Hallab Reading Guide

Buy at Amazon Hallab, Mary. Vampire God: The Allure of the Undead in Western Culture: State University of New York Press, 2009. ISBN: 9781438428604.

This is the latest scholarly overview of the vampire trope. My own comments are enclosed in square brackets.


Hallab begins by posing the fundamental question: why are we still interested in vampires? What need to they fulfill? She says '"…what hidden void is modern Western society trying to fill with this fantasy?" with "…its unique bipolarity—both human and supernatural, alive and dead…" (p. 1). The Freudian explanations in terms of latent urges and desires she considers 'rather unfortunate', discounting it in view of the sheer variety of the vampire trope: "…although repressed sexuality may explain many vampires from Dracula to Buffy's Angel, it hardly explains the popularity of vampire toys, vampire jokes, vampire ballets, operas, breakfast cereals, cartoons, including good vampires, bad vampires, child, adult, male, female, geriatric vampires, vampires from space, […etc. etc.]" (p. 3). She concludes, "not all vampires are sexy" (p. 3).

…as with the serial killer, the danger itself is not forbidden or quirky sex, but death. If the killer enticed children with shiny toys, we would not say that the story was about shiny toys. Although there may be…a comment on the dangers of sexuality, as in ballads of the demon lover, the erotic vampire seducer may say more about the attractiveness of danger and death than about sex. (p. 3)

In the age of ubiquitous internet porn we do not need vampires to signal forbidden sex, yet they continue to flourish. Likewise though Dracula is classically a foreigner, most vampires are not. She says it's all about the representation of death. And they have representational potency because we can't deal directly with the idea of death any more. We want to deny death: the vampire is its living embodiment as well as an example of how it may be avoided: "In the popular media…death is treated either as a vague and mysterious existence in another world or as a horrifying and unfortunate mistake—one which, however, with healthy living, the right exercise, the right neighbourhoods, or the right faith (sincerely held) might be avoided. We seldom admit that deaths, even among the very old, are unavoidable; someone must be to blame" (p. 6).

She says that vampires are part of a general largely pagan substructure of belief, largely unacknowledged in 'official' sources. [Maybe, au contraire, there is an unacknowledged death wish at the heart of Western society—certainly much of the history of the 20th century with its murderous wars might tend to support this view—the desire to be taken sweetly down into oblivion, but not by some vulgar animal, like, say, a werewolf, but by a beautiful super-endowed angel of death. Call it, perhaps, 'vampire'?] Hallab calls this residual belief 'popular folklore'. The remainder of this introduction, it ends on p. 15, is a reasoned and concise clear exposition of the broad outlines of the rest of the book.  Interestingly, she starts with New England vampires, but uses a different source from the one we did, namely Michael Bell, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires (2001).

However comforting it may be, Christianity does not even attempt to identify, explain, or treat illness and death except by reference to the will of God and the efficacy of prayer. Vampires are part of a practical alternative, a folk science of death and the dead, which, like modern science, operates independently of accepted religious dogma and is often in conflict with it. (p. 18)

Growing awareness of vampire activity during the 18th century caused the Catholic church to commission two big reports into it: one of these was that of Dom Augustine Calmet, and we get an account of his main findings here. It emerges that there was a real 18th century Comte de Saint-Germain [hero of a series of vampire novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro] who claimed to be a prince of Transylvania and to have lived for 1000 years (p. 21).  Hallab then rehearses varies theories of death including that of the partially sentient corpse. Then comes an interesting section on Byron, Polidori and contemporary scientific interest in the creation of life we see perhaps most vividly in Frankenstein. She points out that in 'The Mysterious Stranger', Carmilla, and Dracula when things go wrong the doctor rather than the clergyman is sent for. She says "Three major vampire works of the nineteenth century reflect the influence of popular scientific speculation about the nature of death, immortality—and vampires" (p. 23); these are Carmilla, Varney, and Dracula.

The earliest of the sceptical men of science who turn up with such monotonous regularity in such works seems to be Dr. Chillingworth from Varney, who dismisses speculation about the vampire's true nature as "contrary to all experience, to philosophy, and to all the laws of ordinary nature" although he's playing a double game: it emerges that he, Chillingworth, "resuscitated Varney from a botched gallows execution by means of "galvanic" experiments, somewhat reminiscent of those used by Dr. Frankenstein" (p. 24). [The reference is to the New York Dover edition published in two volumes, 1972, i, 328–31.]

