Nightmarish blood-crazed killer or romantic superhuman with a conscience?
The vampire has simultaneously fascinated, repelled, and terrified us for nearly a century since the first screen appearance of the loathsome Count Orlok in the cult 1922 horror movie Nosferatu.
Most infamous of all was Bram Stoker’s creation, the repulsive Count Dracula, a terrifyingly alien character who has generated not just countless movies and books, but a specially dedicated organisation — the Transylvanian Society of Dracula — and the Dracula World Congress, the fourth meeting of which takes place in Trinity College Dublin later this month.
According to the experts, things are changing in Vampire-land. These demonic beings are in the process of re-inventing themselves — with a little help from admiring humans.
Deformed blood-suckers with long nails and rancid breath who have left generations of movie-goers cowering in their seats have been transformed into stunningly attractive super-human beings with a conscience, torn between their repulsive dietary needs and the realisation that drinking the blood of the innocent is, well, a bit of a crime.
Think Edward Cullen and Bella Swan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series or sexy vampires like Bill Compton, Eric Northman, Vampire Queen Sophie-Anne Leclerq, and Pam Ravenscroft, who populate Charlaine Harris’s hit series, The Southern Vampire Mysteries.
Vampires have been undergoing a major make-over since the 1990s, explains Dr Magdalena Grabias (PhD in Humanities), assistant professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Maria Curie-Sklodowska in Lublin, Poland, and one of the academics who will be contributing to the Dracula Conference at Trinity College.
The conference has attracted academics from all over Europe, as well as America, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and, it’s expected, descendants of Bram Stoker. The focus of the conference will be to present and discuss the newest research on Stoker, his novel, and the vampire theme in general, especially as it is treated in recent movies and TV series.
Because, as Grabias points out, today’s vampires are not just human in character, but elegant, attractive, beautifully groomed, sexy, and armed with super-human powers, plus they have a moral compass.
“They’re looking for love, expressing a romantic need to find a soulmate in a better world, trying to find their way in the human universe and trying to oppose their own demonic natures by fighting hard to overcome their demonic natures.
“The older, more traditional vampires were unashamed blood-suckers, who were never afraid to kill and never concerned themselves with such human ‘nonsense’ as morals and ethics,” Grabias quips, pointing to first vampire film, Nosferatu, in which the vampire was portrayed as “a repulsive supernatural creation, ugly, dangerous, completely alien, decrepit, deformed and with long fangs.
“This type of portrayal lasted a long time, but changed around the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st,” she says, pointing to films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula in which, she observes, Dracula was a “half-demonic and terrifying” character, but also a romantic.
“This was a big change,” she said.
Interview with a Vampire with meltingly attractive Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise was another step forward, though the book by Anne Rice was published in the 70s, the film didn’t hit the cinemas until the 90s.
“These vampires were very different and, in Interview with a Vampire, one of them was definitely the precursor of the vampire heroes of the 21st century. Pitt’s character, Louis, wasn’t a full hero she says, but he was having doubts about the morality of vampirism.
After that, she says, change happened very quickly. “Vampires started to acquire a back story, so we could identify with them,” she says, pointing to the Twilight saga and movies.
“What I find most fascinating about the change is Edward Cullen. He is concerned about the soul, he’s a bit of a philosopher, but he’s also a teenager!
“He was turned into a vampire at age 18, but is actually round 180 years old. Yet, from the perspective of the viewer or the reader he is a very handsome teenager who seems to me to be very human, and also he seems to be more moral than many of the humans around him.”
Grabias believes that it’s really about Hollywood reflecting the changes in modern society.
“I see a change in the western world in terms of greater acceptance, understanding and empathy with the concept of ‘difference’,” she explains, adding that these days there is an increasing acknowledgement that in itself, difference does not have to be alien or frightening, just different.
“The vampire is increasingly being portrayed as hero rather than villain, in a reversal of the role. They are becoming the heroes rather than just being the villains of the piece.”
However, not everyone’s happy.
“There are vampire purists who strongly oppose this transformation because they hold to the concept of the vampire as the demonic or dangerous non-human, arguing that a supernatural creature is different to a human,” explains Grabias, who will address the conference on the topic of the humanisation of vampires and the introduction into vampire culture of traditional and family values.
She’ll be focusing on female vampires, such as Katherine Pierce and Elena Gilbert from The Vampire Diaries, Bella Swan from the Twilight series, and Mavis from the cartoon Hotel Transylvania.
“These are all vampires and portrayed as startlingly beautiful and powerful — as powerful as the male vampires — but still accepting human traditions and family values in terms of gender.
“In effect, these vampire women sub-consciously decide to adopt human conventions, and they don’t appear to be as strongly feminist as you’d expect.
“There is a return to traditional gender role stereotyping, even though these are very powerful beings.”
Last but not least, why was Dublin picked as the 2016 location of an event that, thrillingly, held other get-togethers in such spine-chilling locations as Castel Dracula near the Borgo Pass outside Bucharest and — but where else — Transylvania?
“First of all, it is the city were Bram Stoker was born and received his first influences,” says Munich-based Hans de Roos, a member of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, which is organising the conference, and a Knight in the Order of Count Dracula.
Another reason, he says, is that Dublin is nearer to the US and Canada than Romania, “so that participants from the US and Canada have a shorter flight”, and “ last but not least, Dublin has an attractive inner city with many places that Bram Stoker has visited himself”.
For more information on the Fourth World Dracula Congress at the Long Room Hub at Trinity College Dublin on October 20, 21, and 22, visit www.tsdcon25.com