Review of Eco-Vampires: The Undead and the Environment
Simon Bacon. Eco-Vampires: The Undead and the Environment. McFarland, 2020. Paperback. 215 pg. $45.00. ISBN 9781476676227. EBook ISBN 9781476639604.
Vampires of cinema, literature, and folklore have generally populated narratives of doom as malignant forces of destruction driven by a singular need for survival and jeopardizing the very existence of humanity. Traditional representations of the vampire have reflected our own fears and anxieties. Whether these fears were basic reactions to death as a misunderstood natural process of life, or reactions to an overwhelming and fast developing industrial world, stories have positioned the vampire as the quintessential immortal evil force. But depending on the medium vampires inhabit, images of them have also shifted to reflect an ambivalent enemy on the cusp of adapting to the anxieties of a humanity faced with an increasingly complex and everchanging lifestyle spurred on by industrial and technological discoveries.
Simon Bacon’s Eco-Vampires harnesses the ambivalence to differentiate between the many images of the vampire by looking at ways in which narratives and films “express the eco-friendly credentials of the undead” (1). Bacon’s angle on the eco-vampiric version of Dracula is tantalizing as it surprisingly positions the everlasting bloodsucker at the intersection of contemporary eco-studies and the politics of consumerism to suggest that the vampire is an essential part of a global system which does not tolerate globalization and consumerism. Thus, the vampire’s reaction to the increasing climate crisis, he suggests, despite the vampire being seen as a plague on humankind, is expressed as being that of a potential savior and eco-warrior of a desperate planet Earth in need of saving.
The image of Dracula, or any other vampiric character in literature or cinema, going green for the sake of the planet may be challenging for the skeptics to accept. But a closer look at the argument Bacon undertakes reveals the connection between nature and the undead as part of a symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem. In his attempt to overthrow the popular image of the vampire as a demonic force bent on destruction, Bacon points to the European tradition as a source for his green-fanged version. Indeed, the many case studies and field collected texts of Eastern European vampirism catalogued by Jan Louis Perkowski and Agnes Murgoci (see Perkowski’s “The Romanian Folkloric Vampire” and Murgoci’s “The Vampire in Roumania” in The Vampire. A Casebook, edited by Alan Dundes, WI UP, 1998) are a rich ground from which the creature can transmogrify into the eco-warrior Bacon professes it represents. As these early testimonials depict the vampire’s close connection to nature, the environment, and its elements, it is not far-fetched to imagine the jump to ecocritical studies as a base for Bacon’s argument. Ecocriticism emerged in the 1980s as an environmental movement that not only brought into focus the relationship between literature and the physical world but also emphasized the interdisciplinary aspect of the new field. Furthermore, Bacon’s eco-vampire concept makes use of intersectionality to bring forth a new type of marginalized, fallen hero in need of redemption. As an analytical framework, intersectionality looks at all aspects that relate to an individual in combination rather than in isolation. In this case, it emphasizes the vampire as “doppelganger of humankind, representing both a dark mirror image of humanity’s own vampiric characteristics, and actively trying to destroy/neutralize the forces of consumerism/technological progress” (8), which can further substantiate Bacon’s argument. Such redemption, it seems, is not sought out by the creature itself but by our own need to redefine what it means to be the eco-warrior our planet needs and deserves in our current crisis.
Bacon succinctly summarizes the vampiric history of European tradition to argue towards the connection with nature as he points out early correlations between vampires and other creatures such as, dogs, cats, and bats. These early examples see the vampire as an integral part of the environment. Whether because of climate, landscape, societal, or political environments, the vampire becomes a way of understanding, as being part of the land, of the cosmology that explains the environment, and a part that also remembers the past in a changing world (2). This underpins the transition from “real” vampire bats to literary ones and the ongoing synergy between the undead and the ecosystem (2). The first admittedly documented jump from the folkloric vampire to the literary version is Polidori’s 1819 The Vampyre,whose protagonist exhibits a deep connection to the moon, which paves the way to facilitating the identity formation of Bacon’s eco-vampire. The proliferation of novels with vampiric subjects during this period, such as LeFanu’s Carmilla (1874), Florence Marryat’s Blood of the Vampire (1897), H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), establishes the connection and the bond between the undead, the animals, and the land to which they belong. The vampire, especially Dracula, the author argues, becomes a manifestation of an environment trying to protect itself from humanity and the increasing industrialization and destruction of the ecosystem (4). Bacon articulately establishes the connection between vampires, environment, and eco-activism with a quick nod to the relatively new fields of Ecogothic and Ecohorror, or plant-horror. This short detour into ecophobia turns out to be essential in expanding the field of inquiry. By looking at how ideas in the ecogothic and ecohorror literature and cinema work, he shows how vampires are the expression of an ecosystem at war using its own biological weaponry: the vampire plague (8).
