My investigation into the history of vampire fiction continues with a side trip into Nina Auerbach's study, Our Vampires, Ourselves.
Essentially, this scholarly work explores the evolving nature of the vampire from its first appearance in English literature in the early 19th century through the final decade of the 20th century as well as the impact film had upon this development; all in four densely packed chapters. In the commentary to follow, I would like to touch on a few of the salient points of each chapter and highlight the changing development of the vampire in literature and popular culture. It is essential to keep in mind that this work was published in 1995 and thus any related material, print or film, subsequent to the early 1990s was not included.
Auerbach lays the foundation of her work with a discussion of Polidori's (The Vampyre) Ruthven, Rymer's (Varney, the Vampyre) Count Varney and Le Fanu's (Carmilla) Carmilla as characters and how they interacted with the other characters. The strong same-sex relationships (close though not necessarily intimate) reflect a time when such was viewed as less threatening, albeit still not acceptable. Also noteworthy was the fact that it was the light of the full moon that was the source of healing and immortality for the vampire and not blood, which was simply nourishment. Sunlight had little or no affect on them.
By the late 1890s, there had been a shift in popular perception of vampires, in no small part to changing attitudes concerning close same-sex relationships, platonic or otherwise. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for two years for homosexuality. In 1897, Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. Reflecting the times, Stoker was very careful to not include close male-to-male relationships of any kind in Dracula. Conversely, in the story, women who were outside the bounds of strict society (or not under a male's influence) were seen to be wicked, immoral and evil.
In the 1930s film took the lead in the presentation of the vampire primarily through Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Count Dracula. However, vampires in cinema first appeared in 1922 (1929 in the US) with the release of the German silent film, Nosferatu. In this film, for the first time, sunlight was lethal to vampires. By the 1930s, Lugosi's Dracula emphasized the vampire's "other-ness." His interpretation highlighted the contrast between the old world of Europe and the new world of America. It also marked the establishment of the caricature of the figure of Dracula with flowing cape, overly dramatic moves and such.
Beginning in the late 1950s through the 60s and early 70s, under Hammer films, the representation of vampires began to shift again. The idea of sunlight destroying vampires became entrenched; while moonlight offered no benefit at all. Here as well, same gender relationships were non-existent. By the mid 70s, literature took the lead with Stephen King's Salem's Lot and Anne rice's Interview With A Vampire. Vampires became intelligent beings again, rather than merely beasts obsessed with biting.
Through the 80s and early 90s, the idea of drinking blood became more . . . suspect; even in fiction. This was the result of the advent of the AIDS epidemic that lead to a cultural swing toward conservatism.
Overall, this study offered a provocative re-examination of the evolution of the perception of the vampire through popular culture.