Nosferatu also contains numerous references to black magic and the occult. There are frequent references to the power of the Devil at work through this creature that is often framed in such a way as to suggest a religious icon. His shadow-and the way that original prints contrasted him with darkness and light, intensifies the religious imagery
In this Nosferatu reflected the contradiction of the postmodern world. I think if we look at various kinds of vampire fictions throughout the 20th century, we see a basic concern about the desire for transcendence often mitigated by the sense of being locked into a meaningless circle of events, trapped by history. The crisis of faith in the 20th century has needed the vampire to ask its questions, to perhaps even be its question. They have been symbols of transcendence and symbols of its absence.