February 8, 2004
I've always had a thing about vampires -- a good thing. Back in my high
school days, I wrote a one-act play about a kind of Bladerunner future where, instead
of replicants, I used vampires. I called it Haemo. Later, I wrote a short
story set in the same reality and won the Toronto Star Short Story
Competition. I've always wanted to write more stories about the
and maybe someday I will. At the same time, the basic idea behind
that play and that story wasn't really original. There is a long
tradition of stories which take the supernatural mythos of the vampire
and marry it with a modern, science based sensibility, the result
being, hopefully, a more convincing tale for modern readers. The
author plays a sort of world building game where the object is to come
up with convincing sounding scientific explanations for as many of the
supernatural aspects of the vampire mythos as possible.
Inevitably, vampirism itself is portrayed not as some mystical curse,
but as a disease like any other, spread from person to person (or
rather vampire to person), either in saliva or blood.
A recent example of this sub-genre was found in the very short lived British television
While I haven't actually seen Ultraviolet,
from what I've heard it took the science based vampire tradition to the
ultimate extreme. It was about very modern police forensics
experts trying to track down a vampire and the result sounds like a lot
of fun. We learn, for example, that a baby vampire in the womb
doesn't register on an Ultrasound. Who'da guessed, eh?
I started thinking about this essay when I picked up a book at my
local bookstore called The
Science of Vampires by Katherine Ramsland,
Ph.D. That book claimed that the idea of treating vampirism as a
disease which can be understood in scientific terms probably started
with Richard Matheson's very famous 1954 novel, I am Legend. In
Matheson's novel, the entire human race is turned into vampires except
one man, Robert Neville, who then spends all his time (and the length
of the book) a) trying to understand and thus cure vampirism, and b)
trying to kill the vampires during the day when they are asleep.
Eventually he figures out that the reason a wooden stake through the
heart kills a vampire is because the bacteria which cause the disease
are anaerobic, meaning they don't like oxygen. Punch a hole in
the vampire's chest and you let in oxygen. Result, scratch one
Certainly, ever since Matheson's novel -- which was made into two
movies, The Last Man on Earth
(1964) and The Omego Man
(1971) -- it has been common to at least try for a little bit of
scientific plausibility in vampire stories. The made-for-TV-movie
Nick Knight (which was made
into the successful Canadian series Forever
Knight) featured a vampire as hero working for the police
department at night who spent his days at a tanning salon in an effort
acclimatize himself to sunlight while his coroner friend sought
scientific ways to alleviate his condition. The movie Sundown, staring David Carradine,
had vampires resisting sunlight through a heavy layer of
sunblock. The gothic soap opera, Dark
Shadows, at one point had a storyline in which a doctor tried to
develop a medical cure for vampirism.
At the same time, there are still plenty of the more traditional
vampire stories around, stories in which vampirism is basically
supernatural and not explicable in scientific terms. For example,
Stephen King's Salem's Lot
comes to mind. Anne Rice's ultra-influential vampire novels,
beginning with Interview
with the Vampire, are pretty traditional. And the two
television series, Buffy the Vampire
Slayer (now canceled) and its spin-off Angel, make no effort to explain
vampirism in other than supernatural terms.
In fact, you could probably argue that all vampire stories fall into
one of two categories: science based stories like I am Legend and
"traditional" vampire stories...like Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Which brings me to my main point. When we think of the
"traditional" vampire story, most of us would say that tradition
harkens back to Bram Stoker's original novel. Stephen King
claimed his very traditional, supernatural story, Salem's Lot, was meant as a
homage to Dracula...what
he called "a bounce". It was meant to be a good, old fashioned vampire
tale. As I have already mentioned, in The Science of Vampires,
Ramsland suggests the science based vampire tradition goes back no
further than I am Legend.
And why not? It was the novel Dracula which gave us most
of the supernatural aspects to the mythos which we then try to
rationalize in our science based stories today. In Dracula, the legendary
blood sucker had so many powers and weaknesses that you needed a
scorecard to keep them all straight! He didn't cast a shadow, he
couldn't see his reflection in a mirror, he was weakened by sunlight
(albeit not fatally), he couldn't stand the touch of a cross or a
communion wafer or holy water. Yea Gods, Dracula had so many
marks against him it was no wonder he was so cranky! At
the same time, he could control the weather, control animals, change
into a bat and a wolf, crawl up walls, hypnotize unwilling victims,
live forever and, best of all, he was filthy rich!
