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The Rise of the Vampire

Erik Butler

(Reaktion; US: Mar 2013)

Erik Butler has written about vampires before, considering the growth of the vampire as a cultural phenomenon in Metamorphoses of the Vampire in Literature and Film; here he sets out to consider why the vampire has been so enduring. As is evident in the contemporary examples cited – the Twilight books, True Blood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – our appetite for vampires shows no signs of abating.


To try and determine why this is the case, Butler looks back at the history of the vampire and its representations. What emerges is something that can be read almost like a narrative of immigration. The first recorded vampire story is the report of an Austrian medical officer stationed in Serbia in the early 18th century. There he is told stories of corpses that do not decompose, and which rise from the grave and set about murdering people. The means of ultimately dispatching these vampires was the perennially popular method of a sharpened stake.


Vampires soon made their way westwards, quickly gaining a significant foothold in the popular culture of Western Europe, and subsequently, new stories about them began to be told there – stories which began to create the kind of vampire characters that continue to leave many in their thrall. Butler identifies John Polidori’s 1819 short story ‘The Vampyre’ as the first of these, while Dracula of course remains the archetypal vampire.


The migration of continued westward to America, where vampires became an established and important element of the cultural landscape. Like many aspirational migrants they were social climbers, becoming a fixture in Hollywood. Initially, cinematic representations followed the Dracula model, with Bela Lugosi coming to embody Bram Stoker’s character, but Butler considers several more distinctive examples, and traces the evolution of vampires into characters that could operate on their own terms. Those depicted in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles are perhaps the apogee of this evolution.


Although the historical grounding is fully fleshed out, there’s a sense that Butler is striving for a contemporary focus. What is the relevance of the vampire today? Why do we remain fascinated by these monsters of longstanding myth? These are the key questions of the text – but there are also a number of asides that take in recent trends.


The section dealing with zombies is one example. Perhaps as a reaction against the recent glut of commentary on Twilight and True Blood, zombies have latterly become more prominent objects of fascination than they ever have before. Butler states that ‘Vampires and zombies present two opposing sides of the same coin’, identifying them as subservient underlying in contrast to the powerful and decidedly more upper class vampires. But it’s not difficult to imagine that zombies might evolve into something more profound, in the same way that the vampire has, and this section comes across as a tangential attempt at inclusivity.


More interesting is the passage that attempts to find connections between vampires and goths. This appears as the culmination of a discussion on vampires and music, which soon leads into explorations of camp and comedy – the likes of The Addams Family and The Rocky Horror Picture Show are explored here. Indeed, the breadth of Butler’s sources is a particular strength throughout the book. There are a few texts that he revisits – the aforementioned classics by Polidori and Stoker are frequently invoked, but he also reaches far and wide within popular and higher culture. Moreover, examples that draw indirectly on the vampire myth are examined alongside those that feature fangs and garlic; Butler’s view of what constitutes a vampire is pleasingly broad.


Essentially, the vampire is considered as an ‘other’ in a similar manner to the way in which immigrants are othered, and in this way the narrative of immigration that runs through the book is given a greater relevance. The vampire might have numerous identifiable characteristics and might have gone through a great many incarnations in its migration from Serbia to Hollywood, but it remains unknown, and it’s from this that its appeal stems. The twist in this process of othering the vampire is that the myth appears to have come about as a means of othering: the Serbians who told vampire stories to their Austrian visitor were doing so, Butler argues, as a means of keeping outsiders and intruders at bay.


However, Butler does not only find a dynamic of ‘us and them’ in the vampire myth. The vampire is held up as a mirror to the human psyche, representing not only the unknown in others, but also that which is unknowable in ourselves. It is for this reason that vampires have been such an enduring construct, and one which we have felt compelled to flesh out and adorn.

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Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


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