As a species, we’re not big fans of death and aging. We certainly do spend a lot of time, energy, and money trying to dodge our fates, to stay alive and look young for as long as we can. Our fear of getting old and dying has led us to create religions that promise life after life, just in case the cryonics don’t work. And the reaper, he is grim, not great or generous. Alas, our souls are, as Yeats puts it in “Sailing to Byzantium,” his poem about immortality, “fastened to a dying animal” — the human body.
So one of my theories on why vampire stories are popular is rooted in our strong longing to live forever, to relieve our fear of death. The undead are manifestations of our undying desire for immortality. Across the centuries, there has been a steady flow of vampires in folklore, books, and art, and, more recently, in movies and on TV, each one having managed to dodge the final rest that awaits the rest of us. Just when you’d think we’d had quite enough of these fanged creatures, say, after the “Twilight” books and movies and the Sookie Stackhouse books and TV series (“True Blood”), the trend nevertheless continues, most recently with the premieres of AMC’s “Interview with the Vampire,” Showtime’s “Let the Right One In,” and Syfy’s “Reginald the Vampire.” We can quit them; we just don’t want to.
But there’s a twist. These tales of bloodsuckers are not straight-ahead fantasies by any means. We’ve created them in our collective imagination — but then we’ve made them miserable. They aren’t enlightened Buddha figures who, from existing across centuries, have found an empowered perspective on life — or anything close to that. They brood, they grieve their familial loved ones, they fall for unavailable humans. They hate themselves for their need to feed off of the living, and they hate living forever in the dark. “Lights out” is a term for dying, but for the living dead it’s literal, too; they can no longer enjoy the warmth of the sun.
“Dark Shadows,” the late-1960s gothic soap opera, was a critical developmental moment in the portrayal of the vampire. Barnabas Collins, played perfectly by Jonathan Frid, is the model for today’s sad, romantically-inclined Draculas. He desperately wanted a consort, but his efforts to create one from among the female population of Collinsport, Maine, were repeatedly foiled. One woman did love him, the loyal Dr. Julia Hoffman, but he did not return her feelings. He was a lonely, tortured creature and the model for the likes of Edward Cullen of the “Twilight” series.
Louis in “Interview with the Vampire” is also a Barnabas baby, as, like Edward, he is wont to drink animal blood so he won’t harm any people. Technically, he and his kind are no longer human — and yet they continue to live according to their consciences and feel shame when they don’t. Bill Compton on “True Blood,” Angel on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel,” the Salvatore brothers from “The Vampire Diaries” — they’re all more or less wretched beings. The vampires who aren’t unhappy are, like Lestat in “Interview With the Vampire,” usually just villains who, with their violent ways, are also far from enviable.
The vampires we like to watch don’t even get a pass when it comes to society. They generally exist as outsiders, lurking in the shadows, excluded from the communities they’re in because of their differences. We’ve made them into a metaphor for disenfranchised people and those on the fringes, those who don’t feel welcome. We’ve also made them into a metaphor for passing viruses through blood and other kinds of illnesses, as they either kill victims or infect them. Not a pretty image.
Indeed, vampires are living in eternity, but they remain base animals. They are predators, driven to feed on the lifeblood of those below them on the food chain. They are serial killers.
So our fantasy of cheating death is complicated, and, ultimately, I think it helps us affirm our lives, our limited time, and our inevitable ends. Even these beings that have been granted immortality suffer greatly. They haven’t prevailed over time, that thing that dogs humans; existing forever is not a lot of fun either. Just ask Claudia from “Interview with the Vampire,” who will remain in a child’s body, even as she grows up on the inside. Youth, in her tragic case, is wasted on the ancient.