Appropriating Vampires: Wish Fulfillment and the 'New Gothic'

In November of 1996, in Eustis Florida, some 25 miles north of Orlando, 17 year old Rod Ferrell inducted his new girlfriend, Heather Wendorf, age15, into his self-styled "Vampire Clan," a tight-knit, secretive group of teenagers who, according to police reports, regularly cut their arms in order to suck one another's blood, and were additionally suspected of bleeding several animals which they had stolen from local shelters. After Heather's initiation, Ferrell entered the home of the girl's parents, Richard Wendorf, 49, and his wife Ruth Wendorf, 54, where he bludgeoned them to death with a crowbar. The victims' bodies were marked with Ferrell's vampire signature, and during the subsequent trial, Ferrell and his teenage co-defendants were charged with carrying out the attack as part of their efforts to gain immortality.

Two years later, in November of 1998, Police arrested 21-year-old Joshua Rudiger on charges of slashing the throat of a homeless man in San Francisco's Chinatown. Rudiger, a suspect in attacks on at least four homeless people, told police he is a 2,000-year-old vampire who thrives on drinking blood. Rudiger entered a plea of "not guilty" to ten felony charges, including one count of murder and three more of attempted murder.

In the period between those two events, the Warner Brother's network's Buffy: the Vampire Slayer went from being a cult television program with a relatively limited viewership of two million, to becoming the flagship of the fledgling WB television network, with well over six-million regular viewers, making it the second most popular program in its time slot.

It will come as a shock to no-one to hear that the figure of the vampire has been enjoying unprecedented popularity in recent films, television, books, and other media. What may be surprising is not only the magnitude of the vampire's fashionableness, but the degree to which some audiences have incorporated this, at best, morally ambiguous figure into their personal pantheons. Some observers tend to attribute the vampire's resurrection to a millennial fascination with the paranormal, mixed with a more general nostalgia for the tropes, figures, and texts of antiquity, particularly for those associated with the last fin de siecle, as our vampire most certainly is. However, what may be less clear is just how different the modern vampire is from his Victorian, or more recent, forbears. Until the 1980's, the vampire depicted in film and television was almost universally the European aristocrat of Bram Stoker's Dracula, by way of Bela Lugosi's 1930 film portrayal. But the modern vampire which inspires such devout disciples, and occasional murderers, is no longer simply the elegantly clad foreign incubus, the alien interloper who seduces and then devours the proper women of society. Nor is the modern vampire's tale the simplistic morality play of God, country, and chastity which most critics make of Stoker's text Instead, the vampire has become, even more than he ever was, a figure of wish-fulfillment, of release from social strictures, of fantasy.

Luckily, the degree to which the traditional vampire has been rewritten is more easily visible than it might be for other conventional signifiers, since critics rarely have such a universally acknowledged original text as Stoker's Dracula from which we may chart the figure's deviation over time. Even "straight" adaptations of this Ur-text have displayed a startling capacity to adapt to their unique historical moments and conditions of production, while still retaining sufficient family resemblance to expropriate the "aura" of Stoker's original. But given the historic flood of film interpretations, why would anyone choose to remake the text yet again?

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula provides a cogent example of the degree to which simple demand for spectacle may contribute to the vampire’s longevity. In pre-production interviews, Coppola claimed that the supernatural elements of the story (and, we might suppose, the liberties which had already been taken with the text) would enable him to stretch the general conventions which theorists such as Graeme Turner insist drive most modern movie productions. However, by the time advertisements were being circulated, Coppola (and the studios) had decided to emphasize the degree to which their film would be the first to accurately portray Stoker’s novel. The decision to include Stoker’s name in the title was partially one of economic necessity (another studio owned the title), but is more interesting in its suggestion that this movie would be, at last, a return to the authoritative source of the many variations of the Dracula story.

The emphasis on the authority of the nineteenth century text is also interesting in terms of the seriousness with which the work was approached. Dracula has had a troubled history in terms of its status as a canonical text: from the time of its composition, many critics have insisted that the story appeals primarily to the desire of the Philistine public for spectacle, sexuality, and escapism. Accordingly, while the new Dracula would contain all the special effects necessary to ensure popular success, the movie was aggressively marketed as the presentation of a work of high culture, of literature. Paperback copies of Stoker’s novel were distributed as tie-ins to the movie’s release. Fangoria magazine, an extremely popular source of information on horror and supernatural sensational film and fiction was denied an interview on the premise that Coppola’s production was not primarily a horror film, but a literary film, and thus of little interest to the magazine’s audience.

