It is only in fiction that immortality is an option and perhaps that is why as one grows older, vampire stories recover their power to scare
As a young child, I was easily frightened. An embarrassing footnote to family legend is that when taken to the cinema, I had to excuse myself during the scary bits –even Sleeping Beauty provoked at least two visits to the loo. I am slightly surprised that nearly six decades later I have reprised this anxiety. I confess that on occasion I fast forward during the streaming of a particularly suspenseful television series just to assure myself that the hero does not come to a grisly end. I tell myself that this is because I am resentful of script writers trying to manipulate my emotions, even though I know that is their job.
So, it requires some explanation why, again some years ago, I sat down to write a vampire novel. Even more eccentrically I based the plot on my MA theses which was about the Polish trade union movement. The story was more Hitchcock than Bela Lugosi –an Eastern European apparatchik is forced on the run, stranded in London, accused of a crime she didn’t do. It turns out her fate is being manipulated by an ancient battle between good and evil; as well as that of the young man she encounters who tries to help her out of her jam. I later adapted the book as a film script and set it in a Turkish newspaper. I showed it to Atilla Dorsay who hated the gore, but Derviş Zaim was strangely polite. Any wannabe producers out there should give me a call.
Vampires may be eternal, but why does the genre survive? I read that the first audiences of the 1931 premier of Dracula played by Bela Lugosi collapsed from fright, but by the time I got to watch it on television, the film had already become a parody of itself- Bela Lugosi even played a comic Dracula in the Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). In fact, I don’t think any of those Universal Studios horror films tried to shock or scare like Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween. Prompted by F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, they were brooding, wonderful exercises –in German expressionist light and shadow. Very different is Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr from 1932 which, possibly because of the quality of the surviving negative, is a dream-like exercise in light and yet more light. It has the memorable scene at the end where the vampire’s evil helper is suffocated in flour at a mill. It must have inspired the end of Peter Weir’s Witness (1985) where one of the hitmen is drowned in grain.
Roman Polanski’s psychological horror film Repulsion (1965) scared the bejesus out of me when I snuck off school to see it as a teen. His The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) –is a dreary affair- neither scary nor funny. It is memorable not for anything it does, but for the strange hermeneutic when we watch the mock-horror performance of Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife-to-be, whose bloody fate at the hands of a real-life ghoul shocked a whole generation. It legitimated the sort of camp, late night pop-corn horror of which the The Rocky Horror Picture Show was to be the epitome. To me, the vampire film that gets to the heart of the matter is the teenage shocker Fright Night (1985). It reveals what began to dawn upon me when I was writing my own tome, that the real appeal of the vampire fiction is that it captures the adolescent fear of venturing into the world –and an even greater fear of sex. Boy meets girl. Girl bites boy. Girl bites girl. Boy bites whatever comes to mind. I was part of the pre-Buffy generation, so we had to learn this for ourselves.
Which makes it all the more curious that the granddaddy of the genre –Dracula was written by Bram Stoker not as a youthful exercise, but at the age of 50. It is a strangely wonderful book –still deeply unsettling, though we have come to know the story too well. Indeed, it was the films and the early stage adaptations which were to popularise the novel. The book was praised when first published in 1897, but its author died in poverty.
It has spawned not just progeny, but a whole industry. I did finish the best-selling Interview with the Vampire (the first of an endless series, published in 1976), a sort of Gothic Gone with the Wind. But I remember it without affection. I also became great friends at one point with Raymond McNally, a Boston professor who made a niche for himself lecturing about the real history of Vlad the Impaler and the fictional characters he inspired. We were staying in the same academic hostel and one of Raymond’s more endearing habits was to eat several cloves of garlic for breakfast, mashed with parsley. It was he who introduced me to Drakula İstanbul’da (1953), not a great film -but remarkable for being the first to feature the first film Dracula (Atıf Kaptan) to have fangs.
It is not just that vampires are libido with teeth. Part of the appeal is that it is a story constructed upon powerful architypes- many of them with foreign accents. Dracula is pure evil wrapped in aristocratic manners (and not the weird bug-like creature of Nosferatı). The vampire’s nemesis is the white-haired, saintly Van Helsing. There is Lucy who pays the price for her veiled promiscuity by becoming a vampire herself; Renfield whose service of depravity drives him mad; Mina saved by her virginal nature; and Jonathan Harker the young man trying to make his way in the world.
Better still, vampire fiction is like a really good game with a fixed set of rules. Vampires are allergic to crosses, holy water, wolfsbane- and they hate garlic. You cannot see their reflection in the mirror. On the plus side, they can turn themselves into bats. They can also mesmerise their victims. They live off blood (well, my vampire lived off “chi” obtained through acupuncture) and when they tire of their own company, they can create a circle of cronies with one bite. Daylight will kill them, and so too will a stake through the heart. Yet, left to their own devices, they never, ever die.
These are cards which you can shuffle into a hundred plots. Most of the post-Stoker stories conclude with the vampire’s dream of eternal life coming to a sudden end– even though there is always a sequel in which they somehow rise again. But it is only in fiction that immortality is an option and perhaps that is why as one grows older, vampire stories recover their power to scare.