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Celluloid Vampires

Celluloid Vampires
Life After Death in the Modern World

In this entertaining and absorbing work, author Stacey Abbott challenges the conventional interpretation of vampire mythology and argues that the medium of film has completely reinvented the vampire archetype.

December 2007
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278 pages | 6 x 9 | 21 b&w photos |

In 1896, French magician and filmmaker George Méliès brought forth the first celluloid vampire in his film Le manoir du diable. The vampire continues to be one of film's most popular gothic monsters and in fact, today more people become acquainted with the vampire through film than through literature, such as Bram Stoker's classic Dracula. How has this long legacy of celluloid vampires affected our understanding of vampire mythology? And how has the vampire morphed from its folkloric and literary origins?

In this entertaining and absorbing work, Stacey Abbott challenges the conventional interpretation of vampire mythology and argues that the medium of film has completely reinvented the vampire archetype. Rather than representing the primitive and folkloric, the vampire has come to embody the very experience of modernity. No longer in a cape and coffin, today's vampire resides in major cities, listens to punk music, embraces technology, and adapts to any situation. Sometimes she's even female.

With case studies of vampire classics such as Nosferatu, Martin, Blade, and Habit, the author traces the evolution of the American vampire film, arguing that vampires are more than just blood-drinking monsters; they reflect the cultural and social climate of the societies that produce them, especially during times of intense change and modernization. Abbott also explores how independent filmmaking techniques, special effects makeup, and the stunning and ultramodern computer-generated effects of recent films have affected the representation of the vampire in film.

  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: A Little Less Ritual and a Little More Fun
  • Part One: Bram Stoker's Dracula from Novel to Film
    • 1. Dracula: A Wonder of the Modern World
    • 2. The Cinematic Spectacle of Vampirism: Nosferatu in the Light of New Technology
    • 3. From Hollywood Gothic to Hammer Horror: The Modern Evolution of Dracula
  • Part Two: The Birth of the Modern American Vampire
    • 4. The Seventies: The Vampire Decade
    • 5. George Romero's Martin: An American Vampire
    • 6. Walking Corpses and Independent Filmmaking Techniques
    • 7. Special Makeup Effects and Exploding Vampires
  • Part Three: Reconfiguring the Urban Vampire
    • 8. New York and the Vampire Flâneuse
    • 9. Vampire Road Movies: From Modernity to Postmodernity
    • 10. Los Angeles: Fangs, Gangs, and Vampireland
  • Part Four: Redefining Boundaries
    • 11. Vampire Cyborgs
    • 12. Vampires in a Borderless World
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index

Stacey Abbott is Senior Lecturer in film and television studies at Roehampton University in London.


In 1896, one year before the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula, French magician and filmmaker George Méliès brought forth the first celluloid vampire in his film Le manoir du diable (The Haunted Castle). In this film, a bat flies into a Gothic castle, transforms into a man who then conjures up numerous visions to horrify the other inhabitants of the castle. He is vanquished by a man brandishing a crucifix. In the century that has followed, the vampire continues to be one of the most popular Gothic monsters to haunt our cinema and television screens with hundreds of films that both draw from classic vampire folklore and literature and break away from this tradition to reinvent the vampire myth. Today, more people are familiar with the vampire genre through film and television than through classic literature. How has this legacy of celluloid vampires affected our understanding of vampire mythology? Has the vampire changed from its folkloric and literary origins?


Vampires have traditionally been associated with the past through their perceived relationship with primitive desires, folklore, or Gothic fiction. To imagine a modern vampire seems almost contradictory. The vampire emerged in literature in the nineteenth century as part of the Gothic genre and therefore has traditionally been defined by its conventions. The Gothic, in literary terms, is a genre of fiction written in the eighteenth and nineteenth century that celebrates the irrational, the fantastic, and the supernatural. The writing style of Gothic fiction is usually excessive, emphasizing, through detailed description, gloomy and unsettling atmospheres and settings. Narratively, the novels often focus upon a conflict between past and present. Fred Botting describes Gothic atmospheres as signaling "the disturbing return of pasts upon presents" and explains that "in the twentieth century, in diverse and ambiguous ways, Gothic figures have continued to shadow the progress of modernity with counter-narratives displaying the underside of enlightenment and humanist values." Similarly, David Punter argues that


Gothic stood for the old-fashioned as opposed to the modern; the barbaric as opposed to the civilised; crudity as opposed to elegance . . . Gothic was the archaic, the pagan, that which was prior to, or was opposed to, or resisted the establishment of civilised values and a well-regulated society.


