Ain’t No Cure: vampirism as disease

(October, the month of Halloween, conjures one name in our household: Dracula! This is the third of a series of posts on various aspects of Dracula and vampires in general. I’ll be giving away a two-pack of my own vampire novels Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood to one lucky commenter per post, so comment early, comment often!)

Richard Matheson, among many other cool things in his career, popularized the idea of a scientific explanation for vampirism in his novel I am Legend. His vampires are the result of a pandemic whose symptoms mirror the classic vampire tropes. That paved the way for this entire subgenre, including comics (Marvel’s Blade, as well as Morbius, the Living Vampire), movies (Korea’s Thirst), and even recent fiction (The Passage and The Strain).

Originally, the idea of blood hunger as a disease had its simplest parallel with diabetes, with blood standing in for insulin. As long as the sufferer “took his medicine,” so to speak, he was safe. For the most part, diabetes is invisible as well, so that the vampire suffering from a “disease” didn’t look any different, either: fangs were minimized, and vampires changed from being aristocrats and noblemen to everyday characters. This removed any sort of moral level and made him just another unfortunate. Eventually stories appeared in which vampires made do with animal blood or blood substitutes (as in True Blood), making the parallel complete.

With the onset of AIDS, a blood-borne disease that came with the social stigma diabetes lacked, vampire stories adapted as well. Suddenly the idea that the very thing that allowed their existence could also cause their demise became the trope of the moment. Even Stephen King worked a twist on it, as his Dark Tower vampires were AIDS carriers. Further, the very real experiences of sufferers were co-opted into vampire fiction, so that vampires became victims not just of biology, but of society as well. Just as AIDS sufferers were shunned and accused of “asking for it,” vampires were depicted as victims who often deliberately sought their condition. And the fear of AIDS dovetailed nicely with the fear of vampires: both could hide in plain sight, and lured you with the possibility of sex. (I’m deliberately not talking about sexuality and AIDS victims in terms of vampire fiction, because that’s a whole other issue.)

And now, with the possibility of biological weapons (what used to be called “germ warfare,” back when Matheson wrote I am Legend), we get tales of mutated viruses that spread like wildfire and create vampire-like symptoms and behaviors.

So where does that leave the vampire?

The classic vampires–Dracula, Carmilla, Lord Ruthven–were unapologetic monsters. They needed no origins, no sympathy, because they embraced their natures. They did not contract a disease, they willingly gave up their souls for the vampiric existence. Only later, when the idea of sympathetic vampire arose with Dark Shadows and Anne Rice, did it become really necessary to find a way to have vampirism not be the vampire’s fault. And what better way than to make it the result of simple biology, rather than a pact with eternal evil?

The problem with this, as with all “explanations” for vampires, is that as soon as they’re explained, they become small and simple. In a way, the idea of a biological explanation for vampires is horror fiction’s parallel to midichlorians: it explains something that needs no explanation, and in the process, utterly destroys its grandeur.

One Comment on “Ain’t No Cure: vampirism as disease”

  1. I think vampirism as a disease makes it easier to write all those romantic vampire books. “Poor me, I am not a monster. I just have the disease so come over here and give me some sugar”. I grew up with vampire monsters. They should be scary, prey on humans, give kids nightmares and revel in their monsterhood! No sparkles!

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