This is a special issue of Early Modern Times, featuring my intrepid vampire-hunting colleague Dr. Laura Van Helsing: here is a Penny for your thoughts as you begin your transformation into a Zoombie! –Simon Kow
This year, I have the pleasure of inhabiting Dr. Kathryn Morris’ excellent course, The Vampire: Modernity and the Undead as she takes a much-deserved sabbatical. Fortunately, my own early modernity as a sporadic and lackadaisical goth—black lipstick yes, piercings no!—means I have been thinking of vampires for a long time.
The 1980s, which some of you may know as the late 20th century, saw yet another revival of our nightwalking, blood-sucking f(r)iends in the form of films such as The Hunger, Near Dark, and The Lost Boys, the latter of which featured both of the Coreys (Feldman and Haim) and a chop-licking turn by a resplendently mulleted Kiefer Sutherland.
Pop stars like Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith of The Cure, among others, painted their faces chalk-white, their lips blood-red, and howled from nests of teased raven-black hair as befits a creature of the night. Or consider this classic that pays homage to a classic, Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”. Their 1982 tribute pays homage to one of the many actors that embodied the Count. It is a comprehensive crypt of undead tropes, as skinny new-wave guitars scratch like long nails on the lid of a coffin, over a creepy, skittering tick-tock beat:
Nerds speculate that vampires were culturally resurrected during my youth because the AIDS pandemic spread fear of blood and of contagion. The horror of contagion—a consistent theme throughout the course, and alas, this year—was such that early sufferers of HIV were ostracized and treated viciously by the arch-devourers at the top. Smiling Satan Ronald Wilson Reagan (666, to quote rapper Killer Mike), the Ghouless Thatcher, and lesser Beezlebub Mulroney formed a dark trinity bent on sucking the world entire dry and white. Vlad the Impaler was a rank amateur, body-countwise, compared to the depredations of the Dow’s various Renfields, neither living nor dead, lurching a wasted earth animated only by the rapacious need to feed their greed. No less august an authority than Karl Marx described capital itself as a vampire, that exists only by hoovering up living labour, and the 80s were indeed the beginning of the hypercapitalism, red in tooth and claw, that treats everyone and thing as a suckable bloodsack, or as “human resources” a management-ism that beautifully expresses the vampiric ethos.
Of course, vampires themselves appear much earlier; there are creatures that consume their fellows in classical culture, such as the Lamia. The earliest texts we read are from Church authorities, like Dom Augustin Calmet, who were tasked with investigating tales and yarns of unquiet graves and undead menaces shambling the countryside postmortem. The Church’s interest in the undead is hardly surprising, given that a goodly part of its power emanated from its explanatory monopoly on death and whatever befalls us afterwards. Random Slavs emerging grouchily from their graves in search of their shoes, or to pursue mortal grudges, flagrantly contravened the Hell/Purgatory/Heaven system that helped imbue the Vatican with temporal and spiritual power.
Moreover, another way we can think of vampires is as Bad or Bizarro Jesuses. Like Christ, the vampire defeats death, and lives beyond the catacomb’s clutch. But where Christ was an ascetic, content with his sandals, posse, and pescatarian diet, the vampire is often a hedonist, combining sex, drugs, and death in a sort of Freudian Reese’s peanut butter cup in their frenzied effort to feel anything at all. Being several hundred years old can make one rather world-weary and blasé.
The most significant difference between vampires and Jesus is of course that vampires harvest blood, for their own selfish ends, while Christ shed his blood that all might live. In short, the difference between a gaping wound and agape, a totally self-sacrificing love. Since this is a major theme in one of the early lectures, we decided to stage it at the King’s College Chapel, a site that fairly abounds in Jesii.
I am very grateful to the up-for-anything team at Kingsdustrial Light and Magic, namely Mark Pineo and Paul Robinson, for finding the most visually arresting pulpit, clambering all over to get cool shots of the saviour and his sufferings, and for putting their knowledge of horror film tropes to work to make me look even spookier than usual. I must also thank the fine folks at the King’s Chapel, for allowing me to yell about early modern revenants and wandering corpses in their sacred and serene space. Despite nearly everyone at King’s making the exact same joke, I am pleased to report that the Chapel neither collapsed nor burned to the ground.
Throughout the course, we’ll be thinking about the vivid visuals of vamps, which are all the more impressive when one considers that so few of the undead have access to mirrors to remain swellegant and as sharp-dressed as a glinting fang. Zombies can see themselves, they just don’t care about aesthetics AT ALL, the surest proof of any entity’s utter brainlessness. (I am frankly glad I am not teaching a class on zombies, those truly moronic mindmunchers, in the age of the braying maskhole and the spittle-spraying covidiot, who could indeed use a serving of BRRAIINNNSS.)
I shan’t spoil any surprises, but suffice to say that Halifax is a veritable necropolis, rich in graveyards, ruins, and haunted spaces. I hope to bring as much of the tomb to the zoomroom as technology allows. Plus, I am reasonably confident that using a smoke machine to generate an eerie vibe would violate the College’s sensible covid safety protocols. If you see a mist in the night, or hear hellacious cackling, it’s probably just me and the King’s Television Workshop, doing our damndest to make sure this course really sucks.
Dr. Laura Penny
Early Modern Studies & Contemporary Studies Programs