Magical Mondays: Vampires and Their Limits

cartoon vampireWhen it’s done well, fictional magic combines a certain amount of mystery with a solid set of rules. Without well-defined limits, magic takes away any and all problems facing a protagonist, and no one wants to read a story without conflict. Magical creatures are no exception. Magical creatures need a list of things they can and cannot do. Vampires are a good example of this. There are plenty of variations on the original pop culture vampire theme, and the strengths of each version’s limits gives us a good idea of how much staying power each variation has in our culture.

count dracula

The tiny spotlight makes him extra scary.

Count Dracula is the definitive vampire of pop culture, as both prototype and archetype. He’s the most famous of all vampires, and the most enduring. This, I believe, is largely because Dracula operates under a very strict sense of magical rules. While he is never explicitly named a demon, Dracula exhibits plenty of demonic qualities. He is seductive with a violent temper. Dracula is immortal, and possesses super strength, super agility, telepathy and a hypnotic stare. He can manipulate the weather, shapeshift, teleport, and of course, turn others into vampires with a bite. But Dracula’s incredible powers are balanced by strict rules. Sunlight diminishes his powers; he can only shapeshift at particular times of day (though always at night); he can only cross running water at particular times; he needs Transylvanian soil and fresh blood to replenish his strength; he cannot enter a home without an invitation, and he’s repelled by garlic, crucifixes, holy water, and sacramental bread (aka Communion bread). The one sure way to kill Dracula is by driving a wooden stake through his heart and then decapitating him (and you should stuff his mouth full of garlic, for good measure).

louis and lestat

So much homoeroticism.

While the rules surrounding Dracula are many and strict, the rules surrounding Anne Rice’s vampires (of The Vampire Chronicles) are fewer and more malleable. Rice’s vampires share many of the same abilities as Count Dracula, with a few key differences. These vampires aren’t harmed by garlic or sacred objects. They are affected more strongly by the sun; it brings on sleep, burning pain, and even death. These vampires grow more powerful with age: their need for blood decreases, their strength and stamina increases, they have greater resistance to the sun, and their physical forms become more and more “statuesque”. This is the biggest difference between Dracula and Rice’s vampires. While Dracula is a very static character, the stories of Rice’s vampires are all about change. Granted, this change happens over a long period of time, over several books with lots of pseudo-philosophical musing. As the vampires slowly approach self-actualization, they lose many of their human qualities and become more vampiric.

Perpetual college, I can understand. But high school? Hey, it's your eternity...

Perpetual college, I can understand. But high school? Hey, it’s your (eternal) life…

Twilight takes us yet another degree away from Dracula. The Cullens are “vegetarians,” refusing all human blood, although their attraction to it remains. Dracula largely secludes himself from society, while the Cullens are full members of the community. Carlisle Cullen is a doctor, and his centuries-old “children” attend high school. The “statue-like” physicality of the Vampire Chronicles is given a literal dimension, as the Cullens’ skin looks like marble, is hard as diamonds, and sparkles in the sunlight. Dracula has pretty much every superpower, while some Twilight vampires have a specialized ability, often based on their personality. Twilight removes all the limitations Dracula faced: garlic, holy objects, sleeping, sunlight, wooden stakes, etc. Most limits on these vampires are self-imposed. The Cullens avoid sunlight because they want to blend into human society, and sparkling would blow their cover. Their need to control their desire for human blood is, again, a way to maintain their ability to blend in. The Cullens obey the rules set forth by the governing Volturi… until they don’t want to. So the limits they face are always going to feel a bit artificial.

It may seem a little counter-intuitive, but magic is really only as strong as its limits. Dracula, Anne Rice’s vampires, and the Cullens share plenty of the same powers and abilities, to varying degrees. They’re identifiable as vampires because of their superhuman traits and their desire to drink human blood. But the power of each version’s impact on popular culture is directly related to how many strong limits each has in its mythos. Sure, Dracula was the first vampire to really explode on the pop culture scene. But I believe the reason why he’s still popular after nearly a hundred years is because his character has strong limits. Anne Rice’s vampires don’t have quite as many limits, but there’s still a good balance between the things they can do and the things they can’t. The Cullens are only restricted when they decide to be.

Every modern vampire is some variation of Dracula, and Charlaine Harris credits Anne Rice as a major influence on the vampires of her Sookie Stackhouse novels (and the subsequent HBO adaptation, True Blood). But no one has copied the vampires of Twilight, and I don’t think anyone will. The Cullens just don’t have enough limits. Limits either create problems for a character (restricting their abilities), or create solutions for the character’s opponents (a recipe for their destruction). Problems are what make good stories; the more problems, the more story potential for the character. With the infinite power of pure magic, any story with magical elements is only as strong as its limits.