The vampire, possibly the most enduring mythic figure of the modern age, emerged out of the shadows of the Enlightenment.  To be sure, folkloric accounts of lamiae, strigae, and incubi predate the Christian era and continued to haunt the European imagination throughout the Middle Ages, when vampirism was generally associated with witchcraft.  But early in the 18th century, vampire panic began to spread out of Hungary and Rumania into France, the citadel of deism.  Dom Augustin Calmet, in his Traité sur les apparitions des Esprits, et sur les vampires ou le revenans de Hongrie, de Moravie, &c (1746), documented hundreds of cases of vampirism, and though he did not pronounce them authentic, neither did he dismiss them.  Calmet’s treatise was mocked by Voltaire but avidly studied by the Romantic literati, who made the vampire a seductive trope in their revolt against the tidy worldview of the Enlightenment.  Whether or not writers like E.T.A. Hoffman, Coleridge, Southey, Keats, Byron, Le Fanu, Poe, and others believed in vampires, they certainly found them useful as figurative manifestations of the darker regions of the human psyche.

The emergence of the Romantic vampire cannot be adequately understood without reference to The Vampyre (1819), a novella that created an instant sensation in England and France.  Initially attributed to Byron but in fact written by his erstwhile physician, John Polidori, this novella fleshes out an earlier fragment by Byron and provides it with a suitable ending.  Its vampire, Lord Ruthven, is a striking image of Byron himself, a glib aristocrat with a fatal attraction to the many men and women he seduces.  The enduring significance of the Byronic vampire is that he is the first to be introduced into the civilized drawing room.  When Polidori writes of Ruthven that “his peculiarities caused him to be invited into every house,” he hints at a degree of moral corruption in polite society that is complicit with the vampiric evil that it entertains.  However, the best known of all the 19th-century vampire tales, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is an anomaly.  Stoker’s Dracula resembles the Byronic vampire in one respect only: He is an aristocrat with an ancient lineage.  But there is nothing glamorous about him.  Modeled in part upon the 15th-century Rumanian Vlad ?epe? (by repute, a maniacal sadist), Count Dracula is a repulsive, satanic figure whom no one would ever dream of inviting to dinner.  Thus, Stoker reaches deeply into the pre-Romantic folklore to offer up a vampire who still reeks of the crypt and whose provenance is almost certainly demonic.

When Stoker’s vampire made his way across the Atlantic he was predictably refashioned in the Byronic mold.  Todd Browning’s 1931 Dracula provided cheap thrills for Depression-era American moviegoers but bore only a nominal resemblance to Stoker’s novel.  Bela Lugosi, however memorable his eccentric delivery, is a sanitized drawing-room Dracula, Byronesque in his trademark cape and witty repartee, but truly frightening only in his cryptic silences.  Nonetheless, the Lugosi Dracula would become the prototype for dozens of Dracula spin-offs in which vampiric evil is made not merely palatable but politically and culturally fashionable.  This trend is evident early on in the 1958 Horror of Dracula, a Hammer Studios production set in an unnamed, post-World War II European city gleaming with vivid chromatics and stripped of the traditional Gothic drapery.  Its playboy Dracula, acted by Christopher Lee, is part Byron, part James Bond with fangs.  Married women fling themselves into his adulterous embrace without the slightest twinge of moral scruple.  Anticipating the Sexual Revolution, this film’s underlying message is that nothing is as pleasurable as the forbidden, and anything truly pleasurable can’t possibly be evil.  Lee’s Dracula awakens sleeping libidos and, in effect, announces, If God is dead, then nothing matters but the devouring self.  The body is subject to decay, yes, but you can discard the old model and acquire a new one—sleek and incorruptible.  The same message is on display in John Badham’s Dracula: A Love Story (1979), only now the playboy image is wedded to a feminist sensibility.  This Dracula is a sensuous, sensitive vampire whose bold sexuality promises to liberate his female victims from the stifling asylum of patriarchy, where all the mortal men are either senile or loutish.  Early in the film we hear the women chanting, “We are not chattel!”  Badham’s Dracula responds to their plea; he adores independent women: “I despise women with no will in them—no blood,” he says, and openly announces his intentions before he feeds.

By the late 70’s, in the wake of the senseless slaughter of tens of thousands of Americans in Vietnam and the ritual bloodbath perpetrated by the Manson cult, the Hollywood screen was awash in blood and mutilation.  Today, this trend has become more pronounced.  Clever psychological explanations for the popularity of such entertainments abound, but none is very convincing.  What is clear is that the decay of a shared and coherent religious tradition has deprived large numbers of Americans of any secure metaphysical framework within which the reality of evil might be understood and contained.  Increasingly, the good is a phantasm, something whose reality we can no longer quite grasp or trust.  Evil, on the other hand, is a palpable presence—or, at least, something that can be rendered on the screen with overwhelming visceral force.  Horror filmgoers, I suspect, find a kind of negative transcendence in sheer abjection, by immersing themselves in spectral orgies of blood and dismemberment.  But despite the popularity of slasher films and, more recently, “torture porn,” many still cling to the possibility that a more positive transcendence may reside, if not in an external, metaphysical realm, then at least within the sacred precincts of the self—thus the continuing appeal of the vampire myth, which conveniently accommodates our secular conviction that metaphysical evil is, in the last analysis, illusory.

Francis Ford Coppola’s blood-drenched Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is an ambitious attempt to recapture something of the supernatural scope of Stoker’s novel, while at the same time reassuring us that vampiric evil is only human.  Coppola’s shapeshifting Dracula is sometimes hideous, sometimes bestial, but in essence a fairy-tale prince.  We are asked to believe that Dracula’s vengeful revolt against God arose not out of pride or perversity, but out of heartbreak over the death of his young wife.  Introducing a reincarnation theme, Coppola provides his Dracula with a sympathetic motive for leaving Transylvania: He is in search of his beloved, whom he believes to have been reborn (300 years later!) as Mina, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée.  Revealing his true identity, he hesitates to make her a vampire, though Mina begs for release from her loathed mortality.  Dracula’s moral anguish in this moment is either laughable or, for the hopelessly gullible, deeply moving.  But Coppola isn’t satisfied with operatic melodrama.  He must, in the best postmodern fashion, add a dollop of blasphemy.  When Dracula’s resistance breaks and he grants Mina her wish, he slits his bared breast with a razor-like fingernail and, in a parody of eucharistic iconography, invites her to feed upon his unholy blood: “Then I give you life eternal.”  The “eternal” life that Dracula, or any vampire, offers is, of course, a living death in a body that is not, like the risen body of Christ, a perfected body but an unreal body in which the aging process is arrested—a body that no longer affronts its lucky possessor with the animal shame of pain or illness.  Indeed, the vampire body is the modern consumer’s dream: Vampires do not sweat, or grow obese, or defecate.  Nor do they fret over incontinence or loss of virility.  And though they must feed nightly upon mortal blood, each meal is an orgasmic delight.

While Coppola outstrips his filmic predecessors in exploring vampire eroticism, he is no match for novelist Anne Rice, who, in addition to her many vampire tales, has written several works that she proudly labels “non-sexist” pornography.  In truth, part of the appeal of her best-selling vampire novels is itself pornographic.  How else can one describe the scene in her first and best-known novel, Interview With the Vampire, in which Louis, the reluctant, guilt-ridden blood-drinker, watches passively as the child vampire, Claudia, lures her vampire “father,” Lestat, to his death?  Aware of Lestat’s pedophile proclivities, Claudia makes him an unexpected gift of two “angelic” boys, a “perfect feast” of innocence.  The boys are, of course drugged, and as Lestat engages in what amounts to extended foreplay with the body of the more beautiful of the two boys, Rice’s lavish prose seduces the reader with an appassionato of “rising moans” and arching backs, filtering our response through Louis’s appalled yet fascinated passivity.  At the climactic moment, when Claudia plunges a kitchen knife into Lestat’s heart, she rides him in his death throes as gouts of blood erupt from his chest.  To be sure, Rice avoids any embarrassing references to private parts, but that hardly alters the fact that this lengthy purple passage reveals a degree of spiritual corruption that makes hard-core pornography look like wholesome exercise, if only because the corruption is aesthetically veiled.  We may be appalled, like Louis, but our fascination overrides any appropriate moral response (like flinging the book in the trash).  Make no mistake about Rice’s intentions: Her purpose is to explore the “sexuality” of her vampires without, as she noted in a 1989 interview, allowing “outmoded religious concepts” to prejudice our judgment.  Vampires “have a polymorphous sexuality.  They see everything as beautiful.”

This is not to say that Rice’s vampires are utterly lacking a moral perspective.  On the contrary, they adopt fashionable political positions (environmentalism, abortion rights, gay rights) and agonize over their predatory relations with mortals.  The “better” sort of vampire in Rice’s fiction feeds only on mortal trash, while sparing the good and the innocent, though how this delicate distinction is made remains unclear.  All of this is, of course, a colossal implausibility.  Vampires are the ultimate serial killers; it is surely a condition of the vampire myth (if it is to make any coherent sense) that whatever “conscience” vampires possessed as humans has long since been relinquished along with their souls.  Of course, when she wrote these novels, Rice was a confirmed atheist, so she did not believe in souls.  Besides, according to Rice, all of this humanizing of vampires is intended as metaphor.  Her vampires are figurative humans; she uses them to explore the human psyche in all its troubled ambivalence.  But if so, then Rice is guilty of bad faith, for her humanized vampires would possess little or no interest for her readers if they lacked supernatural attributes.  Most importantly, if we are to understand Rice’s vampires metaphorically, then what do they tell us about human nature?  Lestat, Louis, Armand, and a host of other Ricean bloodsuckers do not kill by choice but because they must, because they are driven by a lust for blood that is the core of their being.  In their fallen world, there is no spark of grace, no forgiveness, only relentless compulsion.  If Rice’s vampires are simply human, then humanity is simply demonic.  If they lament their condition (and they do, endlessly), their scruples are nothing more than a secularized vestige of the Christian morality that their maker scorned.

Anne Rice returned to the Christian fold in 1998, embracing the Catholicism of her New Orleans childhood.  In 2008 she published her “spiritual confession,” Called Out of Darkness.  Nowhere in that confession does she express any regret for her vampire novels, though she does say that writing of that kind no longer allows her to feel “complete.”  Of her reclaimed faith she proclaimed, “I will never leave Him again, no matter what the scandals or the quarrels of His church on earth, and I will not leave His church either.”  Two years later, in a fit of Facebook spleen, she announced her second departure, not merely from Catholicism, but from Christianity: “In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay.  I refuse to be anti-feminist.  I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control.  I refuse to be anti-Democrat.  I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. . . . In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian.  Amen.”  She added that she found it “impossible . . . to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. . . . I’ve tried.  I’ve failed.  I’m an outsider.  My conscience will allow nothing else.”  Rice once called the vampire Lestat her “conscience”; it now becomes more apparent what she meant.  Rice is at heart, like her hero, an antinomian.  But while she clings to her “outsider” image, she is clearly in the mainstream.  “Better to reign in Hell,” utters Milton’s Satan, “than serve in Heaven.”  Those words might well be the credo of our democratic masses today, for whom nothing is sacred but the infinitely desiring, unfettered self who, gazing into the mirror, finds only vampiric vacancy.