That the vampire is a key proponent of the genre is demonstrated by David Punter's description of Gothic fiction as "the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed upon by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves." The vampire, drawn as it was from folklore and mythology, came to represent the barbaric and archaic world that resists the civilized and the modern. As the vampire is immortal, it is seen as stretching back into far reaches of the past. For instance in Bram Stoker's classic vampire novel Dracula, the vampire draws attention to his antiquity by describing the people and events of centuries' worth of national and family history to the young solicitor Jonathan Harker "as if he had been present at them all." Harker clearly articulates a distinction between the vampire and the modern world when he claims that his use of shorthand to describe his mysterious surroundings and the strange events that befall him is "nineteenth century up-to-date with a vengeance" (36). The events and images that confound his sensibilities while he is in Castle Dracula pre-exist modernity and his rationalist understanding of the world. Harker views Count Dracula and his vampire brides as premodern and supernatural, oppositional forces threatening modernity. Brian W. Aldiss sees the relocation of the vampire into a modern setting as signaling the infection of the modern with the vampire's barbarity:


In this great transitional novel, we are not to remain among ancient things, whose distance brings comfort along with terror. The strength of Stoker's novel is that his evil Count, for all the world like a disease that cannot be checked, arrives in London. A barrier has been crossed; the infection has entered the modern vein.


While Dracula's arrival in modern London does mark the relocation of the vampire from the Gothic past into a recognizably up-to-date location, the vampire has come to represent so much more, particularly in the years that have followed Stoker's novel. An alternate interpretation of the vampire's immortality is that it not only stretches into the past, but also pushes forward into the future, and many vampires in film and television embrace the future rather than wallow in the past.


The difference between old- and new-world vampires is demonstrated by the violent transfer of power across generations on the American television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), most notably by the punk rock vampire Spike. While the series takes place in a contemporary setting rather than in an exotic past, the vampires of seasons one and two, led by an old-world vampire, the Master, and his second-in-command, the Anointed One, are initially presented as members of a tradition-based society ruled by prophecy, superstition, and ritual. Describing themselves as the Brethren of Aurelius, the vampires maintain their association with the premodern using poetic language as well as a ruined church, buried within the mouth of hell, as a lair. However, the introduction of a new vampire, Spike, demonstrates that the vampire can be presented as a modern figure, more inherently linked to its contemporary setting than to the past.


Spike evokes a modern sensibility with his contempt for tradition and ritual, feelings that are established from the moment of his irreverent entrance into the vampires' lair ("School Hard," season 2: episode 3). His sneering attitude and physical appearance—bleached-blond, punk-style haircut, leather jacket, cigarettes, jeans, and t-shirt—elicits an image of rebellion. As he enters the room, one of the vampires is proclaiming that the Night of St. Vigious, a vampire holy day, will be as glorious as the Crucifixion, which he claims to have witnessed. Spike dismisses this remark by pointing out that if "every vampire who said he was at the Crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock. That was a weird gig. Fed off a flower person and I spent the next six hours watching my hand move." Spike challenges the vampire's authority and demonstrates his own preference for the contemporary by comparing the Crucifixion to a twentieth-century pop culture event. In this case, the vampire is presented as shedding any association with the ancient in favor of the modern.


Spike mocks and dismisses the prayers and superstitions performed by the other vampires, describing his contribution to their rituals as "going up and getting chanty with the fellas." He also ignores his holy charge to kill the Slayer on the Night of St. Vigious by attacking Buffy and her friends two days early because he "got bored." His embodiment of a modern and secular sensibility culminates in his destruction of the Anointed One as he declares that "there is gonna be a little less ritual and a little more fun around here," setting himself up as the new head vampire in Sunnydale.


This violent usurpation of a traditional vampire by a modern one is mirrored in the film Blade (1998). The vampire Frost, like Spike, is portrayed as young and rebellious. He runs clandestine vampire nightclubs, lives in a modern high-rise, and ignores the orders of the vampire elders. Made a vampire rather than born one, Frost warns Dragonetti—the leader of the born vampires and their noble ruling body, the House of Erebus—that he is at risk of becoming extinct if he does not change his ways. Frost later proves his point when he defangs and destroys Dragonetti in order to take his place as leader. Both the Brethren of Aurelius and the House of Erebus equate the vampire with nobility, ancient tradition, and established rules that date back centuries, while Spike and Frost seek to break with the past and establish their own futures. They are modern, not only because of their contempt for the old ways or their passion for contemporary music, technology, and popular culture, but also because the act of destroying the traditional vampire in order to take its place, effectively replacing the old with the new, is one of the distinctive characteristics of modernity.


