MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

The Vampire as Moral Compass

These days, it seems vampires are the new black — but they aren’t quite as black as they used to be. Today’s vampires have more than just gloomy good looks and great fashion sense; they come complete with a moral compass.

If art and literature reflect the world in which they are created, what does this fairly recent shift in vampire mythology and the societal and philosophical structures within those stories say about the real world inhabited by us mere mortals?

Back in the day, it was more, well, black-and-white. Vampires were the devourers of humans, the seducers of innocent, pale-skinned virgins … they were Bad Guys, plain and simple. For most of their literary and cinematic history, it made sense that this was so; the world back then was a simpler place, a place with clear-cut perceptions of right and wrong.

Vampires were the representations of evil, of moral corruption, and it was the task of the good guys to stake those bastards in the heart, send them to the dust, and rescue ladies fair from a dark and dismal fate as the slutty minions of a dark lord.

John Polidori‘s 1819 story The Vampyre aside, the image most of us probably picture when we think of vampires comes from Bram Stoker’Dracula, published in 1897, and the myriad cinematic variations on the vampire-as-seducer theme that have followed in its wake. While it wasn’t technically the first movie to be called “vampire” — (that title belongs to Robert Vignola‘s 1913 The Vampire, but it was about the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name about adultery — not supernatural men with pointy teeth), F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 silent classicNosferatu set the stage for modern vamps with its rat-like Count Orlok.

The second, of course, was Bela Lugosi‘s 1931 portrayal of the supernatural bloodsucker inDracula. Like Stoker’s literary version (on which the film, like Nosferatu, was based, although the former lacked the legal consent of Stoker’s estate and was mired in legal battles), Lugosi’s Dracula was a seducer of innocents. The moral difference between Nosferatu’s Count Orlok and Lugosi’s Dracula lies in Lugosi allowing some of his victims to “live” (well, be brought back as vampires), whereas the evil Orlok just killed and fed and discarded the remains of his prey, as noted by Justin Disandro in his comprehensive piece on vampires in movie history.

Lately, teens in particular seem drawn to the dark allure of the vampire. In these more modern incarnations of vampire tales, though, both in books and their cinematic adaptations, we’ve seen a further evolution of the vampire stereotype: the vampire who makes a moral choice not to kill to feed at all. Probably more has been written about Joss Whedon’Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and I refer here to the excellent television series, not the lame movie version) on the subject of vampires and moralism than any other vampire body of work, but Buffy isn’t the only vampire tale to explore ideas of moral choice and vampires.

Ann Rice‘s Louis in Interview with the Vampire feeds off animals rather than humans, and the Vampire Chronicles series is fraught with themes of guilt and the existential boredom of “living” an eternal life;  Edward Cullen’s vamp family in Twilight is an anomaly among their kind for their moral choice not to feed off humans at all; in HBO’s True Blood series, adapted from the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris, vampires have come out of the coffin, so to speak, thanks to the invention of an artificial blood that allows them to survive without killing; when they do drink of humans, they mostly use willing donors.

In Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, the most recent cinematic vampire adaptation, the moral issue of “to kill or not to kill” sets up a war between the good vampires and the evil “Vampineze,” with the creepy Mr. Tiny overseeing all and playing puppetmaster as he manipulates the lives before him for his own amusement.

Yes, these days, vampire tales are as much about morality — more specifically, about theneed to make moral choices — as they are blood-sucking and seduction. Question is, what does this say about us?

When I look at the greater world around me, here are some of the things I see: wars in the name of differences in religion, or tribe, or invisible lines in the sand that divide this nation from that; tremendous wealth living side-by-side with abject poverty; big corporations and financial institutions collapsing, taking the lifeblood of investments with them; families losing their homes while investors snap up bargains on foreclosed properties. I see a world where fast-food, interchangeable relationships through the internet often replace the harder work of maintaining relationships in real life, a world where friends and enemies are made with a few clicks of the keyboard and divorce is a quick and easy answer to any marital problems that take longer than a video game session to fix.

In spite of the brief We Are One sense that the financial crisis briefly seemed to bring about, we are still a society that functions largely on greed, self-interest and rampant solipsism. We exist in a virtual world where people war with words, attack each other venomously in ways they never would in real life. And beyond all that, I see a world where a lot of people (and I count many of my generally tolerant liberal friends among them) feel free to mock faith and spirituality of all types … or at least to mock any belief system that isn’t theirs; people have always killed over such differences, but today we have the power to destroy thousands of people, whole countries, even our entire world, with the moral choices we make.

So if movies are an extension of society, and vampires therefore represent us to some degree, what can we extrapolate from a vampire world where the “good versus evil” paradigm comes not from an outside force of the good hero killing the bad vampire, but from within the heart of the vampire himself? Could it be that the collective interest we have in these tales indicates that we are, at least on some level, aware of our own shortcomings and the need to make moral choices of our own?

If a vampire can have a conscience, can make a moral choice, can he not also have a soul? Do we?

– Kim Voynar
November 2, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon