“For the Dead Travel Fast”: Vampirism and Cinema

Vampires are, by definition, parasites. They don’t devour the living, like a zombie would, what they do is more discrete. They feed off something truly precious: our blood. As that famous quote from Dracula goes: “the blood is the life”. That is the one consistent fact in every vampire film, but what makes our blood so special? Sure, we would die if someone drained our blood, but blood also has a lot of symbolic value. Our genetic material passes through the blood and connects us with our ancestors and heritage. To take away our blood is to remove us from our family, to isolate us and change our very genetic order.

Vampire attacks are even more sinister when they turn their victims into vampires. As an act of transgression, they give their victim new blood, with a different genetic history and makeup. This suggests that a vampire attack is a physical and pathological attack, but also a social and biological kind, like a violent assimilation.

“The story of the strangest Passion the world has ever known”
(tagline for Dracula 1931)

Cinema has loved vampires since the early days of filmmaking, in fact, movies and vampire lore motivated one another. Bram Stoker’s Dracula became popular as a result of the controversy over the film Nosferatu. I would argue that the press surrounding this legal battle led to the creation of Dracula in 1931, which ushered in an era of classic monster films. Bela Lugosi’s interpretation of Dracula was suave and mysterious, a kind of dangerous yet enticing predator the likes of which still appears today.

The Dracula in Stoker’s text is starkly different from Lugosi’s performance, but Lugosi did pick up on one crucial element of Stoker’s work. Vampires must be enticing in some way, that much is clear from Dracula’s sultry wives, who are equally beautiful and horrific. They must lure people in, and they do so by representing everything that society is not, every taboo.

“She has man’s brain”
(Stoker’s Dracula)

The only characters who are regularly sexualized in Stoker’s text are women, which makes sense given what vampires represent. Vampires have been read through a variety of lens, everything from venereal disease to a commentary on bourgeois suppression and feeding off the poor. But women are always central to these readings, as female vampires are portrayed as hyper-sexual beings with vicious appetites. Male vampires are also sexualized to an extent, but this sexuality is never as shocking. I would argue this is because men are usually vampires throughout the film, while women are often transformed into vampires around the middle of the film. We therefore get two versions of the woman, the good and normative kind and then the dangerous and sexy kind. We compare these personas, and as a result, the female vampire seems more radical than her male counterpart.

Likewise, these vampiric transformations are inherently political, as they suggest that women have the capacity for dangerous sexuality and violence, no matter how innocent they initially appear. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Stoker’s work suggests that people have a dark side which could emerge at any moment. This commentary is perhaps more extreme in Stoker’s work than in Jekyll, as it goes on to suggest that women contain this independent spirit and could threaten normative masculinity.

What I find most interesting about Stoker’s text is how he presents three layers of carnage as the result of Dracula’s invasion. First, the physical threat, the fact that he kills people and rips out their throats. Second, a moral and institutional threat, as women reawaken as dangerous and powerful figures who actively reject normative values. And third, Dracula poses a genealogical threat, which Stoker often symbolizes using legal jargon.

“The whole estate, real and personal, was left absolutely to Arthur Holmwood”

For a book so concerned with blood and the supernatural, there is relatively little time spent on Dracula or the supernatural. Instead, we get whole chapters dedicated to new technology, travel, observations about society, and legal issues. For instance, when Lucy dies, there is a strange note about who her inheritance will fall to, as she and her mother are both dead. On one level, Dracula’s violence has stopped Lucy from having children of her own, which explains why the vampire Lucy begins stealing children, as she is actively destroying motherhood just as Dracula did. But Dracula similarly upends her family’s legacy and inheritance line, a legal disruption.

Lucy isn’t the only character with legal troubles. In fact, the novel begins with Jonathan’s travel to the Carpathian Mountains so he can legally advise Dracula on which properties to buy in England. If Dracula hadn’t needed a legal team, Jonathan and the others would not have gotten involved.

