This essay investigates how the gothic figure of the vampire may come to embody racial stereotypes and dominant fears about black men and black women through representations of the vampire of American popular film. It explores the cultural work that surrounds the representations of vampires coded by the trope of race and the ways in which an unreal being whose seemingly essential characteristic of “whiteness” comes to represent “blackness.” To demonstrate how myths of the vampire and of race function together in the American cultural landscape, the essay analyzes the representations surrounding the figure of the vampire hunter and vampire of the film Blade (1998). Historical racist representations of the black man as hypersexual and violent are explored alongside the image of the vampire hero Blade and discussed in relation to the ways in which contemporary progressive narratives work as a guise to nineteenth-century racist figures and hierarchies of power.
Like the vampire, race is a social construction. It is a fiction. But unlike the fictions of the vampire, which may be dismissed with the close of a book or the lowering of a movie house curtain, the effects of the fictions of race cannot be avoided and have tangible links to history and to the present day. When these fictions combine, such as in the figure of the black vampire of American popular film, the ease within which they are “turned off” and forgotten is more than troubling; it is indicative of racism and inequality hidden beneath the surface of contemporary American society.
Historically, western societies have feared, inflicted violence upon, and desired control over non-white peoples. In American society, this is exemplified by the brutal and horrific treatment of African Americans. More than any other racial figure, black men and black women have received the brunt of American racist feeling (Halberstam 4). They have been coded as “other” already through the history surrounding the political economy of chattel slavery. This system dehumanized black Americans through images that defined them “as nonhuman and as animals,” displaying “unrestrained sexuality and violence” until that energy was properly channeled through “domestication” (55, 57). In order to conceal the power relationships at work between master and slave, “supporters of slavery created controlling images,” such as the mule, jezebel, breeder woman, and buck, in order to “justif[y] Black economic exploitation [and] stamp out agency” (56-7). Quite simply, they created fictions that would frame black men and black women, coding their bodies by means of signifiers of monstrosity.
These fictions relied heavily on visual evidence in order to prove that whites existed above blacks on the “great chain of being.” Building on Michel Foucault’s suggestion in The Order of Things that the historian is the one who sees, Lisa Gail Collins explains how photography has been and can still be “used to place people in contexts and tell stories of humanity [but also can] be used in endeavors to dehumanize and catalog difference” (23). I argue that these endeavors echo in certain filmic projects today. Our society trusts in the visual as objective truth: “The photograph captures perceived data and, so, is taken as a form of visual ‘truth-telling’” (Hobson 116). While this may be less true today when digital effects have the power to alter images, photography (and so film) still contains traces of the use of the photo as evidence of racial difference.
Quite explicitly, “early photography, not long after its invention, was used to corroborate in pseudoscientific studies of race and ethnicity, thus providing observable ‘facts’ of the human anatomy” (Hobson 117). The photograph “was perceived as a form of currency within a closed system […] ascribed value by both quantifying things and placing them in a circulating system that emphasized their similarity to or difference from other things” (Wallis 172). The very nature of photography, historically, has been “selective and classificatory” (172). This trend extended into the “early stages of motion pictures [which] developed with the same intent of providing such scientific evidence of the body,” quickly cementing motion pictures alongside stills in representing “realism” more than other mediums (Hobson 117). Examples of this would be Louis Agassiz’s anthropological study of slaves on a South Carolina plantation and the fifteen images of black men and black women captured by daguerreotypist Joseph T. Zealy (Wallis 170). These studies depended upon the arbitrary notion of difference.
The work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is critical to an understanding of the arbitrariness of race. In his influential work, “Race,” Writing and Difference, he addresses how race as a trope has successfully intertwined with difference. He states, “Race has become a trope of ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems [and] is the ultimate trope of difference because it is so very arbitrary in its application” (Gates 5). This continues to occur even though “Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction” (4). Race is unquestionably a construction.