Spike and Frost, however, represent but two images of the modern vampire. While Stoker's Dracula was primarily the prototype for the cinematic vampire in the first major cycle of American horror films in the 1930s and 1940s, since the 1970s the image of the vampire has become fragmented into a diverse range. Vampires in film and television are no longer ruled by the past or tradition but rather embrace the present and its vast array of experiences. Vampires today can be good (Blade), evil (the Master in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or both (Angel); European (Revenant), African-American (Blacula), or Mexican (From Dusk till Dawn); children (The Little Vampire) or grandparents (My Grandfather Is a Vampire); isolated (Nadja) or familial (Near Dark); rock stars (Queen of the Damned), philosophy students (The Addiction), performance artists (Fright Night II), or action heroes (Blade); gangs (Bloodties) or gangsters (Innocent Blood); nomadic (The Forsaken) or urban (Habit); fallen priests (Vampires) or fallen apostles (Dracula 2000).


The success of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as late-night programs Kindred: The Embraced and Forever Knight, the Canadian children's series Vampire High, and the British cult series Ultraviolet, has caused audiences to break the primary vampire rule on a regular basis by inviting them into the home. For every new cinema release that suggests the death of the vampire genre by pushing its boundaries to their limits, there is one that follows to reset the boundaries. Nina Auerbach argues that there is a vampire for every generation and that "since vampires are immortal, they are free to change incessantly." The vampire is in a constant state of disintegration and renewal, and it is through this process that it is intrinsically linked to the modern world, which is also perpetually in the throes of massive change.


The modern vampire, from Dracula to present-day vampires such as Frost and Spike, has consistently challenged its relationship to convention and tradition, gradually escaping the confines of time and space to become free of the association with the past and liberated into the expanse of the modern landscape. It is my intention to examine the relationship between the celluloid vampire and the modern world, and to argue that rather than acting in opposition to modernity, the vampire has come to embody the experience of it.


To recognize how the vampire has been redefined through the language of modernity, it is important to establish a definition of modernity. Charles Baudelaire described modernity as the here and now, a fleeting, intangible, transitory moment in time, co-existing with that which transcends time and space: the eternal. He believed that the essence of modernity exists in the moment that binds time and space together before it is lost in the ever-changing landscape of the modern. Georg Simmel equally defined modernity as the perception and experience of the present moment. Simmel argued that life in the modern metropolis was so full of external stimuli that the city dweller had to protect himself by restricting social interaction to a series of self-contained and fragmented exchanges. These exchanges served to reduce all social interactions to a means to an end and to disconnect them from the past or future. According to Simmel's argument, modernity becomes the act of living in the eternal present.


While nineteenth-century modernists Baudelaire and Simmel locate modernity within the experience of life in the city, contemporary theorist Marshall Berman suggests that as the moment—the essence of modernity—is fleeting and intangible, modernity must also suggest a cycle of re-creation, each fleeting moment replaced by the next. This cycle is reflected in the need to develop and modernize, where the "new" is replaced by the "newer," in a constant cycle of development and destruction. He explains that modernity "pours us all into a maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. To be modern is to be part of a universe in which, as Marx said, 'all that is solid melts into air.'" For Berman, modernity is therefore a whirlwind of change, development, and destruction, not just of buildings or cities, but philosophies, morals, and values. Modernity is the world of self-annihilation and rebirth. More importantly, modernity is defined by the experience of this whirlwind for, he argues, "To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are." Furthermore, Anthony Giddens argues that one of the defining features of modernity is the separation of time and space, previously united in the premodern era through the definition of place. He explains that part of the experience of modernity is the process of "disembedding of social institutions" from local contexts and "their rearticulation across indefinite tracts of time-space." Modernity is essentially a posttraditional order, and therefore being removed from the trappings of tradition is intrinsic to the experience of modernity.


Ambivalence toward modernity, an exciting and yet a destructive force, is mirrored in the ambivalence felt toward the vampire, an equally exciting and destructive presence. The relationship between the two is reinforced by the fact that the vampire regularly emerges amidst periods of extreme, and sometimes violent, change, such as the 1890s in Britain and the 1970s in America. According to Nina Auerbach, the vampire genre shifted from England to America between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries because "vampires go where power is: when, in the nineteenth century, England dominated the West, British vampires ruled the popular imagination, but with the birth of film, they migrated to America in time for the American century."


