The presence of a vampire-like being originates as far back as ancient Mesopotamian times as well as featuring in folklore with fables across the world telling the tale of bloodthirsty beasts terrorising innocent villages. The beginning of the popularisation of vampires originates from early literature such as The Vampyre (John Polidori, 1819). Polidori’s work notably amalgamated the diversified elements of the vampire into a singular monster with a developed intention. Following this, in 1897 Bram Stoker wrote the Gothic horror novel Dracula which would soon go on to influence the future of vampire’s in films. This unification of various folklore and mythological creatures into one figure had aided the vampire sub-genre to develop into what it has become. Cinema has come to witness a plethora of vampire films with the creature itself materialising into a troubled immortal with a romanticised aura surrounding their blood lust.
To interpret the affective power of the vampire it is important to apprehend the early versions of the creature in cinema. One of the earliest examples of the first vampire film is Dracula halála (Károly Lajthay, 1921) however it is now considered a lost film, instead the more distinguished film born out of the German expressionist era Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F.W. Murnau, 1922) began to pave the way for the modern vampire in cinema with Count Orlok (Max Schreck) introducing a maliciously disfigured version of Dracula who modelled rat like features with sharp fangs protruding out of his mouth. The filmic vampire mythology progressed further with Universal Pictures, Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).
Dracula was portrayed by Bela Lugosi, his performance unveiled a more dapper and sensuous persona which would inherently transform the identity of the vampire. In 1958 Hammer Film Productions released a new version of Dracula (Terence Fisher)that explores previously uncharted areas in vampiric cinema. Christopher Lee’s depiction of an aristocratic Dracula radiated an erotic aura whose victims would fall power to, this foreboding intensity oscillating between sexual prowess and blood cements the film as establishing a new identity for the vampire. For instance, before Dracula feeds off of Mina (Melissa Stribling) he temptationally lures her towards him in an almost hypnotic fashion with her opening her neck inviting him to bite her; Dracula stood as a Antichrist archetype whose seductive disposition acted as an intrinsic quality that defined what the vampire figure embodied.
Furthermore, the concept that a vampire’s carnality acts as a means to express their transgressive power between the association of pleasure and death is heavily signified through the female vampire. Generally across European cinema the female vampire acts as a more significant character to the narrative, with developed arcs and a centrality to the narrative such as the Italian horror Black Sunday (Mario Bava, 1960) and the German film We Are the Night (Dennis Gansel, 2010). However, in mainstream Hollywood cinema, the female vampire mainly acts as a supporting character who fleetingly appears in an assertive manner to exude sexuality for a brief moment. The female vampire was first significantly featured in Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla, the vampire in this story has an overwhelming sense of sexuality and seduction. This essence of vivaciousness has continued within cinema; the female vampire represents fluidity and transgression due to their dominant inherent promiscuity feeding into their desire for blood. In cinema the female vampire is often inconsequential to the narrative and only serves as an object for seductive affect (which will be addressed below). The female vampire is represented as animalistic with no conscious differentiation between lust and violence unlike the male vampire who identifies with having a debonair persona alongside a charming habitude. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992) affiliates blood drinking with a sexual act by correlating it as an interlacing of fluids from one person to another, it is the life source for vampires despite the endings of life for the victim.
The film follows a young barrister Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) on his journey to the Carpathian Mountains to settle a contract with Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), but when Dracula notices that Harker’s fiancee Mina (Winona Ryder) bares resemblance to his late wife, Dracula holds him hostage to take Mina as his own. Coppola’s telling of Dracula illustrates the eroticised amourosity of the female vampire through a scene involving Harker being seduced by Dracula’s brides. This scene is briefly relevant to the entire storyline, holding to the fact that Dracula’s brides are unnecessary and only present to eroticise and exert a sexual factor to allure the audiences desire. Harker stumbles upon the brides layer adorned with silk sheets and phallic pillars lining the wall, he is immediately drawn in with soft whisperings of a women’s voice inviting him to lay back as the brides emerge from under the sheets. As the nude brides arise Harker involuntarily succumbs to their devices and allows himself to be bitten ferociously by the vampires. One of the brides melts away Harker crucifix before kissing him sealing his fate.