While this certainly holds weight today, I would like to go beyond acknowledging that race does not exist in the world and side with Shu-mei Shih’s attempts to extend what Gates established in 1985. Shih addresses the danger in defining race as arbitrary without examining how it continues in language. Thinking comparatively, Shih argues that race is still relevant to critical theory but “to a large extent, critical theory continues to see race as exterior to it” even though “discrimination is rampant under the unacknowledged but highly operative sign of race” (1347-8). Building on this, colonialism is still a part of our day-to-day life, and it is theory’s job to recognize how race continues to operate within western and non-western societies. I choose “to think comparatively […] to think about the world where the colonial turn has left indelible marks – that is, to think of the worldliness of race” (1348). This depends on triangulation, going beyond the black-white binary by juxtaposing related terms in order to form new insights (1351).
In this essay, I work to triangulate representations of blackness and whiteness with the figure of the vampire, which like non-white figures in American society, stands as “other.” Additionally, I read the black vampire of Hollywood film as a distinctly American monster. As the vampire myth travels between mediums and, more importantly, from Europe to the United States, the various fears embodied within the monster— – originally representative of nineteenth-century western European and predominantly English concerns— – adapt to the needs of American society, a society that seeks to deny the prevalence of racism even as it propagates systems of power built upon this hierarchy of difference.
No longer blatant, racism may assume a new, coded form through American gothic narratives, especially the vampire myth. Within these seemingly “new” representations of the vampire, I want to suggest that fears and prejudices similar if not identical to those that were central to nineteenth-century representations of the gothic monster can be found, but with changes to form and genre serving here to conceal the ongoing cultural work of racism. I suspect this may be especially true when the vampire is a clearly defined other such as a black man or black woman. The black vampire reveals those prejudices that dominant society seeks to conceal but he or she is coded just enough with narrative conventions so to be unrecognizable at first glance. This, the incorporation of residual cultural elements into a current schema that outwardly professes to deny them, is the process of “the incorporation of the actively residual—by reinterpretation, dilution, projection, discriminating inclusion and exclusion” —that informs Raymond Williams’ definition of the dominant (123). Through the formation of the dominant culture, select societal fears manifest within fictional characters and continue to flourish into the present, providing a somewhat covert outlet for the racism and sexism of ages past.
While not overtly racist like Agassiz and Zealy’s daguerreotypes, I see a genre such as horror with its dependence on the fusion of opposing categorical distinctions (good/evil, human/animal, black/white) as the ideal ground for racial frameworks to play themselves out, and thus, to perform cultural work similar to anthropological, pseudoscientific projects of the past. The figure of the vampire in contemporary American society is called upon to display many things upon its skin. However, depending upon the unique environment in which it finds itself, the same characteristics can correspond to different yet linked societal concerns. Whereas, in an English gothic novel, the vampire may be invested with anti-Semitic and primitivistic fears, in the contemporary United States, similar attributes may be an expression of racism against blacks and a history of white economic dependence on the wrongful enslavement of African peoples. The work of encouraging equality and justice for all within the United States, perhaps even the world at large, seems to be made that much more difficult by this symbolic union of race and the vampire myth.
The Vampire as Monster
A vampire, no matter how endearing, humorous, or sexy is always a monster. Monsters perform cultural work. They are fictional entities with real implications in the cultures that breed them. And, while monsters come in all shapes and sizes, they cannot assume just any form, for they have to stand in contrast to the cultural dominant. They must be “other.” They must be “different.”
Monsters carry the histories of their cultures with them. While monsters are “meaning machines” in art and can stand for a number of systems at once, such as gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality, the monster must incarnate absolute difference, “be everything the human is not and, in producing the negative of human […] make way for the invention of human as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual” (Halberstam 21-2). Judith Halberstam’s definition of monster is very similar to what Robin Wood, a leading psychoanalytic horror film theorist, puts forth. He argues that the monster manifests what is oppressed and repressed within a culture, that which society cannot deal with openly and which must be rejected, destroyed, or appropriated (Wood 199). Simply put, the narrative and images that surround our perception of the monstrous other strengthen the dominant order. The monstrosity of the other verifies normalcy, the normality of the dominant.
Wood’s theories regarding film build on the work of Julia Kristeva in her study of horror and the abject. Elucidating her notion of abjection, Kristeva states, “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 4). As a symptom, abjection takes the form of “a language that gives up, a structure within the body, a non-assimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer” (11). In order to recognize, confront, and exclude what disturbs, humans create monsters. Abjection is “the inability to assume with sufficient strength the imperative act of excluding abject things,” with that act being what “establishes the foundations of collective existence” (Bataille qtd. in Kristeva 56). ((Georges Bataille, Essais de sociologie)) In a similar vein, Bataille argues that abjection is the method of forming human community.
