HUMANISING THE VAMPIRE
Humanists must have great difficulty believing in vampires like Count Dracula. We think too easily of the fanged, cloaked figure warded off by the sight and touch of holy water or a crucifix. As we don’t believe in God, the demonic vampire falls by the wayside too. This is a shame, and based on a false premise. We can learn a lot from Dracula and his modern descendants.
Bram Stoker got his inspiration from a real life monster, Vlad Dracul, The Impaler, a Hungarian tyrant who impaled his victims on long stakes, that ran through the victims from thigh to shoulder, while they slowly died in unspeakable agony. It was akin to the worst forms of crucifixion. Vlad was a sadist with a sick sense of humour. When some visiting ambassadors from a nearby state declined to doff their hats to him in deference, he had the hats nailed to their heads to save them ever having to remove them again.
Dracula, his near namesake seems pale by comparison. I was raised on the films, which were scary and atmospheric in their own right, but also funny. Bella Lugosi, sitting in a lonely gothic castle, with a single dinner guest, hears wolves howling outside and smiles to his hapless would-be victim. "Listen to them, my children of the night. What music they make." Christopher Lee barely spoke in his films; he just stared, red eyed, and filled with lust and sexual chemistry; his victims invariably female, virginal. His deaths became more spectacular each time, a stake, a fall through ice into moving water, impaled on a broken cartwheel; always to return.
The original novel scared me for being so much more atmospheric; there was the sense of fear among the Transylanian peasants; Renfield, madly eating all manner of insects whilst awaiting his master; the plagues of rats; Dracula’s powers going beyond merely bringing his murder victims back to life; and even more sexual chemistry than the films ever dared. Brian Aldiss believed Stoker was writing a parable not on Christianity conquering evil, but on syphilis, which Stoker himself suffered from. Dracula is an archetypal story, bordering on myth even when we know it to be pure fiction of a high order. The dilemma of the vampire having to be killed by one s/he loves is terrifying. Imagine having to kill your own wife or husband to save the lives of others.
Essentially, Dracula is a story of Christian faith triumphing over evil, but it need not be seen merely as that. In the parody film, Dance Of The Vampires, Alfie Bass plays a different sort of vampire; faced with a cross bearing vampire-slayer he smiles and says in Bronx Yiddish accent; "Boy, have you got the wrong Vampire." The question should be asked, why does the Vampire have to be a Christianity based Satanist? In Love at First Bite, another satire, Dracula comes to the present day to find his intended victim sucking his neck; "What’s this? He yells. "She’s biting me."
Dracula has been Humanised; we find modern authors want to know more of his origins, and his inner feelings. Even Stoker had a brief insight into his tortured lonely soul when Lucy Harker, a rescued victim, was hypnotised. She saw the Vampire’s regret for the pain that comes of eternal immortality. Dracula wants death.
One of the cleverest revisions of the old, seemingly played out legend occurs in a Doctor Who story of all places; In the Sylvester McCoy story The Curse Of Fenric, the vampires (called Haemovores) are warded off by faith, but not just by Christian faith; any kind of faith. A Russian soldier (the story is set in WW2) wards them off through his faith in The Russian revolution; an essentially secular and atheistic (but not necessarily Humanistic) one; while a Christian Vicar fails
to have faith in them, because his faith is shaken by the thought of God allowing English bombs to fall on German cities and kill German children, and he dies horribly at the vampire’s touch.
Anne Rice, the greatest Vampire writer since Stoker, goes much further. In Interview With The Vampire she creates Louis; the Louisiana swampland vampire who laments for his lost Humanity, and seeks only love and understanding. Louis tells his interviewer (a young reporter with a dream of becoming a vampire himself) that the Christian cross, and garlic, and holy water can do no harm to his kind at all; such myths are sheer nonsense. Here is suddenly a vampire for the secular age, we realise. Louis seeks out the Eastern European vampires he has read of, only to find them little more than shambling zombies. Anne Rice is clearly and deliberately making her monsters very different to their 19th century ancestors. Louis wants in many ways to retain his lost humanity. He tries existing only on rat blood, which can sustain him, and yet leaves him feeling empty. He gradually comes to accept the necessity of killing his former kind. Louis also longs for the art and social luxuries of his former life (he was a wealthy plantation owner at the height of the slave trade), and when he meets the decadent Parisian aesthetic vampires, he believes he has found his new home, but he is doomed to rejection even there. The Vampire becomes a creature of unhappiness, and despair. The stories capture the horror of sensing your own loss of humanity. Interestingly, her books, often written in the first person by the vampires themselves, have become popular with the terminally ill, and AIDS patients who find her look at life from the point of view of the living dead as exquisitely poignant. The vampire story, the legend of the undead, makes us come to terms with the fact that we are human, and even grateful for our Humanity. Rice’s vampires are there for the secular age. We have our own children of the night. .
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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