While everybody tends to associate immortal bloodsuckers exclusively with the genre of horror, vampires are way more versatile than that. In fact, the reason vampires never die in fiction is because they can work in almost every single genre. From science fiction to comedy, sometimes the best thing you can do to any fictional world is to get a vampire in there and let it start sucking. Just don’t let them stay there for too long.
There’s a reason why everyone, from brilliant novelists to cynical TV studio heads, will always go to the vampire well: the combination of tragically romantic and immortal characters who rely on totally macabre means of survival creates all sorts of cool juxtapositions. If vampires only sucked blood in the dark of night, then they wouldn’t be as interesting. But the fact that they are also doomed to do this forever makes them tragic, and thus incredibly flexible and compelling characters.
In terms of built-in disadvantages to being happy, vampires are like the exact opposite of a super-intelligent computer getting all the questions right on Jeopardy!. Everything is stacked against vampires, and their superpowers (mind control, not needing mirrors) seem like a conciliation prize for having eternally shitty lives. Not only can they only come out at night when all the good brunch spots are closed, but their lives are also fairly meaningless and sad. We can already see why this would be psychologically terrifying if you were a real vampire, which is why we tend to root for vampires even when they are the overt bad guys. Vampires are sympathetic figures driven to do terrible things; they are the lovable self-destructive rock stars of the fantasy monster world.
In Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, one of the vampires (played by Tom Hiddleston) is a literal rock star, so badass and indie that he doesn’t even allow his identity as a brilliant recording artist to be revealed to the world. Obviously, this is a little funny, but it’s tragic too. If you lived forever and only could come out at night, being a rock star would make you even more depressed than a real “tortured” artist. Here, the trope of the vampire as the perpetual ghostwriter or Cyrano pops up. In addition to being sexy nocturnal monsters, vampires probably wrote your favorite book or painted your favorite painting, but could take no credit for it at all.
Which is ironic, because one of the earliest vampire stories of them all — John Polidori’s “The Vampyre” — was possibly not even written by John Polidori. Instead, it has be has been suggested Polidori ripped the story off from a hack writer named John Mitford sometime before 1819. Some books containing the story (like the 1997 Oxford World’s Classic version) won’t even credit Polidori on the cover. Plagiarism is the easy culprit here, unless Mitford was actually a vampire and Polidori was his front.
But being a vampire screws up your relationships with more than just your art. Other people’s lives are changed too. Perhaps the most sympathetic vampire of them all is Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Fried) from the long-lived soap opera Dark Shadows. Fact check: This friendly vampire who wished to rid himself of his “curse” was not even IN Dark Shadows for the first few seasons until the writers — specifically Joe Caldwell — decided to bring in a vampire to liven the show up in a ratings grabs. Here, a vampire was created as a temporary (and desperate) plot point in a struggling soap opera. But, of course, like a real vampire, Barnabas bit Dark Shadows by the neck and turned the whole soap opera into a “vampire show.” And while not always intentionally a comedy, Dark Shadows is pretty damn funny.
The original film version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was hilarious as well. And I’ll be that guy and say that unlike the uber-popular TV show of the same name which followed, the original movie was better because it played with contrast really well. It’s hard to believe now, but in 1992, the idea of fusing a teenage Grease-esque comedy with a movie about killing vampires was fairly novel: the Teen-Wolf of good ideas that involved vampires.
In terms of the the raw thematic elements, Joss Whedon’s original film sort of did everything you could possibly ask for with this concept, and the subsequent (much more beloved show) is mostly diminishing returns.
Yep. I said it. A series about a vampire — like Buffy or Dark Shadows — seems like a good idea but rarely is. Here, the popularity of True Blood and its literary ancestors — the novels by Charlaine Harris will try prove me wrong in a popularity contest. Everybody loves these long-running stories about specific vampires and everyone loves Twilight, particularly when its remade (minus vampires) as 50 Shades of Grey. And yet, it feels like vampires are better pieces of narrative art when they are designed initially as one-off films like the 1931 Dracula or fun, thoughtful short stories like author Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.” Vampires are awesome metaphors, but they lose their cleverness when they get turned into franchises. In short: A long-running vampire story ceases to be sympathetic, just like how having a real-life vampire in your house would be cool for a week and start to suck as time went on. And though almost no one will agree, that’s why the TV show version of Buffy should have ended way before it did.
In the late ‘90s, a close friend of mine and I marveled at the absurdity of the very unpopular TV show Forever Knight. I guess this series about an 800-year-old vampire living in a contemporary world of crime was trying to appeal to those of us looking for something to watch when the TV show version of Highlander was in reruns. Why is the main character of Forever Knight — Nick Knight — a cop? Here, it’s like two TV show tropes combined to form an unholy alliance of the awesomeness of vampires and the deranged fact that an outrageously high percentage of popular TV shows are also cop shows. This show was bad, and it’s badness was thankfully cut short.
Because once a vampire is invited into to stay for a long time in either a TV show, a series of books, or a series of films, things tend to get boring or at the very least same-y. The tragic nature of a vampire is only interesting because we glimpse it for an instant in a novel like Dracula or a movie like Byzantium. No one actually wants to live forever, and despite what your goth friends have told you, nobody wants to be a real vampire either. This is why even a bad vampire concept like Forever Knight needed to be a cop show in order to try and work. Long-running vampire narratives don’t work because they start to feel like they will never end.
When the immortality of a specific vampire narrative starts to seem like it’s lasting forever IRL (Twilight, endless Anne Rice books, the perplexing persistence of the Underworld films) everyone wants to grab a wooden stake to be put out of their misery. Vampires are compelling narrative devices across all genres because the possibilities are infinite. But good art relies on finite boundaries. When vampires blur those boundaries, you’re in trouble.
After all, Halloween only comes once a year for a reason.
Photos via wikipedia, CBS