While psychoanalytic readings prove useful in describing how monsters arise, I would like to root my analysis in the historically specific conditions that determine who is the abject. By doing this, I hope to raise questions that address by what means these monsters are used to constitute individual cultures and nations, not just a collective identity of human versus. non-human. Abjection allows a culture to remove, to place at a distance, what threatens. Western civilization is tainted by scientific endeavors that began in the late 1700s, and which sought to divide the distance between human and animal even further, to whittle down what separated human beings from one another and what placed certain humans above others. The feeling of the abject, what distinguished human from animal, was used to differentiate between human beings, ((The vampire readily represents the animal. For example, the figure of Dracula on stage and screen “is associated with vermin; in the novel, he commands armies of rats” and packs of wolves (Carroll 51). Not only does he control these animals, he turns into them – bat and wolf. Even in “human” form, he can scale his castle face first, “by thus using every projection and inequality move downward with considerable speed, just as a lizard moves along a wall” (Stoker 69).)) granting those deemed “lesser” beings, predominantly non-white peoples, animalistic traits (Gilman 16).
The definitions of the monstrous other become even more complex when those undeniably human beings, whom western society has sought to dominate, play the part of monster in a visual art form such as film. In these cases, the history of the bodies being placed within the film’s frame must be taken into consideration alongside the historical moment in which a monster arises, revisits, or is re-appropriated by a culture, in order to fully grasp the levels of meaning at stake in the images. Both work together to produce the text’s particular cultural work. A greater understanding of its implications for American society is made possible by the process of historicizing a text and its imagery, especially when that text happens to represent a race of people who have known horror and terrific violence firsthand.
Acts of racial violence and the traits of the horror genre could be understood as mirroring one another. In the real world, human beings have feared, sought out, and destroyed— – literally and figuratively— – humans they have labeled lesser beings. Mostly, these acts of violence occur because of perceived, but in truth socially constructed, threats. Within horror narratives, the historically victimized other is represented as the aggressor. The lesser being or monster generally attacks first in the horror genre. This warrants the prompt retaliation of the narrative’s usually human heroes. If fictions of horror demonstrate the desires and needs of a culture, then narratives of aggressive and violent monsters provide clear-cut justification for the cultures these monsters find themselves within to oppress or “destroy” the beings that those monsters represent. Through the horror genre, abstract fears of the monstrous in a society are embodied within an unquestionably threatening being— – a monster. By imposing corporeal boundaries on an abstract threat, the structures of these narratives justify violence, oppression, and fear, effects that have brutally tangible results within a society. Fictions of horror have yet to invent anything more gruesome or unimaginable than the violent acts inflicted upon oppressed peoples throughout history, —–for example, the enslavement, rape, and murder of peoples of African descent. This horror of oppression is seeded within the heart of the American nation, perhaps transforming the history of America into a gothic narrative itself (Goddu 131).
Somewhat disconcertingly, horror remains the most popular genre with the most mass appeal, especially in the United States (Carroll 214; 82nd Academy Awards). The vampire occupies a strong majority of these projects. According to research conducted by Ken Gelder for his book, Reading the Vampire, roughly “3,000 vampire or vampire-related films ha[d] been made” prior to 1994 (86). The tradition of the vampire film continues today. Of the 721 vampire movie titles listed on the Internet Movie Database, 319 of them were made after Gelder’s study. Reading this data in a general way suggests that the vampire of film seems capable of holding an audience, particularly an American audience, no matter the time period.
While “most histories of the vampire […] gesture towards a multiplicity of origins, whereby the vampire’s identity is thoroughly dispersed across history and across place,” Gelder suggests that it “would be possible to argue that vampire fiction consolidated itself because of (or, in relation to) the establishment in the nineteenth century of folklore as a modern discipline with an identifiable field of study: the folk, or ‘the people’” (24, 34-5). This piqued interest in folklore and folk peoples coincided with naturalist and ethnological projects in 18th and 19th-century Europe and the United States, which depended upon classifying and ordering human beings based upon visual differences (Gilman 17; Gates 4). Both fields of study developed out of the desire to found knowledge upon sight instead of language and words, which gained popularity in the mid-17th century (Foucault 130). Unlike previous modes of recording and categorizing, explaining a thing through sight “was considered as positive, as objective […] a new way of connecting things both to the eye and to discourse” (131). Here, an historian could let “creatures present themselves one beside another, their surfaces visible, grouped according to their common features, and thus already virtually analysed” (131). This “new way” of making history led to the categorizing of not just animals and plants but also human beings based on visible differences between them.
