Zeitgeist: Vampires

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Ah, the zeitgeist! A fancy German word that means the “spirit of the time” or “spirit of the age” meaning, of course, the popular trend in a culture. We are all affected by such spirits in our age. Some more than others. It’s what resonates inside of as a culture, a people and as individuals.

I have chosen the ultimate zeitgeist creature for this discussion: vampire. Also, vampyre, vampyr, strigoi and other things. Essentially an Eastern European legend that, forgive me, never seems to die.

Years ago, when I first delved into the lore, I remember turning to my friend Keith and saying, “Now, Keith, I want you to answer me totally honestly. If you–if they were real, would you become a v–”

“Yes!”

We all know what vampires are and what they do, and are mostly familiar with the basic mythos surrounding them from Vlad the Impaler to Dracula to Edward Cullen. But the question in this blog is not what they are or what they do, but why they stick with us like they do. I mean, come on! Do we ever tire of vampire tales. No, we don’t. I mean, we just don’t.

So why do they resonate so well? Why do they represent this spirit of the age for all ages?

Big Lance had a theory. It went like this. Vampirism is really a metaphor for sexually transmitted disease. After all, the “infection” is transmitted through the blood, through bites and exchange of bodily fluid and the swoon from drinking the blood compares with the sex act itself.

I believe he had a point.

I never got into vampires before Anne Rice‘s “Interview” and outside of enjoying Bram Stoker’s original, never cared much for other renditions. I did like how China Mieville portrayed them in The Scar, but then, I like how China Mieville portrays everything.

I read Twilight and was disappointed with them in that book, not that that is such a surprise, but I admit, I liked the first Twilight movie. I thought the movie was better than the book. But, that leads me to my theory of why they resonate.

They are the perfect creature for eternal love and by that token, eternal loss.

They are wonderfully romantic, even when–or especially when–they are drinking from a woman.

I think most people would agree with that, but why? How is that even remotely romantic? I dare say, if I were to take a woman out and attempt to drink her blood, most women would shut me down, quick. They wouldn’t even think twice about it and afterwards, after I left and she was safely tucked away in her apartment, she would not remember it with anything but disgust and fear and perhaps, a little pity. And this would be despite her bookshelf that is FILLED with vampire romance novels!

So…that leads me to this: they are the perfect creature to explore our own human nature.

Now, the vampire has the unique ability to defy death and sickness, two things humans cannot overcome. Even if you NEVER get sick, you will die. Eventually.

Or will you?

For certain, the body will die. That much we can say without question. I would, however, venture to say that most people believe in some kind of life after death scenario. Some kind of soul, human spirit, ghost. Medical science is familiar with OOB’s or Out of Body Experiences. More than one person has “been standing there watching” when they lay him out and do the operation. Most people believe in such a thing, not all. But assuming that the human organism possesses a non-material aspect, one could postulate that when you die, some part of you survives.

Then in comes speculative fiction. What if that part of you, was all of you? What if your body survived its own death? What would that look like? And what if in order to maintain that state, you had to drink human blood? To what lengths would you go? How would you feel about that and how long before you tired of living, and yet, lived on anyway?

Anne Rice’s vampires go “into the ground” every seventy or so years. In other words, they simulate death. They need a rest, a release. Some go insane, others jump on a funeral pyre and commit suicide and beg the survivor to spread the ash so they won’t come back. Some slump into apathy and otherwise resign to their fate.

And some, find ways and means to keep it interesting and create reasons to celebrate, to carry on.

I don’t know about you, but that all sounds eerily familiar to me.

In this light we see ourselves without all the societal props. Through the eyes of the vampire, we begin to see beyond the immediate need to work, to make money, to collect possessions. We get a break from the hectic live-live-live pace of raising a family and doing everything we can before it’s too late. Suddenly, we see, its never too late and then we glimpse eternity.

We glimpse just how long eternity can be. And that scares us more than death ever could. Only then do we see what horror really is. An eternity trapped in this earthly existence feeding on the life of our friends and watching all those we love die and die and die again, while yet, forced to live on. Forever.

Eternal love. Eternal damnation. The perfect creature to see ourselves and the universe that has us.

That is how, I believe, vampires form the zeitgeist.

How to Live Forever

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I used to think that some of my stories would pervert the minds of young women. I suppose any writer goes through this, feeling shame and embarrassment at what sometimes “comes out” when he sets fingers to keypad.

Lately, I had an insight into what horror and dark fantasy is. What it’s trying to accomplish and, you know, I began to see the mission. It’s not how disturbing one can be, or how disgusting things can be described. It’s not how many buckets of blood come crashing in or how many dead bodies pile up. It’s not the number of zombies or the secret societies of vampires. It’s not any one of those things and yet, its all of them.

