CHAPTER TWO: THE ANCIENT EVIL
So I raised the lid and laid it back against the wall; and then I saw something which filled my very soul with horror. There lay the Count, but looking as if his youth had been half-renewed, for the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey; the cheeks were fuller and the white skin seemed ruby-red underneath; 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. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood; he lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion.
Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Dracula
Vampires are a curiously ambivalent evil. They tap into our deepest nightmares, those childhood terrors when the wind howls in the night and the creaking of timbers and scratching of twigs at the window sounds horribly purposeful. And what makes vampires more terrifying than other night prowlers is that they are not just after your life, but your very soul. Once bitten, you become one of them, immortal but an outcast and slave to a sacrilegious thirst. Even to those lacking in religion some relic of this dread remains, along with a secret fascination.
Because the thing is that vampires also have (at least in fiction) a certain glamour that eludes most other monsters, including werewolves to whom they are closely related – it being a common belief in the Balkans that werewolves become vampires after death. The 1994 film Wolf starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer went somewhat against the norm, with Pfeiffer introducing a certain sexiness to the condition towards the end; but on the whole werewolves are just savage monsters most people would want to keep well away from, while the vampire’s victims are often enslaved long before those sharp fangs have delivered their fatal jugular kiss. They have as often to be rescued from their own secret, complicit desires as from the monster itself. Vampires cannot enter a house without first being invited, but rarely lack invitations. People open their doors and windows to the night of their own half-conscious accord to let the demon in.
This glamour is largely the invention of fiction since the nineteenth century because most of the old East European folk tales upon which our idea of the vampire is based speak mainly of the simple horror of the marauding undead; there is little glamour in most of the tales. The sexual allure mainly came from combining the dead rising from their graves with their cousins, the sirens of many cultures – the German Lorelei, the Russian Rusalki and other quasi-vampires whose beauty is their fatal lure. The ancient Roman bloodsucker, the lamia, was also famous for her scorching beauty, as were her ghoulish cousins from the Near to the Far East, plus of course the famous sirens from Homer’s Odyssey against whose beguiling songs he had his crew’s ears stopped with beeswax.
Underlying the sexual allure of the vampire is the often powerful instinctual connection between biting and kissing – a topic that has been well explored in many psychological studies of vampirism. Havelock Ellis for example wrote: ‘The impulse to bite is the origin of the kiss,’ and ‘the love bite is so common and widespread that it can be considered as a habitual variant of the kiss, especially practised by women.’ The Kama Sutra devotes a chapter to the love-bite, which it breaks down into six distinct categories, as does the Perfumed Garden of Sheikh Nefzaoui.
Vampires are the undead. Or, strictly speaking, they are the dead who seize an unnatural extension of their earthly existence by stealing the lifeblood of others. They are undoubtedly evil but for the most part they get away with it and live beyond the bounds of normal existence. They have supernatural powers and within certain limits can come and go as they please. Who can deny the secret appeal of such an existence? Moreover, vampires can make others like themselves and that is part of their secret allure. Creatures of the night, they appeal to our own shadow side, that part of us which rages against the limitations of life and its endless obligations, that sump of pent-up grievances and suppressed urges at the back of all our beings. Vampires suffer from none of this because they care only for their own gratification and as they sink their fangs into their prey they tease with the notion that they may be offering something in return – ecstasy beyond imagination and possible entry into a new plane of being. It’s no wonder that vampirism has so often been likened to heroin, crack cocaine and other serious drug addiction because the parallels are so close – the unearthly, inexpressible pleasure accompanied by a separation from normal human habits and a desperate hunger that takes little account of the cost to those on whom the addict preys to feed that hunger, or even the cost to themselves.
Virtue alone is no great defence against the vampire because virtue usually requires the suppression of many natural as well as unnatural urges, which the vampire can secretly tap into. In fact it is probably safe to say that any virtue that has been won through great effort and self-denial creates a hook which the vampire can secretly latch onto, a little nest of repressed instinct. Bram Stoker seems to have understood this very well, whether consciously or not, from the way he charts Lucy Westenra's descent into vampirism. At the outset she is a lively and flirtatious character but well within the bounds of the Victorian ideal of femininity, complete with suppressed sexuality. But once she has fallen under Dracula's spell, what emerges in her behaviour is a growing sensuality and even wanton lust that shocks her friends as much as anything else.
This shows when she is lying ill in what is to become her death-bed, and is visited by her fiancé Arthur. In Dr Seward's words: 'gradually her eyes closed, and she sank to sleep. For a little bit her breast heaved softly, and her breath came and went like a tired child's. And then insensibly there came the strange change which I had noticed in the night. Her breathing grew stertorous, the mouth opened and the pale gums, drawn back, made the teeth look longer and sharper than ever. In a sort of sleep-waking, vague, unconscious way she opened her eyes, which were now dull and hard at once, and said in a soft voluptuous voice such as I had never heard from her lips:
'"Arthur! Oh my love, I am so glad you have come! Kiss me!" Arthur bent eagerly over to kiss her; but at that instant Van Helsing, who like me had been startled by her voice, swooped upon him, and catching him by the neck with both hands, dragged him back with a fury of strength which I never thought he could have possessed.'
Then there is the question of the vampire's immortality, unless a Van Helsing catches onto them. Even without any pent-up grievances or desires to play upon, there is always the oldest human fear of all - that of death, which is the vampire's trade and to which he holds an antidote more tangible than is offered by any religion. Unlike Christians, vampires are not required to take their fate after death on trust, or wait until Judgement Day before rising again from the grave. The vampire's baptismal transformation is immediate and tangible. And in an age when many people no longer seriously believe in heavenly immortality anyway, the vampire's appeal is greater than ever.
To study the vampire is to study our changing attitudes, beliefs and fears about dying and the dead; and although we spend much of our life determinedly not thinking of how or when it will end, such thoughts do of course inevitably and increasingly prey upon our minds as life moves along. We are all to some degree unable to resist the glowing, mesmeric gaze of the dark stranger at the window who is immune to this fear. We all sometimes feel the temptation to turn away from the sun and gaze into the dark navel of the night in the hope of finding there some redemption from our deepest fears.
Continued in the published book . . .