Categorizing human beings into types determined by “superficial physical characteristics structured the logic of racial classification” (Wallis 178). While multiple forms of prejudice and subjugation may be found through history, “prior to 1800, none of the variety of the discriminatory terms and attitudes employed were based on race” (178). Only in the nineteenth -century did racism become “a heavily encoded and naturalized belief that racial characteristics and behaviors were grounded in biology and conformed to a qualitative hierarchy” (178). Specifically, in the United States at this time, “it was polygenesis, the theory of multiple, separate creations for each race as distinct species, that became the hallmark of the American School of Ethnology” (167). Therefore, the consolidation of vampire narratives that occurred in the nineteenth -century coincided with a heightened interest in categorizing human beings in most fields, not just in the study of the folk and folklore. Anthropological and scientific projects were doing similar, if not identical work at this time, – finding new ways to classify and order human beings based on differences they measured through sight.
As a manifestation of the abject, however, the vampire does not and cannot be read to signify solely race. Like other monsters, it stands for many things at once. It is a figure “that transgress[es] categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine, and so on” by fusing opposing elements into one body (Carroll 43). This fusion of oppositional elements becomes very useful when applied to a culture in which categories such as animal/human are used to differentiate between human beings. The joining together of opposites is not haphazard but purposeful. In his study of the vampire in literature and film, Ken Gelder states that “The vampire is not an arbitrarily conceived invention; rather, it is a way of imaging what in a sense has already been vampirised by prevailing ideologies” (20). While the vampire may embody various anxieties about nation, home, and body, the threat it poses at base is rooted in fear of difference. In his concluding chapter, Gelder elaborates upon this notion of the vampire’s link to a society. Although “the vampire’s nature is fundamentally conservative— – it never stops doing what it does [i.e. drinking blood— –] culturally, this creature may be highly adaptable [and] can be made to appeal to or generate fundamental urges located somehow ‘beyond’ culture (desire, anxiety, fear), while simultaneously […] stand[ing] for a range of meanings and positions in culture” (141). He claims, and I agree, that it is for this reason that the vampire has held such sway over the popular imagination for so long. Unlike scientific studies that seek to know and remain objective, vampire narratives outwardly wish to entertain. But fictions of vampirism seek to know just the same and do so by dressing up familiar epistemological frameworks as entertainment. This process is what grants them lasting power.
The Black Vampire as Black Man as Monster
The figure of the black vampire seems contradictory at first glance (it is only in recent times that the vampire figure begins to embody racial difference), because the vampire almost unanimously embodies paleness and, whiteness, in popular texts, not blackness. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula and his “ghastly pale,” “deathly pale” “white skin” [and] “white figure” to the recent Twilight’s Edward Cullen’s “pale skin,” “white [which] literally sparkled, like thousands of tiny diamonds […] like marble […] like crystal”, the vampire’s lack of skin pigment is almost as certain as its desire for the blood of the living (121,74, 85,138; Meyer 24, 260). But undeniably racialized, markedly black and/or African American, fanged monsters do exist, even star, in independent as well as Hollywood narratives. ((I stress the fact that racially different characters that headline narratives do exist because Hollywood horror is notorious for killing off black characters and only keeping those black figures around who serve a purpose to the white leads (Diawara 5). This occurs so often that it has even become a not-so-funny joke in some more recent films. For example, when LL Cool J in the role of ship cook proclaims, “Oh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this. Not ever” toward the conclusion of Deep Blue Sea (1999). What is rare is a black hero, and even more so, an identifiably black monster.))
