I have recently been on a Sherlock Holmes kick, watching episodes of the old British TV series starring Jeremy Brett and then reading the stories again since some years have passed since I last did so. The latest one was the 1994 episode The Last Vampyre based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire in which a case is brought to Baker Street about a possible vampire in the county of Sussex. Holmes, the epitome of rationality and scientific deduction, dismisses out of hand the idea of vampires and has no doubt that there is a perfectly ordinary explanation for the reports.
The Sherlock Holmes short stories are written in a very spare style with very little obfuscation and few tangential story lines. There is simply not enough plot in this short story to make into the length of a TV film of 102 minutes and so the writers of the screenplay have added an elaborate backstory and new characters, all emphasizing the vampire aspects of the mystery. It is clear that they thought that this is what would appeal to the audience.
It made me curious as to the reasons for the popularity of vampires and more recently of zombies in films, TV, books, and popular culture. The current crop of vampires seem to be a far cry from the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These are not your grandfather’s pasty-faced men living in dusty and remote bat-infested castles whose main goal is to get their feast of human blood while avoiding detection. From my causal reading of news reports of pop culture, the recent vampires consist of attractive young people living in modern times in urban settings, mixing socially with non-vampires, and encountering the same kinds of problems and romantic entanglements as their non-blood drinking peers.
I am curious as to whether the familiar tropes of vampire literature still apply to these new ones. Are they repelled by crosses? By garlic? Does sunlight kill them? Do they produce reflections in mirrors? Can they be permanently killed only by a wooden stake driven through the heart?
I must admit that I have only a passing interest in the vampires and zombies genres and that too only as a sociological phenomenon concerning their appeal. If not for the Sherlock Holmes angle, I would not have bothered to watch something called The Last Vampyre at all. But I am also curious as to why vampires and zombies have so much appeal in this modern age when, to my mind, it should be obvious that they are total fictions. After all, unlike with other non-existent entities such as gods, there are no organizations like churches to promote the illusion of their existence and parents also do not indoctrinate their children with these ideas. So why are they still around and not gone the way of other frightening myths of the past? Is it because people think that there is a possibility that they might actually exist and thus gives them delicious chills? Joan Acocella’s article IN THE BLOOD: Why do vampires still thrill? in the March 16, 2009 issue of The New Yorker tries to analyze the enduring appeal of vampires.
I suspect that my disdain for this genre it is largely due to my instinctive dismissal, like Sherlock Holmes, of the supernatural as nonsense. This is also why I have a hard time with the literary style known as ‘magical realism’ and found parts of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially his One Hundred Years of Solitude, hard to stomach. It is not that I disliked the books or did not appreciate their point or the quality of writing. It is just that I thought less of them than I might have otherwise because of the supernatural plot devices where things that simply could not happen, did seem to happen.
But I am aware of a seeming contradiction. My dislike cannot simply be due to the fact that vampires are unbelievable. After all, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and films, which were outright fantasy. And I have no trouble with Shakespeare’s frequent use of witches and ghosts and fairies and elves in his plays.
In trying to make sense of this seeming contradiction in my attitudes, the only reason I can come up with is that as long as the supernatural elements are clearly unbelievable and unlikely to be taken as anything other than pure fantasy, I have no trouble with them. But when the authors introduce them in such a way that makes them seem possibly real and not obviously fanciful or merely hallucinations in the minds of their characters, then I find it off-putting because it seems to give the supernatural a degree of credibility that is unwarranted.
I simply do not see any upside to believing in the supernatural and plenty of downside, so am turned off by things that seem to make it plausible in any way.