Death Warmed Over
A primer to vampires in pop culture
In the immortal words of Billy Joel: “It’s all about soul.” At least, that’s what I kept telling myself this summer as I traipsed down a dirt path in Exeter, Rhode Island’s Chestnut Hill Cemetery toward an undead superstar, of sorts. You see, this particular graveyard held the remains of Mercy Brown, reputedly America’s first vampire, and I had been working on a screenplay that touched upon this unlikely celebrity.
Of course, the term ‘vampirism’ wasn’t thrown around a lot back then, but the ungodly threat of the deceased draining the living dry certainly was. For backwards-thinking communities still caught up in archaic folklore, vamping involved sucking out the soul of the living — not their blood. Apparently, nobody in Exeter had bothered to read John William Polidori’s The Vampyre: A Tale (1819), a bloody tale that’s seen as the starting point for modern vampire literature. Despite posthumous accusations and a postmortem that saw her heart removed and burned in 1892, however, it’s since been accepted that Brown hadn’t indeed sucked the life out of her mother and sisters one by one. Rather, her family had simply fallen victim to tuberculosis or had simply listened to Joel’s River of Dreams album one too many times.
Still, the eerie tale of Mercy Brown planted a seed in the minds of the god-fearing and, thankfully for all, the zeitgeist, which makes this a good jumping off point as a companion piece for the Everhart Museum’s forthcoming exhibit, The Blood Is the Life: Vampires in Art & Nature. Long before immortal teenagers sunk their fangs into mopey emo gals and created the current vampire rage in books, music, television, and film (Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and rock band Vampire Weekend, we’re looking at you), these are the cultural touchstones that made the biggest impact on this Reel Reporter.
Theatrical agent-turned writer Bram Stoker reportedly had clippings of the “Mercy Brown vampire incident” among his research for his Gothic horror classic Dracula, or the Undead. Universal invented the modern monster mash-up with Dracula (1931), but the UK-based Hammer Studios kept them alive through to the ’70s with more blood, sex and color. Their adaptation, Horror of Dracula (1958), struck a chord with me long before Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian accented widow’s peak-sporting iconic take. A crazy-eyed Christopher Lee as the titular vampire and a stoic Peter Cushing as monster-hunter Van Helsing truly punctuate my childhood memories … which usually involved hiding behind a couch.
The adaptation that brings life to Stoker’s undead character best, however, proves to be Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Francis Ford Coppola made some true film masterworks, namely The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. His ridiculously stylish and vervy imagining of Stoker’s words and world doesn’t reach the same historic heights but still soars amazingly high. Powered by edgy production design and stellar performances (except for Keanu Reeves, whose turn hit the snooze alarm), this Dracula truly has the most bite.
Dracula, of course, is not the only vampire for which readers give, ahem, fangs. Novelist Anne Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt also comes to mind. Since the publication of Interview with a Vampire (1976), this night-walking rock star cut quite a swath right through post-modern literature in titles such as The Queen of the Damned, The Tale of the Body Thief, Memnoch the Devil, and Blood Canticle, but The Vampire Lestat (1985) is my girlfriend Gina’s favorite.
But why should Americans have all of the fun? After all, Europeans birthed vampire culture and vampire popular culture. For instance, the Swedish import Let the Right One In (2008) proves as gripping and compelling a thriller as moviegoers have seen in years or will see for some time. It is, after all, a realistic vampire flick that happens to be about finding humanity in an ice-cold world. With great style, Matt Reeves did an ace job remaking it in English (Let Me In), but the look and feel of the instant-classic original was never duplicated.
On the small screen, Joss Whedon best staked the genre. With his beautifully written, acted, and produced TV series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), this future Avengers director believably gave ‘heart’ to blood-sucking demons. No offense to no-budget soap opera Dark Shadows (1966-1971), but the vamp camp adventures of Barnabus Collins never balanced human emotion and horror-tainment with such wit, spit, and gravitas as Whedon did.