The migration to America, however, was also a result of a transition within the Gothic genre as one of the Hollywood studios, Universal, deliberately drew upon nineteenth-century Gothic fiction, in the form of Dracula and Frankenstein, as a source of new material for their films. The success of these films led to the development of what would become known as Hollywood Gothic. Like such literary predecessors as The Vampyre and Carmilla, Gothic vampire films from this first cycle of American horror films, such as Dracula (1931), Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Son of Dracula (1943), were made in America but were set in Gothic locations. It was, however, during key moments when Britain and America became the loci for new waves of modernization and change, such as 1890s Britain and 1970s America, that the vampire genre literally relocated into these modern settings. The vampires' migrations are therefore indicative of not only the pursuit of power, but rather an engagement with the processes of reorientation as the conditions and understanding of the modern world were being redefined.


As I discuss in Chapter 1 of this book, Dracula was written at the end of the nineteenth century as Britain was coming to grips with massive social, technological, and scientific changes, all of which contributed to Stoker's reworking of the vampire myth from previous literature and folklore. Furthermore, the novel is littered with references to the most up-to-date technologies of the period, such as the telegraph, the phonograph, and the typewriter. These technologies contributed to the separation of time and space described by Giddens. Stephen Kern sees the late nineteenth century as a turning point in the redefinition of time and space. He explains that "the present was no longer limited to one event in one place, sandwiched tightly between past and future and limited to local surroundings. In an age of intrusive electronic communication, 'now' became an extended interval of time that could, indeed must, include events around the world." For instance in a transatlantic telephone call, the here and now is different on each end of the telephone line. The impact of these new developments is felt in Stoker's novel; while the vampire hunters use the technology in their hunt for Dracula, the vampire—a reanimated corpse traditionally defined by the physicality of its body—is liberated from physical boundaries by possessing transformative qualities. The vampire hunters use the technology, but the vampire becomes the technology, able to transcend the boundaries of its body by transforming into other creatures and communicating across distances.


The association of the vampire with technology is foregrounded by the adaptation of the vampire myth for the cinema, as the vampire became the product of technological reproduction. A celluloid vampire is more than simply a film adaptation of the myth; it is the reinvention of the vampire through film technology. The technological modernization of the vampire will be addressed in Chapter 2 by exploring how Nosferatu (1922), the German adaptation of Dracula, takes the transforming and magical properties of Stoker's vampire and reinterprets them through the language of cinema, a language formed from a legacy of nineteenth-century photography and magic lantern techniques. These techniques present the vampire as a spectral, disembodied presence that, like the cinema itself, seems both supernatural and modern.


Finally, to complete my discussion of Dracula, in Chapter 3 I focus on the standardization of the vampire myth in cinema through director Tod Browning's adaptation of Stoker's novel for Universal Studios in 1931, its subsequent sequels, Paul Landres' Return of Dracula (1957), and the release of Hammer Studios' version The Horror of Dracula in 1958. I address how these films present an ambivalent relationship with modernity as they both embrace many characteristics of the modern while fundamentally associating the vampire with a nostalgic representation of a fictional nineteenth-century past.


In Chapter 4 I address how the modern vampire reappears in the cinema of the United States during a cultural crisis in the 1970s, similar to that of 1890s Britain. I explore how, in this period, the vampire became embroiled in both a national identity crisis and a transition in the concept of modernity. This occurred as the icons of nineteenth-century modernity were being replaced by new images of the modern, and America made the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial nation. There are, therefore, distinct parallels between Stoker's Dracula and the plethora of vampire films produced in the United States in the 1970s. The vampire narratives from both periods focus upon a westward movement of the vampire from the premodern world to the modern world. At first glance, the vampire seems to personify a force opposing civilization, but in fact the vampire is born out of the processes of change within the modern world. A case study of George Romero's Martin in Chapter 5 demonstrates that the vampires embody these processes by breaking from their previous representations and reinventing the conventions traditionally associated with the vampire, specifically through the language and icons of the newly emerging experience of modernity. They become more modern than the vampire hunters who pursue them.


For his novel, Stoker had to rethink the superstitions from folklore as well as conventions established through earlier Gothic fiction; the filmmakers of the 1970s had to enter into a dialogue with the traditions established from the success of Dracula on page and screen. As Gregory A. Waller points out,


>Rather than being a footnote to or an imitation of Dracula, the story of the living and the undead as it develops in the twentieth century is an ongoing process of retelling and revisioning Stoker's narrative and in various ways modifying, reaffirming, or challenging the assumptions that inform Dracula.