Several of the questions that haunt Louis in Interview with the Vampire first surface here in Varney. At one point, Marchdale asserts, "what is, is natural" (p. 25) (Dover edn., i, 135).  Then we get similar reflections in Carmilla: "The guest Carmilla begins to exhibit odd nocturnal behaviour that, as in Varney, is at first given a rational explanation and attributed to sleepwalking although she is actually out drinking blood from the neighbours as well as from her hostess Laura. Carmilla justifies her lifestyle: 'All things proceed from Nature—don't they? All things in the heaven, in the earth, and under the earth, act and live as Nature ordains? I think so.' ...her story supposedly can be found in the papers of a Dr. Hesselius, who—in contrast to Dr. Chillingworth—provides authority for its truth and testimony to the sanity of the teller" (p. 25).

Interestingly, Hallab says that changing views of Nature (regarded by the Victorian intelligentsia at the time of Carmilla as red in tooth and claw) 'embodies nature's ruthless voraciousness' [here's the Darwinian angle, O scientists!]. This is followed by a section on Dracula and 19th-century Victorian science, pp. 26–7. 

She then goes on to consider the positive side of the vampire trope, namely the promise of immortality. She talks of "Nosferatu's dissolution in the face of moral perfection" (p. 28). Notes the modern novels in which vampirism is shown to be some kind of disease whose answer is medical, or some genetic mutation, such that the vampire is a distinct, and perhaps superior, species. The regenerative powers therefore implicit in such conditions can be harnessed for human good as we see in Dan Simmons's Children of the Night (1992) where an immunologist discovers the vampire gene and "this "vampire gene" along with the vampire virus might offer a cure for certain devastating autoimmune diseases like AIDS as well as a means of repairing injuries and resisting the ravages of old age" (pp. 28–9).  [This is the earliest reference that I know of to the idea central to True Blood, that 'V' might be energising and restorative]. Dracula himself appears in this novel, ancient beyond counting and slowly withering, he is thinking of true death until some of the serum perks him up again and renews his vitality.

Hallab talks interestingly, quoting evidence, of modern man's hunger to arrest the processes of ageing and prolong life by any means, genetic, medical, or other [and I can well believe that in such an ethos the vampire might stand as an incentive, as a symbol, and an example of this aspiration; there's an additional element here perhaps, a literal treatment of the metaphors of 'death-in-life' that some have used to convey the ennui and anomie of middle class life in the modern industrial, consumption-orientated world]. Hallab points out, although indirectly, that immortality may actually increase the fear of death because there is then so much more to lose. This in a discussion of various minor novels which fret about immortality and the social and political implications: i.e. if everybody were a vampire, what would they live on?

Chapter 2: Vampires and Society

Opens with an excellent summary of the social usefulness of the vampire folklore in traditional communities and a sketch of the various ways of becoming a vampire in a variety of different traditional societies (p. 33). The vampire embodies how not to behave (as conceived in peasant terms) and she quotes the terrifying Greek curse "may you never decay" i.e. "may you become a vampire" (p. 34).

Proper burial and mourning are powerful ways of reconciling a society with its outcasts and deviants, who may be potentially dangerous when dead. Traditional funerals in Romania and Greece, quoted at length in the notes show a lively dialogue between the living and the dead: i.e. the land of the dead is a human place, communication is easy; death is therefore rendered less final, less threatening. [What the vampire trope reveals ultimately is the survival into modern society of the remains at least of a primitive cult of the dead: all the details are here, including the notion that the dead walk because they are hungry.] The sheer utility of the concept of the vampire emerges on all sides: 'In his article "Why are Vampires still alive" about Wallachian immigrants in Scandinavia (1986), Swedish anthropologist Carl-Ulrik Schierup says, of "worship of the dead," which involves mutual duties and obligations. Failure to fulfill these obligations either before or after death can result in the return of the deceased to create problems for the living, to whom they can bring good or bad fortune' (p. 35).

In traditional communities not all vampires are evil, but they are all pests. They mess up the ideally impassable barrier between life and death for one thing. It encourages folk to do right by others in their lifetime in case they come back to right wrongs after their death, so ultimately it promotes social harmony and reconciliation amongst the living. [Then follow brief notes on the theme of transgression in Byron, Polidori and Stoker, drawn mostly from secondary sources, sometimes a mere patchwork of other people's opinions.] Polidori attacks aristocratic arrogance and disregard for others; Byron's Giaour "in the poem of that name (1813) will be cursed to an eternity of unrest for his contempt for human life and his affronts to community values" (p. 37).

