Sunday, October 21, 2007
All Hallows Eve, Love and Death
As summer ends and the days grow shorter, the night of Hallowe'en or All Hallows Eve approaches. It has become one of the most celebrated holidays in recent years and has attained international popularity. Statistics show that in the States, at least, more money is spent on decorations and costumes for Hallowe'en than for any other holiday in the year.
The ancient form of the holiday in the West is Samhain. It was the time when the veils between the worlds grew thin and the dead were able to return briefly to visit with the living. It fell at the time of the Blood Sacrifice, when animals were slaughtered in anticipation of winter. Meat was salted and prepared for the long hard days of winter, and a feast was celebrated as the last great banquet that included fresh meat.
The real significance of Samhain, however, was to honour the dead. In contemporary Mexico and some other countries, the 'Day of the Dead' is celebrated with visits to the local cemetaries.
Death is a constant companion in life, but we tend to forget that sometimes. Contemporary Western culture maintains few traditional 'celebrations' or memorial days for the honoured dead. There are days on which the Armed Services and those who have 'served' are honoured, but there are few holidays when our own beloved dead truly become PART of our celebrations.
The cult of the Vampire is a death cult. The Vampire stands between life and death as the 'undead'. Is it any wonder that the Vampire has enjoyed renewed popularity when our own culture fails to deal with death properly?
The concept of the Vampire as one who is doomed to immortality and yet who retains most of his/her humanity, human drives and emotions, was developed romantically in the 19th century in the character of Dracula and enjoyed a huge revival with the works of Anne Rice, beginning with 'Interview with the Vampire'.
Although there are cultures where the vampire still is considered by some to be a real threat to be destroyed using traditional semi-religious methods, Vampires have become very fashionable in both Western and Asian societies. There are Vampire clubs of every variety, from those who simply role-play to those who actually drink blood and wear custom fangs. The entire Gothic counter-culture is somewhat influenced by vampire legends and 'traditions'.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe in the 'undead' and who will take real measures to prevent a corpse from walking the earth as a vampire. Vampires are not only blood-drinkers in legend. They possess the power to take and transform psychic energy from the living. Powers of hypnosis often are attributed to the vampire.
Many creatures of legend have an animal 'familiar' or symbol. For the vampire, it is the bat. In fact, bats have been feared and reviled by many throughout history, athough the most common bats are tiny timid creatures who most resemble mice with wings. The 'bloodsucking' bats are much larger and actually can attack humans, but the European character of the vampire was born and developed in regions where the only bats were those who lived in caves and feasted on insects. In fact, until recently, bats were reviled and persecuted in some Western countries, mainly because of their association with the 'undead'. In actuality, bats have a very positive influence on the environment and do far more good than harm.
Recently, a vampire trilogy written by Stephenie Meyer has become an incredible success, particularly among teens. 'Twilight' is the first book of the three and introduces a timeless love story between a human girl and a vampire. It has all the usual conflicts betwen mortality and immortality. The vampire protagonists in this novel do not have the overpowering terrifying nature of most vampires. They have abjured human blood and attempt to be as 'human' as possible. In some ways, perhaps because the book was written to target a younger audience, some of the true erotic power of the vampire is omitted. Nonetheless, the trilogy may well become a classic.
As a child, I was terrified by vampires but, as I became older, I began to comprehend the seductive nature of the fear. It is not the undead nature of the Vampire that disturbed me, nor his thirst for human blood. I suppose it was the idea that resistance would be useless, that he would be able to force total submission and obedience from a victim. Of course, with a classical background both in literature and film, my vision of the Vampire was an elegantly attired gentleman with perfect manners but entirely without compassion or consideration for the ordinary fears and desires of ordinary mortals. The red eyes of the Vampire frightened me far more than the fangs.
I did not fear either blood nor death. I saw a fair quantity of both as a young girl. I think it was the inexorability of the vampire's attack that terrified me. It was this aspect that ultimately became erotic and seductive.
Many writers have paired love and death. The best Vampire legends combine the two as well. Oscar Wilde quipped that 'every man kills the thing he loves' and further declared: 'Yet each man kills the thing he loves, from all let this be heard; some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word. The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with the sword.'
The best Vampire romances are those where an irresistable force draws both predator and prey together, where the Vampire falls hopelessly in love with his human prey and the human woman offers herself willingly to the kiss of death. Both are driven by selflessness. Without sustenance, the Vampire will languish, but he refuses to take what he needs from the woman he loves. The woman on the other hand, wants nothing but the Kiss and is willing to take the poison into her own veins for his sake. The gender of the Vampire is not necessarily male by any means, but in Dracula, the most powerful Vampire WAS male. In fact, however, the Vampire cult in film and literature often has focused on a 'femme fatale' in every sense of the word.
For me, the ultimate erotic vampire scene was captured by Gore Vidal in a novelisation of 'Nosferatu'. Unfortunately, I no longer own the book. Novelisations have a poor reputation, rather deservedly, but this one was brilliant.
The thirst of the Vampire for blood really represents a longing for life itself. The 'undead' must walk the earth eternally, and yet cannot experience life firsthand ever again. The moment when predator and prey meet is the only moment when life will course through his/her veins again. For the living, the Vampire is the promise that life CAN endure after 'death'. Human beings have quested for immortality since the dawn of time. The Vampire's terrible torment, walking in the darkness forever, is the price that human beings imagined for 'immortality'.
We are not gods. Our bodies rot and decompose if they are not treated in some fashion. Traditional symbols of the body's endurance after death, found in Vampires and Mummies, are the stuff of horror films rather than a promise of eternal life. We are not intended to survive our deaths in THIS form. When some one dies, it is those who are left behind who suffer and grieve. We have to let the dead go. The concept of the Vampire is a symbol really of our inability to surrender the dead to the ultimate peace of the grave.
Even religions that speak of reincarnation include the concept of vampires in their legends. Our desire to keep our loved ones near is the fuel for legends of the 'undead' and of the price that must be paid to keep the dead 'alive' in some fashion.
Yet it is not this aspect of the Vampire that resonates in my own soul. For me, the Vampire is a character in the eternal drama of Sacrifice, of the power of love to overcome terror and to accept the unacceptable. The great Vampire tales are those where the victim embraces the darkness willingly for the sake of the beloved. The Vampire, at the same time, resists his/her powerful nature and embraces love, turning aside from instincts of self-preservation. Perhaps this kind of love is not healthy either for predator or for prey, but it does inspire ordinary mortals in some ineffable fashion to believe that we too have within us the power to defy both life and death through love.
(A note about the photographs: The photographs displayed here are from 'Second Life' where one can be or become almost anything or any one that one chooses. One simply shows 'fangs' that can be acquired to allow any one to become a Vampire. Unlike real Vampires, however, the fangs can be removed like any other item of clothing and placed back in inventory or deleted. The other photograph shows a 'Sacrifice'. In the Sim of Transylvania, there is a dark Church dedicated to the cult of the vampire. At the altar, there is a 'pose' that allows Vampire and Chosen Sacrifice to assume this pose. It is very powerful and romantic. As you can see, it is possible for the weaker, smaller human form to acquire superhuman strength as a Vampire. The man is far more powerful in his physical form but submits willingly to the sacrifice.
I have to admit that this was nothing more than a photograph I created. There is no real male character who allowed this Vampire to carry him to the Altar! It is a rather potent image though.)