The vampire film genre has gone through some drastic changes since its inception. Early films like Dracula and Mark of the Vampire gave us pasty titular characters and white protagonists. The settings were also typically in very white spaces. This isn’t surprising considering America’s history of pushing people of color to the margins socially and institutionally during this time.
However, people of color have gained a larger footing in the horror genre both in front of and behind the cameras. As a result, there has been an incredible shift in how and where vampire stories are told. These are no longer relegated to the hills of Transylvania, some spooky white suburban town/rural area, or aristocratic locations.
Vampires are everywhere, including major city neighborhoods, some of which have predominately Black and Latin residents. How and when did vampires come to these spaces? Let’s go back in time and look at vampires move to a different world and why it matters.
Same Character Archetypes, Fresh Perspectives
It’s largely impossible to locate and categorize every single vampire movie that has ever come out. But, in terms of American cinema, this vampire migration movement seems to start with Blacula in 1972. The movie’s titular character (who uses his given name Mamuwalde) is the first Black vampire to appear in film. He brings a new perspective, including location, to the genre.
Blacula‘s story began in 1780 Europe but quickly refocuses in Los Angeles centuries later. The city is quite diverse by nature but Blacula mostly takes place in Black spaces. It examines something that had never really been looked at in a major American vampire film before. How do people who aren’t white understand, process, and deal with this particular brand of the undead in their neighborhood?
The typical horror cliché is that Black people run for the hills from anything suspect (which is true sometimes tbh). Or, they sacrifice themselves for the “real” (read: white) characters. Hate to see it. But, Blacula gives Black characters a chance to tackle an array of roles.
There’s a Black investigator who fully believes in vampires. He knows how to combat them and deduces what’s behind recent murders. The woman protagonist, Tina, falls in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, bringing romance into the mix. And there are the skeptics and ever-present people who are oblivious to what’s happening.
These are all common character archetypes in a vampire story, something any fan can appreciate. However, Blacula gives viewers a chance to see a spectrum of Blackness from the regal and aristocratic Mamuwalde to others with a more street smart edge to their personality. Racial themes naturally permeate this story in a way that complements its plot. It shows how Black people specifically would have to advocate for and protect themselves from this type of threat because, well, who else is gonna do it?
Vampires in the “Hood”
Some vampire films take place in the “hood,” which opens up the door for different avenues of social analysis and commentary. For example, Vampires in Brooklyn brings Maximillian, a Caribbean vampire to Brooklyn in search of Rita, a dhampir who happens to be an NYPD detective. Again, many typical parts of vampire lore are in this story with a dhampir, ghoul, disappearing reflections, and even the resident vampire expert.
However, despite the film’s comedic tone, it takes place in tough streets. The characters both live and dip into areas with crime and poverty. It’s the kind of on-the-margins locale where vampires (if they were real) would be able to move about and do what they wanted to with lesser consequences.
Why? Because the general/more affluent population is all too willing to look the other way, even when something is clearly amiss. In reality, people in these neighborhoods are considered to be “disposable,” a social understanding that a vampire surely understands.
This is akin to the real-life controversy surrounding Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel back in the 1980s and 1990s. The infamous hotel, which sits right near Skid Row, was supposedly a hangout place for murderers and drug dealers. It became a valley where they could go and commit crimes (or hide after their crimes) and no one would care.
There’s also Vampires vs. the Bronx, a recent installment in the “vampires in the hood” subgenre with a clear message and engaging protagonists. A lot of horror/sci-fi-leaning coming-of-age stories center mostly on white kids; however, this film puts Black and Latino kids at the forefront.
The vampires harken back to their classic form: pasty, ugly, and hiding in the dark. And they are literally gentrifiers in a Bronx neighborhood. They levy their white privilege and money to slowly work towards taking over and eradicating the residents.
It’s thrilling to see these brave boys fight against their adversaries. And, in the end, bring the whole neighborhood together to protect its cultures and identities from vultures looking to erase them. Now, that’s some social messaging for ya.
In the mix of this vampire story, the kids face a range of realities from being lured into illicit activities to trying to impress a crush to hanging out at a bodega. It’s that duality of dangerous pathways and the innocence of childhood that make this type of vampire story wonderfully rich and unique, something you wouldn’t get in a film located elsewhere.
Black Vampires in Big City Streets
Although less neighborhood-focused, Blade takes place in the streets of Los Angeles. The infamous half-human, half-vampire badass traverses the city obliterating vampires. Bloody underground nightclubs, dark lairs, sketchy apartments, and other dangerous spots are all places where a vampire would vamp, places that we wouldn’t have experienced if vampires hadn’t branched outside of their initial scope.
But, not all of these films lean into neighborhood strifes. Some of them stick close to the individual struggles, whether they are in a white space or not. Ganja & Hess gives viewers a lot to ponder while showing the merits of anchoring vampire stories in non-white spaces. The film came out shortly after Blacula with a documentary, arthouse aesthetic.
That alone set it apart from the time period’s Blaxploitation and horror imagery and themes. Hess, a wealthy anthropologist becomes a vampire during a trip to Africa. He falls in love with his dead assistant’s wife, Ganja; she later agrees to become a vampire with him. Their love story takes place in New York City and brings in real themes that would exist for a Black vampire.
Hess has immortality (to an extent) and wealth but he still has to worry about negative interactions with the cops. He’s acutely aware of his place as a Black man in a wealthy and white space, thereby understanding what it means to be an outsider before becoming a vampire.
In the end, Hess seeks to redeem his soul and redefine himself in a way that many Black people have: through the church. Ganja, on the other hand, represents many people who covet access and proximity to wealth after years of poverty and struggle. Their stories are more than just bloodthirst, they are reflections of Black experiences.
Interestingly, this vampiric couple uses addiction and poverty to their advantage, preying on those who will “not be missed” as their victims. That theme of the “forgotten” falling victim to blood-sucking entities continues to show up in horror in various forms today.
A Long Vampire Road to Travel
Of course, taking vampires out of Eurocentric locations doesn’t automatically mean they have to be in the US. In 1974, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires changed the game again with a martial arts slant on the vampire genre. This film sees Dracula insert his essence into a Taoist monk’s body before leaving Transylvania in favor of Chongquin, China. The seven golden vampires in question are a seemingly timeless cult that unleashes terror wherever they go.
Van Helsing works at a university and is rather well versed in Chinese vampire legends, which leads him and a small group to eradicate this gold mask-wearing threat. As interesting as the premise seems, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires was a critical and financial failure.
However, it was a reminder to the world that vampire legends exist outside of America and Europe, so it doesn’t make sense to always center those narratives in those places. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of US vampire movies that center in POC communities and/or feature those protagonists outside of Black and/or Latin spaces.
There are certainly more examples of vampires stepping outside of their initial scope to new locations and storytelling prospects. (No, I will not be talking about the ridiculous Mutant Zombie Vampires from the Hood. Sorry to that film.)
But these movies prove that the genre has come a long way. The journey from suspect cape-wearing men traversing castle walls to vampires in the streets is both fun and necessary. There’s a lot to learn from different protagonists and environments, keeping vampire stories fresh as the blood they drink. The vampire genre isn’t going anywhere anytime soon but hopefully, it continues to branch out to new territory.
Read all of Nerdist’s Vampire Week pieces here!