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Vampires evolve through the ages, reflecting our fears and our conflicts

For our money, there is no cooler creature in pop culture history than the vampire. • Infinitely adaptable, mysterious and powerful, vampires are the hip kids of the zeitgeist. They dominate humanity while standing apart from it, embodying all things forbidden and seductive in one conflict-laced package. • Little surprise, then, that the form each ghoul takes through history says a lot about its time and place. • "It's ironic: They say vampires don't cast a reflection, but vampires really are a reflection . . . of society," said Eric Nuzum, who drank his own blood, watched 605 vampire movies and took a Romanian vampire tour to write his 2007 book, The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. • "They're in every culture and every time and they kind of capture their time," Nuzum added. "If you ever want to know what we're scared of, attracted to or conflicted by, just look at the vampires." • Sounds like a good idea. So here's a look at history's best-known bloodsuckers, and why they say so much about us.

Brampires: The Classics Count

The examples: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long poem Christabel (1816), James Malcolm Rymer's novel Varney the Vampire (1847), Sheridan Le Fanu's novel Carmilla (1871), Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (1897), F.W. Murnau's silent film Nosferatu (1929), Tod Browning's movie Dracula (1931), Christopher Lee in Dracula (1958) and dozens of other vampire movies.

The explanation: Vampires have existed in folklore for centuries, but they made their first literary bows in the 19th century. Writers in the Romantic and Victorian eras alike fastened on the vampire legend, and the one who sank his teeth deepest into our imaginations was Bram Stoker. Great literature it ain't, but Stoker created the archetype: Dracula reverberates in our unconscious more than a century later with its tale of a powerful, inhuman predator, damsels in distress and a team of brave rescuers.

For 19th century readers, vampires embodied fears of epidemic diseases, mental illness, immigrants and sexuality, especially women's sexuality (Coleridge's Christabel and Le Fanu's Carmilla both feature sinister lesbian vampires).

As movies swept over popular culture in the early 20th century, vampires enjoyed another round of interest. Murnau's Nosferatu, an exemplar of German Expressionist filmmaking, remains incredibly creepy; Max Schreck as the hideous vampire seems to step right out of a nightmare. In Browning's Dracula, Bela Lugosi cuts a more dashing, but just as chilling figure that became the movie vampire model for decades, including Christopher Lee's many bloodsucker roles. The classic vampire may be seductive, but he or she is never a sympathetic, or even human, character.

The Middle Ages: Vampires in Love

The examples: TV series Dark Shadows (1966-71), Anne Rice's novel Interview With the Vampire (1976) and its many sequels, Frank Langella in John Badham's film Dracula (1979), Tony Scott's movie The Hunger (1983).

The explanation: In the 1960s and '70s, vampires, those old shape shifters, became part of pop culture's elevation of outsiders to hero status. In an era that dug Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, outlaws were alluring because they were dangerous, and we felt their pain. No more bat-eared Max Schrecks; now the vampire was sexy, and he longed for love almost as much as he lusted for blood.

The soap opera Dark Shadows was a '60s sensation; among a cast filled with lovelorn werewolves and witches, Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins was haunted by his long-lost love. Langella steamed up first the Broadway stage and then the screen as Dracula, and The Hunger featured Catherine Deneueve, David Bowie and Susan Sarandon as languidly gorgeous, polymorphous-perverse vampires.

Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire gave new lifeblood to the lonely, longing — and incredibly hot — vampire, not to mention bringing back the homoerotic element of the vampire myth in Lestat and Louis' doomed love. For Victorians, the vampire reflected fear of the dangers of sexuality; almost a century later, Rice's vampires exemplify fascination with that danger.

Modern Vampires: The Lost Boys and Girls

The examples: Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland as Michael Emerson and David in The Lost Boys (1987); Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt as Lestat and Louis in Interview with the Vampire (1994); David Boreanz as Angel in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997); Wesley Snipes as Blade in Blade (1998); Bill Compton in Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels (2001-08) and HBO's True Blood (2008); Edward Cullen in the Twilight novel trilogy (2005-08) and film (opening in November).

The explanation: Caught between the punky spirit of New Wave and the grubby cool of the grunge era, The Lost Boys film offered a youth-centered reinvention of the vampire story, with Sutherland leading a bunch of teen delinquents who turn out to be bloodsuckers. We also see the reluctant dreamboat vampire (later embodied by Buffy's Angel and Twilight's Edward), with Patric playing a good kid whom Sutherland's David tries to turn bad.

Coming eight years after the hit book, Cruise and Pitt's take on Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire is often remembered now for its reluctance to use its dreamboat stars to embody the books' homoerotic elements, echoing the squeamishness about gay issues common to this era in mainstream Hollywood.

It took Buffy, with Sarah Michelle Gellar as intrepid vampire nemesis Buffy Summers, to make vampires hip again. It set all the angst of high school inside a vampire hunter story and made the superstrong hero, and at long last, female. Snipes' Blade was an alluring antihero and magnetic parable on racial assimilation; as a black man who was half-human and half vampire, he straddled both worlds but belonged to neither.

This year's vampires are different. On True Blood, they are intensely sexual and divorced from religion. Crosses and holy water don't work on them, echoing a modern turn from theology (because creator Alan Ball is openly gay, critics also have wondered if it's a meditation on homosexuality). Twilight offers vampires who avoid feeding on humans and can fall in love with mortals. It's the ultimate transformation of characters once reviled as demons into figures we can admire, cherish and even try to emulate.

Vampires evolve through the ages, reflecting our fears and our conflicts 10/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:17pm]
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