A Clutch of Vampires

In my last post, I wrote about immortality. It occurs to me, however, that I left out one of the most important aspects of this phenomenon occuring in popular culture – vampires. The most recent Twilight series (which I haven’t seen, I have to admit) is only the latest point in a long history that stretches back centuries.

Baby white-winged vampire bats. Photo: Dan Riskin

First principles: nearly every animal order has produced a form that ingests blood as a survival strategy. The technical term is ‘hematophagy’. These friendly-looking hematophages are young white-winged vampire bats Diaemus youngi, their cute faces belying the feelings of dread most people have for them. For obvious reasons, they’re the most famous of the vampiric animals, despite the fact that their prey is mostly cattle in rural Africa. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of vampire bats is bacteria that can be picked up from their guano (should you, for some reason, decide to explore their nest). Vampire bats steal the limelight from a lot of other truly bizarre creatures.

A vampire moth having a feed on somebody’s finger.

Let’s skip the obvious leeches and mosiquitos and consider, for for the moment, the vampire moth Calyptra sp. the proboscis of which is so strong it can puncture the hide of a buffalo. Yes, they do bite humans (at least those who happen to be in Malaysia). Fortunately, the vampire moth is not associated with any diseases although, unsprisingly, it leaves a nasty welt. I find it wonderful how few opportunities animals miss to get a meal.

Fish have developed more or less vampiric forms. Some species of lamprey, with their sucker-like mouths burrow into the sides of fish to suck their blood. The hagfish, or slime eel Eptatretus goliath, which lives in the deep sea, will even go so far as to burrow into the body of its host consuming it from the inside out. While these feeding habits are wonderfully greusome (for those who go out for that sort of thing), nothing quite matches the Vampire Finch Geospiza difficilis for sheer suprise factor.

The Vampire Finch. It doesn’t get any stranger.

This bird, which inhabits the Galapogos Islands (making it one of ‘Darwin’s Finches‘), has the delightful habit of sidling up to unsuspecting seabirds, burrowing into them and drinking their blood. Should you be so inclined, you can see film of them from Animal Planet here.

Of course, the real hematophages aren’t anything like as glamorous as Hollywood vampires, and in no way responsible for the feeling of connection people have that drives their presence in books, on TV and at the theatre. There’s something that wearing black haute couture and looking great great while you live forever, that a blood-sucking finch just can’t compete with. It seems to be the “forever” bit, though, that sets it apart from the comparatively prosaic Goth/Emo fashion statement.

Kate Beckinsale in Underworld – the perfect pop culture vampire

To my mind, the quintessential vampire in popular media is Kate Beckinsale from the Underworld films. Even though the films themselves are, let’s admit, a bit lame she’s a perfect blend of the classic ghoulishness of Béla Lugosi’s Dracula mixed with the incomparable stylishness of Diana Rigg as The Avengers’ Emma Peel. That is to me, far more entertaining than Highschool Muscical blended with… well, with anything actually.

Catherine Deneuve as Miriam in the 1983 cult classic “The Hunger”

Despite Kate’s amazing appeal, my favourite film vampire ever, is Catherine Deneuve as Miriam in the 1983 The Hunger. It’s still arguably the most artistic treatment of the subject to date, and in it Deneuve captures better than anybody the cool, unassailable allure of vampires. You really couldn’t be further removed from a guano-filled tree full of bats.

We have Bram Stoker to thank for this phenonomenon, in writing Dracula, earning himself a place as the 19th Century Stephen King. I tried to read it once. It was a struggle. He uses the device of newspaper clippings and diary entries to create a sense of veracity and of slowly uncovering a mystery piece by piece. It’s a clever angle, but left me feeling a bit uninvolved. What was so clever was basing his story, albeit loosely, in fact. Prince Vlad, “The Impaler” (1431-1476).

Prince Vlad III, a little violent, but really not a bad guy.

A very nice analysis of the real Vlad III is at the link below. He’s considered a hero by the Romanians. True, he impaled thousands of enemy soliders, but there was a war on, saving Europe from invasion by  the Ottoman Empire. When Stoker used him as the basis of his novel, he was buying into the stories that were perpetrated by Vlad’s political rivals. The nickname “Dracula” means nothing more than ‘son of the Dragon, a heraldic order to which Vlad’s family belonged. Ironically, the dragon referred to is that killed by the Catholic hero St. George.

However, Vlad III is now so embedded in our fascination with immortality, and so sexy has the whole phenomoenon been rendered by Hollywood (and the writing machine that supports it), that, ironically, he will live, at least in our minds, forever.


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