Fang club: 100 years since Nosferatu, inside the world of vampires
How did the bloated, bloodthirsty monster become the brooding heartthrob of today? What are the equivalents in Indian lore? And what exactly does it mean to be a ‘real-world vampire’ in the modern age? Take a look.
There’s a scene in FW Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu (essentially the Dracula story taking place in the small German town of Wisborg, instead of in the English town of Whitby). In this scene, the mysterious Count Orlok is talking to a guest, a real-estate agent named Hutter. While he’s speaking, Hutter drops a locket containing a portrait of his wife Ellen, and Orlok picks it up and looks at it, saying “Your wife has a lovely neck.”
Vampires are about sex.
It wasn’t always so.
Today’s vampire is a far cry from the original depictions through history and folklore. Traditionally, vampires were depicted as bloated creatures, sort of humanoid flesh balloons filled with blood. Even Orlok is more grotesque than sexy. He has a bald head, flaring ears, thick eyebrows, a predatory beak of a nose, wide staring eyes, and sharp, claw-like nails at the end of preternaturally long fingers. Orlok is clearly a monster; his powers of seduction are the result of his ability to control minds.
This changed in 1931. The association of vampires with both sophistication and savagery was probably cemented by Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula in that year’s classic adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 novel. Immaculately dressed, with a flowing cloak and oozing sinister courtesy, Lugosi’s performance combined suavity and a predatory hunger that redefined the vampire forever. Lugosi was followed, in 1958, by Christopher Lee, whose screen presence offered both the menace and sophistication that audiences had come to expect from their vampires.
Over time, the vampire — the male vampire — has become this handsome, brooding, proud stereotype; meeting, quite remarkably, all the criteria with which the British colonialist and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay used to define the Byronic hero: “with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.
This is only appropriate, since Lord Byron arguably inspired the genre of vampire literature, serving as a model for Lord Ruthven, the protagonist of The Vampyre. This short story was the delayed result of one memorable evening at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland, when Byron, Byron’s physician John Polidori and the Shelleys (Percy Bysshe and Mary) wrote stories of the supernatural. Byron’s contribution was called A Fragment, and was developed by Polidori into The Vampyre (1819).
And that leads us to today, and the explosion of vampire content, with the good-looking, broody vampire or vampires at the centre. Whether it’s Louis and Lestat from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles novels (it helps that they were played by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the 1994 film Interview with the Vampire); Jean-Claude from Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series; Angel and Spike of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003); Bill Compton and Eric Northman of True Blood (2008-2014), they are all attractive and super-powered, with well-defined weaknesses.
Jim Butcher splits the difference between sex and blood in his Dresden Files series of novels, by having his vampires belong to different “courts”. The Black Court are your vampires from Stoker; sunlight doesn’t kill them, and they have supernatural strength. Red Court vampires are your batlike bloodsuckers. Vampires from the White Court feed off sex.
Exactly a century after Bram Stoker published Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer hit TV screens. The show was at the vanguard of a series of other series featuring vampires: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, A Discovery of Witches, the list goes on.
We’ve also had enormously popular book series: Laurel K Hamilton’s Anita Blake; Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries, the books behind the True Blood show; JR Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood and, of course, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.
Vampires made it into table-top gaming as early as 1983, when Strahd Von Zarovich, the vampire count of Barovia made his first appearance as the antagonist of the Dungeons and Dragons module Ravenloft. Vampire: The Masquerade (1991), a table-top role-playing game, has players play as vampires, and not the heroes hunting them. In Low Stakes, players play vampires who must try to blend in with the humans around them.
Videogames have several memorable vampires as well. There’s Serana, the vampire companion in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011). Rayne from BloodRayne (2002) is a sexy Nazi-slaying vampire. There’s Regis from The Witcher (2007), though he first appeared in Andrzej Sapkowski’s original stories, a mild-mannered healer and herbalist who is also capable of tearing enemies apart with his bare hands. Dracula himself is a recurring part of the hugely popular and long running Castlevania series of games.
There are also child-friendly versions such as Count von Count from Sesame Street, Count Duckula, the vampire family of Hotel Transylvania, a film franchise in which Dracula has a daughter, lives in fear of the violent humans, and runs a hotel for other similarly traumatised monsters.
There have been several attempts to take vampire tropes apart. The late Terry Pratchett had a lot of fun doing so. In his Discworld books, vampires always carry a vial of blood. Just in case they should crumble and turn to dust, the vial breaks and the blood helps them reform. Pacifist vampires in his books work hard to kick the habit, taking up coffee, or knitting, instead. Oh, and while male vampires can turn back into human form fully clothed, after a shapeshift, female vampires can’t.
There are legends of blood-sucking monsters in folklore around the world. India has the vetala or Betaal; there’s the chupacabra of the Americas, which prefers animal blood to human; Mandurugo of the Philippines, a beautiful woman by day and a monster with a long, sharp piercing tongue by night; the penanggalan of Malaysia, and many others. But the vampire as we know it, sexy, brooding and super-powered, remains a uniquely Western pop-culture phenomenon, albeit one that is instantly familiar.