Using Vampires (and Other Symbolic Monsters) in Fiction

January 27, 2020

After doing some modicum of research and seeing that Joe Manganiello had acted on the show True Blood, I started thinking about why I bounced so hard off of that (as well as its source novel, Charlaine Harris's Dead Until Dark).  Taken on their own merits, I think both works were at least above average, but something about them just didn't click with me, similar to how Tolkien's writing didn't click with me until I checked out The Silmarillion and realized that I could enjoy his mythic-scale world building far more than his in-the-moment fiction.

Going back to True Blood/Dead Until Dark, I think my issue with them is that vampires are highly symbolic creatures in that they are unavoidably symbolic personification of certain sexual matters, and the symbolism put forth in the first few episodes of True Blood (or in the whole of Dead Until Dark) just didn't work for me.  While there is an infinite spectrum of options for how to portray vampires, I think that they tend to cluster into three broad categories.

One way of portraying vampires is as a symbol for rape, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula, Richard Laymon's The Traveling Vampire Show, or the movie 30 Days of Night.  They overpower their victim's will, they force themselves onto the victim in a form of physical violation, and the victim is left changed for the worse irrecoverably after their interaction.  They are dangerous, evil, and wrong in a way that deserves to be destroyed, as evidenced classically by weaknesses like lacking a reflection or being repelled by Christian symbols.  Any veneer of romantic appeal is a shallow facade that doesn't hold up to closer examination.  It's certainly effective, but I find it limiting.  I'm a moral relativist; there are certain hard lines that I think are unquestionably wrong, but I think the majority of moral judgments should be taken within their context because it isn't difficult to imagine realistic circumstances where acts that would be evil at face value could potentially be justified (e.g. is it murder to assassinate a genocidal dictator?); so while I can appreciate what's being done here, I think there's some potential for interesting nuance that's lost in the process.

A similar but slightly softer way of portraying vampires is as a symbol for sexual deviance.  This is where some of the earliest works of vampire fiction fall (Ossenfelder's poem The Vampire or Le Fanu's story Carmilla), in my opinion, and you can also see it in more modern literature such as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake franchise, Kim Harrison's Hollows series, or Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series (my own books fall into this category as well, but in all honesty, they're less likely to be familiar to a random blog reader).  While elements of the "vampires as rape" portrayal persist here, they're usually taken as being less as absolute evil and more as a dark alternative form of existence that has the potential to be acceptable within greater society, provided that certain controls/limits are in place (admittedly, The Vampire and Carmilla also have some of the unholy/evil aspects of "vampires as rape", but I feel they're sufficiently less pronounced than in Dracula to categorize them with other "vampires as deviants" works).  Left to its own whims and nature, the vampire remains a force of evil, or at least of discord in the softer end of the spectrum (like the Dark Hunter series).  Vampirism is transformative, it is an alien existence to the normal person within the work, and it carries significant risks.  However, it isn't an irredeemable condition.  Victims are changed without necessarily being damned, there is an increased prevalence of victims being chosen selectively beyond just superficial attraction or convenience, and even the term "victim" itself can become something of a misnomer because consensual relationships are possible (and generally held up as being ideal).  As should be obvious, this is where I like to see things.  There's a lot of room to work with nuance, the label of "vampire" becomes less meaningful than the specific individual characterization, and yet it still holds on to its monstrous roots as something that leads to evil in the absence of moral controls (which can still be problematic in the context of applying the symbolism to real world sexual deviance, of course, but I find that to be an acceptable flaw in the name of fantastical dramatization).

Finally, there is the portrayal of playing up the alluring aspects, which I'd call "vampires as temptation".  Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire/The Vampire Lestat/Queen of the Damned trilogy is an example of this, as is L.J. Smith's Vampire Diaries series.  Here, the vampires are typically presented as sympathetic figures, usually by focusing on their tragic existence and emotional if not physical isolation from normal people, toning down their supernatural traits to keep them mostly relatable on a human scale, and adding a certain romantic nostalgia that's been lost by the general populous in the name of modern progress, along with some natural attractiveness from being edgy and mysterious outsiders.  Now, let me be clear that this can be done well (e.g. I enjoyed Smith's books).  However, in my experience, it tends to lead to downplaying the negative aspects of vampires so much that they come off less as tragic beings who're victims as much as their prey are and more as superhuman ideals complaining about being cursed with having too many gifts.  I tend to be very unforgiving in my reactions to these portrayals because I think there should be something innately inhuman about an immortal being who survives by feeding on the blood (or other vital essence) of other sentient beings.

