Written by Stephanie Pickrell
Think, for a moment, of a vampire. Consider the young woman languishing across a couch, neck bared, and the tall, pale figure lingering over her, lips bathed a bright, delicious red. Or the creature hovering outside the sweeping balcony windows, silhouetted by the soft glow of moonlight, with a face as smooth as wax and fangs that reach too far down its chin. Or better yet, the devastatingly handsome stranger across the school cafeteria, too pale and too perfect to be human, with an aversion to sunlight and in possession of a miraculous anti-aging cream. Regardless of the varied vampire varieties that appeared in your head, each is still recognizably a vampire. In fact, the variety of vampires present in literature and film is a testament to the vampire’s unique versatility. The vampire has proven adaptable for a creator’s every need, and has even been instrumental in introducing ideas ahead of the times (including this recent adaptation of Dracula by Kate Hamill).
But what, exactly, is a vampire, and why is it a creature that we keep reviving and redefining?
Is it a walking corpse, or an apex human predator? Scientific experiment gone wrong, or monster as old as time? An unfeeling psychopath, or an expert in scenting human emotions? The devil himself, or simply an unfortunate human being? It’s a remarkably customizable form; we’ll accept nearly any representation of it as long as it involves a thirst for blood and some sort of immortality. But surely we’re not obsessed with vampires in all their versions because we all secretly want to know what blood tastes like. So maybe it’s because we’re fascinated by the idea of immortality, and want a taste of something beyond life and death. As human beings, death is the inescapable calamity, the great equalizer, the one experience that we all fear and share. Vampires, however, have found a way to cheat the system, and it’s that loophole that makes them intriguing enough to turn to time and time again.
Before writing this article, I asked some people for their thoughts on immortality, and I got a wider range of answers than I had anticipated. Some said they’d feel an increase in motivation, because they would feel free of the pressures to find a job and start a family. Others said they’d be more engaged in political life and activism, because they’d have a chance at seeing drastic change come about over the years. Still others said they’d be nicer to people because they knew they would have to see them die, while a few said they’d be less nice to people, because everyone would eventually leave them anyway. Nearly all mentioned the need to leave a legacy before their death, and how the pressure to accomplish it changes once the deadline is removed.
All of these thoughts are represented in the vampire canon. Vampires are, as far as we know, human creations, made by mortals imagining immortality. More than a way of fantasizing about eternal life on earth, vampires also allow us to decipher our priorities in mortal life. Here are a few lessons in (im)mortality, brought to you from our favorite vampires:
Dracula (1897), Bram Stoker
The second-most iconic vampire today (behind Edward Cullen, of course) as well as one of the most purely horrifying, Count Dracula may not seem like a first choice of who to go to for life advice. However, if you give him a chance, you’ll find that he’s quite reflective for someone with no actual reflection.
The Count can be hard to understand at first glance (given that none of the novel comes from his point of view), but we do get the occasional piece of dialogue from him that gives us some insight into the pain that comes with immortality. When discussing his future housing plans with his poor, oblivious guest, Jonathan Harker, he makes this sentimental admission: “I am no longer young; and my heart, through weary years of mourning over the dead, is not attuned to mirth.”
Did the Count once have a family? Did he once have a childhood? We have no way of knowing. But what is clear is that the Count loved somebody at one point, probably multiple someones, and those losses still affect him profoundly.
The Count affirms that the presence of death is inevitable for everyone—mortal or immortal. He also validates our expressions of grief. If the Count, who is centuries old, still mourns for the people he once knew, why should we expect to move easily past grief within a few mere years or decades? However, we don’t have all of eternity to mourn, either. The Count’s grief teaches us that grief is inevitable and continuous, but warns us against spending the rest of our lives avoiding the sound of laughter.
Interview with the Vampire (1976, 1994), Anne Rice
As one of the first stories to really address the vampire from the vampire’s point of view, Anne Rice’s novel offers plenty of commentary on the struggles of vampirism, and the film adaptation (based on her screenplay) continues what the novel started. One of the strongest lessons on the costs of immortality comes from this scene in the film, where Claudia, a child vampire turned at the ripe age of five, demands her guardians, Louis and Lestat, tell her why she was made a vampire. As a vampire, she is unable to change or grow, and thus is permanently stuck in a miserable purgatory between child and adult.
Claudia teaches us that change is good. Immortality is the complete denial of change, even change as simple as getting a haircut. As she ages in soul but not in body, Claudia experiences the burdens of existential adulthood without having the mental and physical capacities to truly deal with it. Mortality gives us a deadline that not only allows us to change, but forces us to do so. As mortals, we have a chance to recognize our incredible affinity for progress and improve ourselves sooner rather than later.
Twilight (2005, 2008), Stephenie Meyer
While Twilight may be the vampire movie everyone loves to hate (see a recent limerick take down from Hothouse’s very own Lindsey Ferris), it still offers a unique perspective on the benefits of immortality as opposed to its disadvantages. As this incredibly sappy scene at the end of the final movie says, the answer to living forever and not suffering from grief, existentialism, or boredom is . . . love! Specifically, love found with one person who is also immortal and sparkles in the sun. After all, Edward and Bella are not the only perfect couple in the movie—the entire Cullen family is coupled up. In fact, it is Edward’s single status that gives him the angsty teen vibes the girls in the movie (and your middle school) fell for—despite the fact that he’s 104 years old.
If the only way immortals can live happily ever after is to find true love with another immortal, at least the expectations for mortal love aren’t quite as high. Us humans don’t have eternity to find our soulmates, but at least we have other things to sustain us, like personal growth and planning for our retirement. In other words, love isn’t as much of a requirement for mortal life as it is for immortal life. Either that, or we have to find our soulmates as early as possible . . . I think I’m going to go with my first interpretation.
What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
As a mockumentary, What We Do in the Shadows pokes fun at nearly every possible portrayal of vampires, but there are still some (moderately) serious lessons to be learned from it. In this heartwarming scene, vampires ranging in age from eight thousand to twenty something years old learn to appreciate a new mortal friend, Stu. Stu is able to provide his vampire friends with IT support and access to the outside world—both of which they have lived without for so long, stuck in the conventions of their time.
Stu, as a mortal, reminds us that even though we die, we still have an advantage over immortals: While they have to continually learn the customs of the time, we learn them like a mother tongue. Is immortality really worth it if technologies and customs over time are so difficult to comprehend that one must rely on a mortal for help? As mortals, we have the ability to fluently experience our lives in the context of our own time—we are the experts of our own IT systems.
Though often monstrous in a certain, er, light, there’s definitely more to vampires than immediately meets the eye. From the serious to the silly to the sentimental, vampires teach us about ourselves by possessing exactly that which we can never have: immortality. These are just a few of the many lessons that can be learned from observing immortal vampires, but unfortunately, we won’t know more unless we can interview them directly ourselves. To any vampires out there reading this, you know where to find me.