Vampirism: the bloodborne disease

This is the fourth part in a four part series looking at the extraordinary popularity of the vampire genre, Dracula being the subject of more films than any other fictional character. The four parts are:

  1. One hundred years of vampire films looks at the longevity of the vampire genre, the box office takings of some of the recent major vampire movies, and the surge in interest in the vampire genre over the last 10 years.
  2. Vampire origins: the price of immortality examines how the vampire genre prods our sensitivities about death and aging, and builds on a wealth of known Christian religious symbolism.
  3. Vampires selling unsafe sex? looks at the thinly-veiled, yet Rated-M sexual metaphors of the vampire genre and the way it has tracked the sexual interests of various generations, from the Victorian period to the swinging Sixties, and the recent focus on adolescence and virginity.
  4. Vampirism ‘the bloodborne disease’ focuses on the recent medicalization of vampire stories and the zombie/vampire crossovers, paralleling popular fears of bloodborne diseases like hepatitis and AIDS.

French AIDS public health campaign - photo by bryan88 on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

The double nature of vampirism as both disease and sexuality metaphor ties it in with diseases  associated in the popular consciousness with initimate sexual contact. In the  last couple of decades AIDs diagnoses peaked in 1991/1992 and AIDs deaths in 1994  in the US. Looking at more major English language vampire films  there were 36 in the 80s and 53 in the 90s.  Many  major AIDs public health awareness campaigns, some of which may now seem a  little over the top, began in many countries in the late  80s.  

HIV, hepatitis and herpes  

Lab photo by Mr D Logan on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

HIV, and hepatitis are both bloodborne diseases with many similarites. Heptatitis mutates during viral replication, making it  difficult for the body’s immune system to combat it. This allows the virus to
establish and maintain persistent infection, which can go undiagnosed until  severe liver problems emerge possibly 20 to 30 years later.

Hepatitis C was identified around 1989 (for which no vaccine is yet possible) and the first vaccines for  Hepatitis B were being tested in the 80s.   1982 also saw  awareness of herpes  peak with Time magazine running a lurid cover  story “Herpes: The New Scarlet Letter” and it’s estimated that around 18% of the US population  is HSV-2  infected (the type associated more often with genital herpes) although many  are asymptomatic.

TB and the plague

One of the likely reasons for the rise and rise  of the vampire genre  are the close parallels with the fear of these various diseases in the  popular consciousness (albeit with a time lag by the time a book or film is  written and produced). Even going right back to Victorian times  tuberculosis struck with people having little knowledge of the cause and  victims gradually wasted away, fitting in well with the vampire myth and the  plague was also associated with the activities of vampires.

Vampires as medicalized horror

As well as appealing to our more prurient interests,  vampire movies are horror movies after all, despite the rich vein of satire  they’ve provided for comedians like Mel Brooks and Eddie Murphy.

Danny Boyle's 28 Weeks Later sequel on Amazon 

The disease of the blood relationship is explicitly  picked up by vampire/zombie crossover films like I Am Legend (2007), 28 Days Later (2002)  and it’s 2008 sequel 28 Weeks Later and  other zombie/vampire type meldings, and you can also see explicit  medicalization of vampirism in the tremendously successful box office  hit Blade  (1998),  Underworld (2003), Ultraviolet (2006)  and Daybreakers (2009).

 Even back in 1992 in Coppola’s Dracula you see the  blood transfusions being given to Lucy and in Near Dark a vampire  is cured by transfusions.   

Swine flu sign - photo by alancleaver_2000 on Flickr licensed under Creative Commons

Invulnerability, viruses and puncture wounds

Arguably for most people viruses  are something that we do not understand on a mechanical level, and that we  know often can’t be medically treated, making the the viral nature of  vampirism both vaguely plausible and more frightening.  

About 10% of  the population are also needle-phobic (‘trypanophobic‘)  and interestingly it is more common in men than in women  which might  help account for the ability of the genre to genuinely scare. There are both  genetic explanations for fear of punctures (in the past puncture  wounds were often fatal because of the prevalence of infection and no  antibiotics) as well as more psychological explantions (the skin for men  being a barrier to the self and it’s breach being shocking and unsettling).

'Rise' with Lucy Liu on AmazonPerhaps in  a reaction in some of the more recent caring/sharing thoughtful  vampire figures expressed in Rice’s or Meyer’s novels some more recent  films have made vampires back into Nosferatu-style other-world  beings again, for example 30 Days of Night (2007)  where they act more like wild animals and have Alien-like double rows of  teeth, and  Rise (2007)with  Lucy Liu is also much blacker.   

Don’t turn your back: the vampire genre gets off the floor just
when you think the audience can’t take any more

In  100 years time the  vampire genre may even be regarded as one of the C20th’s most enduring  cultural outputs).  Expect more in this ‘vein’: vampire hospital,  vampire rock band (Oh wait that’s already been done), vampire psychiatrist, vampire  children, vampire football league, vampire western. This genre has a lot  of life in it yet.

It will be interesting to see  which  fiction series will form the next vampire cinema blockbuster or  TV series. Place your bets below.

This article filed under the following 'Interest' categories (click category for more) Cliche watch, Unanswerable questions

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Article posted by @Drivelry on March 16, 2013

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