I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for ‘Dracula Untold’, which actually looks vaguely historical. Don’t get me wrong here, I know vampires aren’t actually a thing, and if they were they wouldn’t have half as many teenage fangirls. But Dracula did exist. We call him Vlad Țepeș, and he impaled Turks for a living. The upshot of this trailer is that it looks like the film will feature Turks and spikes. So, at a stroke, this is likely to be one of the most historically accurate Dracula films we have seen in decades. That’s a little troubling, considering that this is a trailer where a guy one-punches an army with a horde of bats.
With all this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at vampires, and ask whether they have actually been a positive thing for students of history. The short answer is ‘no’. Vampires are not a real thing. At best, they will give you a twisted version of events. That said, vampires can be used as a vehicle to discuss common historical themes that are otherwise avoided by mass media.
Some people have drawn links between the fictional vampirism and real-world congenital disorders. This is a link that the Elder Scrolls games, in particular, have played on. The idea of a treatable disease is also a significant subplot in the Blade films, among others. Disease is a major problem worldwide and, historically, it was much more of an issue. However, this is often ignored. I blame The English Patient.
I once watched most of The Painted Veil, but films about disease don’t really appeal to me (at some point I will watch The Black Death, but only because it looks completely bonkers, and I know that Sean Bean will still be acting seriously serious). Getting back to my point; I don’t think I’m alone. Real-world disease is a box office buzz-kill, but the sexy vampire (along with its cousin, the zombie) is a legitimate target. Vampirism acts as a totem for all the real-world diseases out there.
From Blade to 30 Days of Night, vampires speak a different language. Maybe this is to emphasise their ‘other-ness’. They are not like us, the English-speaking audience. Or possibly it is there to suggest that their culture is older than the human culture they are now hiding within. If you couple this with species names like ‘hominus nocturna’, then the whole thing starts to remind me of the Neanderthals. Think about it; an ancient race, which predates humanity, and is back for revenge. It’s a studio exec’s wet dream.
Plus, with vampires, you can’t be accused of being racist (even though, that’s really what the undertones here are all about) because everyone knows that vampires are evil, and they are the aggressors. There are whole swathes of our history where race and culture has been used by one group of people to subjugate another. In this case it is worth giving a nod to Interview with a Vampire and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter for working the subject of slavery into their narrative.
In the original stories, vampires were heavily linked to Satan. They were unholy, and could be destroyed by holy water or crosses. Over the years, this link has been diluted and increasingly used for comic effect. In The Lost Boys, the tooling up sequence is broken when the protagonists barge into a church service to fill up their bottles at the font. In the farcical From Dusk Till Dawn, holy water condom ‘hand grenades’, crucifix-inscribed bullets, and a cross made from a shotgun and a baseball bat are all used to maximum effect. Vampire films are probably still the most common place to find religion, but I’d like to see a bit more variety than Christians=Good, Vampires=Bad.
Where From Dusk Till Dawn gets it right is in the closing seconds, when the camera pans back, and we see that the Titty Twister bar is actually just the top storey of a Central American pyramid. It turns out that the Aztecs were completely psycho when it came to their gods, so it follows that a temple would be just the place to house the local tribe of immortal blood-drinkers. This is a theme I could really stand to see more of.
Vampires are not a reflection of a historical reality
So, vampires are less likely to teach you about the historical past they are set in, and more likely to teach you the kind of things that the mass media would rather not present with a plain face. But, if you read between the lines, there are lessons to be learned.