Hallab says a bit about Buffy drawing attention to the precariousness of the comfortable suburban existences perched, unknown to them, on the verge of the apocalypse [and I thought, aha, it was maybe only when the Cold War was finally over that we could acknowledge the Hellmouth over which we had all been suspended during the two generations following WWII]. "Stoker's Dracula sets the model for the vampire who represents the dangerous persistence of the past in the present, often unacknowledged and unrecognised, creating friction and conflict, for example, of the antique patriarchy with the New Woman or the traditional aristocracy with a new kind of democracy of middle-class heroes..." (p. 39). In Newman's Anno Dracula the count, now prince consort, tries to turn 19th-century England back into the "middle ages with himself as lord of the manor" (p. 39).

Movie makers and writers often use the vampire to represent fear of falling back into barbarism; vampire hunters represent modernity by contrast. The ethos of the Van Helsing circle is drawn from Victorian medievalism and love of knightly chivalric adventure. Then there are some notes on Yarbro's Hotel Transylvania, then a bigger section on Kim Newman: "by peopling the novels with both fictitious characters and actual historical figures, [he] makes a complex statement about the relation of art to life and the way fiction may replace or even supersede history, as, for example, Newman's Bram Stoker is executed by Stoker's fictitious Dracula" (p. 45).

More interesting observations follow; it seems that at the end "Dracula is not killed…but flies from England as a giant bat—to show up again in The Bloody Red Baron as Graf von Dracula, behind the scenes manipulator of the German air force, for which his crude brutality and contempt for life perfectly suit him; however, his use of medieval war tactics proves disastrous for him and the German offensive" (p. 45).  Then some interesting paragraphs about Elizabeth's Kostova's The Historian, and the ironical depiction of historical research within it. "Anne Rice's vampires move all over space and time but in a fantastic world that often seems to be drawn from old movies like The Mummy or The Phantom of the Opera rather than even casual cultural or historical research" (p. 48).

Chapter 3: Vampires and Psychology

"According to sociologists Robert Fulton and Robert Bendiksen in the introduction to their collection Death and Identity, the conviction that the individual does not die—that there is ultimately no death—that in some way, somewhere, he or she will continue to exist, is innate and universal" (p. 49). In some cultures the soul is regarded as detachable from the body. For most societies, the soul is the person, the body is an appendage. In most societies, "funerary rituals are to make sure the dead will stay dead" (p. 52). Hallab follows this with an interesting critical section on the leading tendency to prefer sexual interpretations of the vampire's role, with useful brief summaries of Maurice Richardson and Ernest Jones's Freudian readings of the trope (p. 54).

Hallab speaks of "a kind of Freudian/Jungian wet dream of incest, torture, murder, and assorted sexual perversions" (p. 55). [Which sounds like a pretty good plot summary of Interview with the Vampire.]

Hallab says that of the two themes, sex and death, death is far more important in the minds of most readers; in life, "sex is temporary and intermittent (and often unavailable). Death is unavoidable" (p. 56). Hallab's thesis is that under the surface of conventional religion which most people ostensibly adhere to in the west is an ancient and still active real religion, involving a kind of Manichaean struggle between good and evil, light and dark, and that most people, from simple modern Greek peasants to sophisticated educated urbanites privately are unsatisfied by the Church's promises of immortality, and believe that the self is annihilated at death (pp. 56–7). [Interesting that in her extensive catalogue of ruthlessly self-assertive vampires expressing an indomitable will to live, she should fail to mention Interview with the Vampire which amongst later texts offers the most powerful expression of vampire ennui—precisely the loss of the urge to life.]

Chapter 4: The Religious Vampire: Reason, Romantics, and Victorians

She goes on to a brief discussion of Byron's Giaour (1813), his 'Fragment', John Polidori's The Vampyre and other 19th-century texts. She has some interesting stuff on the symbolism of the Byron piece: in Roman and Classical Greek culture,  storks and snakes are both symbols of rebirth; she goes on to consider the symbolic significance of Ceres, Demeter and Eleusis, all implying periodic returns from the underworld, death, fertility and renewal (pp. 75–6). "The popularity of Polidori's story established the vampire as a Byronic hero/villain, whose malign intent is belied by a charming exterior" (p. 76). Then we get an analysis of Varney the Vampire in terms of its religious parameters, ranging from the rational, deistical, materialism of Chillingworth to the broad church Anglicanism of Mr Bevan and the ignorant superstition of the mob (p. 77). There follows an interesting short discussion of 'The Mysterious Stranger' which describes the killing of the vampire Azzo von Klatka as a 'reverse crucifixion' [three nails are driven into his coffin while the credo is read] (p. 79). Then Carmilla and a rather far-fetched suggestion that Carmilla may not be real, but be a 'projection of the repressed adolescent sexuality of her victim Laura' (p. 80). Then on to Dracula. [Where she makes too much, I think, of the link between the Count and Satan.]