“Beware that his shadow does not engulf you like a daemonic nightmare.” Of Vampyres, Terrible Phantoms and the Seven Deadly Sins (Nosferatu, 1922)
“All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” from Jonathan Harker’s journal
“No man knows, till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own lifeblood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves.” From Dr. Seward’s diary, 10 September.
In one of the first pieces I wrote for the Cultural Gutter, I wrote about how I like that there are so many versions of Batman. And I talked about how bats come in a “cloud.” I wish I had saved that metaphor for discussing Dracula, because there are so many more versions of him—and of vampires in general.
There is the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel, in which Stoker looks over his shoulder at Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, James Malcolm Rhymer’s Varney the Vampyre and Dr. Polidori’s Lord Ruthven.* There is the historical Wallachian Voivod, Vlad III. There is the non-legally actionable Count Orlok of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (1922), voted the most creepily adorable vampire by me. There is Bela Lugosi’s classic performance on stage and screen and Carlos Villarías in George Melford’s Spanish-language version filmed simultaneously with Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Paul Naschy’s Dracula wore turtlenecks and looked for love in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1972) and Gary Oldman’s wore tinted glasses while doing the same in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) There is Christopher Lee’s protean count in Hammer Studios’s Dracula movies. In 1979, there were both an open-shirted Frank Langella in Dracula and a ratlike Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, The Vampyre. Marvel Comics’ Dracula has been a nemesis of Blade and Dr. Strange before moving to a castle on the moon. Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Dracula appears to bite it before returning in Dark Horse’s Buffyverse comics. And just a few weeks ago I saw poor Vlad getting over some things in What We Do In The Shadows (2014) and then came across a copy of Becky Cloonan’s illustrated Dracula (New York: Harper Design, 2012) It seemed like both a sign and a portent—as if Dracula were calling out to me across oceans of time…
Becky Cloonan is one of my favorite comic artists (and writers) and it is interesting to see her work in a solely illustrative capacity, with more time for each image. This edition of Dracula has plenty of space for her illustration, but is still a convenient size and shape for reading. Her bold, jagged lines and cool palette broken with bloody bright red and rusty brown go so well with the story. And, man, can she draw wolves. Beyond really liking her work, there is just something satisfying about a woman illustrating Dracula—especially a woman who draws sexy women, pulp horror and violence so well. Someone fetch smelling salts; Bram Stoker has collapsed, appalled, on his fainting couch. And here I thought there was no fun to be had in shocking the bourgeoisie.
I’ve Dracula read many times, but Stoker is a bit of a struggle for me. Stoker was the son of Charlotte M.B. Stoker (nee Thornley), an outspoken feminist and advocate for universal education, and his ambivalence about women, the New Woman and especially women’s sexuality comes through in the book. But I’ve been thinking about Dracula more as I see calls for vampires to be “scary again” and complaints about sexy and romantic vampires in the wake of Twilight, The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. (And Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire (1976) and Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1994) before them). Dracula himself has had a lot of forms in comics and in film and many of them have been sexy times Dracula. In fact, sexy vampires pre-date Dracula. Whatever your mileage may be on Lord Ruthven, he’s not a hideous nosferatu. (Sorry, Orlok). And before Dracula was written 1897, Sheridan Le Fanu wrote the first sexy lady Lesbian vampire story, Carmilla (1874). So the sexy times and the attractive doom has always been a part of vampire stories, even if not all vampires are sexy. (Though many of the folk complaining are probably perfectly happy with Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla).
But even if you consider sexy Dracula a bastardization of Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, there are still sexy vampires in Dracula. They just happen to be ladies. In fact, female vampires outnumber male ones in Dracula: 4.5 to 1.5, or three brides, one Bloofer Lady and Mina Harker to one Dracula and one Renfield. Because whether you want sexy vampires or not, in Dracula, at least, vampires are a lot about women’s sexual desire and everyone’s fear of it.
In the moonlight opposite me were three young women, ladies by their dress and manner. I thought at the time that I must be dreaming when I saw them, for, though the moonlight was behind them, they threw no shadow on the floor. They came close to me, and looked at me for some time, and then whispered together….All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes and cause her pain; but it is the truth. (Stoker, 2012: 48-50 )
Women lose their innocence and become sexy and sexually aggressive after encountering Dracula. Please note Exhibits A-C from Kate Beaton’s “Hark, A Vagrant!”:
And now we have male vampires who explicitly represent or cater to women’s desire bringing the horror of women’s sexual agency to a theater or couch near you.
