by Matthew Chase

In the spirit of this spooky time of year, I am returning the sociological lens to a very familiar and haunting creature of the night: the vampire. Some of our readers might remember that I wrote a short analysis years ago on SocRogueScholars about the topic. This three-part blog series aims to expand on my original thoughts regarding mass media representations of our favorite bloodthirsty monster, examining its fundamental relationship to the representations of whiteness.

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Sir Francis Varney from Varney the Vampire penny dreadful (1845-1847)

Whiteness and the broader concept of race are social constructions, simultaneously both product and mechanism of undead capitalism in the United States. By undead, I am referring to how capitalism has now advanced to the point where the very inequalities (e.g., educational gaps, hyper-incarceration, poverty, etc.) it perpetuates are exploited and employed to distribute power among the elite. It is a capitalism that reaps from the death and suffering that it inflicts. Whiteness under this undead capitalist system is vampiric as a result, deriving privilege and assumed superiority through a parasitic (i.e., oppressive) relationship with the marginalized humanity of color. In this sense, the vampire narrative in mass media is not just a useful metaphor, but a critical lens to examine the problem of whiteness and of racism. Media representations of the vampire reflect and reproduce the historical systems of racism under the narratives of undead capitalism and vampiric whiteness.

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Count Orlok from Nosferatu (1922)

Whiteness and the broader concept of race are intricately tied to the physical body. It was not long ago that race was first considered essential to our biology. It is something that we inherit from our parents, our ancestors, giving the impression of history and commonsense. Much of the U.S. public keeps to this kind of thinking even today, as we concern ourselves with something as trivial as melanin pigmentation and genetics. Whiteness is predominantly defined by and limited to skin color. The vampire faces a similar issue, who is usually identified by pale (i.e., white) skin. This is no accident or simply a product of ignorance, as both answers fail to account for the national pulse that beats to the rhythm of ideological racism. We need to consider the institutional tools employed to legitimate such highly viral strains of racism; tools like public policy and even science. Scientific racism and biological determinism advocated for whiteness as supreme while positioning humanity of color as a separate, inferior species. White supremacist fictions insinuated themselves into scientific discipline, and that very same science was used to inform racist public policies.

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Lestat from Interview with the Vampire (1994)

This is particularly problematic as we consider the historical evolution of vampire skin. While the earliest vampire folklore involved an emaciated and decayed (i.e., zombielike) body, the media revolution now depicts the vampire as a cultural epitome of (white) beauty and physical perfection. It is also important to keep in mind that these earlier representations were not necessarily concerned with whiteness as they derived from Slavic and even Asian traditions. Even the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s titular character Dracula drew in part from a real historical figure: fifteenth-century Romanian Prince Vlad III, and infamously known as Vlad the Impaler. Although not white in the contemporary sense, the history behind Vlad III nonetheless represented a narrative of ethnic conflict. Yet the narrative has been re-appropriated as one of racial superiority and vampiric whiteness. This transformation from decay to beauty could even represent a literal interpretation of the classic rags-to-riches American Dream myth.

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Edward Cullen from Twilight saga (2008-2012)

While the importance of culture is also readily visible, we often fail to disentangle it from the biological. Skin color becomes inexplicably linked to our language, names, voices, and even personality traits. All of which are racialized as a result. Race becomes the umbrella term for all of these seemingly separate and irrelevant qualities. Scientific racism has been at the forefront of publishing and distributing these white supremacist fictions once we take a look at the contributions from the social as well as life sciences. Theoretical frameworks such as broken windows thesis and the culture of poverty theory have reconstructed “deficiencies” among humanity of color as cultural pathology in addition to being biological. They serve to legitimate modern white frames. White frames inform and are informed by:

  1. the recurring use of certain physical characteristics, such as skin color and facial features, to differentiate social groups
  2. the constant linking of physical characteristics to cultural characteristics
  3. the regular use of physically and culturally linked distinctions to differentiate socially ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ groups in a social hierarchy.

These frames have reinforced the white supremacist ideology that whiteness is culture, something that the humanity of color have neither demonstrated nor earned. It is a modern retelling of the savage nobility versus the civilized nobility. It might not be such a surprise then how humanity of color has been demonized in relation to the vampire. When it comes to people of color, they are often proscribed the role of either victim or bestial monstrosity such as the werewolf. The werewolf represents anti-civilization, dangerous hyper-masculinity (often subscribed to male blackness), and a need to be contained or put down. We are seeing how culture and biology have been constructed and distorted to reproduce the noble savage imagery that we regularly consume.

This imagery, while seemingly benign under the pretense of entertainment, can nonetheless reproduce far-reaching consequences on the American consciousness in regards to virulent racism and systematic exploitation. Albeit an imperfect one, the vampire can be a cultural mirror reflecting how we consume and value whiteness. Although the vampire may not exist, the historical systems of racial oppression are all the more terrifying for their real, everyday exploitation under the name of undead capitalism. As Part 2 and Part 3 of this blog series will explore, the white frames that we have discussed here have significant influence on issues ranging from wealth inequalities to colonialism to assimilation.

“There is a reason why all things are as they are.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula