What can it mean for Dario Argento, auteur extraordinaire, to forsake his unique melding of fearless style and fearless silliness and instead submit to Bram Stoker?
Even considering mankind’s propensity to shrink itself before delusions of the divine, we cannot fathom how superstition once terrorized the popular imagination. Man’s modesty before the immensity of the universe nevertheless represented a perverse form of “progress” for poor, pre-psychological Homo erectus, who once approached death with only natural fears, not socialized anxieties. When vacantly musing over decomposing, maggot-eaten mammoths and carcasses of giant sloths, he probably realized in some preconscious way that he, too, would feed the earth.
Dracula Di Dario Argento
Asia Argento, Rutger Hauer
But he never dreamed of conquering death. Though he was surely selfish and enjoyed eating, screwing and shitting, he was no reflective narcissist—his joys were fleeting, earthly, and unembellished. Incapable of dualistic thinking or paradox, he hadn’t yet distinguished mind from body, nurtured a bruised or stunned ego, needed the escape of drunkenness, believed a soul would escape its fleshly casing, or struggled like Schopenhauer with the disenchanting frailty of human will.
Then came history’s watershed moment—for Freud, the rebellion of clannish sons against the primal father or, by whatever theory, the terrible invention of politics. You remember the well-worn fable from Totem and Taboo. In a stone-age bureaucracy of chrysalid egos and campfire power struggles, notions of authority and rebellion, of territoriality and erotic conquest, poisoned the human consciousness. The rational fear of death gave way to irrational social anxieties, to inferiority complexes, enslavements, and feelings of worthlessness—feelings possibly worse than death. Darwinian survival dissolved into mediated politics, while guileless nature was supplanted by paternalistic, infantilizing religion.
As self-appointed shamans now sifted earthly profanity from totemic mystery, the egoistic, Oedipal need for autonomy tried to conquer death, the most evil father of all. The battle, always lost, only claims art as mankind’s collective crack at timelessness. But for Freud, art’s supposed immortality is just another denial of death, another retreat into pseudo-religion. Such is the pessimism of Freud, himself one of the 20th century’s greatest artists—even the most damned Oedipal fight cannot negate the regressive allure of the womb. Against this circuitous, infantile trap stands only atheism which, bravely trying to refuse dreams of immortality, provides no rapturous aesthetic to assuage our dogged anxieties.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker identified the constant pressure for heroism as man’s undoing, the wellspring of his anxiety. Our desire for immortality—to heroically overcome death, the greatest paterfamilias—maddens precisely because we understand the special, inconceivable burden of having been brought into the universe. Such a precious and improbable gift demands that we, supposedly emancipated from the father-cult, live every moment gloriously, exaltedly, audaciously. Furthermore, that we have been cosmically “chosen” for life should be enough—to be chosen again for an afterlife seems gratuitous, or at least presumptuous.
But this single chosen-ness only makes the mandate to live more burdensome and morally crippling, impossible to achieve or adequately sublimate through eros, art, or other neuroses. Becker (channeling Erich Fromm) wonders why people, always buckling under the burden to transcend their mortality, do “not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98¢.” (The Denial of Death, New York: The Free Press, 1973, 24). In truth, I suspect we all do go mad—we just let ourselves off the hook by believing, like Freud, that our neuroses are as inescapable as death.
Still, we would not change places with medieval peasants, who found comfort in the Church not because they truly believed in Heaven, but because the Church absolved them of the existential pressures of heroism. Before religion’s collapse, everyone was buoyed by the same unsinkable, unheroic boat. No one worried about heroism because everyone could partake of the common, unlimited heroism of Jesus, whose emaciated carcass, when cloned in every chapel, proffered enough resurrected flesh to fatten up the faithful. Like death, or because he was himself a symbol of death, Jesus became a great leveler, and even the afterlife was a paradise where the spoils of heroism would have been earned not through willful exertion but through worldly self-denial.
Of course, one century’s utilitarian faith is the next era’s tragicomedy, and history advances far too slowly for us to take it seriously. The desire for immortality, represented equally by resurrected saints and cartoon coyotes impervious to dynamite, always had absurd underpinnings. If absurdity and romantic longing are two sides of the same existential coin, the distinction becomes blurred in the immortality of the vampire, a tortured Peter Pan who promises eternal youth only as a decadent, fearful disease. The onetime fear of immortality suggests a concomitant fear of an individualism achievable only through witchcraft. As A. N. Wilson observes, it “was only in 1824 that the Laws of England felt safe enough to allow suicides to be buried without the customary safeguard of driving a wooden stake through the victim’s heart.” (Dracula, ed. A. N. Wilson, Oxford: Oxford University Press) Such measures inoculated the suicidal dead against vampirism in era that saw suicide as mortal sin, not Camusian exertion.
