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THE YEAR OF THE VAMPIRE
One hundred years after Bram Stoker created him, have we de-fanged Count Dracula and his kin?

by Paula Guran
March, 1997 (Originally published by OMNI Online)

Welcome to 1997 -- the Year of the Vampire. If you thought the world was already thoroughly inundated with vampiric books, stories, music, comics, events, clothing, web sites, film, TV and lunch boxes, it's nothing compared to what you're going to see in 1997. This year marks the centenary of the publication of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Although rumors of "Dracula Barbie" with retractable fangs appear unfounded, just about anyone else with the slightest provocation or excuse to jump on the catafalque has jumped.

Of course Stoker did not invent the vampire, but his creation of Count Dracula was a significant factor in forming the myth of the modern vampire - a vampire that embodies a particularly American ideal -- powerful, sexy, beautiful, immortal, irresistibly seductive and eternally young.

Bram Stoker Now instead of wanting to be the guys with the stakes defeating evil incarnate, we want to be vampires. Vampires are the good guys now. Or if not exactly "good" they elicit our sympathy by being misunderstood, conscience-stricken and attractive. In a world with real evil everywhere, with human monsters that overwhelm any fictional monsters, we've turned the vampire into a sex symbol. Popular and bloodless. Ironically we've drained the image of its more horrifying elements and made the vampire culturally acceptable. So acceptable that many nowadays consider themselves to be "real vampires" and publicly acknowledge this identification. Even if you aren't a "real vampire" you can identify with vampires and dress the part right down to custom made fangs and special effect contact lenses.

John Beckett of Journal of the Dark, a magazine that serves the "vampire community," feels this "acceptability" of the vampire "reflects a society that no longer feels constrained by traditional religion. The vampire isn't really evil, because society as a whole no longer believes in institutionalized, satanic evil. And how horrifying can a vampire be when compared to the all-too-real horrors of war, famine, disease, and repressive governments?"

Vampires have been permutated by modern culture into permissible bloodsuckers. Weakened by our fascination, but empowered by our lack of faith in God and garlic.

The idea of the vampire has probably been around since humanity first began to ponder death -- and the horror of the dead coming back to life. It took a group of nineteenth British aristocrats to change our western image of the vampire as a pretty disgusting reanimated corpse into a romantic aristocratic decadent (not unlike the image's creators.)

Mary Godwin Shelley In 1816 Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, Matthew Lewis, Lord Byron and Byron's physician, Dr. John Polidari, decided to amuse themselves one damp summer evening in a villa on Lake Geneva by writing ghost stories. Mary Godwin (who later married Shelley) created a modern myth and science fiction with Frankenstein, or Prometheus Unbound. Polidori picked up a fragment written by Byron and produced a novella, "The Vampyre," that featured Lord Ruthven, a vampire obviously based on Byron himself. Later, when Polidori and Byron were no longer on friendly terms, this portrait of an evil, blood-sucking aristocrat was something of Polidori's revenge against his ex-friend and former patient.

Vlad TepesThe mid-nineteenth century brought a popularization of the vampire though the serialized fiction of "penny dreadfuls" and theatrical stagings of horror. Two stories that preceded Stoker's novel were obvious influences. Wilkie Collins published "The Woman in White" serially in Charles Dickens's All the Year Round between November 1859 and August 1860. It was immensely popular. Certain elements in the Collins' story were almost certainly an influence on Stoker. Both had Counts and shape-shifting vampires with telepathic powers. Decaying mansions and graveyards were featured in both and both contained a scene where a woman thought to be dead was seen in a cemetery carrying a child victim.

Sheridan le Fanu published "Carmilla" in 1872. The tale of a lonely girl and a beautiful aristocratic vampire in an isolated castle has much of the same repressed sexual overtones (although in "Carmilla" the overtones are between two women later to be found in Dracula

Other possible influences on Stoker included Irish folklore and tales told him by world traveler Sir Richard Burton. There is a debate among vampire scholars (and there are many of them) as to Stoker's familiarity with the Romanian history and legends of the "real Dracula," the fifteenth century Prince Vlad Tepes

Whatever the sources, Dracula received mixed reviews when it was first published and made little money for its author.

