Sunday, 31 October 2010

My Monsters - part 1 - The Vampire

I've been planning a series of blogs all about my favourite monsters for a while now, but for one reason or another, it kept getting put off. But then Halloween rolled around. That seems as good a reason as any other to get this Monster jam going! And where better to start than my personal favourite, the vampire.

Now, before we get started, I need to specify something here. When I say "vampire", I don't mean the kind of mewling, pathetic, emo bitch of a shampire as portrayed in Twilight and its ilk. No, I mean the evil, blood-sucking fiend who would think nothing of tearing your throat out and drinking down your life's blood in a heartbeat.

I remember, as a child, the vampire was the first monster which truly terrified me. At that young age, I couldn't realy pin down why a vampire was so much more scary to me than, say, a zombie or Frankenstein's Creature, but looking back now, it seems obvious. Of all the monsters out there, the ones haunting our nightmares and sending a shiver down our spine, the vampire was the most human.

Like many people, my introduction to the vampire came through the most famous one of all, Count Dracula, when I can't have been much more than five or six. My cousin had a ladybird childrens book which told a version of the story (heavily edited, of course), and it fascinated me. When it was read to my cousin and I, we were told to cover our eyes if one of the pictures scared us, or to ask that we stop if we reached a point which was too much for us. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I was scared, yes, but I was also completely engrossed. Not by the story though. That would come many years later. No, rather, it was Dracula himself, this vampire creature, which had caught my attention. Had anyone asked me even five minutes after the book had been read to me what had actually happened, I couldn't have told them. I had the attention span of a small, sugar filled child who was wearing a towel around his neck as a cape. Dracula though, he was there. And he's never really left.

This was a monster who walked like a man, who was intelligent, charming and pure evil. I had nightmares for a while after that, but at the same time, I was intrigued. This feeling only grew with my second encounter with a vampire, as far as I can recall. Once again, the vampire in question was Dracula, only this time, he was on television in one of my favourite programmes. The show in question? Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.

In the episode The Bride of Dracula, the Count takes a shine to Firestar, hypnotising her into wanting to marry him. Naturally, Spider-Man and Iceman don't take too kindly to this, so follow Dracula to Transylvania in an attempt to rescue her. Of course, Spidey and Iceman succeed, but this episode still left a lasting impression on me. I recognised Dracula as the same character from the book I'd previously encountered him in, and once more, I was both scared of him and intrigued by him. While yes, the characterisation is obviously pitched at kids, moreso than in the Ladybird book, he was still clearly the same character, and still scary to me. Sure, Spider-Man may have beaten him, but it was one of only two episodes which actually made me worried for Spidey (the other had Spidey fighting a creature called the Arachnoid, which I'll actually go into in a later post). Interestingly, those are also the only two episodes of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends which stayed with me right up until I rediscovered the show on DVD last year.

As I continued to grow older, vampires continued to scare and fascinate me in equal measure, and I continued to stumble across them in the books, TV shows and films I enjoyed. One in particular which sticks in my mind was in the very first Fighting Fantasy book I ever played. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain features an encounter with a vampire, which managed to scare me while I was reading it, and it probably didn't help that the vampire killed me that first time out. The scene is accompanied by an image, but not of the vampire, just of a crypt filled with coffins. The rest of the scene was left up completely to the readers imagination, and this particular reader, even at that age, had a pretty vivid one. I probably wasn't helped by the following passage, which came if you lost the fight with the creature:-

"As you approach, he rises from his coffin, spreads his cloak and takes you under it. Your last living memory is a flash of pain as his sharp teeth sink into your neck. You should never have let yourself make eye-contact with a VAMPIRE!"

Damn right I shouldn't!

So, the vampire scared me, and did so for a good long while. It was the fear that lingered after all the other childhood fears I had (and I was a wuss of a child, so there were a few) were gone. I'm not sure exactly when the fear subsided, but the fascination stayed. Here is a creature who used to be human, who has power, immortality and, seemingly, a hedonistic lifestyle which we all crave. But it's also an animal, filled with a savagery and bloodlust second to none. The switch between to two can come frighteningly quickly too. Witness the scene in The Lost Boys where the vampires attack the revellers by the campfire. The vamps go from normal looking to animal in a matter of seconds before tearing their victims apart and drinking their blood, in a visceral scene which, if your not expecting it in a film which has largely been played for laughs so far, can surprise you.

Part of what fascinates me about the vampire is the mythology behind it. There was a time when, thanks to all sorts of diseases and conditions which are easliy cured today, people genuinely believed in vampires, and most of the vampire lore used in fiction today sprung out of ideas and beliefs which people actually had in the dark ages, which were later popularised as part of the fiction by Bram Stoker and others. Many of these simply boil down to the idea that you should avoid evil, for example, the whole "never invite a vampire into your home" rule could also sensibly be applied to many things: thieves, murderers, devils, Jehovah's witnesses, Anne Widdecombe... I could go on. But, so tied to the vampire is it, that there's now this idea that a vampire physically can't enter a home, or at least has no power within, without being invited. That said, Let The Right One In had a very interesting take on this. I won't spoil it here, as I know a lot of people haven't seen it, but I'm hoping this is something they keep in the remake, Let Me In.

Also, the religious iconography repelling vampires is something which has also applied to many other monsters and demons throughout literature and popular culture, but again, it's so tied to the vampire these days. There are interesting takes on it though. Some stories have it that it's only the cross the vampire fears, and that it's just that: a fear. There are others though where the cross actually hurts the vampire physically, such as the Hammer series of Dracula films (Brides of Dracula in particular features an ingenious use of a windmill to create a crucifix which kills its antagonist, Baron Meinster) or the vampires of Joss Whedon's Buffyverse. However, a more interesting take on it is the idea that any religious iconography will repel a vampire, but only if the person wielding it has faith in the religion it represents. This was best illustrated, bizarrely, in X-Men Annual #6, in which the X-Men fought, yes, him again, Dracula. At one point, Wolverine creates a makeshift crucifix using his claws, but, since Logan ain't exactly the religious type, it has absolutely no effect on Dracula. However, when Kitty Pryde, a practicing Jew, brandishes the Star of David at the big-daddy vamp, he shrinks back in fear. I can't find many more examples of this particular idea, but if I'm honest, it's the one which makes most sense to me. Why would a crucifix work for someone who doesn't believe in God?

For the most part, these days, the vampire has had his fangs pulled out. Twilight has seen to that, with it's sparkly-glowy bullshit vampires, though in fairness, some of the blame must lie with Anne Rice and, loathe as I am to speak out against my master, Joss Whedon, who popularised the idea of good vampires. It doesn't matter how well Whedon did it, how good his stories were, it still put that idea out there for others to latch onto. But there was a time when the vampire was, arguably, the king of the monsters, the most evil and feared of them all. The scary vamps are still out there, they're just not doing the business at the moment. I have no doubt though that there will come a time when people are bored of the nice, fluffy pet vampires and want the evil bastards back again. But until they do, here's a list of some of my favourite vampire stories to finish with:-

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Stoker's Dracula (Marvel comics adaptation)
Vault of the Vampire (Fighting Fantasy book)
Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
Salem's Lot by Stephen King
30 Days of Night
Captain Britain: Vampire Nation

Dracula (Universal version)
Horror of Dracula (Hammer version)
Brides of Dracula
Dracula: Prince of Darkness
Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel
From Dusk 'Til Dawn
The Lost Boys
Shadow of the Vampire
That one episode of Diagnosis Murder

To be continued...

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