If you’ve spent any time at all reading about vampires, watching vampire films or even doing vampire role play, then you know that the three most synonymous things to vampires are blood, sex and … politics.
Anne Rice’s vampires had their elders and the Queen of the Damned. The Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood series had its system of vampire clans and kings and sheriffs. Dracula himself was a Count. The Anita Blake and Twilight series each had their own vampire council. And What We Do in the Shadows, my own personal favorite, has a vampiric council, and it’s a sight to behold:
But why have vampires become so identified with politics? And what does the metaphor tell us?
With all the time in the world
Say you’re among the legions of the undead. So long as you drink your blood like a good revenant, avoid sunlight, keep your head on your shoulders and manage not to get a stake through your heart, you’re set for an eternity of doing pretty much anything you like. Ever wanted to take up painting? Do some traveling? Learn a new language or a hundred or become an expert in physics or any other field. All these things become possible once you have all the time in the world, so long as you don’t mind being a tourist in the dark or limiting yourself to night classes.
So why is it, then, that almost without fail, vampire stories include politics of some kind? Often, political themes feature prominently, with main characters often struggling to take over these power structures or fighting against them. It seems an odd way to fill up eternity.
Fun story: My wife and I met at an online role play site where I played the role of … well, you know I was a vampire. One of my favorite lines to say was, “I hate politics,” because it was such a lie — both for my character and for myself.
I spent seven years as a political writer in a state Legislature, a job which I truly did love. I loved having a front-row seat for the so-called sausage making. I admit to getting a thrill from being on a first name basis with the sausage makers. But to do it for all eternity? I might stay up to greet the dawn.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that authors writing about politics have used vampires as a metaphor for centuries, making them represent anything from monks to capitalists to immigrants and Jews.
Writers as diverse as Voltaire and Karl Marx turned to vampires to make their point, according to Assistant Professor of Literature Clemens Ruthner of Trinity University in Dublin (1996). What all these vampire appearances have in common is that they appear at times when society is facing fundamental change. “It is generally at times when social systems are in flux or when new paradigms are struggling to be recognized or institutionalized that a ‘mental door’ is opened to spectres and, indeed, to fantastic discourse as a whole,” Ruthner writes.
Which may be why Voltaire reached for the vampire myth as he wrote about the troubles facing French society at the cusp of its revolution:
“I confess that in both cities [London and Paris] there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in the broad daylight; but they are not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.”
Even worse, Voltaire concluded, were “the true vampires are the monks, who eat at the expense of both kings and people.”
Once the revolution began and the real blood started flowing, the metaphor shifted again. Then it became the angry mob screaming for blood which became vampiric.
A century later, Karl Marx once again turned to the vampire as a metaphor for the forces that held down the working class. “British industry . . . vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too,” he wrote, and later, in his seminal Das Kapital, “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor.”
The ultimate outsider
These days, our political climate has broken down largely because of xenophobia: the fear that outsiders are invading our county and will take over. This fear is nothing new. And in fact, there was a time when writers reached for the vampire symbol when they wanted to describe this fear.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t just a Count who could turn into a mist or a bat and seduce the ladies. He was also a foreigner from Eastern Europe who had invaded the heart of the British Empire, bringing with him some new and terrifying form of disease. Worse, the threatened to spread his pestilence by means of his bite, perhaps putting all of British society in danger of extinction (Ruthner, 1996).
From there, it’s just a few short hops to arrive at the nazi ideology and its shameless bending of vampire lore to its will. The nazis were already obsessed with blood: pure-blooded aryans, the polluted blood of Jews, the slogan “blood and soil” and so on. So when they wanted to further demonize Jews, where else would they turn but vampires? In language, Jews were described in vampiric terms such as “blood-sucking.” In imagery, they were contorted into mimicry of Nosferatu.
Blue undead vs. red undead
Finally, there’s a fascinating theory that compares vampires to zombies in order to determine what they say about how we’re feeling about our own society. While both vampires and zombies are undead creatures, vampires are typically depicted as alluring and cultured to some degree, whereas zombies are, well, so brainless they need to eat the brains of others just to have any brains at all.
Basically, the theory goes like this: Monsters represent what we fear. So at a time when people fear society has become too decadent or the ruling class too parasitic, vampire films and books are more prevalent. When people fear society has become to mind-numbingly brainless, you get a lot of zombie flicks. And these generally line up with whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge of Washington.
There’s a statistical analysis of the theory at this site. Statistics and I are barely on speaking terms, so I won’t try to explain it. But check it out if you want to see the science behind it.
If you want to see the short version, here’s the chart:
- Ruthner, C. (1996). Vampirism as Political Theory: From Voltaire to Alfred Rosenberg and Elfriede Jelinek. Visions of the Fantastic. Selected Essays from Th 15th Internationale Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts. Retrieved June 30, 2019, from https://www.academia.edu/539463/Vampirism_as_Political_Theory_From_Voltaire_to_Alfred_Rosenberg_and_Elfriede_Jelinek.