Tales of vampires have been with us for thousands of years. The Babylonians had Lilith, who reputedly had a thing for sucking the blood of babies. The fiends lurk in the most unimaginable places…The Greeks had the lamaias, also with a penchant for the little ones. The Ashanti had Asabonasam, the Haitians had Loogaroo, India had the Rakshasas. Nearly every culture in every time has had some version of the myth. The specific traits may vary, but again and again we have the story of the undead creatures with the fearsome hypnotic gaze and the unholy need to drink human blood. It wasn’t until the advent of “Varney the Vampire”, however, that the vampire truly reached its stride in Western culture. “Varney” was published in 1847 (the same year as “Wuthering Heights, but that was about a different sort of soul-sucker) as a series of “Penny Dreadfuls” which eventually encompassed 108 episodes. Fifty years later, Bram Stoker gave us “Dracula”, which left a lasting imprint on vampire mythology…but eventually people turned back to other monsters to occupy their imaginations. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that vampires would experience their next true resurgence, but they took off with a vengeance and have been prominent features of our fiction ever since. What tale of ourselves are we exploring inside this particular mythos, and what possible application can it have here, at the beginning of the 21st century? Who is the vampire now?
A Brief History of Vampirism
Mythology occupies a special place in human imagination. It is the realm where we write out our dearest hopes and worst fears in the symbolism of dreams. When Athena sided with Orestes in his trial for the murder of his mother, it represented the death knell of matriarchal society. When Jesus Christ walked on water, he represented our dreams of overcoming this murky quagmire in which we all dwell. So what do vampires represent to the deeper levels of human consciousness, and why now, more than ever, do we need them?
Just as in dreams, the symbols we choose in our mythology can represent different things to us at different times. Perhaps, when the Babylonians stayed awake at night, watching over their infants, Lilith represented the implacable and uncontrollable forces of nature which could suck the life out of their children to satisfy some eternal balance they could not comprehend. To the Greeks, struggling as they were with the advent of a new system of management, the lamaias (as with the Maenads) represented the stifled, though not quelled, rage of the women they strove to repress. By 1847, our situation was rather different, and the symbols had subtly changed. The vampire was a man, the overtones sexual, and we are invited to sympathize with his plight. Varney does not want to torment people with his desires, but eventually, unable to overcome his nature, he takes himself out with a swan dive into Mt. Vesuvius. It seems obvious that here, deep in the middle of the Victorian Age, we were struggling just a bit with our more “animal” desires, and with the changing roles we were to play as the Industrial Revolution began to be felt throughout all the social strata.
When “Dracula” hit the scene in 1897, we weren’t much farther along in cutting the corset laces (though I am sure there was plenty of that going on), but we had the second Industrial Revolution out of its infancy and running amok amongst us. The steam engine broadened our horizons, and the internal combustion engine was beginning to get some applications, hearkening to the faster pace to which we would all soon become accustomed. Factories had encouraged many to move into the cities, and replaced traditional pain-staking production processes with merely painful production processes. Families gained new shape, as they adjusted to the new set of priorities presented by the factory owners, and traditional religious/mythological systems required an overhaul, if they were to survive the transition into the 20th century. In response to the unconscious needs of the species, Dracula himself travels from the traditional world of the past to the bustling chaos of the new present, and proceeds to prove that those traditional values aren’t as cute and powerless as the city stiffs would have us believe. In the tale of “Dracula”, we find our protagonists, Jonathan Harker and Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray. Jonathan is a nice boy, trying to climb the ladder at a law firm so he can marry Mina and settle down according to society’s dictates. Mina is a nice girl, a little too curious for her own good, but willing to submit to the lot given her. In encountering Dracula, these two characters confront the desire for deeper mysteries and connections than what their society permitted, up to and including Mina’s psychic bond with Dracula wherein he begins to overwhelm her “nice girl” inclinations and control her actions. Of course, Dracula is defeated in the end, as he must be for the social order to continue, and Jon and Mina manage to settle down and produce offspring, though the paternity of the child continues to be debated. So it goes…
The Modern Vampire
In what capacity, then, does the vampire serve us today? His first notable appearance in recent times was in 1975, with Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot”, with the film version following in 1979. Stephen King himself admits:
During the spring, summer and fall of 1973, it seemed that the Federal Government had been involved in so much subterfuge and so many covert operations that… the horror would never end . . . Every novel is to some extent an indavertant psychological portrait of the novelist, and I think that the unspeakable obscenity in Salem’s Lot has to do with my own disillusionment and consequent fear for the future. The secret room in Salem’s Lot is paranoia, the prevaling spirit of those years. It is a book about vampires, it is also a book about all those silent houses, all those drawn shades, all the people who are no longer what they seem…The fear behind Salem’s Lot seems to be that the Government has invaded everybody.
