Not once, not twice have I seen condescension on the faces of people who learn that I am a fan of such TV shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.” (This is a bit off topic for today, but anything by Joss Whedon is gold in my book. Start watching Buffy from season 4, though. Go back to the beginning once you love it.) These are not the only two vampire shows and books I’ve enjoyed, and vampires are not the only creatures in fantasy and science fiction genres that populate my shelves, my screen, and my mind. The point, to me, is not the genre. It’s what the genre makes me feel and think.
Vampire mythology is very old – ancient – but recently it has seen a resurgence in our culture. It may seem like part of our general escapism, an obsession with dark mystery, or a teenage attraction to bad boys and dangerous seductresses, but it’s more than that. Vampire lore yields an exploration of the most complex aspects of the human condition and conversations about our most disturbing yet inescapable moral problems. A question that plagues us nightly in a world filled with media coverage of domestic and child abuse, of ghettoism and generational violent crime is how an innocent victim becomes a perpetrator and whether, on some level, a perpetrator is still always a victim. Another eternal question is that of free will and the resulting battle between conscience and the powerful urges of our basest nature. These are the thoughts of the seductive power and the terror of clear-eyed lie. The power of symbols and signs and the meaning of reality of things. The fear of death and the meaning of life without it.
A vampire is the ultimate psychopath – a demon hiding behind a human face, mimicking normalcy, empathy, even love, only to reveal itself when it is ready to feed, in all its horror and inhumanity, empty of all recognizable features and deaf to appeals. A gateway to Hell. We base the myth on real-life fears, to deal with real experiences, and imbue it with symbolism of hope and defense that curbs the power of evil and gives the good a saving edge: sunlight, cross, threshold… This is the language of pure, primordial struggle in which we all are soldiers or bystanders, and in the end we must win or fall. If we can believe in such a thing.
But can we? Can we imagine any evil so overwhelming that it would swallow a person whole and destroy every shred of humanity within him – love, pity, empathy – without taking his memories, identity, or rational thought? A demon turning people into demons. Perpetuating such a myth means considering a possibility that a person can truly die inside and still live. Become a psychopath. It means living with the fear that we, too, might face this fate.
It might be too much for us to bear – on more than one level. The existence of pure evil walking unrecognized in our midst. Its ability to kill that which we prize beyond life – our humanity, our soul. And a chance that it could be coming for us. It just…couldn’t be this simple, this final, this hopeless. This resistance to the language of pure dualism is also based on real-life experience, which tells us that, when it comes to humanity, nothing is ever black or white. Nothing is this simple. And so we create the myth of the noble vampire and the myth of the repentant one. One who struggles with his nature but refuses to do harm. This we can identify with. This vampire is not the nemesis of humanity – he is humanity itself: suffering under the burden of its own imperfection, weak and strong at the same time, caught between the darkness and the light. This vampire is all the things we are or have been or can imagine ourselves to be: the criminal, the outcast, the prejudged minority, the recovering and relapsing addict, the carrier of shameful and traumatic memories, the carrier of a dark secret…
Thoughtful writing about vampires is spectacular because the symbolism of the myth allows for such poignant ways of fleshing out bits of the human condition.
A vampire contemplates suicide because the urge for blood is so strong that he is afraid he won’t be able to keep from killing. How many of us haven’t wondered if the world or our loved ones aren’t better off without us? How far would we go to protect them from ourselves?
A vampire, bloodless and outcast for decades, encounters his sire and, under the sire’s nearly hypnotic influence, rejoins the dark ranks, rediscovers the ecstasy of mayhem, gives in to his nature, but must kill his friends on the side of light in order to stay. That’s his choice. How many of us haven’t wanted badly to belong, haven’t been willing to go to great lengths to be accepted by someone – friends, lovers, especially a parent figure? How intoxicated did we feel if we were accepted? How far would we go for that feeling? Who has such sway over us? Why? Do people belong with their own kind? What does that mean? Who is our kind – by kin? By choice? By cause? What is the nature of our special connection with the one who made us? Have we ever rooted for the “bad guy” in a story because he is strong and beautiful and somehow we just want him to succeed no matter what he’s doing? What is it inside us that makes us take our eyes off the light, even for a minute, for the sake of dark charisma? Is that how evil spreads?
A vampire tries to find substitutes for blood but can’t. Nothing’s good enough, and he churns through the cycles of guilt and madness, fear and recklessness. What is addiction? What are the things that we need beyond all else, for which we’ll do anything, without which we’ll die? Why are some things forbidden and others not? What is the nature of taboo? What does it mean that “blood is life”? Since pre-biblical times ancient wisdoms said so. Is there more to it than the obvious biological meaning? Blood is one of the most profound, intricate, and often used symbols in human cultures. How do we think of it? What does it make us?
A vampire falls in love with a human, and a world of drama unfolds. What is the source of love? Can an evil creature love truly? If he does, is he still evil? Does love change us for good, or must we be good in order to love? What is the evidence of love? Long-term fidelity? Self-sacrifice? Protectiveness? What is betrayal? Can we change our nature, or will the scorpion always sting the frog, even if he is in love with her, and in the throes of death, drowning and tossed by the river, mourn for her and for his own damned soul? Is what we call “evil” really just “sin” – the darkness from which we can be saved by love?
A vampire is faced with a decision whether or not to turn a human into a vampire. Is life worth fighting for at any cost? Does life lose meaning if death is not imminent? What is the burden of a very long life: overwhelming experience? Inevitable loss of everything we care about? Cynicism? Boredom? Does “older” really mean “wiser”? Who should have ultimate control over our lives: we ourselves, even if we don’t know what we’re facing, or someone who knows better? Is it selfish to keep our loved ones alive if we know we are condemning them to a life of pain? Can the old and the young be truly equal in love?
Vampire fiction is rich and fascinating, literature and cinema and television, different fictional universes offering variations on the lore to suit the exploration. But, just like any literature, it’s only interesting because it’s not about vampires. It’s about us. The human condition. No good literature is ever about vampires or aliens or squids. We humans are remarkably self-centered beings – understandably so. We only have one frame of reference: ourselves. We know nothing else. We understand nothing else. We perceive the world only through the prism of our own minds, emotions, instincts. Trying to understand the world and trying to understand ourselves is, really, for us the same thing. It includes everything – vampire fiction, too. Of course, as with every genre, not all of it is good. But good vampire fiction is very, very good. I recommend it.