Vampires are mythology kings — a creature so buried in our consciousness that a mere mention draws up a picture in our mind’s eye. But here’s the thing: they don’t really scare us anymore. You find bloodsuckers on cereal boxes, on Sesame Street and in romance novels these days, rather than in the tomb. How did it get this way? How did a blood-drinking servant of evil turn into pretty boys and Muppets? The answer lies in what vampires originally represented, and how our current culture has kicked the legs out from under those old fears.
All horror deals in metaphor, and monsters most of all. Every great horror story has roots in real-world anxiety, whether it’s fear of contamination, attack or a threatening social situation. The Shining is a haunted house story, but it’s really about living with a violent alcoholic. Werewolves represent man’s violent nature. Vampires, on the other hand, have been malleable, and that’s why they’ve lasted. In an area when Eastern Europeans herded sheep and traveled on foot, the shape-shifting Strigoi spoke to the terror of being stalked by wolves. Later, vampires came to represent human greed — the wish to consume scarce resources. Their corpse-like bodies horrified peasants who lived in dangerous times, a reminder that they too would one day join the dead. After Bram Stoker’s Dracula imported the blood-drinkers to western Europe, vampires came to represent the sexual urges and vices Victorian society repressed. Their graveyard aesthetics also dovetailed with the rise in embalming, expanded funerary rituals and cultural hysterics over premature burial. But when they exited their Gothic phase in the mid-to-late 20th century, vampires changed. They were more human, less monster, and lost their potential to scare and unsettle us.
What happened? Well, vampires outlived their usefulness as a horror story. The world moved on, attacking and dismantling the societal anxieties that gave the myth sting. They still remained in pop culture, of course, but they weren’t the terrifying demon they once were.
One reason vampires lost their bite is that we’ve undergone fundamental shifts in how we bury our dead. Indeed, bury may not even be the proper terminology anymore, since cremation and ash scattering now make up around 40% of American funerals – and what are vampires without tombs, coffins, and grave dirt? Death was also much closer to people in the past than it is today. Until the mid-20th century when hospitals and hospice care gained more ground, people generally died at home and stayed there post mortem, with the mortician even embalming them in the house. Funerals and wakes likewise happened at home, with friends and relatives sitting vigil with the deceased until burial. Death involved contact with the corpse, as opposed to today when we immediately whisk bodies away for cremation or burial preparations, only seeing the deceased again in a sanitized (and increasingly rare) open-casket funeral. Reanimated corpses seem less horrifying and immediate to us in the modern world because we have fewer experiences with actual corpses. Death and dying became a less intimate, more medicalized experience.
But this medicalization of death is peanuts compared to how we’ve medicalized disease. Though science educators may cry foul over the public’s continued lag in scientific knowledge, compared to our ancestors we’re pretty advanced in our understanding of infection and outbreaks. In the not too distant past, humans were still blaming epidemics and disease transmission on the supernatural. In 1892, townsfolk in rural Rhode Island exhumed and desecrated the body of Mary Brown, believing the 19-year-old was an undead fiend visiting tuberculosis on her family. This wasn’t an isolated case, either. Tuberculosis fears spurred multiple grave desecrations in 19th century America in what historians now call the New England vampire panic. But after a century of mandatory public education, average citizens better understand disease transmission. Anyone suggesting — for example — that recent Ebola and Bird Flu outbreaks are a result of vampires would be rightly written off as a crackpot.
Nowhere is this more clear than in our treatment of human blood. For millennia, humans considered blood a sacred fluid, and ascribed mystical, life-giving properties to it. Aztecs spilled blood to ensure good harvests. Catholics drank wine that they believed (at least in spirit) to be Christ’s blood, and that drinking it transferred spiritual power to them. Ancient people spilled animal — and sometimes human — blood as offerings since they correctly realized that blood is vital for most living creatures.
But this magical treatment of blood has died out in the first world. In the ancient world blood could not be replaced or exchanged. Now blood is something mechanical, a fluid we can top up like motor oil if you get too low. We can package it like a product in the form of powdered plasma. Taking someone else’s blood is standard medical procedure, as is donating your own for someone else to use. Blood’s interchangeable nature has rendered its power moot, and made vampires seem more like a biological creature than a supernatural predator. (And with all that blood in donation banks, human predation seems dangerous and unnecessary.) In fact, it’s telling that Anne Rice’s novels jumped in popularity right when public anxiety about AIDS peaked — for the first time in nearly a century, people were worried about tainted blood.
But all these changes are paltry compared to the big change: the fact that we aren’t as religious as we used to be.
Vampires are religious monsters, sharing more in common with demons than ghosts or mummies. After all, you fight them off with exorcism tools like crucifixes and holy water. And not only are they tempters, their bite doesn’t just make you join them, it condemns your immortal soul.