The book is divided into five chapters, and each chapter analyzes five pairings of films or texts reflective of the section’s topic. What follows is a compendium of mainly cinematic sources exploring images of the eco-vampire. While many films are familiar to the fans of the genre, others are less so. Several examples, Bacon warns, are purposely provocative. Even though some of the films do not have vampires as protagonists, the vampiric influence and performativity is an underlying aspect of the narrative to give credence to the reading of the vampire as eco-warrior. The examples do not follow chronologically the order of the films’ releases, but they are chosen to represent thematically each chapter’s topic. In Chapter 1, “Dracula the Environmentalist: The Land Beyond the Forest,”Bacon explores the strong connection between the vampire and its natural environment, going as far as showcasing the creature as untamable nature, master of weather and animal life, and as “biological weapon released by the ecosystem to destroy the growing forces of technology” (9). Except for Stoker’s novel, Bacon’s celluloid choices range from the earliest and admittedly most faithful to the novel, such as Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu, to Garland’s 2018 Annihilation. The types of environment rising to battle humanity are also varied: the American desert, the snow-covered lands of Alaska and Northern Europe, the woodlands, and rural locations.
Chapter 2, “Vampiric Sustainability: The Undead Planet,” focuses on how parts of the ecosystem take on vampiric qualities to protect themselves and the wider environment from human incursion (9). The discussion centers on the vampire’s interconnectedness with its environment to the point where it takes on forms of its fauna, or it brings forth manifestations of the fauna. The most obvious case is the connection between vampire and vampire bats. Thus, the undying ecosystems depicted in this chapter manifest themselves as various types of lifeforms as a means to defend themselves against the human invaders that have entered or threatened their domain. The examples reflect ways by which the ecosystem attempts to protect itself and maintain its balance by unleashing vampiric forces upon human incursion and enacting a battle between past and present to recreate a time when humanity had a more respectful and symbiotic relationship with its environment (82).
Chapter 3, “Undead Eco-Warrior. The End of the World as We Know It,” looks at apocalypse and those moments when the planet unleashes vampiric plagues against humanity in an effort to restore the ecosystem. Without dwelling on present-day pandemics, this chapter explores similar circumstances of doom, despair, and cataclysmic scenarios portraying vampires as planetary pest-controllers and humanity as the plague of which nature rids itself in the end to restore an ecological balance. Chapter 4, “The End of the End. Consumerism will Eat Itself,” explores how consumerism and industrialization become sources of their own demise while the vampires they inadvertently create ultimately assist in restoring the ecosystem they were trying to exploit. Scholarship about vampires after the 19th century reveals them as obvious manifestations of consumerism, namely the voracious consumer that must possess and consume until there is nothing left. But it also gives shape to the idea of never-ending consumption as a form of immortality. The films analyzed in this chapter reveal how a world governed by laws of consumerism will literally eat itself to extinction. Finally, Chapter 5, “Vampire Ecosystems. It Came from Outer Space,” looks at how narratives about vampiric invasions from outer space often work as a metaphor illustrating the self-protective qualities of the ecosystem or as a galactic idea of self-protection. Among the protagonists are transient vampires roaming outer space looking for sources of sustenance and acting as cosmic ecological regulators.
I appreciated each chapter’s prefatory opening sentence which facilitates the reader’s immediate immersion with the material. The book is very explicit and clear in its organization and is a must-have for any scholar or student interested in vampire and gothic studies, ecocriticism, and the many ramifications that these fields combine. The many examples used to explore each chapter’s main theme make this book a rich addition to the library of cinematic vampire lore and a robust resource for any media or film studies course.
Mihaela Stoica is senior assistant in the political science department at DePaul University, editor of the PSC Chronicle, and a research team member for Reading Chicago Reading, a digital humanities project studying the impact of the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book” program’s literary events. Her research focuses on the intersectionality of science fiction, the Gothic, sociology, digital humanities, and the politics of feminism. Her MA thesis, “Gender Ambivalence, Fragmented Self, and the Subversive Nature of James Tiptree, Jr’s Science Fiction,” was awarded Distinction. She is the author of Shepherd (2001), a novel inspired by the 1989 Romanian political turmoil.