With the door to paranoia opened to the public, we rushed in to devour more.
Throughout the ’80’s, we were treated to a slew of different interpretations of the vampire mythology, but the allure, the promise of eternity, and the consumption of the human life force remain. What is it we are so afraid of now? Let’s break it down into the quintessential parts:
- Hypnotic Allure–This is how the vampire overpowers her victims. They may have supernatural strength or speed, depending on the particular myth, but it is the draw of the vampire’s will which truly traps us. We cannot look away, we find ourselves longing to submit. In many versions there is actual physical pleasure promised by the vampire’s embrace, an ecstasy we cannot hope to find elsewhere on this earth. So we come to the vampire willingly. We want this force in our lives, even if we know that in the end it may destroy us.
- The Power–Whatever specific traits a given myth may gift to the vampire, it is assured that the vampire is more powerful than we mere mortals. Once the vampire has chosen us as his prey, we are never going to be able to overpower it by a show of force, and even mental dexterity offers but dubious hope. The vampire, for all that he may seem extremely suave and sophisticated when we meet him at a nightclub, is inevitably in possession of more bestial traits we have lost. He is self-assured, focused, strong and agile, unafraid of what he must do. In the vampire mythos, we find our mastery of this world suddenly upended, as the top of the food chain inexplicably stretches a step higher.
- The Hope–Linked closely to the power of the vampire is the hope that we will somehow be chosen to share in it. Again and again in the vampire mythos, we find the possibility that if we are somehow good enough, attractive enough, wily enough, we will be given the gift of all the power the vampire possesses. We will become one of the chosen. We will be special. We, in fact, will find ourselves peering gleefully down from the top rung over the rest of humanity.
- The Feeding–This, of course, is the most enduring and important of vampire traits. Vampires feed on blood, the symbolic essence of what keeps us alive. In symbolic terms, blood represents our personal power, our financial assets, and our deepest needs and desires. The vampire drinks all these things, consuming our passions and using them to keep herself alive. She takes our life force to fuel her own.
Where does this place us, here in the 21st century? What forces currently exist which lure us with promises of power and ecstasy, only to leave us limp rags without a will of our own? One possibility springs immediately to mind: Corporate America.
The large corporations which hold the mortgage on so many of our lives have all the traditional traits of the vampire. We walk willingly into their grasp, intrigued by the expensive clothes, the beautiful cars, the notion that we will dine out in expensive restaurants while the company picks up the bill. We see the power that they wield, as they lobby our government, manufacture our voting machines, dictate the course of artists, and decide the fate of millions. If we work hard to merit their interest, we too may someday hold our place at the CEO’s table, able to look down on the peons and choose who lives and dies, all the while ensuring eternal life for ourselves through our allegiance to power. But in exchange for the trinkets and the parties, the Italian suit and the BMW, we must offer something back. We trade our dreams, our passion, and our will to an entity who will drain us dry to slake its own never-ending thirst. We trade our hopes for a paycheck and the dream of a soulless existence. Many years down the road, we may awaken to discover that we never got the eternal life we were hoping for, and in the meantime we have wasted the one we were given.
Staking the Vampire
There is nothing wrong with the desire for prosperity, and accordingly there is nothing inherently wrong in the practice of a company which strives to create its best advantage in the marketplace. The problem arises when we trade our personal freedom for the promise of a future which may never arrive. If our dream is truly one of a Porsche 550, we would be better served by being clear about our goal and what sacrifices we are prepared to make to achieve it, than to hang our hopes on the notion that if we work tirelessly to meet the arbitrary guidelines of another that we will some day be rewarded. If our dream is one of security for our family, perhaps we should ask ourselves what, exactly, security really means and how we can best attempt provide it. If we dream of power over others, perhaps we should ask ourselves specifically what sort of power we desire, and whether it will ultimately bring us happiness.
There are times when most of us will come face to face with the necessity of accepting a corporate job. There is no inherent danger in this course so long as we walk into the vampire’s lair with our eyes wide open, recognizing the fact that we are going to bleed, and setting our own limits for when we will walk away. Vampires are not merciful creatures, but they cannot enter our homes without our consent. They cannot take us when we refuse to follow. For each of us, there may come a point where the demands are too high, the promises too remote to be appealing. There is only one happy ending for the protagonist of the vampire tale, and it is not actually in the death of the vampire that we find it. It is the point where we make the conscious choice to no longer participate willingly in the vampire’s feeding which frees us. Where we turn our backs on the larger-than-life possibilities the vampire offers and choose to embrace life on our own terms. It is when we walk away that the vampire becomes just another shadow in the dark.