I can’t say what whim of Parliament was responsible for liberalizing industrial-age burial customs any more than I can ascertain why the Vatican believed the ‘90s were the right decade to absolve Galileo. Suffice it to say that history is something of a timely anachronism. By their conservative nature, institutions still crawl when their human creators have learned to walk—this is the essential tragedy of human history.
Except in fundamentalists’ bruised psyches, the age of superstition is rightly dead and buried—except, of course, in cinema, whose vampiric myths mirror a medium increasingly more life-draining than invigorating. Nonetheless, the pseudo-Christian legend of the vampire remains among the dominant representations of immortality in popular culture. Other humanoid monsters who defy death—zombies or Frankenstein’s Cartesian ragdoll—tend to do so temporarily, always falling to pieces at fearful or didactic junctures.
Like the crudely Jungian werewolf, the vampire expresses humanity’s dualism not through a Cartesian mind-body split but through a literally polymorphous body that assumes either exalted or libidinal forms, either romantic idol or parasitic eremite. In this, the vampire and werewolf are really inversions of one another—the vampire’s exalted state is his aristocratic-human shell, the werewolf’s his fecund, animal soul. The retrogressive werewolf, an affront to Darwin, never bothers to claim immortality: the human who exposes his animalism is as doomed as the savage gunslinger exiled from the civilized frontier. The vampire, concealing his rodential pestilence beneath a romantic façade, remains more humanlike—as if to expose his weepy sentimentality, the vampire’s staked, “broken heart” is his Achilles’ heel.
The vampire’s morbid romanticism discloses dubious literary origins, far removed from pre-Christian heroes who braved death without thinking their hubris was tainted by sin. The long-winded, overheated prose of Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Stoker’s quaint, Christian notions of female purity and redemption have long saddled the mythology with Manichean sentimentality and Victorian heavy breathing. The conservatism of early vampire films, of course, framed the monster’s predatory immortality as an affront to the passive, meekly inherited immortality of Christian dogma. One feels guilty for accusing the great Murnau of any aesthetic misdeed, but Nosferatu’s heavenly-sunlight-dispelling-the-monster finalé dispels far too easily the audience’s reasonable desire to live monstrously forever, to become the primal father—that is, a lecherous clan chieftain who dominates the female spoils.
The heavenly solution must have disappointed even in 1922—it’s as anticlimactic as the conclusion of Wegener’s The Golem (1920), in which a delicate twist of the monster’s Star of David abruptly halts its rampage, and as timid an ending as the final reconciliation between slaves and masters in Lang’s Metropolis. The ending of Metropolis demanded real rebellion (this was Siegfried Kracauer’s old complaint), much as the Dracula myth cannot be presented honestly unless the vampire, like Lucifer, can conquer the crucifix and give God a run for his money.
The vampire’s “revolutionary” immortality not only renders him a romantic but places him in the company of pre-Christian heroes who hubristically wandered among the earth, the heavens, and the underworld. As Becker observes, the antediluvian “hero was the man who could go into the spirit world, the world of the dead, and return alive.” (Ibid., 18) Exactly how heroes and demigods conquered death was a test of their cult’s cleverness.
In a later tale of Gilgamesh, not included in the original 11 tablets, the hero literally splits open the ceiling of an icy hell to rescue Enkidu, his friend condemned by the Gods. This sort of heroism, however, is too confounding for common people to identify with or emulate, inspiring only fear, not desire. Christianity’s rather brilliant solution, entirely against all Mesopotamian and Greek history, was to remake heroism as a humility that was not only comprehensible but practicable. Belief in Christ allowed people to see the tiniest acts of mercy as immense, symbolic heroisms, while the truly heroic sacrifice is deferred to a dualistic hero who, because he is at once mortal son and immortal father, can internally reconcile his own Oedipal conflict. Of course, this internal “reconciliation” is a sham: Jesus, unable to usurp the father, is instead absorbed into him, becoming a sacrificial example to a mankind desperately looking for ways not to be heroic.
The polyamorous body of the vampire, always recoiling before the image of supplicatory Christ, attempts to redress Christianity’s cop-out dualism. The vampire’s own dualism is not a conflict between transcendent mind and profane body; rather, his psyche is undivided in its erotic thrust, and the split is displaced to his physicality, alternately represented as dominating father (a Count) and the fanged, lusty animal repressed by Abrahamic religion. Unlike the werewolf, a slave to lunar phases and other signs of nature, the vampire is a master of self-control, though the source of his control is deliberately mystified. The mystification thus obscures the vampire’s wolfish, parasitic, yet nevertheless “active” heroism, much as the mystified duality of Christ obscures his victimized, holy, and “passive” heroism.