This religious aspect cannot be overstated. In most classical conceptions of the creature the real horror in the vampire’s bite came not from death, but damnation. Vampires preyed on their victims’ souls as much as their bodies, enlisting them unwillingly in Satan’s army. Vampire victims lose both body and soul in a coerced conversion experience. While this likely spoke of societal fears in Eastern Europe — where people feared conquest and conversion by Turkish invaders – it keyed into a fear of hell that doesn’t exist in the modern world.
Medieval and Early Modern Christians had a very personal relationship with Satan. Both villagers and urbanites blamed the devil and his agents for crop failures, disease and animal deaths. The Catholic Church taught that inner turmoil such as sexual temptation or emotional reactions were demonic in origin, essentially creating a worldview where both the internal and external worlds were cosmic battlegrounds. This spurred an extreme religious devotion that’s rare in our time – even the most ardent modern Christian would think it excessive to tithe ten percent of their income, recite prayers while cooking or fight in an army led by priests. Hell wasn’t an abstract concept, it was an existential dread. This is a society that considered religious oaths like “damn” and “hell” as as extreme curses (literally curses), and would’ve found demonic stories to be unfathomable as entertainment fare outside morality plays. (Movies like Hellraiser and Drag Me To Hell would’ve crossed major lines in the Middle Ages and even the Enlightenment.)
This shift in tastes came in response to a declining religiosity in the west, but more than that, it’s due to changing Christian doctrine, which tends to be more about carrots than sticks. A 2003 survey found that only a third of Americans believe in hell as a literal place of punishment. That knocks the feet out from under vampires, a creature calibrated to terrify people that wholeheartedly feared damnation and demonic entities.
And that’s the problem: because modern vampires dispense with damnation, there’s now no reason not to become a vampire. After all, they’re immortal, eternally young, have supernatural powers and sexual virility — those are appealing qualities to a culture that fears aging and powerlessness. Removing damnation from the equation removed the price of admission to everlasting life. We might not sweat the sheets thinking about our immortal souls, but we still fear death.
It’s no wonder that modern vampires generally serve as heroes nowadays. Medicalized, stripped of their monstrous side and given a safe supply of blood, they’re really just The X-Men with fangs. These days, we fetishize and identify with Vampires more than we empathize with their victims, meaning they’ve ceased to be monsters.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, really, since vampires seem more popular than ever – but it puts a stake through the heart of the vampire as a horror figure. If we want to make vampires scary again, we need to adapt them to modern fears – and to an extent that’s already happening.
Take the under-appreciated Daybreakers, for instance, which used blood thirst as a metaphor for post-industrial worries like oil dependency and industries more concerned with profit than human welfare. Let The Right One In preys on the fears and conscience-less acts of childhood. Anne Rice’s novels focused on the then-taboo subject of homosexuality. Even Twilight — while I can’t say much good about it – successfully resurrects the sex-as-death metaphor that appeals to its demographic, if no one else. (What can I say? Sex is a little scary to teenagers.)
But is there any way we could further redeem the vampire as a terrifying bloodsucker? How could we sharpen its fangs a little?
One option would be to go the Daybreakers route and use vampires as an environmental metaphor, a creature with insatiable lust that destroys whatever it feeds on, that damages and drains everyone merely by existing. Another would be to take the vampire back to its more magical roots and bring back its shape shifting abilities, letting it impersonate other people – a potent worry in these days of identity theft and the personal propaganda of social media. Vampires could also serve as a stand-in for novel viruses like Bird Flu, pathogens that exist on the edge of our understanding.
Or perhaps we should get away from the familiar and delve deeper into the lesser-known vampire myths from Asia and the Middle East. There’s precedent: Dracula was originally an eroticized Eastern vampire. There’s a whole subclass of vampires – from the Hebrew demon Lilith to the Filipino Aswang – that specialize in targeting children, a fear that’s still present today. (The Aswang slips its long prehensile tongue into windows at night and drains the amniotic fluid from pregnant women’s wombs.) Hong Kong horror film Rigor Mortis featured the Chinese jiangshi as an allegory for being unable to let go of a deceased relative. Del Toro’s Cronos ties vampires in with our obsession with staying young. The key is to find a less-familiar setting for the horror and an anxiety to hang it on in the absence of damnation.
Of course, it may be that the vampire is simply an outmoded monster who will never again have the power to terrify us like it used to. If that’s true, there’s nothing wrong with it taking its place as a pop culture figure, enshrined as a classic monster but not serving its original purpose – a mint-in-box toy we admire, but don’t play with.
Or it may rise from the dead. Because that’s what vampires do.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.