“We are no longer in an era of vampire stories.” — Jean-Luc Nancy
The popular vampire myth has provided the cinema, and in particular the horror genre, with many of its most viscerally uncanny moments, from Count Orlock’s (Max Schreck) thin, semi-human figure silently prowling around the plague-ridden ship in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) to the big-budget bestiality of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). However, in recent years the uncanny vampire has become increasingly sanitized and diminished, as evidenced by recent genre incarnations that have ranged from the cuddly supernatural teen slush of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and Twilight (2008) to derivative comic book-style action films like Blade (1998) and Underworld (2003). These recent films share a sophisticated self-awareness that borders on parody and entirely negates the uncanny. The vampire is simply not scary anymore. Consequently, the truly uncanny vampire must be reconceptualized for a contemporary audience. To begin this reinvention, we must first define what we mean by the term “uncanny.”
In the obliterated post-war Europe of 1919, Sigmund Freud completed one of his few forays into literary criticism and aesthetics, The Uncanny (Das Unheimlich),1 even now the most famous work on the subject. In his essay, Freud built upon Ernst Jentsch’s On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906) and its ideas of “intellectual uncertainty” specifically relating to automata in E. T. A. Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman.” Freud uses the same primary literary source as Jentsch, and after an etymological investigation of the word unheimlich he systematically identifies instances of it within the Hoffman text. Freud concludes that the unfamiliar is inextricably linked to the familiar (unheimlich/heimlich) in generating uncanny feelings in the individual, “Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich” (Freud 1919: 421), causing something to recur that was previously hidden and “estranged by a process of repression . . . something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light.” (Freud 1919: 429). The uncanny occupies the liminal space between the conscious and unconscious mind where the familiar and unfamiliar meet within the subjective experience of the individual.
The “classic” — that is, Christian-supernatural — vampire’s2 threat stemmed from its otherness, its exoticism, its vicious sexuality, but that has now all but disappeared through over-familiarity and has become too easy to lampoon. The most famous vampire story of all, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, has been told and retold so many times that audiences have been numbed to its effect, each successive version being as much a revisionist comment on the previous versions as a work of the uncanny in its own right. In an attempt to counteract this problem, the self-aware contemporary examples mentioned above use the audience’s genre expectations alongside appropriated conventions of other genres to provide audience satisfaction, whether it be action, coming-of-age, or comedy, as Cynthia A. Freeland affirms: “We are all familiar with the many rules that govern vampires, so we may greet familiar scenes with relish: the absence of reflections, the opening coffin, the bite on the neck, the howl of wolves, the opening of an antique authoritative book” (Freeland 2000: 125). Though these rules have been stretched and subverted in various ways and are usually interspersed with manipulative shocks (if the filmmakers are sufficiently skillful), this kind of audience satisfaction remains safely rooted within the heimlich.
The vampire genre appeared to reach its operatic apotheosis with Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a “delirious dream” (Dika 1996: 396) that acts as a sophisticated post-modern intertextual discourse on the literary and cinematic vampire since the publication of Stoker’s novel. The film ostensibly encompasses the previous 95 years of vampire references, but by mentioning Stoker’s name in the title it seeks to both finally present a faithful adaptation of the novel3 and return the audience to a time before they were exhausted by toothless interpretations of the same material, “By turning back to the original, then, Coppola takes not only Dracula, but the horror genre itself, back to a symbolic ground zero” (Dika 1996: 388). Coppola’s conspicuously studio-bound film is a kaleidoscopic pageant of ostentatious costumes and set design, in-camera special effects including back projection, miniatures, and doubles exposures, and expressionist staging that explicitly recalls the silent work of Murnau and Dreyer. Coppola’s adaptation is a very sensual film4 that feverishly signals its intentions almost immediately by delivering an audaciously artificial Crusades battle scene as we follow Dracula/Vlad (Gary Oldman – by some distance the finest actor to have played the eponymous role) into a holy battle composed of silhouetted actors and puppets set against a searing blood-red sky. As Freeland observes, “this is a story that is meant to be seen as a story, just as Dracula’s clothes refer not to any historical period but to other artworks, whether the films of Kurosawa or the paintings of Gustav Klimt” (Freeland 2000: 139).
Adding to this carnival of affect is the film’s torrent of religious themes and imagery; crucifixes; a wealth of holy ceremonies and rituals, Dracula/Vlad’s angry rejection of his faith after he returns home from battle to find his wife has committed suicide; and, with its AIDS-era subtext, the sacredness, once again, of blood. All of this is a self-conscious evocation of a richly imagined time and place that only existed within literature or the cinema, and accordingly, the film does not concentrate on the uncanny aspects of Stoker’s novel; instead it becomes a love story, a kind of twisted Jane Austen narrative with added rape and child munching. In today’s diverse, increasingly secular society influenced by rational, evidence-based science, the vampire myth, with its over-reliance on Christian iconography has become archaic and heimlich, as Nicholas Royle points out in his book The Uncanny: An Introduction: “The uncanny will always have posed a challenge or threat to religious belief . . . the ‘enlightening’ turn from magic to reason creates the uncanny in its wake” (Royle 2003: 21-22). Though many recent examples of the genre retain the Christian iconography, it often seems like a token gesture to sate an audience’s genre expectations.