The demonization of vampire’s Luciferian heroics was, of course, only compounded by the Hays Code, which demanded that vampires’ victims remain sexually repressed or perish for their unguarded penetrations. Nevertheless, nearly every filmmaker from Tod Browning onwards has attempted to swell and penetrate the vampire’s erotic aura, even if audiences would have to wait until George Romero and John Carpenter—or at least Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955)—for horror to fulfill its promise of ungodly, amoral apocalypse.
In any case, the vampire myth has provided enough metaphorical baggage for filmmakers to rescue it from Victorianism and glorify its wanton, contagious otherness. Unlike the monstrous (if initially alluring) stranger of Polidori, today’s vampires are not abject others but desired, tempting ones; we desire from them not diseased immortality per se, but the heroism that comes with death-defying. Notably, the monster’s victims, willing or unwilling, are as passive in their vampiric rebirths as they were in their natural births. Thus, “turned” victims are heroic only to a point, for they still serve a paternalistic, godlike master whom they cannot disobey. It is no accident, then, that the monster’s “active” bloodsucking becomes a perverse parody of Catholicism’s sanguivorous Communion, for the vampire’s bloody alliance promises freedom but delivers only a new kind of religious enslavement.
After the relaxation of censorship in the late ‘60s, the vampire’s perversions took on the form of blatant male fantasies, particularly the nubile lesbian eros of Jean Rollin, Hammer Films, and José Ramón Larraz (Vampyres, 1974), all privileging Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, not Stoker. The new cultural liberalism also exposed the subgenre’s socialist or revolutionary themes. The father, always a caped aristocrat, was now a landowner bleeding the peasants. This commonplace theme was lampooned in Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974), in which Joe Dallesandro’s Marxist, Brooklynite farmhand plots insurrection against and (with an axe) finally deconstructs Udo Kier’s decadent count, one spurting limb at a time.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, when leftist allegorizing was no longer fashionable, the vampire’s bloody contaminations became convenient metaphors in an era colored by AIDS-fueled paranoia and fatalism, as in Habit and The Addiction (both from 1995, when AIDS awareness reached its height). Elsewhere, erotic contaminations served as veiled “racializing” metaphors, particularly in the Blade: Trinity (1998-2004), which featured an African-American actor (Wesley Snipes) playing a miscegenated (i.e., half-breed) vampire battling purebloods intent on dominating racial inferiors.
Always superseding these incidental themes is the adolescent yearning for transcendence, a desire too often fostered by genius. As a high schooler, I wondered why the Elizabethans were so obsessed with “immortality in verse”—to a 16-year old, it seemed ironic that literary giants were thinking like 16-year olds, believing a few centuries of literary persistence could constitute eternity. The immateriality of music, perhaps, transcends better than dried ink or the temporally fixed image incapable of rubato. Wagner’s Liebestod or Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration signal the unnatural union of Eros and Thanatos better than any vampiric penetration not so much because they pretend to spiritual epiphanies but because music—even programmatic music—is an abstraction immune to cellular or celluloid decay. Yet the Liebestod’s fiery ecstasy is matched by its absurd belief in the human will to transcend nature. The Buddhist’s sand mandala, meant to be washed away by shifting tides, portends a far more rational aesthetic.
The denial of death lends itself to easy comedy (recall Warner Brothers’ coyote, resurrected at will), and after Hammer’s heyday, the genre fell into parodic disrepair. Consider Christopher Lee stalking mod Londoners in Dracula A.D. 1972, George Hamilton’s disco-era count in Love at First Bite (1979), or a frail Peter Cushing in the French spoof Tender Dracula (1975). The vampire comedy reached its nadir in the borderline racist British parody Vampira (aka Old Dracula, 1975), featuring David Niven as an effete Count fretting over a tainted infusion of blood that has turned his mate African-American, thrilling to Jim Brown in Black Gunn. Under the spell of adolescent culture, delusions once romantic, then comic, have descended into the pricey puerility of Twilight, into the chaste, franchised fantasies of pubescent girls. Perhaps only George Romero’s satirical, anti-romantic Martin (1978)—whose teenage vampire is merely a neurotic, bloodthirsty mortal, only fantasizing about torch-wielding villagers—succeeds at ironizing the vampire’s adolescent allure.
Yet Stoker’s pulpy ghost lingers, insurmountable and paternalistic, haunting filmmakers into future centuries. Wilson un-ironically suggests that Stoker’s pulpiness was his saving grace, for only a second-rate writer could succeed at producing a colorfully second-rate classic. A Dracula written by Tolstoy would be unimaginable, or at least unimaginably tedious. (Still, a Dickens Dracula would have been tantalizing—and far preferable to A Christmas Carol.) Stoker was no true believer, however, and his sensationalism was basically exploitative, not romantic. In 1910, Stoker published Famous Imposters, a monograph debunking sorcery, mesmerism, and even witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (famously portrayed by Vincent Price in The Witchfinder General). Were he alive, Stoker would doubtless find amusing the ingenuousness of the genre he birthed.