Sunday, 13 January 2008

How do you Kill a Vampire in the 21st Century?

This is a bit of a continuation of the previous posting and covers some thoughts about the changing aesthetic of the portrayal of vampires in media. I feel that I should be addressing more serious content, but I have to confess that I am exhausted. I have been in bed by 20.00 all this week and yet the return to work has been much more of a burden than I had anticipated and is really taking a physical toll on me. Consequently despite having lots of ideas for posts I am really lacking the mental energy to articulate them properly and the physical energy to stay up and type them into the blog. This is a pity as having steamed ahead with many of my writing projects over the Christmas period I had hoped to be able to continue that momentum now, but I suppose that is the price one pays for getting old.

So, today's posting is nothing very erudite, but when I was thinking about how the fashions associated with vampires had changed, reflecting shifts and interests within contemporary society, I also thought about how vampires are shown to be destroyed in movies, books and games has changed too. Partly this is because vampires since the 1990s have shifted from purely horror movies really into the action genre and consequently there is a desire to be able to blast away at them with excessive amounts of ammunition and yet ultimately be able to kill them. Even when guns are not used, as in the 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' series (1997-2003), there is much more martial arts involved before Buffy can shove her stake into the vampire's heart. In addition, typically the vampire dissolves very quickly into dust rather than dying slowly and in a way that they can be resurrected for the next movie.

The ability to resurrect a seemingly destroyed vampire is an interesting one.  In movies in which the stake simply keeps the vampire dead, of course, it can be later removed and the vampire can come back to 'life'.  I am trying to think of a movie in which I have seen this happen.  These days vampires usually dissolve dramatically into a shower of blood or ash.  Interestingly in 'Ultraviolet' this ash is collected up and then stored in a chilled repository.  However, in the final episode the dust of a vampire (played by Stephen Moyer who apparently plays the lead vampire in 'True Blood') is brought back into existence by pouring the blood of another vampire on him.  What is fascinating is that his clothes are perfectly restored too, probably a good thing as he is on a bridge in London at the time and runs off into the streets.

In recent tradition, vampires are killed by exposure to sunlight or having a stake driven through their hearts. In addition if their 'sire', the vampire who made them a vampire is killed, they may die or return to being a human.  This is what happens at the end of 'The Lost Boys' (1987) when the grandfather literally drives a vast stake into the chief vampire. Destroying the coffin in which the vampire is supposed to sleep (and often contains earth from where they were conceived) is another way. Vampires are generally thought to be able to be burned by fire and also die if they have their heads chopped off. They also suffer damage from having holy water thrown over them and are repelled by crucifixes and by garlic. The probable reason for garlic being a factor is that it is good for improving people's blood circulation and there is an association between vampires and coagulating blood. Flowing water can either repel or damage a vampire depending on the story.

To some degree the shift in killing them comes from a move from the portrayal of vampirism as something spiritually evil or inherent in a vampire to something more like a disease that potentially anyone can catch. There are some exceptions to this. In 'Dance of the Vampires' (1967; known as 'The Fearless Vampire Killers' in the USA) there is a Jewish vampire not repelled by a crucifix.

The long-running UK science fiction series, 'Doctor Who' has had a couple of vampire stories. In November 1980 there was the 4-part 'State of Decay', with Tom Baker as the Doctor, in which there are ordinary vampires and Great Vampires, an alien race from E-Space. Once the last Great Vampire has a spaceship rammed through his heart all the others die. However, a more interesting twist came in the series in 1988 in 'The Curse of Fenric' which features alien 'haemovores' (literally blood eaters) in North-East England in 1943. The so-called Ancient Haemovores come from Earth's future when the planet has been wrecked by pollution. They transform humans into standard haemovores. In contrast to other vampires they can operate during daylight (or certainly as grey as the light is in Northumberland) but they are immune to bullets. However, they are not immune to faith, but not necessarily just Christian faith and a Soviet soldier who is one of a number at the base where the haemovores appears, manages to destroy one through his faith in Soviet Communism and the Doctor himself uses his faith in his past companions to do likewise; the vicar like the priest in 'From Dusk to Dawn' is impotent because he has lost his faith, in this story because of the inhumanity of the war. So, there are occasionally slightly different methods, but even the newest of these is now 20 years old and pre-dates the growth of Matrix-influenced vampire movies.

