The Human Aspects of Vampires
Researcher at Freie Universität Berlin studies depictions of vampires in literature and film
Oct 28, 2010
Once upon a time he was truly a horror to behold, with bloodshot eyes, cadaverously white skin, and pointed fangs. He slept in a coffin, shunned sunlight, and fed on the blood of the living – the vampire. But the image of the insatiable bloodsucker has changed: The monster has disappeared, becoming practically a dream son-in-law, a good-looking charmer with a sense of family.
Today’s undead have also made a change in diet; vampires no longer drink human blood, but the blood of animals instead. How can we explain this shift? And why has the myth of the vampire proven to be so enduring over these past three centuries?
Stefan Keppler-Tasaki is studying these questions and others like them. Keppler-Tasaki, a student of literature at Freie Universität, first encountered the vampire legend six years ago, publishing the first German-language collection on vampire films. Until not long ago these creatures of the night had a somewhat blemished reputation as a subject of serious scholarly inquiry, since they were primarily associated with the genres of horror and fantasy. To Keppler-Tasaki, however, the vampire is a transfer figure. He transcends national and media boundaries, making him a precursor of internationality and intermediality. That has been true at least since he first crept over from Bram Stoker’s English novel Dracula, written in 1897, to the German film adaptation made by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau in 1922.
But the undead figure represents even more. “The vampire is a human being in a most extreme form, so we can learn a lot about people from studying the example of the vampire – it is a screen, if you will, onto which people project their desires and fears,” Keppler-Tasaki says. Vampires are a fertile ground for discussing fundamental, even existential issues, such as mortality and sexuality. “The vampire is part of all of us,” says the 37-year-old researcher.
Until well into the 20th century, the bloodsucking vampire was still a symbol of everything foul and evil, an allegory illustrating the baseness of human nature and its urges. The vampire was a transgressor who embodied human fantasies of violence and power and the desire to transcend sexual boundaries. “But then, in the past 20 years, the vampire started to not only meet, but even exceed social standards. He was transformed from a horrific superhuman figure into a noble one,” Keppler-Tasaki says. “And since authors and directors are always looking for a fresh story, it was only a matter of time before the evil figure from the undead became a resplendent hero.” Since the first vampire film ever, in 1909, an estimated 600 others have been made; Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been followed by thousands of books about vampires.
But vampires do seem to be especially popular in the media these days – they are now becoming extremely common, routinely appearing as heroes in movies, TV series, and novels. “But that’s not a new phenomenon. These kinds of peaks have occurred repeatedly over the past three centuries. At the turn of a new century, especially, people show renewed interest in vampires,” Keppler-Tasaki says. “The beginning of a new century is a time when all kinds of crises are discussed.” And the vampire, he continues, always embodies people’s fears.
From the days of Goethe to today’s pop culture, vampires have come a long way. Their history has shown us one thing above all: As cultural figures, the undead certainly generate undying interest.
Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies
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