Vampires have always seemed very tragic to me.
I was thinking about how people become the way they are – how, for instance, a happy friendly child turns into a stone-hearted and cruel sadist. When we talk about such a person, we always knowledgeably point out how a formative event in someone’s life influenced the way they later became. I admit that sometimes I wonder if they were always a little pre-programmed that way.
It’s the same for vampires.
We’ve all seen or read vampire origin stories. The ‘birth’ of a vampire is always depicted as violent. Traumatic. Sometimes it’s a matter of choice to escape an apparently worse situation, others its out of a simple desire to keep living. Sometimes it is forced on the person. Whatever the trigger for the transition to vampire, it isn’t just a change of outfit and some make up – it always seems to involve massive physical stress. The psychological pain and confusion must be pretty intense also. Out of this trauma we can see a path of tragedy unfolding.
The tragedy of the vampire’s life for me comes down to five main things:
Their long life – The child in Interview with a Vampire struck me at the time as incredibly tragic not even for the face it meant someone had lost their child, but for the fact that she was stuck in a child’s body for life. To be always treated like an 11 year old when you’d been alive for centuries would be deeply infuriating. No wonder she went a bit off the rails. It isn’t just children who would experience this – people we have known for a long time tend to assume things about us, expect us to behave a certain way. How much more so must that be if the people who know you have known you for centuries? To escape the monotony of living with the same people for centuries on end, vampires would surely make new ones, despite the own trauma of their own beginnings. And what about the way the world works? You couldn’t help but be a cynic if you lived for centuries and saw history repeating itself endlessly. Wouldn’t you want to shake things up a bit? Their longevity leads to the other aspects of the tragedy of their lives.
Loneliness – So many vampires seem to be isolated, especially the ones who take centre stage in our stories. They are the ones who suffer from lack of companionship, lack of love, often a lack of friendship. Even vampires like Stefan, in the Mercy Thompson novels by Patricia Briggs, though he has a strong (albeit complicated) relationship with the Mistress of the Seethe, crave friendship. The normality of banter between friends. He craves love and values loyalty – neither of which is in great supply in his seethe.
Detachment – It isn’t surprising that vampires see humans as cattle. Their strength and speed and immortality would make it difficult to see humans as equals. When you’ve been alive for that long, how do you escape seeing those who die so frequently as similar to ants, or lesser animals? The world would seem to be a playground for you – after all, the brief lives of humans will flicker and go out so what does it matter what happens to the world they live in? This might sound to some as a fairly idyllic state – ignorance, after all, is supposed to be bliss. I disagree. I think that detachment leads to increased isolation and unhappiness, even for vampires.
Dependency – Despite their strength and power, vampires need a supply of food. They need protection during the daytime. This is where the ‘cattle’ come in – the humans they keep in a subservient state to serve as meals and to also serve meals. No-one really enjoys being dependent. It is frustrating. We crave autonomy. Vampires have a lot of power
No Sunshine – This really strikes a chord with me. Imagine never being able to raise your face to the sun again. To live in fear or caution of something that is life giving to everything else. To never see a blue sky again but to be able to remember it vividly and with great longing.
I do wonder though – if they don’t have a soul (which seems to be the received wisdom on vampires – undead = no soul), then would they feel the tragedy of their lives to the same extent that we feel it for them? The vampires who we identify with, who become our ‘heroes’, are the ones we grant soul-like characteristics to. Angel, from Joss Whedon’s Buffy, and Stefan demonstrate loyalty and honour. I haven’t read Twilight (I keep feeling I should – should I?) but I have read that, irregardless of sparkliness, Edward Cullen loves Bella Swan and puts her best interests above his own desires, as does Angel.
This tragic aspect explains, perhaps, the attraction we feel for vampires. Taken at face value they are horrific and terrifying monsters. Manipulative and arrogant, violent and violating. But they are also tragic, and I think it is that tragedy that draws us. The trope of the wounded soul inside a vampire has been great for romance – it fits with all those stereotypically brooding males. I loved Angel when I was younger – he is, perhaps, the definition for me of dark and silent and brooding and sexy. Interestingly, when I was older it was Spike from the same show who was more appealing to me. He is arguably a more complex character; certainly he doesn’t brood so much as express whatever he’s feeling, normally with a sparkling dose of sarcasm or threat. His love for Buffy doesn’t have the intensity of Angel’s, but it has almost more tragedy – he knows that he is never good enough, never really what she wants, and yet he remains loyal and true.
It isn’t just the power and strength of vampires that is attractive, nor just their mystique. I think there’s a lot to do with the idea that they can be ‘saved’. This slots into the whole ‘bad boy redeemed’ trope. We secretly think that these hints of soul can be nurtured and will blossom under our attention and love.
The bad boy redeemed is also attractive because as imperfect humans we identify with those who try to overcome their tragedy. Much like we identify and root for a human (fictional or otherwise) who tries to overcome their past/flaws/urges, we fall for the vampires who seek to control their bloodlust and overcome their centuries of dark deeds to become better versions of themselves.
We all have aspects of ourselves that we’d like to change and yet that feel inherent, immutable. In a way, a vampire struggling against their most base instincts tells us – if they can, so can I.
Who is your favourite vampire? do you see them as tragic? I’d love to know your thoughts!