With the lessening of the church’s influence on society, to rediscover the truly uncanny vampire we must first abandon the idea of an omnipotent, protector god. As Freud describes in his 1927 essay on religious belief, The Future of an Illusion, “the benevolent rule of divine providence allays our anxiety in the face of life’s dangers, the establishment of a moral world order ensures the fulfillment of the demands of justice” (Freud 1927: 52). Freud attributes this desire for religion to a residual symptom of transference neurosis, the god concept replaces the parental authority in fulfilling the infantile need for protection and moral guidance as we progress into adult life, and so consequently for Freud, religious yearning “represents something of a collective failure of human moral courage” (Badcock 1992: 144). As Freud himself explains, “it betokens a tremendous relief for the individual psyche if it is released from the conflicts of childhood arising out of the father complex, which are never wholly overcome, and if these conflicts are afforded a universally accepted solution” (Freud 1927: 53). The unheimlich is a perversion of this. The Christian iconography in vampire cinema cannot be uncanny and is in fact a reaffirmation of the omnipotent Christian god. For modern secularist audiences it renders the unheimlich heimlich. Only when religious iconography is extracted will the vampire become truly uncanny once more. To rediscover the unheimlich, the vampire must break free of the constraints of this totemic iconography and again transgress.
The most compelling recent example of the vampire film is Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), which took a small step towards resurrecting the uncanny vampire by stripping the mythical iconography back to its basic elements. The film centres on newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey) on their honeymoon in Paris. After their arrival, it quickly becomes apparent that Shane is also using the trip to track down Dr. Semeneau (Alex Descas), with whom he worked in Africa on mysterious experiments into human sexuality, experiments that left Shane with a carnivorous bloodlust. Though the word “vampire” is never mentioned, the film plays on audiences’ knowledge and expectations, and is only really understood within the context of the genre.
For example, we witness Shane’s tender kisses on June’s forearm whilst on the plane, but we are not surprised that he then swiftly and anxiously runs to the toilet cubicle, where he suffers horrific visions of June drenched in glistening, sticky dark blood. In another scene, Shane focuses on the neck of the attractive chambermaid as she shows the couple to their room. Something potentially bizarre is made explicable by the knowledge of generic conventions, and this is something that Denis plays with throughout the film. This genre knowledge of the ever-present threat of imminent violence also allows Denis to give the film a deliberate, even pace.
Tellingly, there are also a number of similarities between Trouble Every Day and Bram Stoker’s Dracula that deserve mention. In both films the central couple are threatened by the male character’s bloodlust; blood and nudity are used expressionistically; the monster is engulfed in flames; the erotic is a focal point; and classic horror cinema is repeatedly referenced. However, unlike Coppola’s film, in which the references were a synthesis and summation of vampire and horror film iconography, the allusions in Trouble Every Day act to underline its progressive intent. For example, Semeneau’s deranged wife — and Shane’s female doppelganger — Corè (Beatrice Dalle) swings her long cloak-like coat and ascends the stairs, evoking Bela Lugosi’s Dracula; Corè is held in a large dark house reminiscent of a Gothic castle; Shane comically impersonates classic movie monsters Nosferatu and Frankenstein while visiting Notre-Dame cathedral.
The strength of the unheimlich in Denis’ film is that it is able to challenge notions of “otherness” inherent in the vampire mythology and turn them inwards. She dismisses the generic religious themes and symbolism and constructs a monster grounded in a rationalist physical “reality” that attacks the modern solipsistic fascination with the human body. As her elegiac Beau Travail (1999) demonstrated, Denis is perfectly suited to this material; she has a special gift for filming the body, and here she films it as any director making a vampire film should, rendering it erotic, vulnerable, mysterious, beautiful. Denis reverses the male gaze of conventional vampire cinema, her camera sectioning off parts of the body, lingering over small details and de-familiarizing them, highlighting necks, legs, breasts, pubic hair, and armpits, creating strange abstractions that make the body seem new and desirable. Subverting the convention for a vampire attack being portrayed as a mitigated form of sexual assault, Trouble Every Day uncompromisingly reminds the audience of its true shocking nature, summed up by French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy as he describes the film’s theme:
It is not a question of any particular kiss, but rather that the kiss, in itself, opens onto the bite, and the taste of blood. And consequently it is a question of another well known coupling, that of Eros and Thanatos: not in a dialectic of opposites, but in a mutual excitation and exasperation, each asking the other to go further, to go all the way to the end, to get completely lost. (Nancy 2001: 1-2)
Part of the vampire’s mystique has always been an exotic mix of sex and violence, but Trouble Every Day confronts an audience weary of self-conscious generic metaphor and presents it directly with savage scenes of vampiric attacks both unambiguous and without the softening effect of euphemism. These scenes are both profoundly corrupting sexual assaults and vicious acts of primal violence; initiated by passionate consensual kisses, they result in Corè chewing off the upper lip of the callow male burglar, or Shane biting down onto the pudenda of the screaming chambermaid as oral sex becomes cannibalistic rape. It is in the latter of these attacks that the image of the vampire genuinely rediscovers its uncanniness. Into this shocking physical violation Denis incorporates the iconic image of the vampire attacker lifting his head from a victim to expose the dripping blood around his mouth, a potent amalgam of classical and neo-vampire imagery. These are human monsters that don’t need blood to survive; they simply desire it voraciously and are willing to kill to get it.