As an example of how to approach recent Hollywood projects with black vampires, I rely on Halberstam’s examination of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. She chooses to view the text as a technology of monstrosity, recalling Foucault’s technologies of sex. The vampire represents many but not just any things because “[g]othic monsters in particular produce monstrosity as never unitary but always an aggregate of race, class, and gender”: “Dracula is indeed not simply a monster but a technology of monstrosity” (Halberstam 88). By reading the novel in this way, she claims “a kind of productivity for the text, a productivity which leads to numerous avenues of interpretation” (91). She continues, adding that “this does not mean that monstrosity in th[e] novel is constantly in motion— – every now and then it settles into a distinct form, a proper shape, and in these moments Dracula’s features are eminently readable and suggestive” (91). She goes on to distinguish between moments where when the novel likens Dracula, the vampire, to mist or indefinite form and when he becomes solid flesh upon entering the home. In these moments, “as flesh and blood the vampire embodies a particular ethnicity and a peculiar sexuality” (91).
The particular ethnicity she finds embodied in the vampire is the Jew of gothic anti-Semitism. Because of a gothic monster’s ability to “transform the fragments of otherness into one body,” she sees Dracula as representing “the monster Jew produced by 19th-century anti-Semitism” or a figure that combines all the racist elements placed upon Jewish people at that time (92). While there is much evidence to support such a reading, I would argue that any non-white, “darker,” race may be represented within the vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, since the same anthropological studies that accounted for differences in cranium size were used to discriminate against both Jews and Africans. ((Halberstam notes how often the size and underdeveloped nature of Dracula’s brain is discussed in the novel, and how this echoes studies of the time that “concluded that degenerates were a biological throwback to primitive man” (93). She goes on to quote instances where Dracula’s unique race is discussed, and he is shown surrounded by or literally showering gold, evidence of the stereotype that Jews hoard capital.)) Or, at the very least, if Dracula’s monsters may be understood as embodying Jewishness in an anti-Semitic context, then the vampire in the United States could come to represent the specter of difference there, the African American of the pre-Civil War and Civil Rights eras or the bookends to the overtly racist continuum that preceded the era of today’s highly coded racism.
As I have said, examples of black bodies being made monstrous do exist, even within the genre of the “other”— – horror. However, in a visual medium such as film, the body of the other is always visible, always seen, in contrast to the written text of Halberstam’s analysis, which depends on language. A film makes the work of not seeing a body all the more difficult.
This is particularly troubling when found in films following the Civil Rights Era and in a society that prides itself on equal rights. Patricia Hill Collins may assert that this is due to the replacement of racism by new racism that began in the 1980s and flourishes in the United States today. In this new era, racist beliefs are coded behind an ideology that professes that there is no race, that race does not truly exist. Collins argues that, “the problem of the twenty-first century” is “the seeming absence of a color line,” for while “formal legal discrimination has been outlawed […] contemporary social practices produce virtually identical racial hierarchies” (32). The fact that there is no clear source of this outcome in the social structure makes it all the more difficult to identify. This new racism
has not replaced prior forms of racial rule, but instead incorporates elements of past racial formations. As a result, ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and Black people as well as the social practices that these ideas shape and reflect remain intricately part of the new racism, but in changed ways. (32-3)
Characteristics of new racism conceal racist, gender-specific stereotypes and ideas, making it more difficult to uncover them.
Symbolic monsters are more often employed because filmmakers and writers of horror follow a progressive ideology in their narrative structures today. They do so “because race has been so successfully Gothicized within our recent history” and because of its controversy (Halberstam 4). In the year 2011, with many years of genocide, slavery, and apartheid behind us, “race becomes a master signifier of monstrosity” and becomes all the more difficult to be handled overtly within a visual medium (5). What results are the numerous examples of racialized monsters rendered analogous to black men and women— – King Kong, Predator, the Queen in the Alien series, Darth Vader, Oogie-Boogie, or the plant in Little Shop of Horrors (1986). These overtly nonhuman figures “represent the black body as strange, repulsive, or reductively sexual” but do not directly call to the black body (Nama 71). The black body remains suppressed, and the characteristics of new racism remain concealed.
However, in films showcasing a black vampire, the black body is not as repressed as it is by means of symbolic monsters and is taken up to be written upon with the figure of the vampire and all the monstrous sexuality and animalism associated with it. The black man or woman playing the role of vampire is racially framed as black and, additionally, made to bear the burden of certain tropes of racial difference.
