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Vampires and the Beautiful Grotesque

We reach for it with trembling fingers outstretched, filled with contradictory impulses. We are repelled but captivated, our attraction stronger than our repulsion – stronger than our common sense, our decency, even our instinct for self-preservation. It’s a story as old as stories; the beautiful grotesque, the alluring monster, the object of desire that offers us sweet harm. The theme is reflected in horror fiction is multitudinous ways; many are doomed and romantic visions of the beautiful grotesque, cast as love stories or cautionary tales or (often) both. Viewed through one specific facet – the vampire story – the evolution of the beautiful grotesque over the last century can offer us a few interesting glimpses of sex, death, and aristocracy.

1897’s Dracula gave us the modern vampire, and 1922’s motion picture knockoff Dracula, Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, gave us a glimpse of the DMCA-plagued future. While Bram Stoker’s masterpiece borrowed many things – many parts of the vampire legend itself, the actual person of Vlad Țepeș – Nosferatu was such a copycat that in 1929 a judge ruled that all copies of the film were to be destroyed. The ruling almost drove a stake through the heart of one of the greatest horror films of all time, but a few unlicensed and unauthorized prints of the film (which was itself, remember, a copy of Dracula) survived. I find this to be an amusing example of life imitating art; Nosferatu survived and became immortal through the same parasitism that spawned it in the first place, and which any creature of the night worth its canines would appreciate.

Stoker’s description of Count Dracula does not line up with the monster given us in Nosferatu (indeed, the genealogy of that creeping, noisome thing might lie in the folktales of Eastern Europe, but it doesn’t reside in the popular Romantic or Gothic conceptions of the vampire as expressed in works like John Polidori’s The Vampyre or Le Fanu’s Carnilla, both of which preceded Dracula). The Count is described as an old man, yes, but one with profuse hair and eyebrows and whose ruddy lips “showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years.” This description of Dracula lines up fairly closely with the Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee versions from 1931 and 1958, respectively, but what happened on Dracula’s 1922 journey to Germany that metamorphosed him into Orlok?

It’s an intriguingly German phenomenon that was repeated in Werner Herzog’s uneven 1979 film Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht. The film was conceived of as a remake of the 1922 Nosferatu rather than a direct adaption of Dracula, and while Klaus Kinski’s Count Dracula (no hiding behind “Orlok” or other changed names this time around) is a bald, toothy monstrosity, even Herzog’s Dracula is not as terrible a vision of living death as the 1922 film’s monster.

Modern iterations of the vampire have taken several forms, from the familiar vision of debauched aristocracy presented in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (a vision given a brilliant metaphorical twist through the slaveholding American South – the most parasitic, vampiristic political economy imaginable) or the Kate Beckinsale Underworld movies, to the Nosferatu-esque nightmare of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s Strain novels, but for my money the most telling modern iteration of the story can be found nestled in the foggy Pacific Northwest, in a YA horror-romance series you may have heard of called The Twilight Saga.

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In 2006, I started reading Twilight. Now, bear with me for a second here. My excuses for this behavior are threefold. First off, I’m a big old horror nerd and (like most horror nerds) a voracious, omnivorous, and opportunistic consumer of reading material. I’ll rarely turn down an excuse to sample something novel and interesting, and a soft-romance YA vampire novel was (for me, in 2006) an exercise first and foremost in novelty. I am – when it comes to horror – down for whatever. Second, circumstances were just right. I had just joined a pool of administrative assistants at a standard-issue, biz-cas cubicle labyrinth, and the other admins were ravenously gobbling up the Twilight books, and it gave me something to talk to them about. Lastly, as a purely anthropological exercise, I felt like I had to read at least the first book. After all, while my family are not Mormon, I grew up in Davis County, Utah, and am thus a product of the same basic political-theological stew that produced Stephanie Meyer (and, thus, Bella Swan).

Has the supposedly grotesque ever been so beautiful, so – forgive the pun – defanged? What is Bella’s first impression of Edward Cullen, our hundred-year-dead walking corpse, the embodiment of that which must feed on the blood of the living to perpetuate its own unnatural life?

“I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful – maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.”

But this is merely a vampire’s seductive glamour, right? What horrible truth lurks beneath Edward’s beauty, what skulking Orlok does our heroine eventually unmask?

“Edward in the sunlight was shocking. I couldn’t get used to it, though I’d been staring at him all afternoon. His skin, white despite the faint flush from yesterday’s hunting trip, literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds were embedded in the surface.”
Much rather snarky hay has been made of the sparkly vampire presented by Meyer, but I’m curious what deeper lessons we can draw from the popularity of Twilight. After all, Meyer’s bloodless (pardon the pun) vision of pretty, polite vampires was tremendously successful, spawning four books and five films and earning Meyer more than $120 million. Her vampires are noble, yes, but not just in the pecuniary sense of the word. They don’t really have to avoid the sun, don’t drink human blood (not the good ones, at any rate), and don’t have sex until marriage. That these tepid, sickly satires of a genre I love were so popular still hurts me a bit – I rarely wish to yuck on anyone’s yum, but other than Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind books, The Twilight Saga were the worst books I’ve ever read.

They represent not the beautiful grotesque, caught in a delicious tension between death and love, sex and the grave, but rather the grotesquely beautiful – boys (and girls) so breath-taking and exquisite that the pain they cause is for us to gaze upon them and ache with longing. Theirs is not a chilling or even interesting contemplation of what lies beyond death and what we might be willing to sacrifice for a voyage into eternity. They represent a glorification of abstinence – a gross and outdated moral viewpoint almost as repellant as Twilight’s gender politics.

Perhaps the journey from creeping Orlok to a more dark-and-handsome, widow’s-peaked Dracula to a sparkling, vegetarian Edward Cullen is less the expression of a straight line than a series of unrelated lamp posts strung along a winding path in the dark, providing illumination of their immediate cultural surroundings but not necessarily suggesting a linear progression. If anything, the meteoric rise of the zombie – that more overtly rotting, clotted, grungy cousin of the vampire – suggests that our fears regarding the grave haven’t evaporated.

If anything, perhaps they have become pronounced enough – gnawing enough – that the delicious tension represented by the beautiful grotesque has become difficult to maintain without something breaking.