Entertainment

The Boy's Got Bite

Why people are vamping it up again, a century after 'Dracula.'

By Shannon Rupp 22 Mar 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Tara Birtwhistle and Jaime Vargas in Dracula. Photo by David Cooper.

Whenever Dracula makes an entrance, as he will today when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet kicks off its B.C. tour of Dracula at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth, it's hard to ignore the notion that we're really nothing but Victorians with better technology.

The ballet, which is based on Bram Stoker's classic 1897 novel, tells the vampire tale that is as popular at the turn of this century as it was at the last fin de siècle because, while contemporary furniture is better, the anxieties are much the same.

Or so says Stoker scholar and vampire expert Elizabeth Miller, who will be delivering her 40th pre-show chat tonight. The professor emeritus with Newfoundland's Memorial University taught Romantic and Victorian literature, which is how she came to be fascinated by Dracula and the bloodsucking immortals.

Vamp academia

"For a scholar this is such a rich text -- it explodes with interpretations," she said, which explains why, five years after her official retirement, Miller is still teaching courses on vampires at York and the University of Toronto. Not to mention entertaining everyone from balletomanes to Goth clubs with her views on vamps.

Sex and death have always been interrelated in the human psyche -- except for that one, brief, shining moment post-antibiotics and pre-AIDS -- and Drac's debut coincided with the Victorian syphilis epidemic. Not surprisingly, the rise of the current vampire mania coincided with the discovery of AIDS.

"In the novel, Dracula is polluting women -- they become lascivious and try to seduce men and pass on the disease. He was also a foreigner [from Transylvania] polluting the English bloodline -- it reflects the racism and fear of immigration," Miller said, explaining that the vampire always embodies the contemporary threat.

Dracula is in you

"The next thing there will be is a novel that presents the vampire as a terrorist," Miller said, adding that the Eastern European vampire-as-mobster novel, Fangland, has just hit the bookstores.

Dracula, as a serial killer, reflected the hysteria over Jack the Ripper, who began his spree in 1888, and is still one of the creatures we fear most. The vampire also embodies occult beliefs in myth and magic that surfaced in the 19th century and reflected the fear about scientific leaps, including evolutionary theory. The Romantic movement was a reaction to the previous age of reason.

"Dracula is a shape-shifter who becomes a bat or a wolf. He's an atavistic creature, which suggests he's devolving."

That fear of science is still obvious in places like the Fraser Valley and large spans of the American Midwest and South where supporters of "intelligent design" are trying to replace biology with the new creationism. And Miller said that Victorian streak of anti-intellectualism is also echoed in the romantic myths of today's New Age movement.

Fear of women's sexuality

Vampire legends stretch back for centuries, but the Gothic version of the demon lover that still resonates in the 21st century, originated with "The Vampyre," an 1819 short story by John William Polidori. He modelled the monster on the quintessential bad boy, dark, brooding lady-killer and Romantic poet, Byron -- who was dubbed "mad, bad and dangerous to know" by one of his spurned lovers. While that image is reflected in Stoker's later take on the creature, Dracula also incorporated the cultural tensions of the day, most of which are still with us.

The novel touches on Victorian society's unease with women's sexuality, and choreographer Mark Godden's 1998 ballet is true to the novel. Like the book, the ballet is divided in two, with the first half of the story telling the tale of Lucy, as a traditional woman who is violated by the predator, becomes enthralled with him, then goes on to infect healthy men when she grows her own set of fangs.

"You see the fear of sexual women," Miller said, adding that the belief in Victorian sexual repression is something of a myth. "That was only for certain [society] women. Most gentlemen had prostitutes."

From Dracula to Buffy

The feminist backlash to one of European history's most misogynist eras is also reflected in Stoker's novel. Miller notes that he makes reference to "the new woman" as she was dubbed in 1893. That generation of feminists -- who demanded the vote, education, bicycles, professional careers and an end to whalebone corsets -- is represented by Mina, the woman who resists Dracula in the second half of the story.

"She's instrumental in defeating him -- Van Helsing couldn't do it without her."

Making her the forerunner of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Joss Whedon, who created Buffy, has often said in interviews that he envisioned the cult heroine as the stereotypical blond victim who ran down an alley to escape the monster -- and when the creature followed, she turned out to be his worst nightmare.

"I always think Van Helsing -- the vampire hunter in Dracula -- inspired Buffy. But that's an interesting idea that she comes from Mina," Miller said. "See what I mean, about the text being so rich..."

Gender benders

The vampire's gender ambiguity also lends itself nicely to the contemporary era in which sexual reassignment surgery, as it's called, is becoming the new tummy tuck. Stoker's Dracula has long nails and hair, and while there's no hard evidence he actually drains men, the crew of the ship he takes to England does disappear mysteriously. Miller is currently studying Stoker's notes to determine, among other things, whether the Count was bisexual. Miller thinks it's quite possible.

"Oscar Wilde's trial [for homosexuality] was going on and Stoker would have been well aware of it -- especially since he had [been a rival for Wilde's] wife."

Miller's view that the contemporary love of vampire is due to it being the perfect metaphor for us, and our fears, is persuasive. This isn't a monster we can flee, since it's a twisted -- or perhaps unfettered? -- version of us.

My alter ego, the dance critic, would add that the vampire is the perfect ballet icon -- it's in keeping with classical ballet's fascination with the living dead. In the past, women have always danced the undead roles. They're ghosts, fairies, sylphs, dolls, birds of all sorts (swans, bluebirds, firebirds), and there's an occasional comatose princess thrown in for good measure. But they're never whole and healthy women. Although, I particularly love the wilis in Giselle -- they're the spirits of jilted women who hang out in the forest at dusk, waiting to kill the next man who comes along. Unlike most of their pointe-shoed sisters. they're not perpetual victims, which is why I always cheer 'em on.

Male undead

So I'm relieved to see a male character in the form of undead star for a change. Not least because it says good things about how the thinking about women is changing, even in the dance world. And how we might be dragging ourselves out of the women hating we've inherited, culturally, from the Victorians.

While Miller doesn't realize it, her explanation of why the vampire resonates in two such superficially disparate eras plays into one of my pet theories: that we're really just late-stage Victorians. Not only is "postmodernism" a crock philosophically, it's a way of denying that we're still wrestling with all the social changes of modernity.

Clearly, I'm right. The popularity of the vampire icon is just another symbol of the way our society is still caught in a quagmire of anti-modernist thinking -- New Age Wingnuttery, religious mania, misogyny, rampant pornography, racism, the anti-education movement, occultism, authoritarian politics...

Right?

Miller laughs, and handles the question with a finesse developed over decades of wrangling slightly-crazed grad students.

"That could be one interpretation of the text."

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's interpretation of the text can be seen in Vancouver, March 22 to 24; Nanaimo, March 26 and 27; Duncan, March 28; and Victoria, March 30 and 31.

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