Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Vampire Mythology

Vampires are popular. Breaking news to some of the cave-dwellers out there but common knowledge to everyone else. From Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Joss Whedon, to 'Twilight' and 'True Blood'. It seems everyone is jumping on the vampire band-wagon. For example, the very fact that this post is entitled "Vampire Mythology" means it will attract more readers.

But how should you go about tackling the vampire story?

This is an interesting post from Alex Epstein about genre mythology and how to get it right. He talks about vampire lore. This is something that has gone through various transitions and therefore it's very hard to get right. Here's an example of vampire mythology that doesn't work:
TWILIGHT had a consistent, coherent mythology that did not ring true for me. If all vamps do in sunlight is sparkle, then Edward is not a scary predator, he's just Bella's big sparkly pony. It's fine for teenage girl wish fulfillment; girls need stories about big, powerful ponies that will obey them. But he's not a vampire. Because to me, the vampire mythos is about the power of death, and the seductiveness of evil, and if he can go out in the sun and doesn't have to kill people, then his undeadness lacks all thematic punch. He's not a vampire, he's a "vampire."
I agree. I made my feelings known in this little rant about 'Twilight'. What's scary about a guy who sparkles in the sun? Absolutely nothing! Similarly, take a look at this trailer for 'Twilight: New Moon'. In a rather tense moment, some dude changes into a wolf to save the girl *insert feminism rant here*

But wait! What does he change into? Yes, a wolf. But not a strong, warrior wolf. A.....erm....fluffy, friendly dog! How can you take this guy seriously when he turns into something like that? There's absolutely nothing scary about him in that form - he should have stayed as a half-naked guy!

Epstein also talks about how you can successfully change the vampire mythology canon:
I love when a genre story adds to or convincingly change canon. Canonical vampires are undead, drink human blood, and can't go out in the sun. Optionally, they fear crosses, holy water burns them, and they dislike garlic. In Stoker, as in the Buffyverse, every vamp victim becomes a vamp, but simple math shows that's implausible: there would quickly be a vamp population explosion. So, in Rice, vamps only make vamps by draining their victim and then getting the victim to drink vamp blood. That was a logical improvement to the canon; it made it easier for me to believe that vamps secretly exist in my universe. [UPDATE: I stand corrected about the Buffyverse -- it follows Rice Rules.]
It always gets my back up when no-one seems to know about the shit going on in the world. In the Buffyverse, the government knew. Even the school principal knew! Problem solved. Who knows in 'Twilight'? Erm.......does that come up? Probably not.

Epstein has a final note on what to do if you're writing a genre piece:
If you're working in genre, first, please, make sure you're thinking it through. What would real people do in this situation. Be brave. Pursue the ramifications as far as you can. For vamps to exist in our world without our knowing it, what would the rules of their existence have to be? How are they suppressing our knowledge of their existence? Are they showing up for the first time, as Dracula did in DRACULA -- so, in that case, no one knew about vamps because there hadn't been any in Britain. Do they cut a deal with human society -- do the rich and powerful know that they exist but they're hiding it from us? And so forth.
Interesting post. I'm taking Epstein's advice to my own vampire script.* There's just something about a dark brooding man who sucks people's blood that is irresistible to the ladies! I've been working on my brooding persona ever since 'Buffy' season 1 and I'm yet to be convinced it works in the real world!

* My vamp script is in no way for teenagers! (Just to avoid any "you're a hypocrite" comments)


Lisa said...

I suppose the thing about vampires is (takes a deep breath!!) they are pretty much hide bound by their conventions and that limits their possibilities down to who they are - ruthless killers, which in turns limits the angles a writer can go for.

Joss Whedon got round it by giving Angel a soul therefore making him atypical for a vamp.

Moonlight got round it by subverting the canon slightly which allowed vamps out in daylight as long as they kept out of the sun (but then bizarrely put them in Los Angeles!). After all, how would Mick StJohn survive as a private eye if he couldn't go out during the day to pursue his trade?

True Blood doesn't subvert the canon but has them mainstreaming and drinking synth blood.

Twilight is taking a traditional boy meets girl and making him a vamp - what's a girl going to do unless she can see her beau in the daylight hours and he's kind of non threatening that way!!

I guess if we want vampire stories we have to find ways of making them socially inclusive otherwise it's just vamps, bad guys, stake 'em, end of.

By the way, I'm not a genre expert so I'm not expecting that to hold up at all against those who live, eat, breath this stuff.


Neil said...

I agree with what you're saying. If you stick to the lore, you limit what you can do. But if you subvert it too much, you lose sight of it all and they're not vampires anymore.

Ironically, I've now decided to change my vamp film completely. Now not using vampires at all - leaving them well alone for this piece. They're too limiting! I think the story can thrive now!

SRodent said...

Just watched "Let The Right One In", excellent vampire movie. Beautiful, in fact.

A lot of the new TV/movie vamps are there as teenage girl (mostly) romance for the "bad boy"; it used to be rockers but unlike vamps, they all got old! Well, those that didn't die young.