I Vant To Upend Your Expectations
Why movie vampires always break all the vampire rules.
There's a scene midway through Twilight, the new 'tween vampire flick, in which the heroine, Bella, arrives at the vampire Edward's house—a bright, spare, Modernist home that seems stocked with Calphalon pans and furniture from Design Within Reach. She looks around wonderingly. "What did you expect?" he says. "Coffins and dungeons and moats?" It's a familiar scene to anyone who knows vampire movies: the part where the vampire (or vampire expert) turns myth-buster and explains what vampires are really like.
A perfect example is this exchange from HBO's True Blood. "I thought you were supposed to be invisible in a mirror," marvels Anna Paquin's Sookie, reclining in a bathtub. Sorry, says her vampiric love interest, Bill. "What about Holy water?" she asks. "It's just water." "Crucifixes?" "Geometry." "Garlic?" "It's irritating, but that's pretty much it." Irritating, indeed.
Vampire myth-busters are a cocky lot. Take this scene from Blade, when vampire hunter Wesley Snipes explains "vampire anatomy 101" to his new protégée. "Crosses and holy water don't do d---, so forget what you've seen in the movies," he says. "You use a stake, silver, or sunlight. You know how to use one of these?" He shows her a gun. "Silver hollow point filled with garlic. Aim for head or the heart. Anything else is your ass."
Or consider this exchange from the Twilight books: "How can you come out during the daytime?" asks Bella. "Myth," says Edward, her fanged paramour. "Burned by the sun?" "Myth." "Sleeping in coffins?" "Myth." Being smug jerks? True!
The list goes on. In Interview With the Vampire, the bloodsucker Louis corrects his interviewer on the rumor about vampires being afraid of crosses. "That is, how would you say today … b-------?" (Same goes for stakes through the heart.) In I Am Legend, the vampire book on which the Will Smith movie was based, the narrator dismisses Dracula as "a hodgepodge of superstitions and soap-opera clichés." For example, vampires are vulnerable to garlic and sunlight, but the mirror stuff is bunk. In the Last Vampire book series by Christopher Pike, sunlight doesn't kill the undead protagonist—it just makes her age at a normal rate.
What's with all the rule-rewriting? And why are vampires always crowing about it?
Vampire mythology has never been set in stone—nor has any mythology, for that matter. The folklore that eventually became modern vampire fiction varied even more wildly in past centuries than in current-day stories. Ancient Greek mythology features women who seduce men and drink their blood; in southern Africa, there is the impundulu, a giant blood-sucking bird that controls the weather; Latin American folklore has the fanged chupacabra, a scaled reptile-kangaroo monster that drains the blood from goats. It wasn't until the 19th century, with the publication of stories like Polidori's The Vampyre, Le Fanu's Carmilla, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, that vampire became synonymous with "fanged, Euro, coffin-dwelling Goth." But even in these books, the attributes vary—Polidori's Lord Ruthven can go out during the daytime, but sunlight weakens Count Dracula.
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Poster for Twilight © Summit Entertainment.