Stakes through the heart still seem to work, though in 'Lifeforce' (1985) and another movie I saw that I cannot remember the name of, it is the solar plexus, which many people, such as those who study tai-chi see as the source of human energy, that has to be the target for it to work. Possibly this is because vampires are supposed to have no pulse so there is doubt whether their hearts would be working.

So, what other ways are vampires killed in modern day stories? Many in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' seem able to knock away crucifixes even if they burn them, suggesting only a very large one would do them serious harm. Many even run around in daylight, simply smoking as they are exposed and able to deflect that by covering themselves in blankets, though sustained exposure will kill them. The most extreme example of this is in 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003) movie in which Mina Harker a vampire, is shown standing in brilliant sunlight sunning herself on the deck of the 'Nautilus'. We never find out what can kill her, she seems to be very powerful, leaping up buildings and turning into a flock of bats when running around Venice.

The issue of immunity to sunlight same seems to apply to some extent in 'Underworld' (2003) though in the unnamed East European city it is set in (one guesses it is Hungarian) there rarely seems to be much daylight anyway. Instead, the werewolves against whom the vampires battle fire bullets containing ultra-violet light sources in them which is like sunlight exposure from the inside out. Artificial light sources are used in 'Blade II' (2002) and in a steampunk way in 19th-century set 'Van Helsing' (2004) (which, to balance back the other way, also permits holy water to harm vampires).

The nature of bullets which harm vampires is an interesting point. Generally the standard lead ones inflict no damage. Interestingly in the UK television series 'Ultraviolet' (1998, not to be confused with recent movies and games) saw the unit opposing vampires firing carbon bullets (there is a mention of wooden bullets being used previously). The sense here is that carbon is the basis of organic chemistry; organic effectively implying 'life' and so life as opposed to death or undeath of vampires. In addition, in fact, a wooden stake really is just a big carbon-based bullet. More controversial is in the 'Blade' series in which it is silver which is said to harm vampires. Everyone knows it is werewolves that are harmed by silver (its similarity in appearance to the Moon); though in 'Underworld' it simply burns and stops the transformation of werewolves. Consequently, the vampires have to use silver nitrate, a form of silver that is liquid at room temperature which kills the werewolves by harming their blood circulation.

Given the connection with blood and perception of vampirism as a disease, there are medical approaches to quelling it. In 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) and 'Blade', characters see through the microscope how the balance of red and white blood cells change in vampires making them need blood to survive. In 'Near Dark' (1987) two characters are cured from being vampires by blood transfusions and in 'Blade' the hero is supplied with an intense anti-coagulant which causes vampires to expand in seconds and burst dramatically. In fact, you would think it would be the reverse and something that stopped blood flow would harm them more.  However, the vampires simply kind of suffocating would be less visually dramatic than their bloody explosions.

Water, bar in the game 'BloodRayne' recently mentioned here, no longer seems to do any damage. Though in some traditions vampires cannot pass flowing water let alone go into it. However, in narrative terms this restricts them even further than sunlight, not allowing them out of the average Romanian village. In 'From Dusk til Dawn', holy water works when the priest recovers his faith which he does supririsingly easily. It shows why (holy) water is less popular as a weapon against vampires in movies as I guess it would remove the drama if we saw vampires being levelled by people with water pistols, power showers and hosepipes. A lot of action movies need the hero to act with ingenuity and anything too simple would undermine that.

As noted above, the villain has to be destroyable, but not too easily. It is interesting in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', when Dracula appeared, he proved to be basically indestructable and it was only through the heroine showing him how tiresome it would be for him to keep rematerialising and being killed again and again that he effectively gave up. Vampires are renowned for taking many forms, usually bats of different sizes, sometimes wolves and occasionally as clouds, but that does through up the issue of what happens if when in that form someone simply sucked them into a vacuum cleaner or dispersed them with a fan or something; probably why that form of manifestation is no longer common.

Another issue is reflections. Again, this partly stems for vampires being seen as effectively dead and so deemed not to have reflections. There is a great scene in 'Van Helsing' in which the heroine sees in a mirror that she is the only human in the crowded ballroom. Other movies do not worry so much about this aspect as it does seem a bit strange that somehow plain glass reacts differently to the light bouncing off vampires compared to that coming off humans, animals and in fact almost everything in the world. Maybe the suggestion is that the vampires absorb the light. In the UK children's televisions series, 'Young Dracula' (2007-2008), Dracula can only see his own reflection when he is actually inhabiting the body of Van Helsing. The most extreme example of no reflections is in the 'Ultraviolet' series.  In it vampires cannot even be captured by audio or video recording devices meaning they are invisible to cameras and have to use artificially created voices when they want to telephone people.

