Friday, October 29, 2010

The Vampire in Literature and Film

About twice a week, I close my office door at noon and eat my lunch while listening to KERA's Think program. KERA is the National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Dallas, and you can listen to it live here. Think is locally produced, and its daily podcast is here.

Yesterday's show was titled "Vampires in Pop Culture." Host Krys Boyd's guests were Rechelle Christie, a gothic literature specialist from the University of Texas at Arlington, and Rick Worland, a film professor from Southern Methodist University.

Krys set the hour up by saying she wanted to explore:
What is the meaning of vampire stories and why are they so popular right now? ... What makes vampire literature and films such enduring favorites and how do they reflect the deepest fears and desires of the eras in which they are conceived and consumed?
The two guests quickly established that Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897, is the quintessential text for all later vampire novels while F.W. Murnau's 1922 German horror film Nosferatu did the same for films. Worland explains that Nosferatu was an unauthorized version of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Murnau did not even ask Stoker's widow for permission to film her husband's novel; he simply used the word "nosferatu" instead of "vampire," changed the characters' names, and relocated the story to Germany.

I was interested to learn that the character of Dracula helped Victorian England to express both its fear about disease (the contamination of syphilis) and its anxiety over its political fortunes ("reverse colonization" and the sense of invasion).

Krys asked when the character of the vampire began being portrayed as a tortured individual, powerless to control his urges, rather than a horrific monster. Rechelle Christie believes the vampire became more sympathetic as our society became "more accepting of otherness." She believes the idea of the vampire became a metaphor for "difference" in today's world.

Worland agreed and pointed to a moment of pathos in Béla Lugosi's film portrayal of Dracula when the character says: "To die, to be truly dead, that must be glorious."

Krys asked about the more modern portrayals of vampires, which could be dated from Anne Rice's 1976 novel, Interview With the Vampire. That novel was not made into a film until 1994. Christie pointed out that the character of Louis (Brad Pitt in the film) displays the human side of his nature and begins the trend toward more sympathetic vampires.

Worland indicated that the "family" created by Lestat, Louis and their "young" daughter Claudia is a great example of the fictional mirroring reality since American society was also experimenting with alternative family structures at the time.

Krys opened the line up to callers, and one asked about the rivalry between vampires and werewolves. Both guests indicated this was a metaphor for class issues. The vampires represent royalty and the supernatural while the werewolves represent the common man and humans.

The interview repeatedly returned to the subject of the gothic novel as an expression of social anxiety. Christie indicated that the gothic is a cultural text that emerges during times of social change.

A listener emailed, asking how Bram Stoker's Dracula reflected England's loss of colonial power. He wondered whether the novel was an anti-immigration allegory.

Christie reminded listeners that Dracula was published nine years after Jack the Ripper began his killing spree in Whitechapel, a Jewish slum in London. At the time (1888), England was struggling with a "changing cultural landscape" as waves of immigrants entered the country. She pointed to the metaphor of race, ethnicity and blood in which races intermingled and mixed their blood. Worland added that the basis of the novel was, "You become the thing you fear the most."

During the last ten minutes of the interview, the discussion returned to feelings and how these novels can allow us to express parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from others. When we identify with a killer, it is an uncomfortable identification. A caller suggested that the story lines address society's shifting moral compass, and Krys replied that the message might be, "Don't get so comfortable on the moral high ground."

Christie said that the gothic genre plays with the concepts of good and evil and allows us to fantasize.

I was reminded of a post I did two years ago following a NPR Fresh Air interview with Alan Ball, the creator of the True Blood series on HBO. My favorite part of the interview was when Ball described the series as a metaphor for the terrors of intimacy. He said he saw the program as being about breaking that wall that keeps us separate and safe from a savage and dangerous world.

You can read that post here.


Mike Keyton said...

A really interesting post, Maya. There's an interesting cheap budget TV series over here called 'Being Human' which if it ever crosses the pond you may find interesting.

One favour - if you have a good memory. You strongly recommended a book which I commented on expressing an interest in reading it. Some kind of thriller. With book token in hand but no memory of what it was, I throw myself upon your superior memory @ )

Maya Reynolds said...

Mike: You thanked me for mentioning Jonathan Maberry's Patient Zero on 9/13. Could that be it?

Mike Keyton said...

That's it. Many thanks.