As the scene progresses the vampires unleash their fangs and penetrate into his skin leaving piercing marks seething with blood, the three brides entwine themselves on top of Harker whilst devouring his flesh. Their slithering motions combined with the sounds of them erotically moaning all expose this act of blood drinking as being a form of a sexual act as it satisfies and fills the vampire; thus, imitating the symboloisation of sex.
Coppola demonstrates the affective quality that this seductive image has upon the spectator through aspects such as cinesexuality. Patricia MacCormack coins cinesexuality in Barbara Steele’s Ephemeral Skin: Feminism, Fetishism and Film (2002) as being the desire for the image and the seductive image enthralls the viewer via the image itself not the meaning. For example, during the brides of Dracula scene the viewer is confronted with the undead who are almost cannibalistically feasting upon their prey. The vampires appear seductive, yet their true form is an immortal being with an uncontrollable thirst for blood. The true portrayal deviates from the female vampires aesthetically alluring outside posterior. Nevertheless the spectator’s gaze is held intrigued due to the amalgamation of seductiveness paired with the intrigue of the anomalous. Despite the over sexualisation via the silk sheets wrapping over the vampire’s bodies and the lack of clothing revealing their psychique, the scene shifts its sexualised fixation through combining of horror imagery. For instance, towards the end of the scene the brides mouths become increasingly dirtied with blood as well as one of the bride’s growing snakes out of her head (replicating Medusa). Coppola then uses an extreme close-up to reveal one of the brides biting and licking the blood gushing out of Harker’s nipple, it is this close portrayal of such imagery that affects the viewer. The strange and the seductive combine to fascinate us and hold our gaze. MacCormack (2002) suggests that “the movement of our body folds with the seduction of the image. This image doesn’t mean anything, it just looks amazing and the look, not the meaning, affects us”. Through using this notion of cinesexuality, our affective reaction to the bold and beautiful can be due to the senses being evoked via the internal investigation of fear alongside desire. The affective response conjured by the viewer is constructed through “the relationship between screen, spectator and manifestations of desire” (Kennedy, 2001, p.38). Kennedy discusses this manifestation of the viewer and the screen using Delueze’s concept that cinema can be a form of responsive affect and that the image is a powerful medium engrossing and alluring the viewer in. In the case of the vampire film, cinesexuality can be explained as a desirable “energy which effectuates some sort of emotional response” (p. 47).
The brief but poignant spectacle displayed by Dracula’s Bride’s is as aforementioned typical from Hollywood vampire cinema as the main event in mainstream vampire films is the typified male vampire whose transgressive fluidity is performed in a sauve and romantic way. Yet, the transgressive nature towards sexuality and gender strongly portrayed within the female vampire is not lost upon the male vampire as they too have rife underlying notes of bisexuality and gender fluidity. This is demonstrated in Neil Jordan’s 1994 American gothic horror Interview with the Vampire based upon Anna Rice’s 1976 book of the same name. The film focuses on the two vampires Lestat (Tom Cruise) and Louis (Brad Pitt) and their journey together throughout hundreds of years together. Lestat and Louis are both portrayed by Hollywood sex symbols who posses an inherent sense of desire amongst many audience members; the appeal is only furthered with their feminine image of beauty, long lucious hair and a sense of elegance to their identity.
Eli Roth’s History of Horror’s (2018) episode titled Vampires discusses the romatised male vampire featured within Interview with the Vampire, with Louis and Lestat being described as “tortured heroes, amoral villains, and avatars of alternative sexuality”, this idea of the troubled hero is expressed through Louis, who has a lingering sense of dismay and anger over being a vampire and how he has to brutally kill his prey. This gives credit to the suggestion that the male vampire expresses feminine aspects in the sense that he feels distressed at having to hunt innocent people, in a way Louis does not naturally inhabit stereotyped male qualities such as an innate aggression and lack of sympathy. Lestat and Louis companionship style relationship further increases their homoerotic closeness that is ambiguously and covertly represented in the film. For example, Lestat turns Louis into a vampire, to do so he has to latch onto Louis’ neck whilst slowly pushing him to the ground with Louis moaning out in pain as Lestat’s teeth penetrate into his flesh. In order for Lestat to fully transform Louis, he has to drain him of most of his blood before feeding him his own to complete the process.
