Why Don't Vampires Cast Reflections?
Posted on Monday May 23, 2011, 12:18 by Kim Newman in Empire States
Empire contributor, horror expert and Anno Dracula author Kim Newman, upon the occasion of the shiny new edition of the first novel in his vampire series, has contributed this blog to discuss whether or not you can see vampires in mirrors...
It used to be among the most commonplace of undead traits – like drinking blood, sleeping in a coffin, having fangs, wearing evening clothes all the time, talking in a comedy Hungarian accent and combusting instantaneously in daylight. Now, the old not-visible-in-a-mirror trick has somewhat fallen out of favour. Indeed, even more arcane lore about not being able to cross a threshhold unless invited is now (thanks to Let the Right One In) more common in film and fiction. If you’re trying to fit vampires into something resembling our universe – representing vampirism as a blood disease, a lifestyle choice, a sexual kink or a parasitic species mimicking humanity – then the mirror thing is embarrassing magic.
Even Bram Stoker wasn’t decided on the issue. In Dracula, his vampires don’t cast reflections and the Count dismisses Harker’s shaving mirror as ‘a bauble of man’s vanity’ before blithely throwing it out of the castle window (one of his wittier moments). Because so many vampires were influenced by Stoker, this trait carried over – though, note, Max Schreck in Nosferatu is seen in the mirror as he creeps up on the heroine, even if Bela Lugosi is shown up in the drawing room by Van Helsing’s polished cigarette case. Stoker’s notes for the novel (which I read about in Christopher Frayling’s The Vampyre) indicate he toyed with the idea of having photography reveal the true nature of vampires – developed prints would show decayed corpses or black smudges (like a few other bits and pieces from the notes, I like this enough to use it in Anno Dracula). For a while, the mirror thing was connected with the vampires’ problems with silver – a trait borrowed from werewolves – in that mirrors and photography used to rely on silver. Then, even that faded. The mirror thing is hard to square with practicalities, especially if extended to photography in all its forms … so Anne Rice’s vampires can be seen in a looking-glass, and that runs into many recent vampire franchises.
The real reason vampires don’t cast reflections is that they don’t need to. They are reflections. Of us. Regular people. Humans. The warm – my coinage as a vampire put-down term for the living (which caused a translation problem in German, where ‘warm’ means gay). The living.
Once, vampires represented what we feared. Consider Stoker’s all-purpose loathesome foreigner with bad manners and worse breath, who brags about taking away our white western womenfolk and lies about his martial achievements. Then, take a look at the plague-bearing human rat/stick-insect of Nosferatu, who is still at once the scariest and the least-sexy vampire in film (note how, even now, when films want vicious, scary vampires they borrow the Nosferatu look). Starting with Lugosi’s tailcoat-and-top-hat smoothie Dracula (he got the look a year or so before Fred Astaire), vampires began to represent what we secretly (or blatantly) desired.
For a long time, vampires male and female got sexier. Lugosi looks stodgy next to the virile cloak-swinging, fang-flashing of bedroom invader Christopher Lee, but the gigolo smarm of Dracula – most notably in the performances of bouffant Frank Langella and screwball George Hamilton in 1979 – eventually gave way to the sensitive romantic swains of Buffy's Angel, Twilight and True Blood (all of whom put more product in their hair than blood in their mouths). Nightie-clad, fang-flashing, cleavage-exposing brides of Dracula set up shop at Hammer Films and got into the skinflick business via titillating European efforts (Delphine Seyrig’s shimmering Countess in Daughters of Darkness is an apex) and proper smut (you’d be amazed how much vampire porn there is out there – Anna Paquin said she was delighted to be impersonated in Tru A XXX Parody). Rice’s self-involved, pretty-pretty goth vampires are impotent in the conventional sense, but managed to become pin-ups a generation before the celibate/vegetarian sparkly emo vamps of Twilight proliferated. Some ‘80s chicks (and not a few guys) dug the Lost Boys for their stay young and pretty and party all night forever ethos, though the grungier and grittier nomads of Near Dark still look cooler – sexy and gruesome and not ashamed of it.