Having dispensed with religious iconography and with it clichéd considerations of the vampire as an inverted Christ figure,5 we are able to fully uncloak the genre’s cannibalistic central metaphor.6 Freud states in The Future of an Illusion, “Cannibalism alone (of the three oldest instinctual human wishes, the others are incest and murder) seems to be proscribed by everyone and — to other than analytic observation — completely overcome” (Freud 1927: 18). Trouble Every Day, with its cursory and vague biological reason for the character’s bloodlust, reminds us that this most primitive of instincts has not been “completely overcome” and instead has merely been repressed, waiting to be reawakened. Its seductive, horrific values remain undiminished. Nicholas Royle (echoing Nancy’s words) could be discussing Trouble Every Day when he reminds us of the abiding Freudian association of Eros and Thanatos, “(speaking of Freud) There is, for him, no cannibalism without love, no love without cannibalism” (Royle 2003: 208).
As this essay is concerned with the uncanny, it can only ever be a strictly subjective view firmly centred in one’s own experiences. The uncanny is transient by its very nature, and the pleasures of genre convention and audience expectation should not be underestimated, so I am not advocating a complete rejection of the “classic” vampire iconography. But only by taking the mythology back to its starkest imagery and most elemental psychological constituents can the truly unheimlich vampire be unleashed upon contemporary audiences.
Badcock, Christopher (1992). Essential Freud (2nd ed.). London: Blackwell Publishers.
Dika, Vera (1996). “From Dracula, with Love,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press. Freeland, Cynthia A. (2000). The Naked and the Undead: Seductive Vampires. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Freud, Sigmund (1919, 2004). The Uncanny Literary Theory: An Anthology (2nd ed.). Ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Freud, Sigmund (1927, 1949). The Future of an Illusion (4th ed.). London: The Hogarth Press Ltd.
Montalbano, Margaret (2004). Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” in A Companion to Literature and Film. Ed. by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo. London: Blackwell Publishing.
Nancy, Jean-Luc, “Icon of Fury: Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day,” Film Philosophy (12.1/April 2008) http://www.film-philosophy.com/2008v12n1/nancy.pdf Accessed (03/03/09).
Royle, Nicholas (2003). The Uncanny: An Introduction. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
- Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny a year before he unveiled what would become a fundamental tenet of psychoanalysis, the concept of repetition compulsion and the “death drive” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). [↩]
- The conventional characteristics of the “classical” Christian-supernatural vampire include sharp teeth, stakes, coffins, no reflections, aversion to crucifixes/sunlight/garlic, immortality, the need to be invited into the victim’s living space, ability to metamorphose into different creatures (esp. bats, wolves). [↩]
- Margaret Montalbano discusses the differences between Coppola’s film and the original Stoker text in her essay “From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula.’ Interestingly, even though Coppola proclaimed his film’s faithfulness to the original text, there was still a tie-in novelisation of James V. Hart’s screenplay produced for its release (Montalbano 2004: 385-386). Indeed there is something rather poignant about Coppola’s pleas of authenticity for “his” Dracula, which seemed so sincere as to make one think that he had filmed the final hours of Christ; this after all is a most unsacred of fictional texts, one that filmmakers have sought to cinematically strip, flog, disembowel, and bisect in numerous adaptations. [↩]
- It is perhaps a flaw of Coppola’s film that the central relationship between Dracula (Gary Oldman) and Mina (Winona Ryder) fails to generate a sense of eroticism that matches the rest of the film. [↩]
- In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Coppola even goes so far as to have a moribund Dracula echo the words of Jesus on the cross as he declares, “He has forsaken me. It is finished.” [↩]
- Not that I am attempting to entirely devalue the potency of metaphor within the history of the vampire film. [↩]