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Following the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1897, vampire narratives proliferated in Britain and the United States.1 While many twentieth century short stories, novels, plays, and films in both countries depart from Dracula in various ways, it is our impression that that workand its close derivatives retain pride of place in the popular imagination. Yet Dracula was but one of several well-known vampire stories published in English during the nineteenth century, and scholars deem certain of the other tales to be of literary merit.

In noting that, we raise this question: What is it about the plot and the characterization of vampires in Dracula that make it the most famous example of vampires in English fiction? Why, in particular, has it been more influential than Le Fanu's Carmilla which preceded it in time and is of equal or perhaps greater literary distinction?2 We address that question, and by doing so we hope to gain some insight into the attraction and persistence of vampire tales across time and cultures.

We begin by sketching our approach to conceptualizing the category "vampire." Nina Auerbach, a Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that "There is no such creature as 'The Vampire'; there are only vampires."3 That declaration is in keeping with her demonstration that in nineteenth and twentieth century British and American vampire novels, short stories, plays, and films, vampires vary greatly in behavior, in apparent motivation, and in cultural significance. Different social orders and different culturally supported sensibilities [End Page 218] and sensitivities, she persuasively argues, find expression in different sorts of vampires.

We deem Auerbach's literary nominalism preferable to an essentialism that would govern vampiric class inclusion by insisting on some conjunction of necessary features or conditions. At the same time, however, we think that there is a better way of allowing for differences in conceptualizing vampires and in understanding their multi-faceted significance in British and American imaginings of the last two centuries. That way combines the recognition of family resemblances with insights derived from prototype theory in the cognitive sciences.

A family resemblance approach can be quite liberal in what it includes as instantiations of the category "vampire." It can encompass not only such familiar (albeit different) figures as Ruthven, Varney, Carmilla, Dracula, and Lestat, but also others, including so-called "psychic vampires," who flourish not by sucking blood but by draining vitality, will, and even experience from their victims. Some may ask, does this not create a category that is so promiscuous in what it includes as to render the category analytically useless? No, we reply, once you couple family resemblance with insights from prototype theory.

Prototype theory, narrowly described, attempts to account for "prototype effects." These "effects" are differences in the judgments that people render about how well different instances of a category exemplify the category. Thus, for instance, some people may judge apples and oranges to be clearer or better exemplars of the category "fruit" than olives. Similarly, some may judge robins and sparrows to be clearer or better exemplars of the category "bird" than penguins. Judgments can be explicitly given, or they can be inferred from the order of examples that people give or from their responses to lists of examples furnished by others. Prototype theorists call the adjudged clearest or "best" examples of categories "prototypes" or "the most prototypical exemplars."4 This approach celebrates centrality and periphery rather than essence and boundary in conceptualizing categories.5 It allows that some instantiations of a category may be deemed more central to the category than others. Thus in the case of vampires, Dracula is more central to the category than, say, the shape-shifting space alien who extracts salt from victims in an episode of Star Trek, First Generation. Auerbach recognizes that centrality when she refers to "Dracula's dominance in our century" (p. 111). We contend, moreover, that while Sheridan Le Fanu's vampire Carmilla is more prototypical—that is, an adjudged better exemplar of the category—than vampiric space aliens [End Page 219] and legions of psychic vampires, she is less...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 218-227
Launched on MUSE
2005-04-26
Open Access
No
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