A particularly telling example of how contemporary progressive narratives work to conceal racial stereotypes is Blade (1998). In this film, the vampire hunter protagonist is half-vampire himself; a monstrous hero, not a villain, is a black man. In consideration of this, I am interested in what ways such a seemingly progressive narrative conceals the racial stereotyping I suggest is inherent within the structure of vampire fictions.
Blade as Vampire as Vampire Hunter
The representation of black men and black women in the United States seems to amount “to one grand, multifaceted illusion [whereby] blacks have been subordinated, marginalized, positioned, and devalued in every possible manner to glorify and relentlessly hold in place the white-dominated symbolic order and racial hierarchy of American society” (Guerrero 2). Representations that suit this order and its resultant hierarchy circulate more frequently than others. These few figures refuel stereotypes that have been around since the antebellum south, and which viewed black men as “infantile, lazy, and subservient” or as “vicious beasts and rapists” (12). The dominant culture favored the latter stereotype after Reconstruction because of the white fear of a new, free black man whose nominally deviant sexuality was no longer under the control of a white body. The combined fears of black male strength and hypersexuality were made manifest in the image of the “brute Negro,” first captured on film in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).
Patricia Hill Collins highlights how both black men and black women were “perceived to have excess sexual appetite[s],” but that there was a “disturbing additional feature [for men], a predilection for violence” (32). Like colonialism, “chattel slavery also relied upon gender oppression [and] took different forms for African American women and men” (55). Male slaves most often performed manual tasks that required high levels of physical stamina to endure. These tasks were physically grueling and required objectifying black male bodies as “big, strong, and stupid” but also “naturally violent” (56). In order to contain the “brute,” representations arose that could contain his violence and heightened sexuality. Because the dominant culture deemed black men too “wild” for work until “domesticated” and “trained by White men and placed under their discipline and control,” the image of the black buck arose (56). “The buck described a human animal that had achieved partial domestication through slavery,” whose violence and strength had been safely channeled into productive labor and whose sexuality had been diverted toward black female partners (56-7). Therefore, in a society that favors coded progressive narratives, dominant images most often celebrate the contained hypersexuality and strength of black men in the figure of the buck.
Like the buck, the character Blade upholds the value system instead of challenging the dominant order established within the film. He is a vampire hunter and is part- vampire, explicitly existing halfway between animalized vampires and humans. On one hand, he is an action hero in an action-horror film. As the protagonist, the film narrative “approves” of his actions and choices by accompanying him as he vanquishes vampire enemies.
The manner in which Blade is presented as a hero, as a hunter of vampires and friend of humans, reveals some of the prejudices inherent within the film. Blade kills vampires, his own kind. This figure, the vampire hunter, is not unknown in the genre. In fact, it is almost always present within a vampire narrative— – such as the famous monster killer Van Helsing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula— – but rarely receives critical attention (Duda 10). Blade differs from the traditional monster killer narrative strikingly in its use of a vampire as vampire hunter as well as its employment of an unusually diverse cast on both sides of morality. But Blade, as a half-human, is not granted all the abilities of the usual vampire-killer because of the racial representations that frame his body. Heather L. Duda notes that the Van Helsing figure of Dracula, the prototypical monster killer, is fragmented in this particular case. While she suggests that he is split between three characters— – Blade and his two sidekicks— – I find it particularly telling that the figure is split at all. Splitting the figure of the vampire hunter into three, Blade comes to represent the strong, violent side of the figure while his sidekicks, a white man and a black woman, embody the folklorist and the scientist (30). By splitting intelligence and strength along racial lines, the film echoes and reinforces racial stereotypes characteristic of the antebellum south.
Even though Blade is a vampire and thus a “monster,” he becomes a hero by upholding the ideals of the world he exists within and by maintaining the status quo. He is permitted a character arc, and the implicit white male viewer roots for him because Blade follows the rules of that world and fights to keep his animal nature, his sexuality and violence, his vampire-ness, contained. However, he is still a vampire and, therefore, displays characteristics that all vampires of vampire narratives share.