The intertwining of fluids between Louis and Lestat clouds the barriers between each other, serving as a metaphor for a sexual act connecting them through the exchangements of each other’s bodies via blood drinking. Cynthia Freeland in her book, The Naked And The Undead: Evil And The Appeal Of Horror (2000) discusses the femininity of the male vampires act of violence during their feeding. She comments that the erotic fixiation of sex “becomes the mouth on the neck rather than the penis in the vagina and since the vampire receives fluids (red blood) rather than spending fluids (white semen), there is a sort of feminized component” (p.156). In this scene Lestat both receives and provides blood which can be understood as a transgressive symbology for a “subversive eroticism” (p.156).
The affect that is dispensed via this scene between Louis and Lestat is evoked due to the impassive yet active nature the audience is inclined to experience. The scene is set in a dimly lit New Orleans with worn statues and memorial plaques scattered amongst withered trees, Louis meanders along still grieving the loss of his wife and unborn child, Lestat soon creeps into the frame startling Louis and the viewer before pouncing and latching himself onto Louis mortal neck. As they fall to the floor, Louis complexion gradually pales as the blood drains from his veins, Lestat whispers into his ear “I’ve drained you to the point of death. If I leave you here, you’ll die. Or .. you can be young, always my friend as we are now. But you must tell me will you come or no?” To which Louis replies “yes”. Lestat pierces his wrist to drip his immortal blood down onto Louis’s open mouth. Louis now bloodthirsty jerks Lestat’s arm so that he can suck the blood out of his wounds while a rapid heartbeat sounds chime in the background. Towards the end of the scene Louis withers and convulses as his human self becomes undead whilst Lestat watches in awe and fascination; almost mimicking the audiences reactions. This scene’s cinematography captures the eroticness of blood drinking in showing suggestive imagery via a medium close up shot of Lestat piercing into Louis neck as he tightly holds him close revelling in the pleasure he is receiving as well as the long shot of Lestat leaning back (after spending his blood on Louis) in a state of euphoria and merriment as Louis transforms into a vampire.
The spectator is affected through the above mentioned aspects due to the fact that the image is a naturally fascinating process. Freeland comments that horror introduces a unique affecting power as the imagery is not consistently pleasant, as it typically involves horrifying connotations and iconography of death. Yet people are intrigued by their natural urges to want to see more, we want to be acquainted to a proposed demise, a threat. “Horror works because we see the monster and his victims. (In film, seeing is a kind of understanding.) And depending upon how attractive the monster is and how inept the closure provided by the investigator, the film ending may or may not be satisfactory when it finally puts a stop to our ambivalent desire for the spectacle of horror” (2000, p.158). Using Freeland’s work as a support, it can be understood that affect is stimulated in vampire films such as Interview with the Vampire as a consequence of the alluring character that is a vampire whose seductive nature draws the viewer in, only for the attention to slowly move from desire to horror. As the audience has been already tempted, it becomes difficult for them to divert their gaze as the violence occurs. The violent image becomes one with the seductive, thus invoking affect amongst the spectator. Hakola (2015) states that “It is possible for the viewer to be both fascinated by and afraid of earth, to be enchanted by sublime images and despise looking, even at the same time. The different addressed positions contribute to the viewer’s active role in the viewing process (p.151). For instance, the notion of death is explored in this scene but not fully achieved, it is this fine line treading between witnessing the horrific image of death but associating it with romaticised elements of eroticsim expressed via the vampire.