To me, that's a core part of what the term "vampire" represents, and minimizing if not ignoring that strikes me as cheapening the term to the point of uselessness.  It's no different from having "elf" be a person who is just a human in all apparent ways aside from having pointy ears.  Tacking on racist elitism, an extra digit or two to their age, and an unexplained animosity towards short, bearded folk isn't enough if the character is not fundamentally different from a human.  We can get away with that in TTRPGs because most, if not all, of the participants are thinking foremost about having a good time with the other people at the table rather than creating a work of crafted and edited art.  When it comes to talking about a published story, whether as a book, a movie, or a TV show, I think it's perfectly reasonable to hold it to a higher standard.  I'm not saying that everyone should go to Tolkien's lengths of coming up with entire languages and cultural histories, nor am I saying that there's only one right way to do fantastical portrayals (e.g. Tolkien's elves, Nordic mythological elfs/dwarfs, and English fairy tale elfs are all quite different).  What I'm saying is that, if being an elf or a dwarf or an orc or a vampire is not different from being a human in a way that is more than just a tribal label, it isn't really adding anything.  Again, "vampires as temptation" doesn't fall into that automatically, but my experiences point to it as being the portrayal most susceptible to that pitfall.

Getting to the broader point mentioned in this post's title, it's interesting to me that certain types of monsters seem to pop up in many cultures: the immortal animate corpse who feeds on the blood (or other vital essence) of living humans, the spirit of the dead who remains attached to the living world through some force of will, the cannibal who is transformed into a monstrous state by their diet, the trickster who appears human on the outside in order to sow mischief and discord, the person who transforms into a bestial beast (or its mirror, the intelligent beast who transforms into a human), and so forth.  I can only assume that the occurrences of these monsters in cultures around the world is a consequence of their expression of certain aspects of being human, and I find it fruitful to think about what they might represent.  For example, the Chinese jiangshi is very different from the European vampire, being far more about mortality and bereavement than about sexuality, so while the idea of a corpse rising from the dead to feed on the life force of humans might sound like a vampire, I'd say that's a superficial likeness and the symbolism has more in common with European ghost mythology (or wights as portrayed in modern pop culture-by-way-of-D&D-by-way-of-Tolkien).  In other words, writing a vampire story and swapping out the monster for a jiangshi does a disservice to the overall work.

Now, was I actually thinking about all of this while watching True Blood or reading Dead Until Dark?  Absolutely not.  In both cases, I came away from it just not feeling a connection to fiction, and it wasn't until later reflection that I zeroed in on this symbolic dissonance that I felt on a subconscious level being the likely reason for it.

Having learned that, though, was a useful lesson.  It taught me to think about themes, symbolism, subtext, and all of those other hidden factors.  It taught me to think about why I was using certain monsters (whether in my writing or in my gaming) instead of relying on lazy shortcuts.  It taught me to embrace the mundane in order to accentuate the magical.  Even my novel Saraphel, based in a post-apocalyptic setting balanced between humans, vampires, and werebeasts, is very much a human world with human logic and connections underpinning it in order to contrast the otherness of vampire at the center of the narrative.  Saraphel tolerates the way of the world, but she doesn't understand it, she doesn't respect the other vampires who play along with it, and she feels no personal sense of attachment to it; she's not human, and I think that inhumanness is part of what captivated people I know who've read it.

So, for anyone who's actually read up to this point, here's something practical for you to take away: the next time you're working on creating something in a fantasy setting, give a thought for what your fantasy creatures actually represent, what they actually mean, and why they can't be replaced by humans.  Not only is it a useful exercise to check that you aren't sending messages you don't really mean, but it might surprise you to see how much depth you can add to their representations by leaning harder into that symbolism.

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