As a child I couldn’t help myself, and I bit my father on the leg. I don’t know why. Even then, I couldn’t explain it. I was old for it. At 6, I drew blood, and my father immediately gave me one, two, three blows on the thigh. We were in front of a window with no drapes, just one sheer layer of hard, acrylic lace. Heat thickened in the throat. It was summer in Mississippi. We were living with my grandmother, and this was my grandmother’s house, where my sister and I slept in the unfinished upstairs. Someone else was in the room, although I’m not sure who; I only remember being watched.
The floury taste of my father’s leg came back to me several months ago, after I had decided to start watching vampire films at night. For years, I’ve battled insomnia and I needed a new routine. Rules and structure, and I’ll be subdued, I hoped. Vampire films are one of the more aesthetic subgenres of horror, and I wanted to be lulled with pageantry.
Most of us learn about the classic vampiric traits as kids, from watching cartoons and trick-or-treating: a cape, fangs, dark under-eye circles, an aversion to garlic and light. In contemporary vampire movies, these conventions are often made explicit by a listing-of-the-rules scene, which is one of my favorite recurring tropes: the vampire comes onto the screen in order to tell us what she is or isn’t, what the lore got right, and what is laughably wrong. Stuart Townsend as Lestat, a vampire-cum-rockstar, is giddy to deliver his vain version in Queen of the Damned, an adaption of the third novel in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles; here, vampire identity need not be a secret.
The trope reminds me of what Phillip Lopate has described as his favorite moment in an essay: the “reckoning.” The reckoning is similar, he says, to the moment in horror films when the monster looks in the mirror and discovers what the audience has known all along, what the other characters have tried to impart to her with their terror: that she is the monster in this story. But the vampire’s posture is often confident and declarative—she comes to us informed, subversively delighting in the collision between truth and myth, expectation and reality. (“The emotion is born at the angle of one state with another state,” wrote Hélène Cixous. “At the passing, so brusque.”) Telling the truth gives the vampire—and her audience—pleasure, because we know it will be met with disbelief, horror, titillation.
I began my vampire routine with the black-and-whites—blood looks so much juicier without color—and started with the film that opens many film history syllabi, F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula. Nosferatu is the film where modern monsters were made, when the filmic narrative was still brand new. In Max Schreck’s hollow-eyed, rat-toothed rendering of Count Orlok (the Dracula character—his name changed to avoid, or rather disguise, copyright infringement), the vampire is more animal.
After watching the restored, color-tinted version once in its entirety, I skipped around and re-watched a few parts—especially those scenes which felt familiar, because they’ve been recreated countless times, like the film’s most resilient image: Orlok’s stringy shadow, horrifyingly rinsed of his corporeal body, ascending the stairs. It’s toward the film’s end, and he’s on his way to kill Ellen Hutter, and forevermore all filmic shadows in such a position will be definitively carnivorous. When Orlok finally reaches the bedroom, he takes his time, leaning in close to his prey (it is almost a repose, almost spiritual). When he does finally go in for the bite, it’s not a dark-shadowed fang we see; it isn’t a cape, or even his awkward, ungainly frame. Orlok reaches across Hutter’s white nightgown for the climactic kill, and we see ten long fingernails. It’s horrifying. An outstretched hand in the shadow of a single candle’s light does very little, but if that hand has long, sharp fingernails, the hand suggests what the teeth will do.
Orlok’s fingernails grow over the course of the film, which might very well be a mistake; however, they seem to grow alongside his commitment to tasting Hutter’s beautiful neck. Orlok is engrossed. He’s dreamt of this neck. And in her bedroom, he stares at the object of his hunger and waits too long. A rooster crows. Orlok tries to flee and is burned by the rising sun. But Hutter has this planned. Only one person can stop Orlok’s killing spree, and it must be someone, like her, who’s pure of heart. Orlok vanishes in smoke, and the intertitle reads: “And the truth was witness to the miracle: That very same hour the Great Death ended and the shadow of the death bird lifted…as if blown away by the victorious rays of the living sun.”
