HBO’s series True Blood broadcast its final episode this Sunday just as FX’s series The Strain began to take off. The two vampire shows could not be more different—and it looks like the current view of bloodsuckers is going back to the future in a really bad way. In True Blood vs. The Strain there’s no question who — or what — would win.
Vampire books, movies, and TV shows have been with us for nearly 120 years and our view of this monster has gone through trends that say a lot about us. The original was, of course, Dracula by Bram Stoker, which was published in 1897. In that book, and in the early movies that were made or spun off from it, the vampires are frightening, evil, dangerous, and inhuman. Although they occupied a human body, these vamps were soulless creatures that viewed humanity as the cattle that would, with our blood, support their own immortal lives.
Transforming the Vampire
And yet there was a strong element of the erotic in this nineteenth-century novel. The Victorians were fascinated by death but frightened by sex, a cultural mindset that was completely reversed in the twentieth century. And this is the pivot on which the transformation of the vampire occurred.
In 1979, the film version of a hit Broadway play starring a young and handsome Frank Langella opened to rave reviews. Both the stage and screen versions put Dracula in a whole new light by playing up the seduction and playing down the exsanguination. With his piercing eyes and tousled hair, Mr. Langella’s dark count was a Dracula to die for. He wore a pirate’s shirt, open at the neck, and never sported fangs or appeared with blood on his face. He may have been undead but he was certainly hot and audiences swooned over him.
Building on this foundation, authors and filmmakers gave us ever more human and sympathetic vampires.
- With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon created Angel, a vampire with a soul, and Spike, a platinum-haired bad boy, both of whom got it on with teenage Slayer Buffy Summers.
- In her Twilight series of books and movies, Stephanie Meyers presented vamps who sparkled in the sunlight, went to high school, and presented no threat to humans because they fed off wild animals in the forest far away from Forks, Washington.
- On @TrueBloodHBO, the vampires are more human than undead. They can drink synthetic True Blood at the bar and are loyal to one another, friends to some humans, and are sometimes kinds and considerate. Freed of the need to kill humans to survive, they come out of the coffin to become influential business people and political leaders.
- The Vampire Diaries has continued the Meyers model of sexy male vampires who lust after the same woman.
Back to Basics
After all these beautiful, super-human, and super-heated vamps, it’s something of a relief to get back to basics. Right now we’re frightened of plagues like Ebola and wondering what’s going to happen when our antibiotic drugs stop working. We’re scared of terrorists who may walk among us and destroy us with bombs while we’re drinking our morning coffee. We’re frightened of deranged men who bring guns into schools and movie theaters with mass murder on their minds.Thus the nature of the vampire evolves again.
Like the zombie plague of World War Z, The Strain’s vamps are the product of a blood-borne pathogen: worms that invade a human body and transform it into the shape best suited to propagate their own species. Sustained by blood, they grow new organs that make draining a human body faster and far more efficient. Relieved of the need for genetic reproduction, they slough off any now-superfluous genitalia.
Forget the elegant homes of True Blood or the contemporary mansion of Twilight; these vampires huddle like rats wherever they can find a dark space. The fearless vampire hunters find them in closets and basements and—scariest of all—roaming the subway tunnels of Manhattan. Forget those gorgeous vampires with perfect hair, shining teeth and sparkling skin. These vampires are the opposite of sexy: red-eyed, gray-skinned, and bald. And you definitely don’t want to get too close to them because if you let one within 10 feet or so, you’re lunch.
This millennial vampire is ever so much easier to understand. There’s no angst about whether to stay human or become immortal, no muddle of emotions about loving the undead, no glamour or erotic subtext. It’s survival of the fittest and the vampires are designed to conquer. They are aided in this by our normality bias—the human need to see others around us as normal, even in the face of proof that some are not. Denial may be powerful but not if it causes you to insist on going about your daily routine when the world is falling to ruin or if it makes you hesitate at the critical moment.
I read the three books by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan on which @TheStrainFX is based so watching it is not as scary as it might be for others. I know who the good guys are and exactly what’s in that subway tunnel. But the series is still pretty darned frightening. If you’re in the mood for Vampire Version 3, check out The Strain on FX.
I don’t recommend watching it right before you go to bed, though.