SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The annual observance of Halloween can't help but make us wonder: Why are many supposedly normal people attracted by the dark side? Likewise, the successes of The Twilight Saga, Vampire Diaries, and diverse other current vampire tales raise a more specific question: What's behind the allure of this particular creature of the night?
Vampires are nothing new. In Western culture -- this unique beast can be traced back to the Bible. In its unexpurgated form, the Hebraic Torah contains a "first wife" for Adam, Lilith, who subsisted on human flesh. The Greeks had a parallel creature called Lamia who sucked away men's life-force in a ritual that combined sex and violence. Every culture has some sort of vampire figure, male or female, with names ranging from succubus to Nosferatu.
Apparently, these are legendary (loosely based on fact) rather than mythic (entirely fictitious) beings. Early renderings of the vampire portrayed male bloodsuckers as rat-like carriers of the plague. During the Victorian Era, Dublin-based writer Bram Stoker transformed the historical figure Vlad the Impaler (1431-76) of Transylvania into a literary figure, Count Dracula. At that moment, the modern vampire was born as a figure of dangerous sexual allure.
With the publication of Dracula in 1897, the vampire emerged as a romantic figure in the most melancholy sense of that term. After all, what could be more romantic than to die for love? Key to this is the convention that a vampire can never enter a house without invitation. Dracula emerged as the original "bad boy," able to seduce good London girls away from boring fiances and husbands -- never mind that these women sense all along that Dracula's embrace carries the kiss of death.
Human beings tend to be both repulsed and attracted by such a relationship. If few people are actually willing to go that route in actuality, isn't that what popular fiction has always existed for? Anyone can experience the thrill secondhand by reading an Anne Rice novel or catching the latest vampire movie or mini-series -- just as Victorians thrilled to Dracula in print, then on stage, and, soon thereafter, on the Silver Screen. With vampires, however, the concept of 'vicarious living' turns into vicarious dying.
But what a way to go!
Vampires have been drawn into the eclectic mix of modern Halloween that also includes witches, zombies, and grotesque figures from contemporary cinema such as Freddie and Jason -- symbols of evil building upon one another in a macabre pyramid. Though Halloween draws on pagan rites from the ancient Celts, with their harvest festivals and celebration of the dead and undead, this questionable holiday appears to have been created by the Catholic Church around 1556.
Its name derives from the All Hallows' Evening (or Eve), the holy night preceding All Saints' Day, which celebrated those who had done the most good in the world and encouraged believers not only to admire but to emulate such behavior. The common folk wondered if, in anticipation of their promise to follow a straight, sober, steady life, they might be allowed to blow off steam a few hours before embarking on such a saintly course.
Apparently the church agreed that such a safety valve might be a good idea. So began the tradition of quasi-controlled mischief against one's neighbors (unless a sufficient treat was offered) that would be continued in the American colonies.
Halloween in general, and vampires more specifically, touch upon an element in mankind of which Shakespeare appears to have been aware. Around 1605, the Bard of Avon realized that audiences were far more fascinated with his wicked characters -- say, Richard III and Macbeth -- than enamored by such upstanding heroes as Henry V.
That fascination continues unabated. Perhaps this is most vividly realized in the novel and film Silence of the Lambs: Even the noble female lead (and audience surrogate) finds herself mesmerized by the monolithic power of Hannibal Lecter's capacity for evil.
If mankind is essentially good, as we wish -- perhaps need -- to believe, why then are we held spellbound in darkness by such atavistic forces?
If perhaps we will never be able to fully answer that question, the viewing of vampire films and the continued celebration of All Hallow's Eve remind us that even the finest among us retains an ancient urge for a more controlled version of what once, long ago, constituted mankind's annual walk on the wild side.
Douglas Brode, who teaches at Syracuse University, is co-author, with Joe Orsak, of the new graphic novel Virgin Vampires, or Once Upon a Time in Transylvania. He wrote this commentary for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.
--McClatchy Tribune Services