Nosferatu is a vision of vampirism as a virulent infestation, which must be exterminated by a chosen hero—an ending to the Great Death. Let’s call it the bed bug interpretation: Count Orlok’s face looks like a bug’s. It’s twitchy. The parasite feeds off of humans and spreads. Orlok can’t help himself. He has one function, and he’ll complete it, even if it means death. Sacrifices must be made to get rid of the existential horror of bed bugs. One must throw out the mattress, burn the sheets, and start over.
It had been 15 years since I’d first seen Tod Browning’s Dracula or Bela Lugosi, whose image still dominates: the cape; black hair, slick and tight; a bespoke suit with tails, pearl buttons on his shirt; a moneyed aristocrat, every inch a count. Both films, Dracula and Nosferatu, borrow their premises from the same novel, but with vastly different interpretations. Dracula emphasizes the class anxiety built into Stoker’s novel, a facet often forgotten in modern versions. There’s a scene in the novel where Count Dracula is cut, his jacket ripped, and from his pockets, he literally bleeds money. Not to mention, he’s an entrepreneur, a stingy capitalist, a man of means and yet an ascetic, the model of the Protestant work ethic. Lugosi’s attractiveness is sleek; as a veteran stage actor, there’s dance to his movements. When he sees John Harker’s crucifix, his flinch is more like a twirl.
He doesn’t frighten the way Shreck does. This may be my personal aversion to Lugosi’s sleekness, or it could have something to do with the way Dracula rushes through scenes, leaving no time to build suspense and fear, where Nosferatu’s plot, a good, protracted courtship, had waited before consummation. But I’m more inclined to pin this failure on Lugosi’s hands. He holds them near his face, awkwardly splayed and spidery, as if he’s accommodating for long talons, but he has none.
When fingernails are so long that they impede basic hand function, like opening a jar, or writing, we assume that their wearer must be a person of some exceptional distinction. Maybe the wearer is rich, and it’s unnecessary to do these things; or style takes precedence; or perhaps the person is unable to keep them clipped, perhaps because of some special physical or personal or even religious reason. Regardless, when fingernails reach a certain length, they can isolate. Often, when a woman is supposed to look sexy on film, she’s given long, polished fingernails. They’re usually red. These fingernails are different from the classic vampire’s in that they’re well-groomed. But does the vampire pick up any of that residual long-fingernail sex appeal, or, on the contrary, does the appeal of the woman’s long red nails have something to do with their vampiric capacity to frighten? The woman with the long red fingernails tends to be presented as a threat. The audacity of long fingernails, their sharpness: they protrude, poke, and slice. It’s a disruption, and most disruptions have the capacity to titillate.
Critics often theorize about vampires’ sexual significance. Most tend to reduce Stoker’s novel to a sensational battle between Victorian repression and the vampire’s transgressive sexuality; blood is the equivalent of semen. But as Peter Straub notes in his introduction to Stoker’s book, while vampires do challenge societal expectations for courtship and gender identification, they first threaten the self. Perhaps that is the primary and truly erotic relationship in the vampire story—that of the vampire to herself—and it’s a relationship which takes place in solitude.
Erotic is an important term in a vampire’s vocabulary, but only if the term is allowed the kind of latitude Audre Lorde grants it in “Uses of the Erotic.” Lorde unyokes the term from the strictly pornographic and reassigns it personal and political power. She writes, “The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person.” According to Lorde, the erotic is the force that bleeds—beings, entities, objects blend with other objects. In the essay, Lorde remembers receiving rationed margarine. It was white but came with a packet of yellow food coloring, which she’d mash and mush together in a Ziploc bag. Erotic, not because it mimics sex, but because a blending takes place, one state with another state. The scene reminds me of another from her biomythography, Zami. She remembers a childhood task: grinding and kneading spices into meat, pushing, pressing, and tenderizing. Sharing deeply is the fountainhead of eroticism for Lorde, but in her examples, it always begins with the self, a personal action—private and solitary, kneading margarine until it’s yellow.
When I think of the erotics of vampirism, two images come to mind: 1) my father’s face, mad and squalling red, and 2) the field where my grandmother lived, where insects fountain at night, near a small, soupy lake thick with green-brown tannin.