Casting choices for the new film were obviously made with modern audiences in mind, however. Keanu Reeves was chosen to play Jonathan Harker not for his particular appropriateness to the part (which, if authenticity and attention to the text were Coppola’s primary concern, would surely have demanded an English actor, or at least one who could fake an English accent) but for his mass audience appeal. Wynona Rider’s history of playing brooding, macabre maidens in films such as Heathers, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands was surely in the minds of audiences who witnessed her performance as Mina. Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing lent the film both artistic credibility and horrific intertextual association for his recent Oscar winning performance in Silence of the Lambs. Clearly, while attention to authority and the definitiveness of the production were the readings of the film suggested by the studio and Coppola, other, more market-driven concerns were also present.

Such concerns were also likely behind the largest deviation from the original novel, the inclusion of a lengthy prologue and sub-plot involving the Count’s love for Mina Harker as the reincarnation of his former wife. The love-plot is so essential to the film that most advertising focused on the romantic complications of the film and lobby posters bore as the movie’s sub-title "Love Never Dies." Gary Oldman’s presentation of the love-lorn count was extraordinarily sympathetic, and had less to do with the presentation of the fiendish killer inhabiting Stoker’s text, and more with the modern audience’s need to see the portrayal of an anti-hero who’s attachment to one of the motivating myths of modern fiction (love and romance) excuses his actions and allows a society fixated upon youth and beauty to identify themselves with a character who is able to live forever.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula then fulfilled the needs of an audience to live vicariously in a romantic world divorced from the necessity of death, fulfilled a director’s need to associate himself with a canonical text in order to claim artistic credibility, and a studio’s need to maintain a foothold in a capitalist market-driven economy, while taking the high moral ground of presenting themselves as purveyors of art and culture to the masses. Harriet Hawkins and others have suggested that such commodifications of high culture serve not only to assert the primacy of the literary cannon and its tenets, but the audience’s mastery over the past, through their ability to incorporate such material into their standard patterns of movie consumption.

But interpreting the vampire's current popularity as something like a massive edition of cultural "Cliff Notes" ignores the great number of alternative plots and variations on the vampire motif which have been forwarded in recent texts which are even further divorced from the fountainhead of Stoker's novel. These "independent" vampire texts have been the source of a great deal of critical attention recently, as they seem to present their audiences a method of vicariously processing all manner of post-modern anxieties: repressed sexual desires, disease, racial tensions, the consequence of imperialism and rapacious capitalism.

A great number of these interpretations suggest that these modern texts actively invert Stoker's imperialistic and centristic affirmations, by celebrating the "difference" which marks the vampiric predator. For example, in the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1971, the primary vampire is the patriarch of a wealthy New England family, living in a series of mansions with immaculate landscaping; a figure even more wedded to the aristocratic conventions of "old money" than Stoker's slightly seedy Count. Yet in 1987's The Lost Boys, the pack of youthful vampires led by Kiefer Sutherland appear in tattered, soiled garments, live in a derelict building, and seem to subsist largely by shoplifting. Robert Latham has seen the youthful vampires' destitution as emblematic of youth culture which rejects traditional modalities of capitalism and wealth accumulation in favor of a model which reflects the "nomadic" consumerism of the modern American audience. Certainly the vampires' lifestyle more closely models the erratic economic patterns of the teenage consumers who make up the target audience of the film than does the autocratic plantation patronage exemplified by either Dark Shadows' Barnabas Collins or Stoker's Count, with his legions of servants.

If the traditional vampire is particularly marked by his or her relationship to an antiquated mode of capitalist parasitism, the modern vampire is marked by the increasing erasure of the links between the vampire and any established social system, not merely economic, but political, racial, or sexual. Critics such as Sue-Ellen Case and Trevor Holmes, for example, have particularly noted the degree to which the modern vampire exemplifies the transgression, inversion, or erasure of conventional sexual behavior and gender identities. Stoker's Dracula is often seen as a cautionary tale in which sexual deviance and promiscuity inevitably result in corruption, both physical and spiritual. By contrast many modern vampire texts seem to celebrate sexual difference, to the point at which the assignment of traditional gender identities becomes impossible. In Anne Rice's novels, for example, her vampire characters display a dizzying variety of sensual attachments and gender re-positioning: heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, arrogantly patronizing, militantly feminist. Rice's vampire Lestat preys equally upon male and female victims, and establishes intellectual, emotional, and physical bonds with both humans and vampires of every conceivable gender. And while Lestat's predations bring him unquestionable sensual pleasure, it becomes extremely difficult to typify those pleasures as "sexual" in any traditional sense of the word. They are certainly not the hetero-normative penetrations of Count Dracula, nor even the simply homo-erotic transactions which typify much so-called "slash" amateur vampire fiction. While it might seem merely logical that vampirism, generally an oral rather than a genital form of gratification, should reflect an ambiguous sexual identification, only in recent years and texts has the full range of our postmodern anxieties regarding sexuality and gender been so clearly on display.

