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The Whole Gory Story: Vampires on Film

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With Halloween on the horizon, I had to check out the "Vampires on Film" lecture, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. The speaker was movie maven and scholar Max Alvarez. It was a well-attended, three-hour tour of horror flicks that make for—more often than not—painfully bad cinema. Yet, after kicking off his lecture by decorating his podium with several heads of garlic, Alvarez lent a gravitas to these movies, elevating them from mere midnight movie schlock to a study in cultural currency—meaning that vampire stories change and evolve with new images and metaphors for each generation viewing them.

In Western culture, tales of vampirism begin in the plague-addled Europe of the middle ages where newly buried bodies were exhumed and those considered not sufficiently decomposed were desecrated—by way of beheading or a good ol’ stake through the heart—for fear that the undead would spread disease among the living. (Trick or Treat?)

What’s worse is that some persons were prematurely interred—hence, their “as yet not-dead bodies” were in fabulous condition—and they ultimately met excruciatingly violent ends. Hands-down, this was the scariest part of the lecture.

By the late 1800s vampire stories are seen in print and theatrical incarnations (such as the 1828 opera Der Vampyr and the 1872 novella Carmilla). But it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula that sets the gold standard for the genre and captures the imaginations of people across the globe. Like its folkloric antecedents, Dracula is a sign of the times, dealing with issues of sex (which was strictly repressed in Victorian society), xenophobia and, in lieu of plague, syphilis, the dreaded STI du jour.

It is Stoker’s vision of the vampire that first makes it to the silver screen, the earliest surviving adaptation being F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, but the one that set the world on fire was Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula—starring Bela Lugosi—and kicks off a craze. Like its literary inspiration, Dracula and its string of cinematic spinoffs dealt with those things that you generally don’t bring up in polite conversation—namely human sexuality—and titillated audiences.

After a hiatus in the 40s and 50s, the genre was rekindled in the 60s. With sex becoming less taboo, vampire movies had to start exploring new frontiers. Of note is the 1973 film Blood for Dracula wherein the Count is exposed to impure blood and becomes gravely ill, as if the film were anticipating the AIDS epidemic that would sweep the world in the 1980s. Indeed, as a character in cinema, the vampire was evolving from a one-dimensional villain into a multifaceted character that could even be seen working for the forces of good (such as in Blade or Underworld).

While the genre has lost much of the subtlety and gothic trappings of the classic horror films, vampires endure as fodder for high octane action flicks, jam-packed with as much violence and gore as an R rating can withstand. However, they can also be seen in more playful fare as well. (Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyone?)

What's your favorite vampire film? What interesting things do you see happening within the genre that keeps it from going six feet under? Do you have high hopes for the upcoming film adaptation of the best-selling novel, Twilight? And why do you think we infrequently see vampire stories frequently told by way of animation?

Image from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922)

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About Jesse Rhodes

Jesse Rhodes is an editorial assistant for Smithsonian magazine. Before he became an editorial assistant, Jesse worked at the Library of Congress Publishing Office, where he was a contributor to the Library of Congress World War II Companion.

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