Articles and Essays

Vampires: the fangs that fascinate

Writers, poets, painters…all have been both attracted and repelled by the vampire. But it took movie arclights to make the creature rise from the grave in all it's horror.

Even now, it is easy to imagine the chill of horror experienced by those first readers of what was to become the most celebrated vampire tale of them all. The words had an unhealthy, almost gloating tone.

"The mouth was redder than ever, for on the lips were gouts of fresh blood which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran over the chin and neck….It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood. He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion."

With these words - vivid, beyond a doubt - Bram Stoker plunged the fangs deep into the consciousness or readers the world over. His creature, the blood-sucking Count Dracula, became one of the most endearing horror figures of the 20th century and his masterpiece of horror was described as the most 'the most blood-curdling horror story in English Literature.' Dracula sold a million copies and set the mold for all the vampire stories that were to follow.
There had been tales and legends of vampirism before but it was Abraham 'Bram' Stoker's splendidly gothic novel that sent shivers down the spines of Victorians and continue to enthrall later generations. For with the publication of Dracula in 1897 Stoker, the Irish Civil servant who also gave the world The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland as well as a series of forgotten thrillers, set the seal on the entire vampire cult. It was he who brought together all the elements of the world of the undead, forever in the mind the figure of predatory evil, cloaked, fanged, bat-like; slumbering by day in the fastness of his Transylvanian castle, and traveling abroad at night to seek his victims.
From this richly imaginative invention sprang the folklore of vampires as monsters who cast no shadows and show no reflections; who can only be laid forever to rest by having a wooden stake driven through their hearts; who cower in revulsion from holy water, wolfbane, garlic and cruciform symbols. The details may have grown, changed or become more sophisticated over the years but Stoker's Dracula remains the greatest, grisliest and most ghoulish vampire of them all.
The impact it made upon Victorian audiences was spectacular and it reflected their morbid fascination with the bizarre, supernatural and phantasmagorical. The feasting off human blood, the sucking out of life forces, the sexual symbolism of sharp teeth incising human flesh cast a mesmeric spell over them. In the same year that Dracula was published a painting appeared in the summer exhibition at the New Gallery in London. It was entitled 'The Vampire' and was by Edward Burnes-Jones.

The Vampire by Edvard Munch one of a series of etching obsessed with sex and death.

This goulish composition featured a young woman of cadaverous features who bent over the body of her dead lover. His skin bore the puncture marks of her teeth. It was an alarming spectacle of depraved eroticism and it stirred the imagination of the late- Victorians. It also caught the attention of Rudyard Kipling - a relative of the painter - who was moved to write a rather bad piece of verse, also called 'The Vampire,' which ran as follows:

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair--
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste,
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
And did not understand!

A fool there was and his goods he spent,
(Even as you or I!)
Honour and faith and a sure intent
(And it wasn't the least what the lady meant),
But a fool must follow his natural bent
(Even as you or I!)

Oh, the toil we lost and the spoil we lost
And the excellent things we planned
Belong to the woman who didn't know why
(And now we know that she never knew why)
And did not understand!

The fool was stripped to his foolish hide,
(Even as you or I!)
Which she might have seen when she threw him aside--
(But it isn't on record the lady tried)
So some of him lived but the most of him died--
(Even as you or I!)

``And it isn't the shame and it isn't the blame
That stings like a white-hot brand--
It's coming to know that she never knew why
(Seeing, at last, she could never know why)
And never could understand!''

It was from these two sources - Stoker's novel and Kipling's poem - that the great popular upsurge in interest about things vampiric sprang. The two were slightly different - what came out of Kipling was not as overtly blood-thirsty as the Dracula school of vampires - but they both caused enormous excitement.
Kipling took the idea of a female vampire farther than the classic undead predator. He saw her as a woman who uses her sexuality to trap her besotted victim, strip him of his wealth, ruin his position, and, once completely in her thrall, sap him of the will to live. She used her sexuality as cynically and callously as a drug pusher uses heroin to hook his addicts. She was female evil embodied.
Sex and the vampire were equated from the start. In Victorian days when women hardly even recognized the existence of sex, female sensuality was portrayed as being unhealthy. No good woman had anything to do with sex, therefore a sexual woman must be a bad one, a predator. In this repressive pre-Freudian atmosphere, sex and death became synonymous. The kiss could become the kiss of death, the love bite could draw life's blood. In art this confusion was evident. The Burne-Jones painting was actually just a hugely popular reflection of a near obsessive theme already explored by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch.
Munch was, in the words of Lord Clark, the distinguished art historian 'a deeply neurotic man' who, he asserts, developed a vision of woman as sorceresses or vampires. In a series of etchings, woodcuts, lithographs and paintings between 1894 and 1914 called variously 'Vampire', 'The Kiss' and, ultimately, 'The Bite' he portrays couples who are deadly lovers.

Edvard Munch's The Kiss

A man's head is stooped over a woman's breast as she bites/kisses his neck in 'The Vampire'; a couple kiss their bodies awkwardly, tensely locked as their faces seem to be sucked into a single blankness in 'The Kiss'; a woman throws her head back as her lover sinks his teeth into her breast in 'The Bite." They are all very highly-charged and all disturbing. This attitude towards the sensual woman was perhaps most forcefully expressed by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg who described Munch's 'The Kiss' as "the fusion of two beings, the smaller of which…seems on the point of devouring the larger as is the habit of vermin, microbes, vampires or women."
Although the Stoker vampire was enormously popular it was, initially, the vampire of art, who symbolically rather than literally sucks the life forces, that became most popular. The image of the parasitic female was so strong that Kipling's poem was transformed into a stage play entitled - from the verse's first line - A Fool There Was. This appeared on Broadway in 1909 and was an instant success, thanks almost entirely to the heavily featured female character now called The Vamp.

The Shadow of the Sphinx

The Vamp was the sexual aggressor who ruined the men who fell beneath her spell and she packed the audiences in. During the play's run, movie mogul William Fox bought the screen rights and - with the advice of the play's producer to tie the leading actress to a strong contract because it would make her an overnight star - he started a hunt for the right girl. Director Frank Powell found her I the sturdy shape of Miss De Coppett who had previously been humble Theodosia Goodman was about to be 'reborn' as the considerably more exotic Theda Bara, allegedly born in the shadow of the Sphinx to royal parentage and weaned on the blood not of lovesick males but venomous serpents. The whole thing was pure hokum - not least the claim that her name was the anagram for Arab Death.

The Beautiful Theda Bara

The more probable explanation was a diminution of Theodosia and Bara merely a contaction of a family name, Barranger, was discounted. Perhaps because it was so outrageous, the press and public reveled in the myth.
A Fool There Was became a colossal hit and, as predicted, Theda Bara shot to stardom as the first and most potent new breed of women - The Vamp. Soon the phrase and the type passed into the popular culture and Theda Bara's image was nourished and exaggerated by photographers enlisted to capture her at her most mystic. These shots were, in themselves, erotic, being heavily dependent on as little clothing and as much fetishism as possible. The vampires sucked blood, but one classic still showed The Vamp string over a skeleton - presumably a dead lover - whom she appears to have recently eaten.
Vamps became all the rage and, for the moment, seemed to have displaced their male blood-sucking counterparts. From the late Nineties and into the new century Bram Stoker's Count lay staked, dead and unresurrected, waiting for the beams of a movie arclight to raise him again and turn him into one of the most enduringly popular cult figures in cinema history.

This article originally appeared in "Out of This World: The Illustrated Library of the Bizarre and Extraordinary" by Phoebus Publishing Company 1976/1977/1978 and is now out of print.

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