BELA LUGOSI Hollywood eventually took Stoker's gothic evil nobleman and turned him into the American equivalent of the aristocrat: a glamorous, debonair film image. Beginning in 1931 with Tod Browning'ssuave count portrayed by Bela Lugosi, movies have shown continually the vampire as beautiful, powerful and seductive.

Stoker knew something of the dramatic, having served as Victorian theatrical luminary Sir Henry Irving's "manager" for 27 years. (his title was manager but he seemed to have been more of a private secretary.) But Stoker himself would probably be amazed at his creation's dramatic impact. The book has been adapted over 100 times for the screen and it is, perhaps, in cinematic form that Dracula has had his greatest influence. Even Anne Rice, who is perhaps the writer most responsible for our current cultural interpretation of the vampire, was inspired by the Universal sequel to Dracula, Dracula's Daughter.

We are still transforming the vampire. Sex with the pre-Byronic rotting corpse version of the vampire was not terribly appealing and no part of the earliest legends. The repressed sexuality of "Carmilla" and Dracula have long been acknowledged. But now we have the provocatively "romantic" vampire as well as a growing subgenre of frankly sexual vampire literature. The novel itself has been reinterpreted by Amarantha Knight (Nancy Kilpatrick). This version of Dracula is an X-rated version published by Masquerade Books and is is about as frank and sexual as you can get.

Another recent nuance has been added through the popularity of roleplaying games like White Wolf's offerings Vampire: The Masquerade and Kindred: The Embraced (and its short-lived TV version.) Roleplaying games were first popularized in the mid-seventies when TSR introduced "Dungeons and Dragons." They became even bigger with the introduction of collectible cards that could also be used in RPG. When playing, a participant creates a fictional character who is placed in outlandish situations. Just like an actor improvising, the player continues the role ad-libbing according to the situation, personality and background of the character. There's a "director" [Game Master (GM) or Dungeon Master, StoryTeller, Referee etc.] who sets up situations for the actor/players, and usually plays whomever (villains, witnesses, passers-by, etc.) they "meet" and generally keeps the game running smoothly.

Roleplaying is firmly grounded in the fiction of the fantastic and often the horrific, but the introduction of "Vampire: The Masquerade" made the vampire a favored role. Here players are not only encouraged to play the part of vampires, but the traditional lone vampire is given a complicated a clan, a type of familial societal structure with laws to live -- or "undie" -- by. The solitary batsilhouetted against the moon has become a multitude -- and a rather tame one.

How will the iconography of the Childen of the Night evolve in the future? How will the vampire develop as we enter the twenty-first century and beyond? Will society celebrate Dracula as cultural phenomenon on its bicentennial? It is fairly certain that Stoker could not have predicted Dracula's last hundred years or the directions the fictional descendants of Dracula have taken. Perhaps the vampire is immortal after all. -- Paula Guran, March 1997


(Note: The portraits above are of Dracula author Bram Stoker, Frankenstein author Mary Godwin Shelley, Prince Vlad Tepes, and Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula.)


Special Vampire Events in 1997

  • One of the themes for the World Fantasy Convention slated for London, England the fall of 1997, will be a celebration of "The Centenary of Dracula" with special events for vampire fans sink their fangs into, including a separate stream of programming.
  • The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia will be exhibiting Stoker's notes for Dracula and other related materials from April 24 to November 2; an exhibition examining Dracula before Stoker, after the novel written and the writer and novel itself is scheduled from March to May in Brussels, Belgium; many tours and events are offered in Romania; symposia will be presented in Boston and Dublin, Ireland(birthplace of Stoker.)
  • By far the most important event of the vampire year may be Dracula 97: A Centennial Celebration next August in Los Angeles. A thousand vampire enthusuasts are expected to participate in a wide range of activities including the presentation of scholarly papers, perfomance and discussion of dark music, panels on cinematic vampires and film exhibitions, the presence of and contributions to panels by contemporary authors, participation by various gaming studios and creators and even a creative writing contest.

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    Copyright © 1996-1998 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.