Nightmares of the past reborn

Vampires through the years

6 minute read
Jonathan Hyde as Eldritch Palmer in "The Strain."  (© Copyright 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.)
Jonathan Hyde as Eldritch Palmer in "The Strain." (© Copyright 2014, FX Networks. All rights reserved.)

Vampire. There was a time when the very mention of that word sent folks scurrying to their homes, to lock their garlic-laden doors and pray for dawn. Myth, perhaps, but there also lies a glimmer of our dark reflections buried deep in our hind brain.

The undead today are nothing like the gaunt wights of times past, nor do they at all resemble the dapper count, who, though he is indeed a villain who steals red-rimmed midnight kisses, is also irrefutably noble. This generation's vampires can be evil, certainly, but they are always angelically beautiful. Can evil be such candy for the eye? You bet, but should there at lease be some variation? Yes, indeed; man cannot survive by satisfying only his sweet tooth. Perhaps after all this time there is a meal on the horizon we can sink our teeth into.

In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the vampire's activities were symbolic of sex, especially the acts that the polite society of the day considered perverted. We can certainly see the substitution of drinking blood for oral sex; suckling, swallowing, and the absolute bliss that it brought to the vampire as well as to his victim. It was a male-dominated society at the time, and the vampire, though ancient, was clearly a creation of the mind of Victorian men. Yes, there were the brides of Dracula, but even they seemed much more interested in providing Johnathan Harker with pleasure before “devouring him.” The male vampire was the only man who could bring such pleasure to a woman, through his bite. This bestowed a mystical attraction for both women and men — women because they lived in a society in which their physical needs were dismissed as unnatural or unimportant and men because they were amazed that any man could or would take the time to make a woman feel that way.

There is also a dark connection between the vampire and his victims that brings us back to a twisted version of our childhood; when a vampire feeds from a woman (in early cases) it was very much like the act of breastfeeding. The blood of the female victim (and almost all victims of male vampires early on were female), taken from the very mounds of her heaving breasts, was the sustenance the vampire needed to survive, just as any mortal baby does.

Black widows

As women began to seek and to some degree achieve equality, so did their cadaverous counterparts. We began to see more female vampires seeking out male victims to feed upon. The female vampire seemed to grow attached to the men she gave her blood to, birthing them into darkness. Society may have advanced, yet there was still the feeling that women would never be as unrepentantly evil as men; their dark side was tempered by their overwhelming capacity for love.

Later, as the decadent '70s rolled in, the female vampire became more the siren and less the matron; she killed and had sex with a man because it was her desire. She could be just as cold as the male, if not more so, and often chose to be the black widow, killing her mates out of sheer spite and anger. This mirrored society; a woman could be her own person, no man required, but the average man saw these women as “evil.” Though this is an obvious fallacy, there was still that mental connection.

Years later, the vampire became a sorrowful creature seeking redemption. No better example of this can be found on television than the character Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cursed with a soul, he can only become his former creature of darkness self by experiencing a moment of true happiness — talk about a curse. Yet we as a society and as humans like no story better than the villain who has been rehabilitated. We root for characters like Angel to overcome and to become a champion because we ourselves, in our heart of hearts, wish we could be better beings as well.

The stuff of sexual fantasies

Many of the vampires currently on television are sexy creatures of the night, like those from True Blood, who are much as they were in life. Their problems may have changed, but they are still fallible creatures who can love and hate with equal vehemence. Most of all, though, they are still the stuff of sexual fantasies; all beautiful if somewhat precariously balanced on the fence between good and evil.

There are the suave and seductive creatures from The Vampire Diaries as well, who seem pretty much an overblown euphemism for sibling rivalry. Here we have love, however impure and improbable, and — of course — sex. But there are friendships and family as well. Current vampires seem to be much like us. They may be beautiful and charismatic, but they are also glaringly imperfect. We can identify with them for being like us, but still admire and desire them for being a better, more powerful us that can do pretty much whatever they want and live forever in the bargain.

This brings me, finally, to a new type of vampire tale: The Strain. These vampires are hideous, maniacal, and horrendous. They do not seek redemption, and they do not seek to seduce (at least not in a conventional way). The humans are troubled and have lives that existed before — and outside of — the plague at the core of the story. They also have issues that hinder them throughout, be that addiction or lost loves or merely survival. The heroes are often less than heroic; many of them are rather awful people who realize that fighting these creatures is the only way to save humankind. Who cares if you are a gang member or a drug dealer when the person next to you could suddenly change and lunge for your neck? This creates a rather unbreakable bond.

The cast — the human characters at least — look like normal people; they could be your next-door neighbors or your best friends or your lover. I find that lack of fake movie star beauty to be much more engaging, making me feel a deeper, emotional attachment for the characters. The show reflects today's society, with the worst monster being a very human multimillionaire who is the owner and CEO of a mega-corporation. The government is paralyzed — in fact, many politicians are in cahoots with the vampires, and the military seems to want to shoot everything that moves. Society quickly collapses with no order or anyone to “protect and serve.”

And, thus, we hearken back to the days long past when vampires were inhuman, terrifying creatures that roamed the night in search of blood, whose bite is more virulent than that of a rabid animal. The Vampire is back, and he is terrifying!

What, When, Where

The Strain. Carlton Cuse, Guillermo del Toro, Gary Ungar, and Chuck Hogan, executive producers. FX, Sundays at 10pm.

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