Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Strigoi: The Undead, by Rebecca Williams

Rebecca Williams (Communication, Culture, and Media Studies Research Unit, Glamorgan University) gave this talk to introduce our sciSCREAM Halloween film, Strigoi.

In her book Our Vampires, Ourselves theorist Nina Auerbach famously stated that ‘every age embraces the vampire it needs’[1]. Indeed, there is a long history of belief in, and representation of the vampire, from Ancient Greece and Rome to England, from Norse mythology and witch trials in the Middle Ages, through to the Gothic literature of England in the Victorian era. Whilst each version of the vampire may be different – some depict vampires as being unable to walk in sunlight whilst others have no such issues – one thing that does remain consistent is the use of the vampire as a figure who can represent contemporary social anxieties and fears. In her comprehensive study of vampires Milly Williamson makes clear that we must avoid ‘the tendency to make sweeping generalisations about the era in which a work was produced, and thus about the work itself’[2], and we must be cautious of the assumption that ‘psychic drives and historical periods [can be] ‘“summed up” in individual exemplary forms’’[3]. However, it seems that the tradition of the vampire has both influenced culture and been influenced by culture throughout history. As writer Christopher Frayling has suggested ‘the vampire is as old as the world’[4]. For example, early fears about being buried alive or returning in a state of ‘undeath’ were credited with originating the vampire myth in Ancient Greece whilst the 19th century this was linked to misunderstanding around the processes at work in the human body after death. As the vampire became mediated through literature and film, it also seemed to represent a range of fears, as in the suggestions that the appearance of Nosferatu in the 1922 film reflected negative European attitudes towards Jews in the early twentieth century.

Even today the vampire continues to be a present figure within culture, even if the majority of those who live within society do not believe that vampires are real. The popularity of television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, the book and film series of Twilight and other movies such as Blade, Let The Right One In and its remake Let Me In and the film we are about to see suggests that the modern vampire is as present as ever. Such examples rework and contribute to established generic tropes of the vampire – as Jonathan Hardy has noted, these recent successes have ‘added to the resonance and intertextual reworking of vampire myths and iconography, whose rich cultural history continues to provide malleable resources for contemporary storytelling’[5]. However, whilst some of these modern vampires are sympathetic or romantic figures (e.g. Twilight’s Edward Cullen or True Blood’s Bill Compton), Strigoi presents a blackly humorous look at the undead.

Its setting in a post-communist Romanian village reflects the vampire heritage of Eastern Europe; the most obvious marker of which is Transylvania and its association with one of literature’s seminal vampires – Dracula. The film draws on a specifically Romanian version of the vampire – the folklore of the figure of the Strigoi. As writer Matthew Beresford notes in his comprehensive history of the vampire, From Demons to Dracula, the Strigoi was considered in Romania to be the most feared of all spirits[6]. These figures are created if appropriate post-death traditions are not respected or if for example, a person dies before being married. In the folklore of the Strigoi we see many of the traditional means of dispatching the vampire including garlic, stakes through the heart, being set on fire or being buried at a crossroads to prevent the demon from returning to its home village.

Strigoi the film plays with many of these conventions to explore the conflict between the belief of the villagers and the central character Vlad’s initial confusion and reticence to believe that the Strigoi can be real. When the Strigoi Mrs Tirescu attempts to sate her hunger by consuming the contents of her neighbours’ kitchen she is warned “There’s garlic in that. You can’t eat that!”. Later, the villagers ponder that Constantin Tirescu cannot be a real Strigoi since he is able to enter the Church – as one asks, “Well, then, what is he?”. In contrast to the superstitious adherence by the elder villagers that the Strigoi is real, the more modern minded Vlad continues to maintain that Constantin is simply ill and that these traditional ideas are outdated and ludicrous. For instance, upon his first return to town he incredulously asks villagers watching over a dead body whether they expect him to become a vampire. Only when faced with the possibility that the Strigoi are real – and that his own grandfather may be a living or ‘born’ Strigoi who has been sucking his blood whilst he sleeps – does Vlad accept that some of the traditions must be adhered to. When he removes and burns the heart of his friend, his reluctant acceptance of the history of the village and his own family is clear.

Indeed, in reworking and drawing on many of the traditions associated with the folkloric Strigoi, the movie attempts to offer a new incarnation of the vampire film. Using the figure of the Strigoi to offer a commentary on land ownership, control and corruption in post-Communist Eastern Europe allows the movie to explore issues that could seem dull and overly political to many viewers in a way that is both original and engaging. Indeed, it works as an example of how

the vampire … is shaped by both the changing world into which it emerges as well as by the medium through which it is represented. … The vampire is timeless but, through the process of renewal, it is completely in tune with the present[7].

References

[1]Nina Auerbach (1997) Our Vampires, Ourselves, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2]Milly Williamson (2005) The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy, London: Wallflower Press, p. 5.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Christopher Frayling (1991) Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula, London: Faber and Faber.

[5]Jonathan Hardy (2011) ‘Mapping commercial intertextuality: HBO’s True Blood’, Convergence, 17: 7-17, p. 9.

[6]Matthew Beresford (2008) From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, London: Reaktion Books.

[7]Stacey Abbott (2007) Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World, Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, p. 10-11.

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