What happened to scary vampires?
So vampires are now the new Rock and Roll. The characters of “True Blood” have appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, provoking the desired Pavlov’s dog-like outrage in the conservative media.
As a long time horror fan and lover of vampire films and literature, True Blood (and the rest of the “vampire fantasy” genre it belongs to) offends me in a different way.
Today, the undead have lost their bite. Once a terrifying creature, risen from the grave to feast on the blood of the living, the vampire has become of late little more than a vapid supermodel whose “heroin-chic” look has gone too far, leaving him or her to wander aimlessly through tedious teen soap opera-like TV shows, more worried about relationships, moral dilemmas and generally looking good as opposed to what they are supposed to be doing: Draining mortal blood and scare the bejesus out of us.
What happened to genuinely frightening vampires? How did the Prince of Darkness become a creep from Beverly Hills 90210?
If anything, becoming “the new rock and roll” is the kiss of death for anything that once could call itself edgy, dangerous or even (dare I say it?) frightening. Pretty much like the band that shares the magazine’s name, having your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine basically means you are now in the mainstream: You’ve been absorbed into a corporate world, sanitized, made-over to take off your rough edges and repackaged to make you acceptable for mass consumption. Your main purpose is now to make money. Not that there is anything wrong with making money, but when its at the expense of something I have a high regard for, then it irks me, to say the least.
For me, some of the most genuinely terrifying moments in literature and on the screen have involved vampires in some way.
I’m pretty sure most people my age (I’m hitting 40) still have the odd nightmare about the vampire kid floating outside the window in Salem’s Lot that they first saw on TV thirty years ago. There was something inherently creepy about that pale face combined with the spine wrenching masterstroke of having him scrape his fingernails down the glass that hit a very raw, very primal nerve and has haunted our sleep ever since.
Salem’s Lot’s Lord of the Vampires, Barlow, managed to overcome having what must be the most un-horrific name of any of the un-dead by recreating the appearance of that most frightening of all vampires to have appeared on screen: Count Orlok from the seminal horror movie, Nosferatu. Let’s face it, there’s no way that particular vampire could be mistaken for someone from the cast of “The Hills”. The first appearance of the Count as he emerges from the shadows with his bald head, pointed ears and rat-like fangs still manages to provoke a little shiver. Not bad for a movie that is close to 90 years old.
TV version aside, the written version of Salems Lot surpasses it in terms of scariness. Without the pictures being supplied, there is nothing that can scare you as much as your own imagination. The same can be said for Bram Stoker’s original novel Dracula, or to give it its other title “The Great Undead”. The whole book is an incredible read, both as a thriller and with some genuinely horrific moments. I urge fans of the modern sexy, disinfected vampire genre to give it a read and see what pale imitations of this Victorian masterpiece present day vampire fiction has become. And if you like it, for something both weird and frightening, go further and read the novella that was one of Stoker’s influences, “Carmilla” by Sheridan le Fanu. This has it all. Creepy castles, undead that stalk the night, dream-like scenes that merge into nightmare, eccentric vampire hunters, stakes through the heart and all spiced up with distinct overtones of lesbianism. Beat that “Twilight Saga”!
I recently watched the Hammer Horror film “The Satanic Rites of Dracula” (for some reason now in the public domain) and realised that by the 1970s vampires had become a bit of a clichéd joke. Something had to change, but did it have to change in such a depressing way?
I was trying to identify where the rot set in, and at first I thought it was with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but to blame Buffy would be like poking a stick at a much loved pet puppy. Buffy never took itself seriously, which is where all these new shows go wrong. Probably the worm at the heart of all this was Anne Rice. In my opinion it was her modern gothic fantasy tales (and the film versions of them) that did most to create this modern plague of impossibly good looking vampires who are overwhelmed with the moral dilemmas involved in gaining immortality through killing others. Did Christopher Lee look like he was burdened by ethical questions when he rose from the grave, red eyes blazing and fangs barred? Did he Hell.
But why does this annoy me? What is so bad about making vampires “more accessible”?
I guess it must be a combination of becoming a grumpy old man (as I said I’m hitting 40) with the general feeling that somehow True Blood, Twilight and their like are vampires-lite, saccharine substitutes for the real thing.
The fact is I want to be scared. I enjoy it. I love the ghost train at the amusement park and the creepy feeling of walking past a cemetery at night. I love ghost stories and I still recall the sheer thrill of listening to them as a kid round the campfire at cub camp. Its cathartic and its, well fun, probably childish fun, but what’s wrong with that?
If you take away the frightening aspect of a vampire all you are left with is a quite frankly ludicrous concept of a corpse risen from the dead. Vampires need to be scary, otherwise they are just plain silly, mere goblins or elves that belong with the creatures from the Lord of the Rings, rather than demons from Hell who belong with the Children of Cain who stalked the night in Beowulf. They are like alcohol-free beer: with the fun bit taken out, all you are left with is something that does not do you any harm but you do not really enjoy.