Dale Hudson, professor and curator of film and new media at NYU Abu Dhabi, is the author of Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywood, a new book that explores how and why on-screen vampires have evolved over the years.
"I decided to look at vampire films when I began to notice the sheer number of them. Hundreds have been produced in Hollywood since the multiple-language versions of Dracula (English dialogue) and Drácula (Spanish dialogue) in 1931. The same applies to television. At one point when I was writing, there were more than five vampire series on broadcast and cable television. I noticed that vampire media engaged complicated issues of race and sex during different political moments, whether postwar immigration reform or civil rights struggles. It seemed that Hollywood needed to produce new vampire films or series for each generation since new problems and opportunities emerged.
Recent ones have begun to expand their social analysis beyond the 'humans only' approach that has dominated thinking for centuries. By focusing on the stories of vampires as nonhuman characters, they take a critical view of human devastation of the environment and ensuing mass extinctions of other species upon whose survival humans indirectly depend. Just as vampires destabilize social assumptions about race and sex, they also destabilize assumptions about species, specifically the human exceptionalism that is rooted to the European Enlightenment. Anthropocentric thinking that humans are uniquely sentient and intelligent guarantees a certain death for the planet—and with it the human race (or species).
I’ve written about how the figure of the vampire moved from eastern European folklore and western European literature into silent-era European, classical Hollywood, and much later English filmmaking—all of which was appropriated and reworked by filmmakers around the world. I was interested in how East Asian and South Asian films in particular challenged assumptions about film genres and film theory that have been based exclusively on selected western filmmaking practices. I was also interested in how the figure of the vampire could be mobilized to open questions about fears of Islam and Arabs in secular France, Hong Kong’s reunification with China, secularism in India, and western culture in Pakistan."
"For this book, I decided to focus only on Hollywood, particularly its transnational dimensions. Usually, scholars focus on the studios in southern California—the Big Five, Little Three, and sometimes also Poverty Row. I wanted to include so-called independent filmmaking since it emerges in relationship to Hollywood’s control over distribution and audience expectations. Independent producers shot what are called runaway productions in the Philippines during the 1970s, which were exhibited in drive-in theaters in the United States. Around the same time, they purchased rights for Mexican horror and lucha libre (professional wrestling) films, which they recut and reedited for US television broadcast, often for children. They also financed films in Europe, including a few films by Hammer Studios, which was later recognized for its role in preserving 'English filmmaking' from Hollywood’s unfair postwar advantage.
More recently, young filmmakers have reworked Hollywood practices to advocate for more progressive politics than Hollywood usually allows. An Iranian American filmmaker, for example, reinvented the figure of the vampire as a 'girl' wearing a chador, riding a skateboard, and protecting women from the dangers of men as they walk home alone at night. The film is remarkable for its rejection of the Islamophobia that dominated much of Hollywood filmmaking, including some of its vampire films that emphasize the Muslim Ottomans as Christian Europe’s enemies as a context for Count Dracula, who is seen as a terrifying figure of an Islamized Europe."
The Concept of Vampires is Complex
"In my book, I try to complicate conventional assumptions that early vampires were monsters and contemporary ones look and act like our neighbors and classmates. I look at how Hollywood represents different racialized groups, particularly immigrants and colonial subjects, as vampires — eastern Europeans, notably Jews and Catholics, during the 1930s and 1940s, followed by African Americans and Filipina/os in the 1960s and 1970s, Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the 1990s. These groups were reclassified on censuses and in legal cases from white to not-white, back to white then to not-quite-white, and so forth. Presently, vampires sometimes appear as Russian or Middle Eastern terrorists, so this unnatural whiteness the defined access to full US citizenship becomes more apparent.
I link visual and narrative elements in these vampire films to a history of films on immigrants that includes early comedies about 'amusing immigrants' during the 1890s, early romances about assimilation into a mythical American norm in the 1910s, and melodramas about the 'horrors' of miscegenation in the 1920s. The films also absorb conventions from other types of media popular at the moment. Web series, for example, are shot to look like found amateur footage or vlogs, thus bringing vampires into media forms familiar to generations who came of age watching reality television.
In the book, I mention the story of a young African American man, who grew up in Texas. His earliest childhood memories include noticing how white women would clutch their purses when they saw him. For him, imagining that these women feared him because he was actually a powerful vampire was preferable to the pain of living under social presumptions that black men are dangerous.
The reasons that the white women clutched their purses are part of a long history during which African Americans have been systematically disempowered through chattel slavery, legal segregation under Jim Crow, and criminalization of Black Power movements. Black men, women, and children are presumed guilty for 'walking while black' as contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter make clear. What is all the more remarkable about this young man reworking social prejudice and 'nonviolent racism' of the white women clutching their purses through the figure of the vampire is that Hollywood has produced relatively few films with black vampires.
Another example of ways that audiences invest vampires with meaning is the popularity among teenaged girls of the Twilight franchise and television series like The Vampire Diaries. These audiences find the young male vampires attractive, but they also negotiate their own adolescent feeling of awkwardness into feelings of empowerment since the male vampires 'turn' the female human protagonists, Bella and Elena, into vampires. The stories allow their audience to get the cutest boy in school and, perhaps more important, secure a kind of power normally denied to them by school cliques like those in the films The Heathers and Mean Girls, who torture their unconventional classmates for challenging the terms of conformity."