There’s no such thing as vampires.
That comes straight from the top. The question was decided a long time ago by the Church of Rome. Archbishop Davanzati’s 1744 Dissertazione sopra I Vampiri was accepted by scholars both religious and secular, and it said Vampires were make-believe, nothing more.
The Church’s problem was theological. Throughout the 18th century there had been wave after wave of vampire hysteria. Bloodsucker rumors led to mob violence, and the exhumation and mutilation of many corpses. The Archbishop of Trani, scientist and mathematician Giuseppe Davanzati, was entrusted with Rome’s official investigation. He studied every vampire outbreak, becoming the leading expert on the phenomena. His Dissertazione capped a five year study and concluded that while the fantasies that inspired belief in vampires might be diabolically inspired, fantasies were all they were. Vampires were creatures born of credulity and fear. They did not exist.
Meanwhile Dom Augustin Calmet, a French Benedictine theological scholar, tackled the same question. His point of view was slightly different. Calmet was a medievalist in a scientific age. He believed that the devil could animate a corpse if it suited him, and while Dom Calmet hadn’t a shred of proof, he felt there were so many reports of vampirism that there had to be something in it. He never questioned the veracity of the reports; he took them on faith. His own Dissertations was published in 1746, to scholarly condemnation.
Calmet’s work was republished three times in his lifetime, and many times afterward, in several languages, including English. Davanzati’s book was republished twice, both times after his death, and both times in Italian. Calmet has an extensive Wiki entry. Davanzati has none.
Davanzati made an important point: Vampires were creatures of fantasy. That, I suspect, is how they’ve survived, even into the modern day. People’s fantasies are often more important to them than their reality.
Consider how vampires evolved. To Calmet, Davanzati, and their contemporaries, vampirism was wrapped up in religion. Calmet saw the devil at work; Davanzati saw a diabolically-inspired threat to resurrection of the flesh. If a modern horror author followed that line they’d be laughed at. This is a secular age, far more so even than the 18th century. Religion, though not dead by any means, doesn’t have the hold over our imagination that it once did. To the modern era, vampirism is a virus, or a phenomenon of parapsychology. Dracula gives way to I Am Legend; both are vampire tales, but with very different premises. Even the things we think we know about vampires – stakes, garlic, sunlight – are as much creations of the film industry as folklore, and owe little or nothing to religion. Meanwhile the holy symbol, if it works at all, is symbolic not of one faith but of faith in general, on the premise that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you believe in something.
Vampires survive in our mythology precisely because they are creatures of fantasy, which allows them to keep up with the times. As our list of fears grows and changes, so too do they.
That’s why the vampire works its magic so deftly. It’s the sum of our fantasies and fears, and so long as we fantasize, so long as we fear, it will still be with us. If our beliefs change over time, it will change to match us. It’s the perfect psychological horror icon.
Psychological horror is a mental medium. Its impact depends as much on what you don’t see as what you do.
Every time horror is dragged into the daylight, it loses some of its mystery, and with it, potency. The realization of a fantasy, however it is done, is always less interesting than the anticipation, precisely because the anticipation relies on feelings, impressions, and sensations that even when felt most strongly cannot be put into words, nevermind into pictures.
Dracula is a classic example of the need for less, not more. The Count himself is absent for most of the book. He establishes himself in the opening chapters, but after that, his appearances are fleeting. The reader can’t even be sure whether Dracula was there at all; perhaps that bat was just a bat, or maybe that poor old man in Whitby churchyard died of natural causes. Maybe, maybe not.
So, best vampire in gaming? The electronic inheritor of the empty coffin is none other than . . .
The G-Man from Half-Life.
Now, before you start, remember: the fangs, the garlic and the rest? Most of that is silver screen mythology. The folklore behind the legend is much stranger; give Montague Summers a look, if you don’t believe me. The key points to take away are: looks human, but isn’t; eternal life; abilities far outside human experience; revels in suffering and often causes many deaths. The outside evil who destroys without remorse.
Now look at the G-Man again. Yes, he seems normal. His behavior’s off, and you wonder whether he’d bleed if you scratched him, but he’d pass for a human. He never ages, though, no matter how many years go by. He can reach into your life and stop it dead. He can rearrange space and time if it pleases him, and though he never says it, it’s heavily implied that he gets off on other people’s pain. Oh, he might suggest it’s all on a for-profit basis, but what do you think he gets paid in? Dollars? Gold bars? Just what is in that suitcase of his, anyway?
As for “the blood is the life,” he gets plenty of that. Oceans of the stuff. He can rely on you to supply it. He sends you in precisely because he knows you’ll kill on command, and you cut through scores of bodies, many of them human.
The only thing he isn’t is an overt sexual threat. That said, he does drag you away from Alyx in the final scenes of Half-Life 2, just at the moment when Gordon probably most wants to rush to her side.
He fulfils the psychological horror criteria. He even has the sense to do as Dracula did, and not hog the limelight. He’s more effective as a character precisely because he doesn’t pop up every ten minutes to remind you he exists.
Of course, the flip side to this is that there are plenty of non-frightening vampires in gaming. If anything they go for revulsion, that quick-and-dirty scare that comes with gallons of gore and probably a sharp upswing on the musical score. Flash a fang, strike a pose, and then back they go to the dressing room for a smoke and a coffee, waiting patiently for their next appearance on stage. They exist to be defeated. They provide a brief challenge, and that’s it.
Meanwhile the Count and his brethren sit off in the shadows, awaiting their moment. Whether a rag, a bone, and a hank of hair or a rotten corruption that walks like a man; vinegar-soaked intestines dangling from a head or a suave aristocrat who never, ever drinks wine. They can afford to be patient. So long as we remain human, we’re their prey.
They have all the time in the world.
Adam Gauntlett lives in sunny Bermuda, and is chained to a keyboard. He contributes The Bookshelf to Yog Radio, and has written for Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, Miskatonic River, and Pelgrane Press. When the stars come right, he’ll be ready.