The Theory of Vampire Media

originally presented at Videobrasil, São Paulo , 2001

“I was at Aumonts and saw the Lumiere’s cinematographe … moving pictures. It is terrifying to see, but it is only the movement of shadows, only shadows.”
– Maxim Gorky, 1896

The vampire and cinema are twins, born together at the dawn of the electric age.

In 1895, the Lumière brothers projected their first moving pictures. Gorky was in attendance, and so was the magician, George’s Méliès, who was transfixed. He immediately acquired some equipment from the Lumière brothers and started to make movies. In 1896 he produced the first vampire film. Independently in 1897, Bram Stoker published his novel “Dracula”.

The vampire may be of ancient origin – there are stories of vampires in many cultures – but one would be hard pressed to find a vampire in Greek myth, in the Mahabharata, in Dante’s Inferno, in Shakespeare, Rabelais, Goethe or Coleridge. Surprisingly, the vampire makes no appearance in Romantic literature. But suddenly, in the 20th century, he/she arrives on the scene, fully formed. By the time F.W. Murnau formalized the myth with “Nosferatu” in 1922, scores of vampire movies had been made, and since then there have been hundreds. If you include television shows, animations and Hallowe’en costumes, the number is uncountable. “Nosferatu” is a great classic of the cinema and some say the template for all horror films ever since. The figure of the vampire looms over 20th century media, instantly recognizable and known the world round, even to children. The vampire seems timeless, and yet it is a recent invention, an artifact of modernity. Why is this?

Two films provide a clue: the anagrammatic French satire “Irma Vep,” (1996), and the American “Shadow of the Vampire,” (2000) with Maggie Cheung and Willem Dafoe respectively in the role of the vampire. Both are films about the production of a vampire movie. What about the vampire makes it work as a vehicle for film about film?  What is the correspondence between the vampire and the cinema?

Here are three links.

1) Both the vampire and the cinema are destroyed by sunlight. As soon as the light of day penetrates their dark world, they vanish.

2) Neither the vampire nor the cinema will show themselves in a mirror. They have no reflection. Turn a film projector towards a mirror and what you get is the glare of the bulb and perhaps a reflection of the projector itself, with only a ghostly trace of the cinematic image.

3) Both the vampire and the cinema come back for more, return again and again, almost alive, larger than life but undead, condemned never to die. Both will be with us forever, inescapable.  

Cinema dominates the 20th century, impervious to the attacks of radio, television and internet, as irresistible as it is frightening, a mix of seduction and horror, a liminal spectre suspended between life and death.

To see your own body outside yourself, represented as the Big Other, at super-human scale, moving as if endowed with spirit, looking back at you, transfixing you with its implacable gaze, is to experience a kind of trauma. We do not watch movies; we are watched by them. What did the first film viewers do but pay a penny to go behind the curtain and experience terror? And then come back again for another hit. What is the phenomenon of cinema? The only way to make sense of this terrifying hallucination is to externalize it, give it a name and a story, an apotheosis. The vampire is a low level demon, a sacrificial scapegoat onto whom we can project our fears and our pity, and through whom we can attempt to regain the lost illusion of wholeness.

There is one more link.

4) The virus. Dracula travels to London (or Bremen) to explore certain real estate interests. With him come rats, spreading the plague. The city is gripped by panic.

We are held in thrall by the “image virus” (Burroughs). We become addicts, utterly dependent on the image. Film and its progeny – television, video, magazines, internet, gaming, the whole panoply of multi-media culture – envelope us in an immersive embrace. The average person is exposed to more images in one day than would have been seen in a lifetime at the turn of the 20th century. The world can now be grasped only as a set of images. Heidegger’s concept of the modern Weltbild does not mean a modern picture of the world, but the modern world as picture. It is now taken as a truism that cinema transforms us into signs.

Images take on a kind of fake life of their own. They become a dynamic environment, well beyond the ability of any sector – public or private — to govern their behaviour. Images are, like nature itself, out of control. Vampire media transcends religious experience. Since Nietzsche, God is Undead.

Dracula’s real estate speculations are a metaphor for the neo-colonial economy, based no longer on scarcity and demand but on its opposite, an inexhaustible supply of information and correspondence, ordinary perception and everyday reality overtaken by global flows of representation, the world as illusion. (Baudrillard).

Since 2020, however, this viral economy has entered a new phase, with tragic consequences. No longer a figure of rhetoric, the contagious image comes to life in the form of SARS-Covid. Living cells reproduce and migrate with the speed of global electronic networks. Images multiply like microbes. New variants of image/life are born, distribute, reproduce and die off in an ongoing dance of the symbolic order with the real. Metaphor collapses as the appalling toll of addiction—medical, moral, economic, ideological and environmental—continues to grow.

What is to be done? Will there be a revolution? When will we dispense with our need for the media vampire, learn how to adapt and survive? Indigenous voices of the land, e/merging genders, inter-species communications, trees and mushrooms point the way. The cultural climate swamp is self-managing. From time to time it finds its perfect point of pro-biotic balance and time stops. Utopias do happen, then decline. Order alternates with chaos. Lives are lost but life itself carries on. The vampire will be destroyed but not completely. Rather more, like Mary Shelley’s monster, will it be banished, “born away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”