So, sure, there's no doubt that there was a very traditional, Old
World aspect to the novel Dracula.
At the same time, we are looking at that novel through modern eyes.
If we look at it
from the point of view of its original readers, in 1897, what we find
is actually the very first of the science
tradition. In fact, Dracula
is probably the sort of book Michael Crichton would have come up with
had he written a vampire novel back in 1897.
It was the first
Consider the hero of Dracula.
Not Jonathon Harker but the other fellow, Abraham Van Helsing.
Given the Count's weakness where holy objects were concerned, you might
have expected Stoker to make his great vampire hunter a man of the
cloth. Instead, Van Helsing is a MAN OF SCIENCE, a doctor and a
specialist in brain diseases -- educated on the Continent no
true that Van Helsing repeatedly assures Harker that vampires cannot be
explained by the use of science, but it is precisely because Van
Helsing is a trained scientist that anyone believes a word he has to
say in the first place. Deny it all he wants, Van Helsing
represents the modern world's response to the old world problem of
Then, too, Bram Stoker throws into the mix the latest up-to-date,
state-of-the-art scientific concepts. To us, from our modern
perspective, these things seem antiquated, but at the time they were
meant to impress the hell out of the reader.
When Van Helsing first arrives to find Lucy Westenra weakening daily
(from Dracula's repeated nocturnal visits), the good doctor tries to
halt her decline through blood transfusions taking blood from her four
male suitors. Fred Saberhagen, in his novel, The Dracula Tapes, pointed
out that it was highly unlikely that all four suitors would have had
compatible blood types, so that the transfusions could hardly have done
Lucy any good. But all the same, Stoker's purpose in throwing in
these blood transfusions was meant to add to the air of technical
authenticity. In 1897, blood transfusions were cutting edge
stuff. In fact, although the different blood types had been
recognized since 1875, it wasn't until 1901 that the part they played
in successful blood transfusions was understood. It was as if a
modern vampire hunter used an MRI machine.
Later in the novel, Mina Harker is herself bitten by Dracula, and
develops a sort of psychic rapport with the vampire. Realizing
they can use this to their advantage, Van Helsing hypnotizes Mina and
uses her rapport to track down their quarry as he flees for his native
Transylvania. To modern readers, hypnotism itself is only a step
away from the supernatural. But in 1897, hypnotism was the very
latest in the medical arsenal against brain illnesses. Stoker
even goes a step further in his effort to impress the reader.
When Van Helsing asks Dr. Seward if he believes in hypnotism, Seward
replies that Charcot has proven it well enough. Stoker is just
showing off, name dropping, referring to the very real Dr. Jean
Martin-Charcot who, during the 1870s, was a leading neurologist who
used hypnosis to treat female "hysterics".
Apart from these examples of scientific details, Stoker used other
tricks to add an air of plausibility to Dracula. Though the
novel begins in the traditional, gloomy crags of Transylvania, the
setting quickly shifts to what was then modern day London. That
doesn't strike us as significant because, from our point of view,
London, 1897 is almost as alien as Transylvania, 1897. But it is
as if, in a modern vampire story, the legendary Count came to New York
City. In fact, that idea has been used in many modern vampire
tales, including for comedic effect in the movie, Love at First Bite.
And how does Dracula
begin? True, from one perspective, it
begins very traditionally, with a stranger arriving in the dark,
brooding Old World environment of a Transylvanian hamlet. The
locals warn him to turn back, if you
value your immortal soul! He ignores them and takes a
spooky carriage ride up the winding mountain road to a big, old spooky
castle. All this seems pretty standard stuff. But now look
at it another way.
The novel begins...with a lawyer! And a real estate lawyer at that.
It begins as mundanely -- as realistically -- as can be imagined: with
a lawyer visiting a client to get his John Hancock on a few real estate
documents regarding the purchasing of some property in London.
Nothing unusual about that. Nothing to get your knickers in a
knot about. It's only later that we learn the property, Carfax
Abbey, will be used to house one of Dracula's coffins. Yikes! But, in
the beginning, the count is just like any other home buyer. We
can even identify with him. It's tough buying a new house.
You sure don't want to make a mistake -- especially when you're making
the purchase long distance from Transylvania.
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
Got a response? Email