The vampire is not alive, and contrary to the myth, our fingernails do not continue to grow after death. According to folklore, vampires regrow a set of nails once they’ve turned, so an exhumed body that lacked nails or had grown new ones was summarily staked, burned, or reburied with garlic. In Stoker’s novel, Jonathan Harker describes Dracula’s nails as “long and fine, and cut to a sharp point,” and in Anne Rice’s books, vampires have nails that look like glass. In the 1994 film adaptation of Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, Lestat, the Byronic vampire played by Tom Cruise, determines his convert’s appearance; his aesthetic pleasure is paramount. In a fit that she’ll never grow to be an adult woman, the child vampire Claudia, played by Kirsten Dunst, cuts off all of her dollish ringlets, and Lestat laughs: he made her that way, so she’ll stay. Her hair grows back as perfect as before, and she’s furious. Like a child, Claudia’s nails are closely cropped, while Brad Pitt’s character, Louis, has a rounded oval manicure—clean, immaculate. Lestat’s own fingernails are only small white crescents peeking over his fingertips, and they don’t scream vampirism—that is, until he takes a tool out of his pocket and slips it onto his thumb: a long, pointy, silver nail, encrusted with floral filigree. He uses this to make incisions in his victims, which are not always meals for himself; sometimes it’s a cut for his thirsty family, Claudia and Louis. Before he turns them into vampires, he asks, “Have you said your goodbyes to the light?” He points a buffed fingernail in the direction of the coming sunset and commands it.
Werner Herzog’s coldly-colored Nosferatu the Vampyre adheres to the art direction of Murnau’s original; similarly, fingernails are tools to command shadow, the vampire’s original medium. “I like the darkness and the shadows where I can be alone with my thoughts,” says Klaus Kinski as Count Dracula. (The film takes a lot of its dialogue from Stoker’s novel.) No vampire makes it look easy, but Kinski brings the expressivity of a silent film star to his lucid anguish. He’s as much Maria Falconetti as he is Max Schreck, a hungry, tortured Joan of Arc, and just like Dreyer’s did, Herzog’s unmotivated, illogical camera movements make it all feel like a horrible dream. “I do not need to see the vampire films of the future,” Herzog has said on several occasions, “I still know Kinski will be the best, at least for four or five centuries.” Herzog has always been attracted to the romantic notion of the doomed prophet, the nonpareil who cultivates madness on a film set, so, of course, he wouldn’t have any trouble maintaining the ludicrous belief that a realistic vampire film requires, which is that a vampire suffers more than everyone else.
At the dinner table, Dracula stares. His eyes move slow and hurtful in his skull, and he pours champagne for his guest, Jonathan Harker. When Harker cuts himself on his knife, Dracula springs toward him, tasting Harker’s bleeding hand. He’ll take care of it, he says, and tries to suck it clean. The bloody hand, which we know Dracula cannot resist, is held so gingerly by those fingernails, which I cannot help but watch—almost exclusively—because when the nails come into play, the true art of playing the vampire is revealed: not the baroque vaudeville act so many horror actors attempt, but a meticulous art of reticence, a delicate dialectic between the brutal and sweet, fearful and terrible, tentative and vehement, tender and cruel.
In order to better understand why I bit my father, I should also tell you that as a child, my sister and I had a lot of fake nails. Press-ons, usually bright pink, which took off the first layer of natural nail whenever they were popped off, one by one. Glow in the dark nails, which came with a book of ghost stories; in the pitch black, only our green fingers fanned and retracted. There was a set of red, rubbery costume nails with warts, which we gnawed and mangled until the polish chipped off in our mouths, and one by one, we lost the digits—a thumb went first. We made nails out of all kinds of things: black olives fit perfectly. Bugles would leave a mark on skin. Other nail-like things could be temporarily affixed with glue. We needed them for emphatic pointing and tapping on the table; if you couldn’t see our impatience, you’d certainly hear it. My sister and I scratched each other’s backs with our fake nails until we knew it hurt, but in order to win a game whose stakes and terms were never defined, we’d ask for it to be just a bit harder. When no one was listening, and we were all alone, we loved to take the Lord’s name in vain. Like a curse, we’d say it, flicking our nails: Sweet Jesus, or Christ on a cracker, or Jesus in Hell; we put him there. Scratch, scratch.
