Jews and vampires don’t mix. Or at least they don’t mix easily.
As a kid growing up in the 60s, I remember picking up a copy of a magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and reading all about Dracula and the other creature features produced by Universal Studios and their rivals. The original Dracula motion picture was released in 1931, so it wasn’t a movie I could see at the local cinema, but those of us who lived in the New York metropolitan area did have Chiller Theatre, hosted by Zacherley (“The Cool Ghoul”) on Channel 11 WPIX.
When I learned that my father was born in Transylvania, which meant that I was half-Transylvanian, I was delighted. It meant that I was a bit cool myself. I asked my father if he knew Bela Lugosi, the Hungarian actor who played Dracula in the original movies. My father was born before World War I, when Transylvania was a part of Hungary, so it seemed altogether likely to me that he would know the famous film star. My father joked that he knew Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi didn’t know him.
Having a connection to Transylvania gave me a bit of an edge, but I was hardly the only kid who had fun imitating Dracula and the other monsters, on Halloween and all year round. After all, we had comedy programs on TV like The Munsters, which included the character of Grandpa, aka Sam Dracula, played by Al Lewis, aka Albert Meister, not to mention The Addams Family, commercials for Count Chocula cereal, and Sesame Street’s Count von Count. Humor, not horror, led us to imitate an Eastern European accent and utter the immortal words, “I vant to suck your blud.”
The one bit of dissonance that I encountered in reading about the powers and weaknesses of vampires was the idea that they could be warded off by a crucifix or cross. Vampire lore fit into a Christian cosmology that Jews were not a part of. The 1979 comedy film Love at First Bite, starring Richard Benjamin as psychiatrist Jeffrey Rosenberg, plays on this problem in a scene where he tries to combat Dracula by reaching for his necklace, resulting in a moment of suspense as Dracula recoils in anticipation. But much to the vampire’s relief, he pulls out a Star of David instead.
Indeed, in many ways I found it easier to identify with the vampire, given my aversion to Christian symbols. I grew up seeing them as the symbols of people who for close to two millennia had oppressed and persecuted us, culminating in the pogroms and the Holocaust that both of my parents lived through. It helped that I was a bit of a night owl as well. This was long before the emergence of vampire subcultures, an offshoot of the Goth movement, inspired by the vampire novels of Ann Rice, and the Twilight young adult fiction and film series, featuring “Bella” Swan as the willing paramour of a handsome young vampire.
These and other new takes on the vampire mythos tend to downplay or eliminate its Christian-specific elements, and otherwise sympathize with, sometimes glamorize, and otherwise normalize what once was considered monstrous. The recently concluded HBO series True Blood also falls into this category, and while not featuring any Jewish characters, introduced Lilith as the mother of all vampires in a scene in which contemporary vampires took part in ritual drinking of blood while chanting in Hebrew. This was more than a little disturbing, given the long history of the blood libel used as justification for anti-Semitism.
This summer, I caught up with the Shadowhunters series on the Freeform cable channel. Like the Twilight movies, Shadowhunters is a young adult novel adaptation. The main character, Clary, learns that she is one of a small number of people of mixed ancestry—they’re part angel—and they are called upon to battle demons as shadowhunters. Her best friend, Simon Lewis, is Jewish, and as played by the Alberto Rosende he comes across as a typical Jewish nebbish type, of the sort made famous by Woody Allen, neurotic, fearful, and nursing his unrequited love for Clary. Until he is turned into a vampire, at which point he becomes cool, competent, and charismatic. According to synopses of the book series online, when his devout mother eventually learns of his conversion, she throws him out of their house. At a later point in the narrative, he thankfully is restored to human status.
The narrative may be typical of young adult fiction, and the character somewhat stereotypical, but the way that Jewish characters are inserted into the vampire narrative is both original and commendable. It is no coincidence that the author of the bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, upon which Shadowhunters is based, Judith Rumelt, who uses the pen name Cassandra Clare, is Jewish.
When it comes to quality television, my award for best series in the horror genre goes to The Strain, now in its third season on FX. Created by respected Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan, The Strain is set in New York City, and one of the elements I appreciate about the series is that it takes place in neighborhoods all over the five boroughs and has a real New York sensibility. The plot line is reminiscent of contagion and zombie apocalypse genres, combined with elements drawn from the Alien film series, and science fiction stories about doubles taking the place of their human counterparts, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. These elements meld together to form an altogether original vampire narrative, one in which the supernatural elements are absent, and the strigoi (the Romanian word for vampire used in the series) are the result of a parasitical worm that takes over and transforms its host.
The series features a small group of people who fight what appears to be a losing battle against the strigoi as they take over New York and the rest of the country, led to some extent by Professor Abraham Setrakian. Setrakian is identified as an Armenian Jew in the series, conferring on him a double coding as the victim of genocide, and he is shown to be a concentration camp survivor who first saw the strigoi feeding on captives at Treblinka. He had been a professor of mythology and East European literature at the University of Vienna, and after immigrating to the United States, became a New York pawnbroker. (This is an homage to the 1964 Sidney Lumet film The Pawnbroker.)
The leader of the strigoi is known as the Master (an allusion to the Nazi reference to the Aryan “master race”), an ancient strigoi who can exert complete psychic control over his spawn. His second in command, one of the few strigoi granted free will, is Thomas Eichhorst, who was the Nazi commandant at Treblinka, and Setrakian’s torturer. It follows that The Strain can be understood as a metaphor for authoritarianism and fascism, and this wouldn’t be the first time del Toro used fantasy elements in conjunction with this sort of political critique, as can be seen from his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth.
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All of the heroes in The Strain are flawed characters, and Setrakian is no exception. He is cranky and humorless, obsessed and ruthless as a vampire hunter, but also intelligent, learned, and the one who recognizes and understands the threat most clearly. The victim of great trauma, he is only occasionally show as deserving of our sympathy. This parallels the way that Jews, and Israel, are seen by many today, both in the United States and abroad.
Don’t get me wrong. I applaud the way in which del Toro has allowed a Jewish character to take a leading role as a vampire hunter in a vampire narrative. Having eliminated the supernatural themes from the vampire mythos, it is not surprising that Setrakian’s Jewish identity relates only to his ethnicity. But del Toro missed an opportunity to transcend the stereotypical fully by including something of his religious tradition, by showing that the source of his strength is derived from his belief in the value of human life, the pursuit of justice, and a sense of spirituality.