Over the course of time vampires still frequent as movie monsters regularly, however their typified fang bearing and cape wearing personas have slightly vanished from the vampire uniform. Recent cinema has unveiled various forms of vampires, from the domesticated romanticised Cullen clan in the box office phenomenon Twilight Saga to the barbarous and wrathful creatures featured in 30 Days of Night (David Slade, 2007). Vampires transgressiveness knows no bounds with filmmakers having entire free reign to create tier own personal vision of the vampire who can deviate from the ‘rules’ confined by early representations of Dracula. For example, many early horror films took on Stoker’s depiction of a vampire, however with the success of films such as Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacker, 1987) and From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996) the figure of the vampire can be flexible and reshaped to conform in a mirage of circumstances, whether that be to accommodate to 1980s teen audiences with a need to watch leather jacketed, spiked hair vampires or to conform to the action blockbuster market of the late 1990s (via From Dusk till Dawn). The vampire in recent cinema has even taken an almost comedic identity with a self deprecating opinion of the dullness that comes with being a vampire. The 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi) follows three comically stereotyped vampires who have to navigate day to day life as centuries old creatures lacking modern socio norms. The modern vampires struggle has been expressed across multiple genres, including the indie market, with Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013); vampires Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) represent a cool bohemian figure bored with society (which they refer to as zombies’) and its lack of true culture with the ‘zombies’ opting for a mundane life of work and then death. The transition of the vampire signifies the change in culture and the need to adapt monsters to a modern setting, relating to societies changing fears and problems. However, despite the significant variation of vampires offered by filmmakers, what is central to every vampire film is the need for blood. Blood is the life source for every living creature, immortal or mortal; and what is consistent throughout all of these films is that no matter how humanistic or moral a vampire may be, they will still kill to satisfy their craving.
In conclusion, a vampire’s transgressive nature knows no bounds. The vampire is purposefully seductive with a sexual aura acting as a weapon to lure in their prey; the victims of the vampire is unpreferential, with both male and female vampires feasting on humans regardless of their sex. This act of blood drinking which unites all vampires, connotates an erotic act with the process of their fangs penetrating into an individuals soft flesh replicating a sexual deed. Due to the vampires versatility in whom they choose to perform this deed on, they are seen as fluid creatures whose orientation is non definable as they take on both masculine and feminine characteristics. The catalyst behind the female vampire in early cinema is her animalistic and carnal sexuality that is untamable, unlike her male counterpart whose need for blood is achieved in a charming and romantically seductive manner. Throughout history the vampire has remained an influential monster that challenges the spectators desire for looking at the visually fascinating and horrifically seducing image. The affect experienced by audiences active role in watching the film surrounds the fear yet fascination regarding death and its ending of mortality and humanness.
30 Days of Night directed by David Slade, 2007.
Black Sunday directed by Mario Bava, 1960.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1992.
Dracula directed by Terrence Fischer, 1958.
Dracula directed by Tod Browning, 1931.
Dracula halala directed by Károly Lajthay, 1921.
Interview with the Vampire directed by Neil Jordan, 1994.
From Dusk till Dawn directed by Robert Rodriguez, 1996.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror directed by F.W. Murnau, 1922.
Only Lovers Left Alive directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013.
The Lost Boys directed by Joel Schumacker, 1987.
Twilight directed by Catherine Hardwicke, 2008.
We Are the Night directed by Dennis Gansel, 2010.
What We Do in the Shadows directed by Jemaine Clement and Taiki Waititi, 2014.
Freeland, C. (2000) The naked and the undead: evil and the appeal of horror, Boulder: Westview Press, pp. 154-160.
Gelder, K. (1994) Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge, pp. 86-107.
Hakola, O. (2015) Rhetoric of modern death in american living dead films, Bristol: Intellect ltd. pp. 145-152.
Kennedy, B. (2001), “From oedipal myths…to new interventions”, Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 38-66.
MacCormack, P.(2002) ‘Barbara steele’s ephemeral skin: feminism, fetishism and film’, Senses of Cinema, Issue 22. Available at: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/steele/ (Assessed: 14th May 2020).
Polidori, J. (1819) The Vampyre , Credo Four Publishing.
Rice, A. (1976) Interview With the Vampire, London: Sphere.
Shaviro, S. (1993) “Appendix: deleuze and guattari’s theory of sexuality”, The Cinematic Body, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 67-80.
Sheridan Le Fanu, J. (1872) Carmilla, Galloway: Anodos Books.
Stoker, B. (1897) Dracula, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ‘Vampires’ (2018) AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth’s History of Horror, Season 1, episode 6. AMC. Available at: Shudder (Accessed: 8th May, 2020