In Nosferatu (1922) and Nosferatu (1979), women’s sexual desire is eliminated from the story of Dracula. And the vampire is not attractive, but the women who die to stop him are idealized beauties whose self-sacrifice is also filmed as beautiful. The vampire is destroyed ultimately by own desire as ladies patiently lie back and think of saving mankind. Which is kind of amazing, now that I think about it. Whatever is going on with ladies is so powerful that they can destroy with utter passivity and seeming obliviousness. Being beautiful because you don’t know you’re beautiful has been a big thing for a while.
But where Dracula‘s women become at first languid and then terrible women who kill children, wear sexy nightgowns and come on too strong, Renfield, the only partially transformed man, becomes both murderous and strangely pliant. He is not only subject to his Master’s will, but schemingly so with the authorities of his asylum. Renfield becomes consumed with eating smaller lives so that he can become like Dracula and free himself from his subjection. Renfield isn’t appealing, but there is a strong appeal to becoming a vampire lady. They are active, rather than passive. They are predators, rather than prey. (I actually think this is a stronger theme in werewolf movies like Ginger Snaps). They get to express emotions and apparently have a lot more fun. They get better clothes. They don’t die—well, at least until Van Helsing comes around to stake them, fill their mouths with garlic and chop off their heads. (Dracula only requires a stab). But even the ladies who don’t transform, appear to enjoy Dracula’s hickeys.
And while I doubt that sympathy for vampires is new, the pervasive general sympathy and the openness of it is seems to be. Years ago, I attended an academic conference panel on depictions of evil in pop culture. It was during the height of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and a lot of the attendees were concerned that in sympathizing with vampires, the youth were unknowingly embracing evil. While evil has the best outfits and lairs, I thought even then that this was just wrong. After over one hundred years of world wars, genocide, and slavery, I think it’s hard for us honestly to see a force more capable of destruction than ourselves. A vampire just can’t compete. And it’s very easy to see us using justifications we have used over and over to persecute vampires: they are evil; they aren’t human; they don’t have souls. And you can’t tell me that Vampire Prosecutor doesn’t have a soul.
Lately, vampires have been getting with the program. Vampires are going corporate and that’s just scary, because nothing is more depressing than an eternity of corporate office work. In Dracula AD, 1972, Dracula oversees his Satanic business from a skyscraper office suite. In the Underworld film series, vampires have terrible, boring meetings that they must all attend for eternity. And in Daybreakers (2007), the world is pretty much exactly like it is right now except everyone will have to go to their terrible white collar jobs until the sun burns out. Lucifer help them if they ever colonize other worlds. In comics, Kurt Busiek, Daryl Gregory and Scott Godlewski’s Dracula: Company of Monsters (BOOM!, 2001) pits Dracula against a family-owned corporation looking to use him for his blood. Conrad Barrington wants to be immortal and he will raise Dracula from the grave to do it. This Dracula is very much a feudal lord, and that is what gives him most of his appeal and his slight edge over Conrad. Dracula has a code and he cares about his people. He was a man who chose a pact with the Devil to do the terrible things he thought needed to be done to protect his people. But still, he has committed atrocities and he will overrun the world if he can.
And in American Vampire: Lord of Nightmares (Vertigo, 2013), Scott Snyder and Dustin Nguyen’s Dracula is a dark presence who is felt more than seen as governments scramble to either contain him or weaponize him during the Cold War. Because they are so focused on their own goals, the human authorities can’t understand the threat he is. He is seemingly irrational, in human terms. He compels those in his presence to murder, controls the minds of his vampire kin, and uses a human, the very pleasant Mr. Glass from Dayton, Ohio as his voice. This Dracula is terrifying and seemingly unknowable. And he gets most of his power from staying mostly in the background we only encounter him, as we mostly do in Dracula, through others’ accounts and others’ experiences. We see his aftermath and we fear what he can do. And the thing is, we barely ever see him. He appears as a bestial shadow that reminds me of one of Cloonan’s drawings. But Dracula himself takes myriad forms. So who can say he’s not sexy, too?
*Also, make sure to read Keith’s “Vampyr: From Carmilla to Carl Dreyer” at Teleport City.
Then Carol Borden laughed–such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips.
This post was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Oct. 9, 2014.