Fashions in vampires change: Count Dracula is, and always will be, the most famous vampire in pop culture, but the second name on the list changes every decade or so; Edward Cullen edged out Anne Rice’s Lestat who edged out Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows. The tribe increases, exponentially – if not quite in the manner of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (second most important vampire novel ever written – official), in which humanity becomes a minority in a world of bloosuckers. See: Blacula, Deafula, Dragula, Spermula, Gayracula, Count Duckula, Bunnicula, Ejacula, Vampira, Vampirella, Vamp, Vampyr, Vampyres, Vampire$, etc.
Obviously, vampires incarnate unfettered desire, but they can also symbolise drug dependency (The Addiction, Habit), serial murder (Martin), rampant capitalism (Marx uses the metaphor of capital ‘feeding, like a vampire’ on the proletariat, and There Will Be Blood is an extended gloss on this), disease (all those AIDS vampires – though syphilis is a sub-text in Stoker), existential anomie and dissociation (The Wisdom of Crocodiles), any persecuted sub-culture (note how many vampires are also racial or sexual outsiders of one form or another) or the downfall of a community (the persecuted towns of Salem’s Lot and 30 Days of Night). Vampires can be kung fu superheroes in Innocent Blood, Buffy, Blade or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – all of which, I will smugly note, came out after my vampire heroine fought a hopping vampire in Anno Dracula. At the moment, vampires are most commonly friends to the marginalised. Diametrically opposed in intent and achievement, Twilight and Let the Right One In both follow kidpic The Little Vampire in suggesting a mixed-up kid’s best friend could be a vampire.
In Anno Dracula, one of the first (but not the first) attempts to depict a world in which vampires live openly among regular people, I tried to show vampires in all their shades of light and darkness, using the convenience of variant bloodlines (the chain of infection) to explain why different strains had different attributes. What I wanted to do was examine all the conceivable things the vampire might mean to us, from the cuddly to the terrifying. Lately, I’ve been amused by the sniping at Twilight from fans who insist vampires should be non-sparkly monsters (the most common request I’ve had from readers, who probably remember me being rude about Lestat in Anno Dracula, is to have Edward Cullen show up in the Anno Dracula series and get killed, which strikes me as a bit too on the nose – though I do project a novella called ‘Vampire Romance’ to get to the heart of that odd, suddenly crowded sub-sub-genre). Of course, vampires can and should be whatever the author or filmmaker wants them to be, and the only rule of vampire fiction is that every new writer gets to invent (and break) his or her own rules whenever they start over.
It’s been over twenty years since I started work on Anno Dracula, and began to create my own pick-and-mix vampire world; it’s been almost ten years since the last novel in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha. A lot has happened in the real world and in vampire culture since then – which is why, in addition to seeing the old books back in print in spanking (if not sparkling) new editions, I’m be getting back into the world and exploring it further in new fiction, including the long-announced novel Johnny Alucard, which won’t quite bring the series up to the present day but will let me come to grips with more recent developments. After all, my vampires are reflections too – and there’s now fresh material to reflect upon.
Anno Dracula is out today from Titan. You can read more about it here.
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Posted on Monday May 23, 2011, 18:23
To be fair to True Blood, there'a definitely at least as much blood as there is hair product being thrown around in that show, possibly more! And doesn't the renewed interest in the invitation goes back at least to Buffy/Angel, where it was a major plot device in some episodes? I can't remember whether Let the Right One In is based on an older novel or not so I might be wrong about that.
Posted on Monday May 23, 2011, 22:00
Love the point that each author/ filmaker has the right to change up the vampire conventions, i'm so sick of people having a go at Twilight for example because they sparkle! So what? I can honestly say i have a slight obsession with vampire based films and tv shows so i've seen a range of different vampires and it's actually nice to see a change, it keeps it interesting. :)
Posted on Monday May 23, 2011, 22:14
Whilst a very interesting a very well informed piece of writing (and advertising) I feel you have sadly omitted "The Strain" novel and its sequel from your discussion as both make references to the vampire reflection issue and relate it to silver again.
Posted on Tuesday May 24, 2011, 13:46
For some reason I couldn't help remembering the vampire cow in an old Howard The Duck comic-book story from the 1970s. I don't know why, but I felt this should have been mentioned for the sheer audacity in messing with the mythos.