Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Vampire Rules

I'm on an unexpected vampire kick at the moment, the result of my most recent True Blood podcast as well as a conversation I just had with another author about the flexible rules of vampire fiction.

The conversation made me realize that the characteristics of a vampire are perhaps the most interchangeable set of rules in all fiction. What it is to be a vampire differs from story to story, but perhaps what is more interesting is that audiences seem to accept the author's privilege to alter the traits of vampires as best fits the narrative. 

Consequently, it's difficult to pin down what should be considered the definitive description of a vampire, as the most widely accepted depictions do not agree with each other. A stake through the heart is fatal to Bram Stoker's Dracula, but only injures one of Anne Rice's immortal bloodsuckers. Sunlight destroys Nosferatu, but makes Robert Pattinson sparkle like Johnny Drama after a massage at the Hard Rock.

Not pictured: Vampire

With the understanding that arriving at a universal list of required vampire traits is as impossible as getting Blade to blush, I instead attempted to come up with tiers of vampire characteristics based on popularity and frequency of use.

This daywalker does not sparkle.

Level 1: The Absolutes

Thirst for blood - The only total absolute, and therefore defining characteristic of a vampire that seems to span all depictions. Even this next one is a little shaky.

Enhanced strength/healing/senses - The levels of strength, senses, and ability to heal vary between the different works. I'm going to leave this here, though it doesn't seem quite as absolute as the thirst for blood.

Obviously, it feels like there's a lot missing from Level 1.

The only instance where I do not see immortality listed as a vampire trait is European folklore. However, as this should probably be considered the source material, the omission is significant enough to bump immortality to level 2.

Also, I was astonished to learn that the presence of fangs is not a part of the Twilight franchise (I'll admit I've seen the movies and didn't realize this until now). For better or bloody worse, the popularity of the series illustrates that people are okay with fangless vampires.

No way was I gonna post another Pattinson picture.

Level 2: Important but apparently not mandatory

Immortality, fangs, averse to sunlight, sleeps during the day - Again, I can't believe these aren't definitive traits, but those are the breaks. The Twi-hards have spoken.

Vulnerability to stakes - Twilight aside, the only major works I found that did not include a stake to the heart as a fatal weakness are Anne Rice's books and Count Duckula, which I totally watched as a kid and forgot about until this very moment. There's a bit of discrepancy over the required material of the stake, but let's not split hairs about timber when we've already sacrificed the necessity of fangs.

Reproduction - I'm putting this here because although all vampire fiction includes a way to create new vampires, they're all over the place on the method. Some reproduce by bite, others by transfusion. Some require the ingestion of vampire blood. A few even involve demon possession and witches' curses. Reproduction is a constant, but there's too many ways to do it for Level 1.

Decapitation equals death - Again, you have Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer to thank for this not being an absolute, though it merits mentioning that decapitation in their works does result in the vampire being paralyzed. I would be frustrated at this, but Anne Rice's work is awesome. Plus, I'm still too stoked about my Count Duckula reference to get mad. 
Kids today don't know what they're missing.

Level 3a: Super Powers

Shapeshifting - A little more common than I originally guessed, though still sporadic enough to be Level 3. A few stories list Dracula as the only shapeshifting vampire, and in True Blood the vampires can shift only if they had that power before they were turned.

Psychic powers, telekinesis, pyrokinesis - This category includes glamouring, and like many of the weaknesses, is too sporadic to be any higher on the list. Pyrokinesis is used the least, which is too bad because how awesome is the idea of a flame-throwing vampire? As a matter of fact, forget I mentioned it. Vampire Bill, would you mind wiping that from the reader's mind?

"Sook-eh ... you will forget all about flame-throwing vampires. However, you will remember to tell all your friends to read this blog and buy all of Clint's books."

Level 3b: Weaknesses

Must be invited into your home - This appears to have originated in North American folklore. I'm disappointed that it isn't more widely used, but most vampire fiction does not require an invitation for a vampire to enter your home. I've always liked this because it added a cautionary-tale level of personal responsibility to the human. 

Weakness to fire, garlic, holy symbols, silver - Outside of sunlight, we can lump all of the other "severe allergies" in this category. These tend to be all over the place in terms of which will destroy a vampire. Fire appears to be the most consistent; it will even kill Twilight's otherwise indestructible Edward Cullen.

Reflection in mirrors - It turns out that most of the time, you can see the vampire chasing you in your rear-view mirror. The most notable vampire depiction in which the species does not have a reflection is Bram Stoker's Dracula, though I'll also give props to Buffy the Vampire Slayer for preserving this characteristic in the modern era.

Obligatory Joss Whedon shout-out

What else am I missing? How do you feel about the way vampires are portrayed in books, television, and movies? Are there other qualities you feel like belong in Level 1?


  1. Great post! I'm not an avid vampire-story reader, but this is still awesome info. I guess the supposed vampire rules just came from the first person to write a vampire story. I like how readers allow the author to alter the traits of vampires.

    1. Thanks Nadine! I agree. It makes me wonder if there is any other character archetype that has this much variation across fiction.

  2. Great write up!

    Anne Rice novels were by far my favorite and the vampire canon I'd stick to, but even she has some pretty odd discrepancies from standard vampire fair. Lestat was a great character.

    1. Thanks man!

      One aspect I really like about the Anne Rice novels is that older vampires get really powerful. They have a higher tolerance of sunlight and fire, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and flight. That's pretty awesome.

  3. What about the whole dead/undead characteristic? No heart beat, cold to the touch, pale complexion (possibly an iron deficiency?).

    1. You know what's funny? My wife mentioned the same thing last night after reading this blog, and I immediately thought, 'That's going to be the one that Jacks catches tomorrow.' Sure enough, you did.

      Pale skin is almost always a trait, though in European folklore vampires were described as ruddy or dark.

      The fact that they're dead is my most glaring omission, and probably does belong in Level 1. Well done.