When the image of the vampire is presented to us, we are filled– even if secretly or subconsciously– with longing. The three most desirable traits of the vampire are his power, sexuality and immortality. In this essay we will be looking at the immortality of the vampire. While, on the surface, immortality looks like a great thing, the vampire illustrates all the problems with being immortal– from outliving your own body to outliving everyone you know. The pain of the vampire's immortality reminds us to enjoy our mortality, where we would otherwise take it for granted.
This essay grew out of my watching Death Becomes Her. I began to question what I had always taken for granted– immortality is a good thing. In the movie, eternal youth is granted, so long as one stays alive. When the immortal dies, the body begins to rot, though the soul stays intact, as do the mental facilities. By the end of the movie, the two women's bodies have completely shattered from abuse and they are left as no more than talking heads, with no hope for release. In their case, death seems to be the greatest of gifts, yet because of their greed to gain youth, death is denied them.
Forever Soul, Mortal Body
While the women in the movie are not what anyone would really define as vampires– so their ailment is not really a vampire ailment– some vampires suffer a like fate. The most noticeable characteristic of almost all vampires is that they are caught eternally at the age of death. For some, this can mean living out many lifetimes stuck in the body of a child, or as a decrepit adult of 80. While vampires vary from book to book, most are stuck with every ailment that was their's at the time of death. In Laurell K. Hamilton's series, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter¹ many of her vampires carry various scars. One vampire, Asher, was scarred on his face and body by holy water, and was unable to heal or correct it. Jean-Claude bore scars on his back from when he was a child; they remained unchanged, even after he was transformed. While some of these things seem minor, other problems can become extremely irritating after many hundreds of years. And they can sorely hurt the image of the ever-beautiful and perfect vampire. Being a vampire is often a big role to fill.
Even if a vampire is without blemish at the time of death, they are not necessarily guaranteed to remain that way forever. Vampires are notorious for having pale features, but they can suffer as many different ailments as there are different types of vampires. They can cry or sweat blood, smell like a corpse, have changing eye colors, or any other number of noticeable signs. They are also afflicted with being unable to digest regular food, and almost all cannot tolerate the sun on some level. Going into blood lust almost always changes them into little more than a wild animal. If vampires' weaknesses are studied enough, it becomes clear that they suffer just as much as any human. But for humans there is almost always a belief in the afterlife, and perfection of the body, and a cure for all their ailments. But vampires seem to be denied this hope, as the main definition of a (historical) vampire is that it is a damned or demonic soul trapped in a body. Final death does not hold any promise for the vampire.
Forever Soul, Forever Body
Putting aside a vampire's imperfections, he may live– in theory– forever. If he has nothing much to suffer with his own body, then it would look like he would do well. But he will face that forever alone. A vampire outlives all his family, lovers and friends. Even if a vampire comes from a family of vampires, has a vampire mate and vampire friends, there is always a risk. A vampire never lives forever. Vampires, like anything, can always be killed. While every human has to deal with death at some point in their life, a vampire would have to deal with death over and over again. A human has only one set of parents to loose. Few people outlive more than one spouse. For a vampire with mortals for friends and lovers, he would outlive one after another. A vampire 500 years old may have already outlived 6 mates. After a while the continual pain of death would slowly drive one crazy, and there would only be a future of more lost loves.
Emotional pain is not the only thing that a vampire may suffer. His self-healing body may become a curse to him. In the case of some violent crimes, death is a release, a blessing. But for a vampire, if he is tortured right, he can be made to suffer for thousands of years. His body can withstand constant torture much longer than his mind ever could. In an ancient Greek myth, Prometheus was bound to a rock for eternity while a raven picked at his liver. At night the raven would cease and the liver would grow back, only to be eaten again. Vampires could easily suffer this same fate. Very much like the women in the movie Death Becomes Her, he would be forever trapped in a body that would not let him escape into death.
And vampires that closet themselves away from social contact do not escape the ravages of time either. They are forced to watch the slow march of human progress as the years wear on. Vampires born in the time of the Crusades would have to adapt with the populace around them as they were carried out of the feudal world, through religious upheaval, into the Age of Exploration, past the Industrial Revolution, and straight to the modern technological society that we are today. That's a lot of change, even if it's gradual. If we just look at our own grandparents we see how resistant to change people can be.
Why We Worship the Vampire
Thinking of immortality insensibly, it is easy to see why we would enjoy the vampire. We think he was what we will never have– a way to cheat death– wouldn't it be great if we could do the same? But taking a moment to reflect on the vampire's condition, we can easily see that he has no more advantage than we do. He suffers the same heartaches, similar ailments, and a fear of the unknown beyond his own death, same as we. So, if we are not to admire the vampire for his long life, why are we still so fascinated with him? Certainly his other qualities help– sensuousness and power– but if we take away a vampire's demi-god status as an immortal being, we start to think less of his other powers. Even mortals have sex appeal, and youth is no requirement. (Sean Connery and Clint Eastwood are thought to be very sexy by young and old women alike.) And how can we respect a vampire's power if he can die just like the rest of us? That doesn't seem very awe-inspiring to me. But, on some level, we realize that the vampire is not immortal and not without bodily flaws. So what makes us continue to worship our imperfect idol?
The funny thing about humans is that we enjoy seeing reflections of ourselves. If a novel doesn't touch some part of us, so that we can identify with it, we do not like it. A great example of this is Catcher in the Rye. Readers either instantly identify with the teenager, Holden Caulfield, as someone who is very much like themselves, or they do not. And as the book hinges on the one character, it can only be a love-hate relationship. While my friends all liked the book, it didn't do a thing for me. There was nothing in it that I identified with, so I never cared for the character. But vampires, even despite their varying forms and personalities, all seem to connect with something that is within everyone of us.
Humans always long for more time, yet we waste a great deal of it in futile pursuits, anger, sadness, and other worthless endeavors. Humans long to have a vampire's immortality, yet we never see a vampire who has accomplished anything with all his years. No vampire in a book has ever cured world hunger, seen every site there is to see or fully used all of his or her potential. Vampires, like humans, are flawed in that respect. It's what keeps them recognizable to us. Humans often wonder what they would do if they had all the time in the world, and vampires are that answer; we'd keep on doing what we're doing now, no different.
Scientists predict that in the next twenty years, they will have figured out how to keep us alive and young for 150-200 years. What will this longer life span mean for vampires? Will they become obsolete as we enjoy our own extended long lives? They are slowly being undermined as sexual creatures as more an more people live out their fantasies in a less strict society. Will we ever see a day when humans don't need a vampire? I think that day will never come. Vampires have evolved as successfully as humans have. After the fall of the Roman Empire the domination of Islam and Christianity over the previously pagan world should have marked the end of the blood gods. But superstitions– most of them originating from pagan beliefs– and a Church's crafty use of demons and vampires as conversion tools evolved the vampire into the walking corpse, a step closer to humanity. With the loss of control by the Church, education increasing and the Industrial and Scientific Revolution, the vampire again faced extinction. But with the sexual repression of the Victorian Era in full swing, the vampire fell into its new role easily. Now, with a new step in human evolution approaching, the vampire will have to again adapt. What's left to be? Well, like fashion, the past repeats itself. The vampire will most likely fall back into the role of a god again. We can already see this happening in our disillusioned society. People, unhappy with their choices of religion, which can't seem to keep up with science and society, are making their own religion, which often involves old-style pagan rituals and sharing blood as a way to bond members together. Vampires will survive, because, after all, they are immortal.
¹ "Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter." By Laurell K. Hamilton. Copyright 1993. Ace Publishing, New York.