Vampires have taken so many diverse shapes, it’s hard to believe that many share an origin in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There are vampire films which lean into their pageantry, into science, or into magic—the fingernails usually tell us which. There is the Raphael-fallen-angel version in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where there is no clear boundary between Count Dracula’s dull, dead skin and long talons, which he uses to daintily hold a bloody knife. He holds it up, turns to the camera, and licks the knife’s sharp edge. “It was the most exhausting thing I ever had to do,” Gary Oldman said of the role. His rendering is magical. Then there is the vampire of otherness and sexual liberation in Guy Maddin’s film of palimpsestic collage, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, where fingernails are hardly seen through hazy, expressionistic dancing, but when they are, they appear long. This is pageantry at its finest. The film contains no dialogue, nothing resembling realistic acting from a director who once said, “If you want realism, watch security tapes.” The vampire is a torture mechanism for young, beautiful women in Daughters of Darkness. These vampires are female, voyeurs, and they love to get naked and beg for things for no good reason. Their nails are painted red, not classically vampiric; they’re beautiful threats. The same choice is made in The Addiction. After Lili Taylor’s character turns into a vampire, she receives a sudden, but rather ordinary manicure.
I looked for more fingernails. In Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film, Near Dark, vampires are never called vampires. They’re stripped of their Gothic underpinnings—no bats or crucifixes. Instead, vampires are reworked into a classic Western narrative. They’re pioneer vampires, trekking out across the midwest, looking for love and thrills. It sounds like a joke, but the two traditions actually complement each other shockingly well. The oldest, most grizzled, and cruel vampire in the group has long fingernails, and of course, of the vampires, he is the most solitary.
The process of breaking or reifying prefab vampire rules often supplants other narrative expectations for plot—like novelty, say, or surprise endings. Instead, we wait to see what new compound of recombinant vampire traits this iteration of the mythos will bring—if the vampire will turn to ash in the morning light, or if she’s something else, a bit closer to us. Contemporary vampires (think True Blood, Vampire Diaries) don’t seem to contain many of the original vampire’s elements—but, importantly, their goal is no longer to frighten. According to film and TV theorist Milly Williamson, “Dracula no longer holds center stage in the world of vampires. The 20th century produced a new generation of morally ambiguous, sympathetic vampires who lure audiences with the pathos of their predicament and their painful awareness of outsiderdom.” I am reminded that there is a salable solitude, which is often interpreted as sensitive, or indicative of genius—like the libertarians and loner geniuses of the Elon Musk variety. Does the contemporary vampire story speak to our discomfort when faced with a person who needs an inordinate amount of solitude, the divergent personality types? Or, is it always one or the other: Either a marketable, and therefore acceptable, solitude, or an illegible separateness, a maladjustment that is to be warned against and feared?
It must have been a Sunday when I bit my father, because that was the only day he didn’t work, fixing and selling cars and RVs. Even though it was his only day off, he’d sometimes use this day to walk around the chain-link fence of the auction lots in South Jackson, looking for a totaled Honda with perfectly good seats, or a Nissan that still had an intact fender, which he’d use to build new, Frankenstein cars. This kind of lonely ranging would have been seen as unacceptable dereliction if it had been attempted by the women of the house—my mother and grandmother understood that it was their duty to look after my sister and me while my father made his solitary rounds. In some men, manly solitude is an assumed mode, a (paradoxically) social act; in a man like my father, it merely masked and excused a deeper inhibition. He couldn’t interact with people, not the way he wanted to—not the way we often wished he would. He hid in the garage and seldom spoke.
However, on this Sunday, he sat in a rocker, drinking a cappuccino he made with three scoops of a Folgers mix, one scoop of malted milk powder in a to-go mug, although we weren’t going anywhere. I am not trying to say that I played the role of vampire, and my father was my victim, or vice versa. There are still some things that I cannot explain. As children, we find it difficult to articulate our fears, and don’t yet know to use the righteous phrases they deserve—and so, instead, we bite into a father we rarely touched.