The Image of the Vampire

March 28, 2017

The vampire, like the shape-shifter, the feral god of madness and creativity, the dangerous, seductive spectre, and other phantoms of imagination, represents forces of life and death, control and chaos, obsessive addiction and limitless possibility. My interest in vampires, sparked in early adolescence, has remained a potent source of inspiration throughout my life. At times of the bleakest depression, the image of the vampire has infused me with life-sustaining vitality.

The first vampire character I was aware of and then fascinated by was Barnabas Collins (portrayed by Jonathan Frid) on the late afternoon Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows (ABC-TV). Although Barnabas, unlike most contemporary depictions of the vampire, was neither beautiful nor depicted in a sexualized way, he nevertheless became a huge fan favorite amongst females of all ages, in part due to the character’s strange blend of chivalry and savagery, sentimentality and ruthlessness. He was a melancholy romanticist, mourning the loss of his first wife, all the while slyly courting her lookalike replacement. Beneath his polite, restrained persona, however, simmered a hungry, fanged, bloodthirsty beast, the monstrous side of himself he wished to eradicate but could not control. His double-edged nature intrigued me, his old-fashioned, chivalric side soothing my early adolescent fears regarding sexuality and the savage, feral side igniting my seething, angry feelings towards my human female body.

Perhaps because I was reaching puberty around the same time as the Barnabas storyline began, the image of the vampire cast an especially potent magic, imprinting itself indelibly on my consciousness with its associations of blood, metamorphosis, animality, and transcendence. I dreaded the day when, as the smotheringly pink booklet given to the girls in my fifth grade class promised us, I would get my first period. I hated the way the book and the little Disney cartoon presented along with it depicted womanhood. A young lady, the movie narrator insinuated, in a sweetly feminine voice, is like a flower and, as such, is expected to be sweet, fragrant, pleasing to the eye, a passive recipient of adoration. Despite the foul-smelling, brackish blood that gushes in swampy clots from between her legs, she must appear and act as if she were delicate, demure, cheerful, and complacent. The thought of that degrading hypocrisy, as well as the grown-up womanly life awaiting us, disgusted me. I knew even then I would never want to have a baby, and I certainly never wanted to be subservient to a man. I envied animals, who, lacking self-consciousness, and absurdly impractical codes of etiquette, were not subjected to such ridiculous expectations. I especially envied the animals, such as cats, who, fanged and clawed, independent, resilient, gracefully at home in their bodies, and attuned to their wild nature, were free to be themselves. As the dreaded day inevitably came, and menses arrived, I felt a deep revulsion towards my now developing body. It and the stagnant fluids that seeped betrayed me. I was imprisoned in this leaking, mutinous, all-too-mortal cage of flesh. Possessing the fangs and fierce instincts of the animals I most loved yet free of the body’s mortal limitations, the vampire, sublime predator, represented everything I desired. The vampire’s communion of blood offered a release from the body’s prison, providing death or immortality. Unlike the pubertal blood that I associated with shame and subjugation, the blood of vampire lore connoted power and transcendence.

My fascination with vampires, fluctuating in intensity throughout the years, helped invigorate me in moments of despair and devitalization. One of the bleakest times, not only for myself but probably for most people in the US, began with the September 11, 2001 tragedy. Like many others, as a result of this devastating event, I was stricken by a pervasive, spirit-draining sense of gloom, apathy, and hopelessness. As I had done during other dismal moments in my life, I sought escape in depictions of dark yet transcendent realms, and this time I found revitalizing solace in the vampire character Caleb Morley, portrayed by actor Michael Easton in the ABC daytime drama Port Charles. Once again, an ABC soap was the catalyst for awakening my interest in vampires. Caleb, however, unlike Barnabas in Dark Shadows, embraced his fierce, animalistic nature, savoring the blood, the ecstasy it gave, the immortality it made possible. Watching the story of Caleb unfold in all of its magic, seduction, passion, and splendor, I felt a resurgence of creative energy that sustained and inspired me, motivating me to begin new writing projects that were longer and more time-consuming, requiring a dedication, patience, and commitment that I had not previously experienced.

Despite the various interpretations of vampires depicted in the numerous movies and TV shows I have watched, as well as the books I have read, the following key elements, to some degree, seem to form the basis of vampire allure: the power to grant immortality or death, the potential to change shape and/or escape bodily limitations, the synthesis of animal, human, and divine characteristics, and the addictive, obsessive, enthralling sensory experiences vampirism provides. Although these enticements would be appealing to many people, regardless of age or gender, I believe they, like the seductive attributes of other dark entities, may especially resonate with adolescent and young adult females who, dissatisfied, as I was, with societal expectations and physical pubertal demands, seek imaginary/creative release and empowerment.

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Writings by Alison Armstrong