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Opinion: Return of the vampire

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In “Dracula,” Bram Stoker’s sensationalist 1897 novel that no contemporary critic thought would become a classic, the Dutch doctor Abraham Van Helsing is called to England to investigate the strange wasting illness of Lucy Westenra. The scientist requires only a brief examination before he knows what he is dealing with: a vampire. Oddly enough, modern archeologists occasionally experience similar realizations when investigating ancient burial sites.

The vampire is a creature who has plagued human consciousness throughout history. Older cultures, from medieval Europe to colonial America, often attributed wasting diseases like tuberculosis to mythical creatures who would come in the night and drain their victims of blood, eventually turning them into vampires as well. Victims of these diseases were often buried with stakes through their hearts, bricks in their mouths or in heavy, chained coffins to prevent escape.

Vampires carry human fears with them wherever they go when they stalk the night, but they began to carry political issues as well with Stoker’s “Dracula.” In its day, it was what the Victorians would have called a “shilling shocker,” a piece of cheap sensationalist and romantic literature for the masses, otherwise known as the “Twilight” of its time. Still, the character Dracula remains immortal and undead, and the book that spawned him is imbued with the political fears of Victorian England.

The character of Dracula is an unstoppable force from the mysterious Transylvania, to which the English gave the ominous nickname “The Land Beyond the Forest.” Dracula first imprisons a relatable English lawyer in his Eastern European lair as he plots his invasion of London. Once in the British “homeland” he stalks the night, materializing out of mist to drain young women of blood to keep him alive and youthful. In “Dracula,” Stoker was creating an imaginary army from the European continent, an army that could not be stopped. The struggle to defeat Dracula reflects the great European conflict that many Britons feared was just around the corner.

Soon after that conflict, the enigmatic vampire returned, but with a different name. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film “Nosferatu” is widely considered the first horror film, and rarely does a horror movie come out today without clear influences stemming all the way back to the silent feature. The plot of “Nosferatu” is also a completely unauthorized retelling of “Dracula” which makes it a major example of another societal and political issue: copyright infringement.

Although “Dracula” owes much of its themes to the fear of impending war, “Nosferatu” owes as much of its imagery and atmosphere to the tragedy of the war itself. The film is among the collected works of several interwar German filmmakers and other artists who worked in a style known as German Expressionism. The darkness and death wrought by the first world war frequently showed its hideous face in German Expressionism, and as such, the hideous face of the character Count Orlok would have been all too familiar to the Germans of 1922.

The vampire has risen from the grave frequently since then and now enjoys more popularity than ever, and just as always, the creature carries our political concerns when it visits at night. Academics continue to bat around the question of whether the 1990’s television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” perpetuates accurate feminist politics. The HBO series “True Blood” serves as a very obvious allegory for LGBT rights, with the vampires in the show said to have “come out of the coffin.” There is now a debate over whether such an allegory is helpful or hurtful to the LGBT cause.

Perhaps it is true that vampires do exist in some form. They are the things that are on our minds when we can’t sleep at night. We fear them as we fear impending doom or past horror, as we fear disease or a changing and complex society. More than anything, we fear vampires because of their potential to transform us. That is what politics does; for better or worse, it is transformational. Perhaps that is why the vampires keep rising from the dead. They haunt us because we fear transformation, and because sometimes, we wish to be transformed.

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