One can’t help but notice the growing prevalence of the vampire archetype in contemporary fiction and film, corresponding to the popular fascination with the Titanic story. The vampire and the Titanic constitute cultural paradigms, aspects of the subliminal awareness of deep social currents, suppressed forces, and nocturnal apprehensions expressed as aesthetic configurations.
Regarding the Titanic, poet Robyn Sarah speculates that the 1997 Hollywood blockbuster “struck a chord with the popular psyche as we steamed towards a new millennium” because it “bowls us over that what seemed so substantial — the multi-storied castle of lit ballrooms, grand staircases, fine furnishings, a self-sufficient man-made world of beauty and luxury — could slip so swiftly into oblivion.” In other words, people have identified psychologically, culturally, and civically with the fate of the great liner, intuiting that our Western way of life, “first-class tickets for all, lifeboats for none,” as Sarah writes, is no longer sustainable.
Analogously, since Anne Rice’s 1976 Interview with the Vampire became a bestseller, the vampire myth has taken wing, so to speak, giving new life to Bram Stoker’s chiropteran seigneur. Its exemplars are to be found wherever we look: in novels, movies, video games, and TV serials. Even the famed critic and cultural maven Harold Bloom reportedly takes in every vampire movie that hits the marquees. Often the vampire is portrayed sympathetically, as a suffering and misunderstood creature resisting the curse he (or she) bears and seeking redemption for his predatory impulses. But the rehabilitation of the vampire does not change the fact that the vampire remains a vampire, subject to cravings that augur poorly for the larger population upon whose vulnerability he preys. The vampire’s thirst, as Byron wrote in his poem “The Giaour,” is “unquenched, unquenchable.”
What is more interesting than charting a mere literary phenomenon, however, is asking ourselves why this particular legend or superstition has acquired such prominence among us today, preying in its own way upon the modern sensibility. As with the Titanic mystique, it may develop as a trope or representation of a profound cultural malaise, a sense that under the surface of daily life destructive forces prowl. As a character in Robert Walser’s surrealistic 1909 novel Jakob Von Gunten says, adjusting for the historical calendar, “Concerts and theatres are going down and down, the standpoint sinks lower and lower. There is, to be sure, still something like society to set the tone but it no longer has the capacity for striking the notes of dignity and subtlety of mind.” Nor, for that matter, the note of assurance.
The premonition that something is awfully wrong haunts the imagination, although much of the time we cannot isolate precisely what it is that lurks in the shadows of our doubts and misgivings. Terrorism and a revived Islam, for example, clearly stalk the collective psyche. According to ancient lore, the vampire must first be invited into the premises he subsequently terrorizes, and this is certainly the case with the Islamic demographic. At the same time, all too many of us refuse to consciously acknowledge the threat and strive instead to prettify the image of Islam as a “religion of peace” — just as the modern vampire tends to be nipped and tucked into a cosmetic semblance of nobility and innocence.
As Toby Lichtig writes in the TLS, reviewing a shelf of new publications on the subject, the vampire persists as a vehicle of universal fears, “of life being sapped by death, of health by disease, of the deserving by the selfish,” which explains why it remains “such a powerful metaphor, whether in terms of economics…racial chauvinism, politics, science or domestic relationships.” And indeed, the vampire is no longer the esoteric personage he once was, plying his mischief in the remote fastnesses of Transylvania or the fog of 19th century London, but is now just as likely to make his home “in the Sunnydale of Buffy.” The vampire is ubiquitous.