vampire /’væmpaɪə/

In an attempt to project an image of “old curmudgeon,” I thought about starting this article with the phrase “I don’t really understand all the fuss about this Twilight movie thing…” but realized that I actually do understand all the fuss. Sure, the trailers for the movie look like ads for Abercrombie & Fitch, with the obligatory topless young kouroi flaunting their six-pack abs and genetically enhanced dentition, but in our glossy celebrity-focused culture, this is par for the course.

New Moon kouros

The majority of Twilight fans are either teenage girls or moms reliving their teenage years, and ogling attractive young men in various stages of undress is hardly abnormal. It’s no different from my watching the spectacularly bad Bandidas (2006) solely because it has Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz, or sitting through the vapidly banal Barb Wire (1986) just to marvel at the gravity-defying qualities of Pamela Anderson Lee‘s frontage.

Bandidas (2006)

Barb Wire (1996)

The other element that makes the New Moon movie so appealing is the presence of male vampires. Without going into an extended psychoanalytical thesis, all you need to know is that as far as women are concerned, vampires are HOT. And by “hot,” I mean sexually charged and erotic. Although I’m acutely aware that feminists may hate me for saying this, a woman can get the chills thinking of being dominated by some dark, handsome vampire whose intentions are less than honorable and who are quite happy to use their sexual charisma (something vampires appear to have in spades) to take their wicked pleasures.

Anyone who actually does want to read a thesis on sexuality and vampires should pop out and buy a copy of the deliciously decadent romp by Camille Paglia called Sexual Persona. Ms. Paglia takes on the whole of western art and uses a psycho-sexual knife to pare it down to its roots – which turns out to be shockingly erotic and so mired in sex that a walk through the masterpieces in the National Gallery of Art in Washington turns out to be no different from an afternoon in a back-street porno theater with a bucket of buttery popcorn. Admittedly she spend more time talking about the notion of the female vampire or “femme fatale,” but to connection between vampirism and sexuality is explicit.

So anyone claiming they “don’t understand what all the fuss is about” is either woefully unable to understand women or lying just so they can seem to be intellectually aloof. And anyone pretending that they’re watching the movie for Oscar-winning performances by giants in the field of acting is simply suffering from the American disease called Puritanism. As a friend of mine told me many years ago, “America was founded by Puritans – and it still shows!” I’m with H.L. Mencken when he says that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.”

As to understanding the word itself, vampire – or vampyr – is of Slavic origin. It exists in Czech, Polish, Russian, and Serb, as well as vapir and vepir in Bulgarian and vepyr in Ruthenian. Other variations include vopyr, opyr, upir, upyr and upior. The OED defines one as follows:

A preternatural being of a malignant nature (in the original and usual form of the belief, a reanimated corpse), supposed to seek nourishment, or do harm, by sucking the blood of sleeping persons; a man or woman abnormally endowed with such habits. (OED, Vol.XIX, p.422)

In 1796, the word is used in something called the Harleian Miscellany. The full – and well-worth repeating – title is Harleian Miscellany: A collection of scarce, curious, and entertaining pamphlets and tracts, as well in manuscript as in print, found in the late (Edmund Harley, second) Earl of Oxford’s library. Sounds like a forerunner of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. In the relevant passage, the writer says, “These Vampyres are supposed to be the Bodies of Deceased Persons, animated by evil Spirits, which come out of the Graves, in the Night-time, suck the Blood of many of the Living, and thereby destroy them.”

By 1813, the vampire had become a thing literary comment, with Lord Byron including the following sentence in his poem, The Giaour; “The freshness of the face, the wetness of the lips with blood, are the never-failing signs of a Vampire.” Interestingly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the poem Christabel in 1797 (with the second part in 1800 and the third part never appearing), which is clearly about a female vampire but without the word actually being used.

Christabel print

Christabel and Geraldine

The publishing of Bram Stoker‘s Dracula in 1897 marked the birth of the “modern” vampire, who is male, urbane, and a Romantic figure. Rather than being an ugly, evil, tortured spirit, the modern vampire is more along the lines of being “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” By the end of the 20th century, thanks to the writing of such authors as Anne Rice and the Hollywood movie machine, vampires had become romantically heroic. There’s even a whole sub-culture (or sub-cultures) of people who are convinced that (a) vampires are real and (b) they are vampires!. Take a diversion to the to find out if you are a vampire, how to “come-out,” and how to meet other vampires for fun, friendship, profit, and blood-letting.

Cruise and Pitt: Vampires

By extending the metaphor of sucking blood, the word vampire has also come to be used to describe “A person of a malignant and loathsome character, esp. one who preys ruthlessly upon others; a vile or cruel extractor or extortioner.” (ibid. 422)

The word can also undergo inflections: vampiric and vampirish are used to described someone as having the nature of a vampire; vampiredom means the state of being a vampire; and vampirism is the collective facts or ideas associated with the world of vampires.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a shortened form of the word, vamp, was used to describe, “A woman who intentionally attracts and exploits men; an adventuress; a Jezebel; freq. as a stock character in plays and films.” (OED, Vol. XIX, p.421). Note that this is NOT the same as the word vamp used to describe the part of the shoe or hose (stocking/sock) that covers the front of the foot. That word derives from the Old French avanpie, which in turn comes from avan(t)=before + pié=foot. It’s a great example of where two words appear to come from the same root but, in fact, don’t. This is sometimes referred to as a false cognate.

I won’t be going to see New Moon. There are only so many hours left in my life and spending two of them watching fantasy teenage angst seems a little bit of a waste. Now, where’s my Tomb Raider DVD…?


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