Conference Report: Seriously Staked Vampire Symposium (2014)

Seriously Staked Vampire Symposium at Goldsmiths College, 8th March, 2014.There was some controversy among ASSAP members when the idea of a conference on vampires was first mooted. After all, no one seems in much danger of running into one. But on the day itself I was surprised to discover that the topic of vampires can still produce some interesting ideas, even though (with the exception of a single speaker) these do not seem to lie in the question of whether vampires exist.

Deborah Hyde opened the conference with a very accessible historical overview. She summarised classic historical cases of vampirism, and some of the most frequently offered (and probably most likely) explanations for them: epidemics, faulty assumptions concerning how bodies decompose, and night visitations caused by sleep paralysis. Deborah presents herself as an enchantingly glamorous witch, but is also a high-profile skeptic, which put my mind at rest somewhat when members of the audience accepted her challenge to take drinks from a goblet of ‘blood’.

Fans of dark and brooding masculine archetypes had their jollies next from Jessica Monteith-Chachuat, whose focus was the changing image of the male vampire. The original vampire of folklore was far from attractive; it was the Romantics (Byron and Polidori) who first sexed him up. Bela Lugosi was fairly personable, in a posh but stuffy kind of way, yet from Christopher Lee onwards the vampire has enjoyed total sex-appeal. In Buffy Jessica identified an ingenious balance between girl power and the desire to be seduced by a monster, but she drew the line at Twilight, in which the heroine seems overly passive and the vampire also has lost his bite. Jessica’s hope was that the vampire will rediscover his fangs in future transformations.

Scott Wood’s talk was a freestyle drift through stories and legends of the undead, most of them not strictly ‘vampires’ as such, but all of them returners from beyond the grave. Teasing out the themes that many of these stories had in common, he highlighted how the undead seem always to be heralds of disaster and are never the livers of innocent or blameless lives. What is criminal, heretical or cast out from society threatens to return in these tales as an undead monster.

The New Academic Building at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The New Academic Building at Goldsmiths, University of London.

The London vampire community from 2006 to 2014 was the highly specialised topic of Maria Mellins’s presentation. Noting the overlap between vampire and steampunk subcultures, Maria explored the effects upon them of the credit crunch and social media, which encouraged cultivation of alternative celebrity and upper-class personas. The explosion of mass media interest in vampires led by True Blood and Twilight sounded the death-knell, however. With vampires gone mainstream, vampire subculture had less to say. The community is waning and it seems likely that steampunk and fairy-tale subcultures will fill the vacuum. Although it seemed churlish to ask out loud, the question I couldn’t repress internally was, ‘Why does any of this matter?’

In contrast, John Fraser’s talk was very much preoccupied with the core of reality in the vampire myth. Noting the probable lack of substance in the UK cases reported at Croglin Grange and Highgate Cemetery, he focused on Transylvania and the role of the Romanian Tourist Ministry in developing the commercial aspects of vampirism. Yet if we penetrate more deeply into these legends, John suggested, we uncover stories of supposed ‘vampires’ that sound to us very much like ghosts or poltergeists. As paranormal investigators, he suggested, we should avoid cultural snobbery and peer through cultural trappings into the genuine mysteries that may lurk beneath.

It wasn’t quite a complete return to fiction that followed in Stacey Abbott’s talk, because of her focus on the association between vampires and science. In recent films we have seen vampires as another race, as genetic mutants, and as the carriers of pandemic disease. Vampires have been used as a convenient symbolic vehicle for dramatising contemporary concerns regarding globalisation, genetics and the threat of disease. In this sense, Stacey argued, Dracula has become Frankenstein: the vampire can inhabit the role of both monster and scientist. Instead of banishing the vampire along with everything else that is unscientific, the vampire in contemporary film seems instead to have effected a gothicization of science itself.

After a survey of methods for killing vampires, from folklore and archaeological evidence, Jonathan Ferguson turned his attention to his speciality: so-called ‘vampire slaying kits’, a number of which have appeared in auction rooms, museums and other historical collections. Were they really issued to gentleman scholars undertaking the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century? John’s research suggests not. The first vampire killing kit on film appeared in the 1967 movie, The Fearless Vampire Killers. Indeed, the only kit to have been scientifically tested so far was dated to the 1970s. Nevertheless, argued John, the kits stand on their own as curios and art objects. Indeed, the one that John purchased for his museum soon found itself on loan to the British Library for a major exhibition on Gothic art.

Next up, the science bit, in which Kathryn Harkup explored the medical perspective on vampires. Presenting a scientific account of two diseases, porphyria and rabies, she weighed up the cases for these as the origins of the vampire myth, but showed how neither quite fits the bill. In an age when the revenge of the dead had a far greater explanatory power than microbes, she concluded that another, unspecified disease was probably the cause of vampire folklore. In the questions that followed, however, she acknowledged the oddity that porphyria and rabies fit the profile of recent vampires in film and television far more closely than their folkloric counterparts.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Ooooh, Bel-aah. Bel-aah’s undeeeead!

Despite consideration of some lesser princes of darkness, Hannah Gilbert’s focus was largely on the changing face of Dracula. Initially, she suggested, Dracula represented the moribund past, pitted against young and progressive heroes and heroines. In the Hammer films it was Dracula’s violence that became more prominent; and then, in the hands of Coppola and other film-makers, Dracula shapeshifted once more into a Romantic anti-hero, a moral character capable of great love as well as cruelty. Hannah concluded by examining how, as vampires have become more moral, their slayers have become more ethically problematic. In a multi-faith, multi-cultural world the ethical framework of a Van Helsing no longer offers the moral certainties it once did.

Two final contributions to the conference came via Skype. The first, from Brent R. Myers, was a dense and intense perusal of vampire etymology through some ancient and extremely obscure source documents. Brent argued that blood-drinking does not feature in vampire myths until almost 1,000 years after they first appeared. Tracing etymological roots and usages of the word ‘vampire’, he made a case for ‘vampire’ as originally a term meaning ‘excessive feaster’, and that ‘feast’, in its ancient Eastern Orthodox and Slavic context, was not only a religious celebration, but also had a strong sexual connotation. The original vampires, Brent suggested, were a cult of multi-orgasmic men with a sexual capacity so great they could exhaust their female partners.

Last up was John Michaelson, who appeared via the Skype link wearing a rather scary ‘Nosferatu’ mask, in order to protect his identity. John is the author of the London Vampires website, which alleges that a conspiratorial group is at work in the UK capital, trafficking young men and women for the purpose of killing them. The members of this group are not reanimated corpses, but were described by John as ‘infected’ and like ‘ants’. Neither are they psychopaths, but work together in well-organised groups, have regular jobs, and are often very wealthy. When they give into the thirst that characterises their condition, then they commit murders. Thankfully, there seemed little in the way of hard evidence to support John’s allegations, but he promised that he would soon be in a position to publish a full exposé.

Personally, I prefer a hands-on approach to the paranormal. The topic of vampires was never going to provide me with that, and I hadn’t expected it to. Of all the ASSAP conferences I’ve had the pleasure to attend, this one felt the most academic. Yet even though the vampire these days has been relegated to cultural history and media studies departments, and even though it has been pretty much usurped in popularity by the zombie, the conference was a reminder of how much vigour remains in this most mesmerising of supernatural archetypes.