He further argues that at first glance the intrusion of the vampire into America in the 1970s, represented by an outmoded Count Dracula in films such as Blood for Dracula (1973) or Love at First Bite (1979), seemed to "defang the aristocratic vampire and suggest in one fashion or another that the undead pose no threat to the modern world." What these films really suggest is that there is no place in the modern world for old-world vampires, while books and films, such as Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1957), Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1976), and George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979), all "bring the undead into present day America," reinventing the vampire so that they are no longer exotic and aristocratic intruders, but rather average people, such as neighbors, family, and friends. In this manner, Waller asserts, they "expand rather than diminish the threat posed by the undead . . . Extend[ing], and at times subvert[ing] the conventions of the genre and thereby forc[ing] us to assess our understanding of the story of the living and the undead." This shift in the genre enabled the vampire myth to capture the turbulent internal tensions and social crises within America in the 1970s.


The discussion of the 1970s is followed in Chapters 6 and 7 by a return to the subject of film technology, and a look at how the special effects technologies of the 1970s and 1980s reinforced the cultural reinterpretation of the vampire myth. While the vampire transcended the body's physical boundaries in Nosferatu, the low-budget, independent filmmaking techniques used in Romero's Night of the Living Dead (see Chapter 6), influenced the vampire film of the 1970s by binding the vampire once again to the body, more specifically the abject corpse. Chapter 7 furthers this discussion by exploring how the rise of sophisticated makeup effects in the 1980s captured the decade's obsession with both physicality and the abject by puncturing and perforating the body's boundaries through graphic transformation. The spectrality of the early film vampire gave way to the carnality of its followers.


Another way in which the vampire engages with the issues of modernity in the novel Dracula and in the vampire films from Martin (1977) to Blade (1998) is through its relocation to the city, the subject of Chapters 7, 8, and 9. The vampire not only migrates to the New World but also emerges within the heart of its great cities. Rather than simply injecting the modern with an infection of the barbaric, as suggested by Aldiss, the modern vampire is shaped by its new relationship to the urban. As Giddens argues, to be modern is to be disembedded from the restrictions imposed by tradition, while Zygmunt Bauman suggests that mobility and freedom from spatial boundaries defines modern existence. He explains that "all of us are, willy-nilly by design or default on the move. We are on the move even if, physically, we stay put: immobility is not a realistic option in a world of permanent change." Within the cities, the vampire joins modern networks of movement and begins to gain access to these new freedoms. Dracula's arrival in London in 1897 launches this process of release for the vampire, a process which continues with the arrival of a young vampire in Pittsburgh in 1977 (Martin), and culminates in the vampire films of the 1980s and 1990s, when the vampire makes a transition from an outsider settling in the city to a vampire fully integrated within the urban landscape. With this process the vampire gradually sheds spatial and temporal boundaries, along with the traditions that link it to the past, allowing the vampire to access this increased freedom of mobility. As a result, from the 1970s through to the end of the twentieth century, the vampire's image has gradually evolved and fragmented into a wide range of different types of vampires, here represented in Chapter 8 with my analysis of the lone female vampire of New York, in Chapter 9 in the vampire road movie, and in Chapter 10 in the multiracial gangs of postmodern Los Angeles.


Just as the freedom of mobility in urban space liberates the vampire from spatial boundaries, the reinterpretation of the vampire through the language of science and technology liberates it from the confines of the body. This reinterpretation, as discussed in Chapter 11, takes two forms. The first is through the iconography of the genre as both vampires and vampire hunters are increasingly portrayed as cyborgs, replacing conventions and traditions of the genre with scientific rationale and technological weaponry. The second form of reinterpretation involves special effects. The rise of computer-generated images in the 1990s returns spectrality to the vampire—no longer to transcend the physical but to redefine the shape, form, and makeup of the body through the new technology. The cinematic vampire—the sum of the cinema's technological makeup and capabilities—charts in its evolution the transition of twentieth-century technologies from the wonder of the modern world to the wonder of the cyberworld. Finally, in Chapter 12, the book culminates with a questioning of where the vampire, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, goes from here. I suggest that perhaps the vampire, like the technological, industrial, and economic world that surrounds it, has undergone another liberation, this time from national boundaries. Has the modern vampire gone global?


My aim in this book, therefore, is to demonstrate that the vampire, from Dracula to Blade and beyond, does not singularly embody the primitive and the barbaric, but rather is shaped both by the changing world into which it emerges as well as by the medium through which it is represented. Its history demonstrates a self-conscious awareness of tradition by continually reinventing itself for new audiences. The vampire is timeless but, through the process of renewal, it is completely in tune with the present. As a result, it captures in its immortality the essence of modernity as the world shifts and transforms from generation to generation. While Harker's modern businessman is the essence of nineteenth-century professionalism, his modernity is fleeting. Instead, the vampire's spirit of disintegration and renewal means that it is the vampire that remains "up-to-date with a vengeance" (36).



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