The vampire's "otherness" has also been interpreted as emblematic of a racial identity which lies outside of normative boundaries, and which must therefore either be repudiated or absorbed by the imperialist forces of racial hegemony. The modern vampire text, however, can problematize this interpretation as well. In the 1998 film Blade, for example, Wesley Snipes portrays a lone African-American vampire-slayer who takes up arms against an international conglomerate of vampires who are almost universally Caucasian or Asian. While the first victim in the movie is also African-American, few other characters share Snipe's apparent race, which would seem to make Blade a simple inversion of the traditional vampiric racial narrative: instead of a lone ethnic vampire encroaching on a racially homogenous empire of victims, we have a lone ethnic vampire-slayer opposed to a racially homogeneous empire of vampires. However, this reading is severely undercut by the fact that Snipe's identity is further hyphenated by the fact that he is, himself, half-bloodsucker: a vampiric-African-American.

Blade also presents an interesting intersection of racial and economic narratives. Snipes and his few supporters live in a semi-abandoned metal shop, while the vampire coven resembles a multinational corporation: the undead wear severely tailored business suits and participate in lengthy business meetings wherein they discuss their most recent mergers and acquisitions even more avidly than they discuss bloodsucking and ending the world. The vampire corporation also, like its real-world models, wields significant political power, and seems to be in complete control of the (all Caucasian) police force, while Snipes' character is reduced to pawning watches which he robs from corpses in order to fund his crusade. Vampirism here clearly functions as an allegory of White and Asian corporations and politicians, economic and racial powers uniting to bleed the African-American community dry, both figuratively and literally. Blade may therefore function as a therapeutic tale of revenge against these forces: even as, as a product of Western consumer culture, it plunders more money from its audience in order to line the pockets of the producers and movie distributors.

What are we to make of the bewildering variety of uses to which these and other vampire texts may be put? Is it possible to suggest an interpretive model with which to make sense of this figure, or are we reduced to merely categorizing yet one more example of postmodern heteroglossia? Indeed, according to Jean-Francois Lyotard's summation of the postmodern condition, any attempt to suggest a blanket interpretation of the vampire text must fall victim to the modern "incredulity toward metanarratives," the loss of faith in totalizing stories. Even in apparently straightforward presentations of traditionally evil vampirism, such as Blade, the sympathies and identification between the audience and the characters is severely conflicted by issues such as Snipe’s character’s vampiric taint. While it is possible to point out how complex our relationship to the vampire has become, it is increasingly difficult to delineate any consistent limits or modality to that relationship.

In fact, while critics desperately attempt to redefine the vampire as a theoretical construct distinct from the Victorian props of capes and fangs, at times the capes and fangs are the only qualifications which let the audience know that they are dealing with vampires at all. But this begs question -- if the vampire is so re-writable, so easily appropriated as a representation of our modern anxieties, then why bother with vampires at all? A signifier which has become so unmoored from any conventional signification cannot easily convey a host of connotative associations: so why bother with the further supernatural complications of such an outlandish figure? What is the attraction?

Critics such as Mark Edmundson resolutely cling to a reading informed by the vampire’s historic usage. In his recent study of gothic and supernatural archetypes in popular culture, Edmundson suggests that the vampire serves as a fulfillment of the sadomasochistic tendency of post-Vietnam America: in which the pursuit of consumer pleasures and sexual desire becomes inextricably united with the punishment which our growing social consciousness and shame insists such greed deserves. When the hedonistic vampire indulges its appetites, the audience receives vicarious pleasure -- when the vampire is later dispatched by the virtuous vampire slayers, the audience satisfies its collective conscience.

While this model works well for some of the examples we have considered, what are we to make of the protagonist of Forever Knight, or the character "Angel" in Warner Brothers’ Buffy: the Vampire Slayer? These characters, while vampires, are models of restraint, not indulgence, and they are clearly on the side of social normative values, law and order.

Our modern vampire hunters are similarly too complex to read as mere representatives of the status quo. In contrast to the pious rhetoric of Stoker’s band of vampire hunters, while Buffy and her troops regularly repel vampires with crucifixes, they display no apparent religious sensibility. They don’t attend church and do not attribute their victories over the undead to Christ’s intercession. In fact, the only character whose faith has been mentioned is Jewish -- although this does not prevent her from wielding a crucifix alongside her vampire-slaying companions.

