The Rise of the Vampire

Image of The Rise of the Vampire
Release Date: 
September 1, 2013
Reaktion Books
Reviewed by: 

“Mr. Butler is to be applauded.”

Unsure what to expect with The Rise of the Vampire, the reader turns to the brief back cover blurb: “In The Rise of the Vampire, Erik Butler seeks to explain our enduring fascination with the creatures of the night.” Intriguing. Could Mr. Butler really carry it off?

To do so he would have to reach back thousands of years in history to follow the thread of vampirism through to the present contemporary vampire. Mr. Butler not only accomplishes this, but does so in an interesting and concise fashion.

This book provides a detailed history of the vampire beginning in 1725 in Serbian folklore and culture. During this time not only had the vampire made it into Serbian folklore, but apparently there was also genuine concern among people about the creature’s literal existence.

As vampire mythology spread, it quickly gained a significant foothold in the culture of Western Europe, and new stories about them began to be told there. These stories shaped the vampire into the creature that fascinates many to this day. Specifically, Mr. Butler identifies John Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre as the first of these, while Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula remains the standard classic of all vampire stories.

Upon entering contemporary American dialogue, vampire narratives became an established element of culture. Like many aspirational migrants and others, vampires were portrayed as social climbers, becoming a staple of Hollywood films. Initially, cinematic representations followed the Dracula model with Bela Lugosi coming to embody Bram Stoker’s character.

Mr. Butler considers several more distinguished examples and traces the evolution of vampires into characters who seemed to operate on their own terms, adopting a kind of rugged individual determinism. Mr. Butler suggests that many of the vampires depicted in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles perhaps illustrate the zenith of this movement.

Other contemporary works include True Blood and the exceedingly popular series of books turned movies, Twilight. Mr. Butler notes the presence of the vampire in art, music, poetry, diverse geographical cultures, religion, politics, books, and graphic novels (comic books). He points out the role that global markets and media technology play in making the vampire a global phenomenon. He ever masterfully goes off the marked path, exploring the vampire’s relevance for avant garde projects like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Murnau’s silent piece, Sunrise.

Although the historical grounding is fully fleshed out, what is the relevance of the vampire today? Why do we remain captivated by these monstrosities of age-old myth?

Mr. Butler finds that the image of the vampire continues to powerfully express and amplify the shadowy side of human nature as well as themes inherent in all of our lives: death, destruction, consumption in order to live and, perhaps, the dark side of over-consumption.

The vampire is the image of the Other, whether it is the other of our own minds and existence or the other of the world outside of our own. In the end, the vampire symbolizes the other in human experience and a psychological mirror reflecting the mysterious and potentially dangerous aspects of our unknown selves.

Mr. Butler is to be applauded for elucidating the emergence of vampire mythology in history and its progression through various cultures up to its widespread presence in today’s culture. Weaving in themes of vampirism as cultural and psychological symptoms, amplifications of themes of life and its manifold limits and complexities, Erik Butler has created a masterful compendium of ideas.