Why movie vampires always break all the vampire rules.

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Nov. 20 2008 6:57 PM

I Vant To Upend Your Expectations

Why movie vampires always break all the vampire rules.

Poster for "Twlight". Summit Entertainment.
Twilight 

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.

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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.

The modern reworkings of the genre are traceable to a few different factors. For one thing, rewriting the rules is just good storytelling. Upending conventions lets you surprise the audience. You thought garlic was going to ward off the boss vampire? Sorry. You planned to kill him with that little piece of sharpened wood? Good luck. These days, you'll see vampires slapping crosses out of the way more often than shrinking in fear. Variations on the vampire rules also make for some clever plot twists. For example (spoiler alert!), in 30 Days of Night, Josh Hartnett notices that once bitten, victims become vampires right away—but they don't become evil vampires for a few hours. He therefore injects vampire blood into his veins so he can fight them off and save his wife. True Blood also has a smart twist on the myth-busting trope: The vampires started the myths themselves. "If the humans thought they couldn't see us in a mirror," explains vampire Bill, "it was another way for us to prove we weren't vampires." Plus, tweaking the rules is part of the appeal of genre fiction—authors have a template to play with, so every minor variation they make becomes loaded with meaning.

These expository scenes are also common because vampires are so darn chatty. All monster myths vary, after all. Sometimes zombies are fast, sometimes they're slow, and it always seems to take a different tactic to kill them. But zombies can't talk, so they can't haughtily explain to you why they're not like all the other zombies. They just chomp your face. Vampires, on the other hand, are the biggest self-promoters around: They can't stop talking about themselves.

Another factor is changing censorship rules. Believe it or not, vampires were not always sexy (although sexuality was part of the mix as early as Carmilla). The original Dracula film came out in 1931, a year after the Hays Code was put in place. So they shot two versions—one chaste English version for American audiences and one Spanish-language version for distribution in Mexico. The women in the foreign version wear lower-cut dresses. Hot vampires really broke out in the 1950s in the British Hammer horror films and finally made it to the United States once the Hays Code was dropped in the late 1960s, clearing the way for Andy Warhol's take on vampire sex.

Technology also plays a role in vampire transformations. Vampire films got gorier once color film made it clear they were drinking blood, not oil. Shoddy makeup on high-quality film stock sometimes made fangs unconvincing. One director, Mario Bava, decided to scrap them entirely—the vampires in the 1960 flick Black Sunday are, like the Hays Code at that time, toothless. Technology within the films plays a role, too. In recent vampire stories, science is the new magic. In I Am Legend, it's the "vampiris germ" that causes vampirism. ("You see, the bacillus is a facultative saprophyte," we're told, which is supposed to explain why a stake causes a vampire to dissolve into dust.) In Underworld, it's a genetic mutation. And as technology evolves, so do vampire-slaying methods. Blade's garlic-filled bullets are nothing compared with the bullets from Underworld that are filled with—kid you not—daylight.

Other variations are introduced because, well, they're totally sweet. The vampires in 30 Days of Night are more feral than human, with their own creepy language and two rows of shark teeth. Needless to say, they don't leave two dainty dimples in the neck. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, meanwhile, features an elaborate universe of humans, vampires, demons, werewolves, slayers, and "watchers." (Sometimes, they sing.) Underworld creates a deep mythology about a war between werewolves and vampires. In Guillermo Del Toro's Cronos, the vampire isn't human at all—it's a tiny mechanical beetle.

But the biggest reason for all the myth-busting has to do with creating a believable world. It may seem odd to explode the myth about crosses in one scene while positing that vampire blood is a sex drug in the next—neither myth is believable, taken alone. But stomping on old myths heightens the realism. It's a way of acknowledging the silliness of most vampire stories while distancing yours from the rest. We know vampire tales are childish, it says. This one is not. That's why you'll always have a character saying he doesn't believe in vampires—the filmmakers know that's what you're thinking, too. The myth-busting scene is therefore a necessary ritual. By rewriting the rules every time, you ask viewers to invest themselves in this story, not in the last vampire movie they saw.

All genres evolve, and in this respect vampire films are nothing special. But vampires seem to relish deviating from their conventions more than most. At the very least, it keeps the genre fresh for Lesbian Kung-Fu Robot Vampire Killers From Space.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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