This disassociation between symbolic value and sincere belief implies that we might be dealing with Frederic Jameson’s "pastiche" -- while modern vampire texts rely upon audience familiarity with the tropes of vampirism, their nearly complete disassociation from historic conventions means that rather than reflecting sincerely held positions on anything much, they function primarily as a nostalgic exercise, or at most as a monument to immediate ideology and concerns.

But how is nostalgia, for the gothic, for the vampire, for a Victorian aesthetic or sensibility, distinguished from a genuine reverence for the past, even if it is informed by current anxieties? Consider the fact that whenever Buffy and her friends are confronted with a new supernatural challenge, they immediately repair to the library in order to gain the advice of their mentor. The librarian himself relies upon stacks of dusty tomes, mostly apparently penned by dead European males, in order to arm his pupils for their confrontations with evil. In Blade too, both the vampires and the vampire slayers rely upon carefully preserved ancient manuscripts in order to make sense of their situations. Even Anne Rice’s vampires, as in love as they are with the intensity of contemporary society, first explore Europe in order to understand their own origins, and later trace their lineage back to prehistoric Egypt.

The implication seems to be that, in a threatening world, one of the few reliable resources is the solidity of the past, of literature, of established myths and narratives of the type which postmodernism suggests are effectively emptied by history. I would like to conclude by suggesting that it is perhaps this function which is most served by modern vampire texts. In the hetero-glossia of postmodern culture, hetero-glossia itself becomes a source of anxiety, and vampire fans, teenage and otherwise, may rely upon established mythic figures and narratives in order to structure their lives. While metanarrative may be dead, mythic figures such as the vampire provide a comforting sense of common signifiers, shared communication, or even participation in historical process. While audiences and vampire cultists may not share a belief in Christ, they can at least share a belief in Bram Stoker.

As in Stoker’s book, the fundamental cultural work of the modern vampire may be that he provides an enemy unequivocal enough to oppose. A French proverb suggests that in a fulfilling life, it is just as essential to have a distinguished enemy to oppose as it is to have sincere friends with which to share one’s victories. In a post cold-war era, when we no longer confront the "evil empire" of Soviet Russia, and military, political, and cultural alliances shift overnight, mightn’t we find comfort and validation in the concept of opposing an undeniable enemy of mythic proportions? And for those who embrace the vampires, who mimic them and fantasize about them, the vampire may also serve as a form of self-identification.

Rod Ferrell, the self-proclaimed teenage vampire and slayer of the couple in Florida, reveals just this type of angst in a letter dated March 2, 1998, which he wrote from prison to Sondra London, a vampire enthusiast and chronicler of "true life" cases of vampirism:

I don't know if you would be interested or not, but I would like to share some of my art with you. At the present I am in the process of creating what I have titled "Lost Enigma." It basically has no purpose as of yet, but I assure you when and while I make it I'll keep you updated on it if you like. You must forgive me, my mind is in a state of roaming. I have so many thoughts and ideas and yet just when they gather they scatter just as quickly. Thus is the reason that "Lost Enigma" has no real plot as of yet.

Do you know what the most beautiful word in the universe is? It is ONE! To reach the essence of One is to find true sanctification. Sometimes I lose myself in meaningless ponderings, but they give safe haven from the harshness of reality....

Ferrell’s world is typified as a "Lost Enigma," a world with no purpose and "no plot" which scatters his thoughts, leaving him in a restless "state of roaming." It is the same world inhabited by the consumers of vampire texts. For Ferrell, vampirism became a unifying myth, an "essence of One" which serves to pacify that disorder, to compose his thoughts and his actions. Such is the anxiety of the postmodern condition that the centripetal function of that myth became, for him, beyond concern for life or death -- both his victims’ and his own.

On Friday, February 27, 1998, Rod Ferrell was found guilty in the bludgeoning deaths of Richard and Ruth Wendorf, and was sentenced to die in the electric chair. Less than one week later, Heather Wendorf, the victims' daughter, sold the rights to her story to a true-crime author for $1,000. The writer, Aphrodite Jones, said the money was a good faith payment toward a possible $50,000 Hollywood movie deal. As of December, 1998, a Florida State Attorney decided to re-open a Grand Jury investigation into Wendorf's possible complicity in her parents' murders. That case, like the vampire's, is still pending.

References to source material available upon request

Potter's Field