Like Dracula’s monsters and those of other vampire narratives, Blade’s vampires readily display the animal. They growl, snarl, howl, bare their teeth, and slash with their claws. Also, they are framed and clothed by animal imagery, such as fur blankets and leather attire. As a vampire hunter, Blade fights to contain this representation in others as well as his own body; these fights occur in literal battles between him and the ultra-animalistic, sexualized vampires. He finds it difficult to contain the animalistic, hypersexual figure within himself as the narrative continues.
Because Blade is half-vampire and attempts to establish order, —–the human order, —–he must appear human and fight to suppress all that begins to surface, what he calls “the thirst.” While vampirism manifests on the exterior, the source is clearly made internal by how Blade contains the thirst. He injects himself with a blood serum. This injection, bridging the gap between the external skin and the interior structure, roots the source on the inside, not the outside, of the body. External difference exposes inherent internal differentiation from the normative human being, the standard of normativity, —–and science helps Blade overcome his “deficiency.” Throughout most of the film, his self-censoring results in a virtually expressionless demeanor. He remains stoic and controlled, all with the help of the serum.
However, the animalistic nature within fights the controlled representation. When preparing himself for the injection, Blade straps himself into a chair with the aid of his white male sidekick, Whistler. He bites down on the mouth guard shoved into his mouth by Whistler and thrashes, clenches, and kicks after the serum enters his bloodstream. Altering the interior is a painful process.
And, the violence as represented in the figure of the “brute Negro” seems to lie just at the surface of this controlled and contained figure.
Because the film is only progressive on the surface, it functions by showing the system of representation at work as in the above. Blade must reveal his inner nature so that the implied white male viewers may continue to view themselves as superior to black men. This is accomplished through Blade’s increasing immunity to the serum. As the drug’s effects lessen, Blade loses the power to contain his sexuality and violence. He begins to sweat, twitch, and lose his human ability to speak. The moment where the “thirst” catches up to him occurs toward the conclusion of the film. His other sidekick, a scientist named Karen, attempts to talk to him, but Blade’s eyes remain glazed over. ((Karen is represented as a black woman. Further investigation of what her standing as a black woman and sidekick to the vampire hunter Blade should be considered but is outside the focus of this essay.)) The vampire villain Frost comments, “He can’t hear you, honey. The thirst has got him now.” Now that he is more “animal” than man, he loses the human trait of speech. Frost continues, “It’s the human side that’s made you weak. You should have listened to your blood,” which would unleash the animal within. His interior difference, blood, makes him inhuman, and his blood eventually wins over attempts to control it.
Following Frost’s claim, the viewer experiences what the filmic world and Blade attempt to contain. After a scene where Blade is stripped of his shirt and drained of most of his blood, he falls to the ground. Karen comes to the rescue, stating, “Blade, listen to me. I want you to take some of my blood […] Just do it.” Finally giving in to his urge, he is unable to control himself. The film’s soundtrack signals the move from the internal to the external through the addition of a non-diegetic drum sequence. His hunger is not sexy; instead, it is extremely violent, brutal, and persistent. Through the music, the action becomes markedly “primitive” with the addition of a woodblock and unintelligible chanting. As Blade pulls Karen to the ground and mounts her, he pulls on her hair, grunts, and pushes into her. His body sweats, and he sucks on her neck loudly. He feeds like the “brute Negro” rapes. A tribal-inspired tattoo visible only at the base of his skull prior becomes fully visible and focused upon through the choice of a camera angle at his naked back. The violence of this act is strengthened through the editing. Fast cuts from medium shots to close-ups move the focus from the two to his body, his strong back and hands, as he gives in to the “thirst.” All the while, Karen gasps, forces out “no’s” and “stop’s,” and screams. But he does not finish until he is completely satisfied, an act that lasts a total of one minute and thirty-four seconds.
When Blade finally “climaxes,” the camera chooses a medium- long shot, a frame size that highlights everything from the waist up and fully captures Blade pushing Karen aside, arching his bare back, and showcasing his bulging muscles and howling mouth.
Only when the howl is made to sound like a growl through the choice of a slow-motion shot is Blade completely finished, adding an additional thirty seconds of focus to his climax. Here, he falls to the ground, on all fours, and allows a long, saliva-like glob of dark red blood to slip from the side of his mouth. The release of the blood, from the interior to the exterior, not only demonstrates that difference derives from the internal (blood) but that Blade has finally released his blood— – the root of biological difference. Now that he has given in to his “thirst” or released the nonhuman, animal within, he may unleash his full strength and destroy the villain. However, after this task is accomplished, he returns to his previous self, telling Karen that he needs a better serum;, in other words, that he needs to contain his interior self to continue being a hero.
