New course explores the ubiquitous vampire legend

Jan. 18, 2006

by Barbara Wolff

Sorry. There is no a hands-on lab section in this class. It does, however, come with ample opportunities for discussion.

About 30 undergraduates will get a taste of how cultures spread through one of the world’s most potent and long-lived icons.

The subject is the vampire, and the venue will be a new course, The Vampire in Literature and Cinema.

Tomislav Longinovic, professor of Slavic and comparative literature, is well versed in vampire lore. Born and raised in Belgrade, he also is a novelist (“Moment of Silence,” 1990, and “Lonely America,” 1994) and short-story writer.

Far from presenting an easy, “fun” course for undergraduates, Longinovic intends to cast the vampire as an illustration of the way one culture is transmitted to another.

“The world’s perception of Eastern Europe in general and the Balkans in particular has been tinted a bloody hue, marking the region as a zone of excessive violence,” he says. “Metaphorically speaking, this part of Europe has been envisioned in the popular imagination of the West as one huge Draculand, inhabited by backward Slavs and other, less-known East European peoples. My aim in this course is to work through this kind of negative cultural perception by analyzing folklore, literature and film. I hope the students will get an insight into the way in which culture values are constructed through a popular image of the vampire.”

Longinovic will not require his students to read Bram Stoker’s classic, but they will watch three cinematic tellings of the tale: F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German film “Nosferatu” (screened on Friday, Jan. 20, by Cinematheque.); Hollywood’s treatment of “Dracula,” directed by Tod Browning; and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stocker’s Dracula.”

In addition, the class will read short stories by Tolstoy, Byron, Goethe, Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu and many others. A special reading will be Elisabeth Kostova’s new bestseller, “The Historian,” published last year.

The students also will investigate scholarly insights into the creature from a variety of perspectives.

“We will read from three collections of essays to place the vampire in the multidisciplinary contexts of literary criticism, cinema studies, sexual pathology and medical anthropology,” he says.

Longinovic intends to devote a good deal of time to exploring the cultural use of vampires as folkloric explanations of disease epidemics. In light of contemporary concerns about possible influenza and other possible pandemics, these discussions could shed particular light on how factors other than pure science influence public perception of illness.

“There are many theories about different kinds of diseases and epidemics as origins of the vampire myth. Some authors associate the vampire with hereditary syphilis — medical books describe children born to women with syphilis as having sharp pointy teeth, long nails, an elongated skull and so on,” he says.

Longinovic says that what is even more interesting is that vampire scares rattling through Europe in the 18th century occurred at exactly the same time as the Age of Reason spread east from Paris.

“It’s as if the light of reason had teased out this revenant creature from the dark recesses of Western collective imagery,” he says.

In the 21st century, however, students make the acquaintance of vampires through television. Most of the students in Longinovic’s class grew up on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel.”

Kelsey Dalrymple, for example, a freshman from Lodi, Wis., majoring in anthropology, says, “After my sister became obsessed with the ‘Buffy’ show, I became enamored of vampires myself. I’ve lived in Rwanda, Mali and Chad, as well as in New York and Wisconsin, and I hope that this class will cover all aspects of real and

mythical vampire lore, from all parts of the world.”

Global vampire lore also fascinates Chris DeBruin, another freshman. He’s from Milwaukee and likely will major in a social science or history.

“I have always found it peculiar that the vampire, or a creature very similar to it, arose in the vast majority of cultures worldwide,” he says.

Trish Curry, a senior majoring in anthropology and history, says that she looks forward to taking a comparative approach to vampires as missionaries of cannibalism, representatives of an afterlife and battles between good and evil, and how and why monsters become heroes.

“I’m especially interested in gaining a better understanding as to why the representation of evil would take the shape of a bloodthirsty half-bat — some cultures would see those characteristics as signs of courage or divinity,” she says.

Longinovic says that the students will explore those subjects and more.

“Wherever it is found, the vampire is a truly iconic figure that speaks to the dark side of humanity, a subculture complementing official divinities associated with light,” he says. “Examining the vampire has given me greater and more complete insight into the perennial problems of humanity trying to come to terms with its own evils.”

The Vampire in Literature and Cinema, a three-credit course, meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For more information, e-mail Longinovic at tlongino@wisc.edu.