From Killer Clowns to Exorcist, Jason to Freddie to Joe Black, horror is on a mission.

In my youth I would never have admitted to liking horror and back then, I think it scared me away. When I grew up and became a responsible man, I developed a taste for it. It all started when big Lance showed me the movie Interview with the Vampire. From there I went to the  books and from there, well, down the rabbit hole.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why I loved it. I didn’t really know. Oh, I knew I loved the blood, the damnation, the darkness. In later forays into the night, I knew I liked the sometimes oozy, gooey, dripping messes, the unconscionable situations, the eternal dark. I knew I liked contemplating how far down it could all go and still…well, keep going.

I found a way to explain the attraction. I found the mission of horror, at least from one authors perspective. I believe horror can be described thusly: the way we survive death. Or rather, all the ways we live forever no matter our condition.

It may come across as a bit odd to say “survive” the one event none of us are supposed to, yet, isn’t that what horror is telling us? You see, you can survive death by…becoming a vampire, a zombie, a demon, a ghost. It might make you crazy, it might make you beautiful, it might make you mindless and then again, it might make you infinitely wise. It might take your body from you, or give it to you, forever. And if none of that works, perhaps a necromancer will raise you up or remake you into a demon. Your spirit might inhabit a crow, a tree, a dream, some other medium. And even if you don’t catch the virus, curse, spell, you defeat it and there again, survive death, even if it leaves you broken, learned, lost, sad, relieved.

It’s all the ways we live through the end. We must love that idea because we sure seem to tell each other a lot of stories about it.

It brings something else to mind too. It’s a simple idea, but a powerful one. If we have invented all these ways to survive death. If we tell ourselves there are literally hundreds of ways to live forever. Might it not be, that we do?

 

 

The Death of Modern Spiritualism? Nah.

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You have to appreciate that the beginning of Modern Spiritualism is credited to three young ladies from New York. Actually two really young girls and one older sister. I stumbled across this story the other day, but here’s the tale in 500 words or less. Hopefully. 

Maggie and Katie fox began pretending ghosts in the house at ages 7 and 9 by dropping apples on the floor of their attic bedroom. They learned to hoist these apples on strings connected to their toes while laying in bed pretending to sleep. The apples would bob and thump in the night for a dramatic and ghastly effect.

Their mother, much to their impish delight, began reporting in tones of mild hysteria of the strange goings on.

Time passed and Maggie and her little sister Katie found a new trick. At their young ages the joints in their bodies were not so set as adults and they found with a little practice that they could manipulate the joints in their toes, thereby making little audible thumps. They needed not move any other part of their bodies to effect the trick. So, by touching the sides of their toes to, say, a table leg–any good sound conducter, like wood–they could send a series of little whaps that could be felt as well as heard.

This caused quite a stir and didn’t take long before Mother Fox invited the neighbors over. And from there it spread to the whole of New York and then the world. You see, because Maggie and Katie had a sister, 23 years older, who saw one thing in all of this: money. 

Leah Fox did not for one second believe this nonsense about spirits communicating with thumps, twice for “yes,” once for “no” and the like. She took those two little girls and began taking apart their clothes saying, “How do you do it? Show me just exactly how you do it!”

And on the road they went. 

Well, the story can only end one way, of course. Maggie and Katie took to the drink at a young and tender age because defrauding millions played havoc on their conscience and it was Maggie who finally announced she and her two sisters were frauds, explaining every detail of how they did it. 

One might imagine that the whole of Spiritualism might fold up when the icon announces it all a con job.

No way.

Folks wrote in by the mail bag trying to ascertain if the newspaper announcement had indeed come from Maggie herself. Many felt betrayed and still others felt relief that finally their suspicions and fears could be laid to rest along with the memory of their loved one. You see it wasn’t just talking to “random dead” that these Fox girls pretended, it was deceased husbands, wives and children. The kind of thing you wouldn’t want to get someone’s “hopes up” about. 

But the whole of Spiritualism, mediums and the like denied any such notion that the cracking of a toe joint could create such a spectacle and went on about their business. 

The eldest, Leah, never did admit to it, Instead she wrote a book expounding on her life with spirits.

Sadly, the three died alone and bereft and broke. Yet, their memory lives on and we admire the courage of Maggie coming forward and saying how it was. And we can appreciate this too: despite the world’s foremost spiritualist declaiming it all a fraud, the subject lives on. It would seem Man has no notion, any time soon, of doing away with his belief in life after death.    

 

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Andrew Michael Schwarz is a speculative fiction writer working in the genres of fantasy and horror. He describes his work as Narnia for Grown Ups and uses themes of horror and fantasy to examine deeper philosophical underpinnings about the nature of the universe and the human experience. 

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