These are just a few examples of legal incidents in Dracula (I actually wrote a whole paper on it a few years ago). Suffice to say, vampires threaten our institutions, specifically the way we run things. They pervert the very systems which our society upholds, and Dracula interrupts several of these orders. He stops Lucy from marrying and continuing her family’s legacy, he corrupts the real estate industry, and he complicates inheritance. Simply put, when Dracula arrives, all our institutions crumble.

“White People with Canvas Bags, That’s Always the First Sign”

The fear of the vampire in Dracula is essentially the fear of foreign invasion, as Dracula is a foreigner who brings destruction to an orderly and proper English society. It is noteworthy that this anxiety has been reread in a few modern vampire films. I recently watched Vampires Vs. The Bronx (2020), which I highly recommend, and was struck by the film’s discussion on race and gentrification. The main conflict is that a pack of vampires are buying up property in the Bronx and killing off small business owners. The vampires are exclusively white, while the citizens of the Bronx are mixed ethnicities, which the vampires hate.

It makes sense that vampires are racist, they are essentially privileged old white people, but this is the first time I have seen that reading made so apparent. The film’s big twist (spoilers) is that the head of the vampire group is a beautiful white woman who had previously befriended our protagonists, a small group of teens who are trying to save their neighborhood from vampires and gentrification. She is quite aware of her privilege and uses it several times in the film. When we first meet her, she assures the group that she won’t call the police on them just because they bumped into her. She plays it off as a joke, but the moment is deeply uncomfortable, as she is making fun of a real issue which the group is already anxious about. After we get the reveal that she is a powerful vampire, this moment is even more jarring, as the teens were right about their initial fear. She might not have called the police, but she is more than happy to use those systems to her advantage. So, while in Dracula, we had a foreigner corrupting the legal system, this film suggests that the judicial system is already corrupt and racist.

It also repositions this fear of the foreign invader, as the vampires are obsessed with racist white agendas, and believe that they have a right to take the Bronx away from those they think of as immigrants. But at the same time, the vampires are also a foreign invader, as their company uses violent colonial tactics to uproot life in the Bronx. The film thus transforms the fear of the foreign invader, as seen in Dracula, into a fear of gentrification.

Like vampirism, gentrification transforms a community into something pale and lifeless/uniformed, and both processes are deadly. Gentrification’s resulting displacement can have deadly consequences for vulnerable people and entire families. It is therefore the same level of harm, interruption, and transformation as vampirism.

“There is a reason why all things are as they are”

I am certainly not the first person to make the comparison between Vampires Vs. The Bronx and Dracula, I think Screen Rant also did a post about it. However, I think it is important to unpack how vampires are used to address systemic issues in addition to the fear around these very institutions. Mina and Lucy in Dracula get to reject normative orders, and although they are punished for that (Lucy gets killed and Mina is turned back into a human), they still embody atypical femininity throughout the text. Dracula is preoccupied with what happens to women when they step away from these domestic and passive personas, something which Mina routinely deals with. The group thinks of her as a mother in an attempt to remove her from this power (to put her back into a domestic role), but she still travels with the group, records everything, is critical of the world and its threats, and is not afraid to use new technology (like the phonograph). Her interests and passion threaten society’s image of passive womanhood even before she is bitten by Dracula.

Dracula examines issues around our institutions, and quietly suggests that they are problematic. This subtle criticism, which never goes far enough to be an actual discussion, has been picked up by these later vampire films. Although recent film scholars have suggested that horror and vampire films have only recently become self-conscious, I believe that Stoker’s Dracula and the early days of vampire films suggests otherwise. They have always embodied these anxieties, and they have always toyed with what makes us human, whether that is literal (our bodies, blood, and genes/history) or cultural (the way we organize our society and institutions). And so, it’s important to pay attention to what kind of vampires we see in films, specifically what they embody, what they threaten, and what they arouse in our society.

This week, I am focusing on the politics around vampire cinema. Tune in as I explore why cinema returns to this batty creature of the night so regularly.

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