The film reiterates the belief that Blade must remain contained through the employment of stylistic choices throughout. Firstly, his strength and body are continually shot with a low angle in order to give Blade a towering, large presence within the frame. When Blade is introduced for the first time, the camera employs a fragmented and selective approach. In this moment, the frame tracks up his body, revealing the large figure from the back, devoid of identity. Blade’s costuming also serves to negate individuality while placing focus upon the general, useful body. Black leather coat, sunglasses, pants, and boots serves to camouflage as well as to conceal the individual.
Blade’s attire also appears to make him larger and stronger while concealing the details of the black face.
While Blade loses articles of clothing as the film advances, he keeps his sunglasses. His facial features remain hidden. Just prior to the scene that concludes the film, a vampire attacks and takes Blade’s sunglasses. Getting revenge, Blade kills the vampire, and the camera focuses upon the sunglasses flying through the air in a close-up and landing in Blade’s hand. As soon as the sunglasses are back upon his body, fully rendering him as nonhuman, as general livestock, the soundtrack kicks into gear with an intense and pounding synthesized melody. The loud and forceful music implies that the film’s hero has returned, and the viewer should remain with him until the vampire enemy is destroyed.
Interestingly and adding to its progressive front, the film does not deny an existence of racial stereotypes or the ways in which its heroic figures could be construed as fulfilling these roles. When Blade and the vampire villain Frost finally meet for the first time, they discuss each other’s stance on vampirism and the human race. When the debate reaches a heated climax, Frost jabs, “Come on, spare me the Uncle Tom routine, OK? You can’t keep denying what you are.” Here, in this moment, the film acknowledges that it is not so much about a vampiric race versus a human race but a racial outlook that exists in the here and now. Such a self-reflexive comment has potential in unraveling the presence of these stereotypes in popular American imagery, by revealing and analyzing them. But the film merely presents these ideas and does not support them through the course of the narrative. By permitting Blade’s outlook that all vampires must be eliminated and that he must reject his vampiric, hypersexual self in order to be the hero, the film falls in line with traditional monster- killer fictions. Progressive nods work to conceal the film’s reestablishment of racist stereotypes and deny their existence in society.
The figure of Blade works to establish the dominant by denying racial equality and his own difference. The film appears to criticize the history of American slavery by representing Blade as stripped to the waist, bound at his neck and arms, encased in a black cell no larger than his body, and drained of his blood. In this way, the film recalls the historical economic dependence on the blood of enslaved peoples. However, the camera work, soundtrack, and overall vampire narrative do not support the same argument. Through the figure of Blade the vampire hunter, American culture continues to fetishize the black male body through containment, a process that is always about fear.
After an investigation of the figure of Blade, it is difficult to grasp how such representations of blackness exist and remain popular in American culture. I see the fantastical frame of the vampire as essential to this continuation. Horror film’s unique grounding in the “unreal” perhaps allows the propagation of the very images that the dominant system professes to reject, and while it may no longer be acceptable to do as Louis Agassiz and other naturalists did, —–to venture into a community of black folks, strip them to the waist, and pose them in profile, —–the vampire myth covertly accomplishes this cultural work.
For this reason, it is essential for critical theorists to investigate instances where a Hollywood horror film of a predominantly white cast and/or creative workforce requires a narrative with a black man or black woman as vampire. Further projects should examine additional representations of black men and black women vampires, investigating not only how these representations are functioning alone but in relation to one another. Additionally, in current vampire movies such as Twilight, whiteness remains the rule. Are all vampires representing racist representations of blackness and dominant fears? Is it possible to see what is operating through all this whiteness by first examining blackness? Of course, figures that do not overtly represent blackness but otherness must be examined as vampire myths continue to saturate the American cultural landscape. However, in the rare instances where race rises to the surface of monstrous vampire constructions, I ask how black human beings are being represented in the role of the vampire and in what ways the ideas surrounding blackness, the vampire, and gender stand in relation to one another.
82nd Academy Awards. ABC. 9 March 2010. Television.
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