It is interesting to see the different rules which apply to vampires in current media and how vampires are becoming more robust, with fewer weaknesses than they once would have had. This reflects the desire of writers to have strong opponents and ones who can stray much farther afield than down from the castle to the local village. I am sure there will be many more twists and re-interpretations in the coming years. I recognise I have only seen a fraction of the relevant movies and very few books, so it would be great to know other different examples of how to kill vampires that you have seen.

P.P. 04/10/2009
With the unending supply of vampire series appearing there seems to be weekly new examples of how vampires can be killed or not. Not having much time or the patience for reading these my input is mainly from television and movies. 'Twilight' (2008) shows vampires sweating in a gleaming crystalline way when standing in bright sunlight, but not burning up. In fact the 'Twilight' the vampires are probably the hardest to kill of all of these movies and series, as, to destroy them both in the book and the movie, you have to rip them 'to shreds' and burn the pieces because otherwise these pieces can reassemble.

Having re-watched 'Bram Stoker's Dracula' (1992) recently I was reminded that even the original Dracula was immune to daylight, though he was weakened. I remind the woman in my house of this when she complains that vampires should burn up rapidly in daylight as they sometimes do in 'Blade' and certainly in 'Ultraviolet'. This point is questioned even on the IMDB entry for the 1992 movie, but as that was very close to the original novel, it seems what Bram Stoker intended and certainly overcomes the difficulties of writing vampires to be so vulnerable.

I have started watching 'Moonlight' (2007-8) series which, despite the title, is about vampires rather than werewolves. It is interesting to note it stars Sophia Myles who played vampire Erika in 'Underworld' (2003), but this time as a human, Beth Turner, a television reporter. She teams up with vampire private detective, Mick St. John. In this series vampires can walk in daylight (if wearing sunglasses) but bright sunlight weakens them steadily. Silver simply paralyses them rather than kills them. I have not seen many episodes but generally the only way to kill vampires is to behead them or blow them up. Interestingly in this series, vampires images could not be captured by traditional celluloid photography but can be caught by digital photography which is a variation on the rules in 'Ultraviolet', though when that series was produced digital photography had not yet become common.

I watched the entire series of 'Blood Ties' (2007; series 2 about to be released on DVD) which is set in Canada rather than the USA. In some ways the set up is similar to 'Moonlight', though in this the heroine Vicki Nelson is the private detective and Henry Fitzoy, (Duke of Richmond and illegitimate son of King Henry VIII) is a vampire graphic novelist who assists her. In this story vampires are 'dead' during daylight hours and will burn up if exposed to sunlight. There is also a device called an 'IluminaciĆ³n del Sol' (Illumination of the Sun) which is a flat circular metal object from which extend claws that dig into a vampire, weaken them and allow them to be controlled by whoever put the device on them. In this series most of those who are killed are other creatures from different mythologies as diverse as Amerindian and Greek, so we see a variety of ways of killing these creatures rather than vampires.

The acclaimed series 'True Blood' has come to the UK on a pretty obscure channel that I cannot receive but is due to move on to Channel 4 which I can get. As yet I do not know what vampires can be killed with in this series, so I will check back here with a discussion of it when I know.

P.P. 04/06/2011
I have now watched three series of 'True Blood'.  There are a couple of interesting ways to harm/kill vampires in the story.  Silver burns and in sufficient quantities paralyses vampires without killing them.  At one stage a vampire is threatened with being locked in a silver coffin for five years as punishment for killing another vampire.  The prime way to kill vampires is to ram a wooden stake through their hearts at which stage they inconveniently turn into sticky strands of blood occupying as much space as their bodies did rather than the easier to clean up dust of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'.  The vampires are harmed by sunlight which steadily burns them though does not kill them instantly.  In both the first and the third series various vampires are out in the sunlight being burnt but are able to recover after a good meal of blood.  In the first series a small group of vampires are destroyed by fire when the house they are sleeping in is torched.

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