The vampire in the machine: exploring the undead interface Ivan Phillips

The exploration begins, appropriately, at night. It is 1980, a static caravan in Widemouth Bay, Cornwall. A ten year old boy, on holiday with his family, is watching television. His younger brother is asleep nearby and his parents have gone to the caravan park’s bar.

Widemouth Bay is well named: it is a bay, and it is wide, a gaping mouth open to the best and the worst of the weather coming off the southern Irish Sea. On this particular summer evening there is lashing wind and hard, fine rain. The caravan creaks like the rigging of an old ship. The curtains are open. The windows show wet dense blackness. The boy is watching a TV movie and it has him transfixed, terrified, unable to move. The scene shows a floating, smiling vampire child clawing at a casement window in modern day, suburban America to gain access to his still-human, still-mourning brother. Grief, relief and fatal mesmerism, nails scratching unbearably on glass, a hellish mist that drifts into the intimate, familiar, domestic space with the solid, brutal, gentle embrace of undead brotherhood…

The TV movie is Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979, see figure 1), starring David Soul and based on Stephen King’s 1975 novel.1 The young boy is me. And it will be a long, long time before I’m able to sleep in a room with the curtains open at night.

[figure 1 near here]


Windows are interfaces. So are mirrors. The tradition of seeing them as such goes back at least as far as Brunelleschi and Alberti, and is a commonplace within discussions of new media.2 This paper is an attempt to investigate the peculiar and striking relationship that the mythical figure of the vampire has always had with such interfacial objects, in particular the most popular and important media adjuncts of the mirror and the window in modern times, the printed page and the moving image screen. Languages – verbal, visual, computational – are interfaces, too, and these are inevitably implicated in any discussion of media. The vampire has drifted and shifted through the pages of newspapers, travel journals, novels, poems, comics, and plays for 300 years, it has haunted cinema and television for almost a hundred, its shadow is creeping into the social, narrative and ludic networks of the digital. A creature of ambivalence, a haunter of thresholds and dweller on the margins, the vampire is uniquely well adapted to the conditions of media convergence. It is impatient of windows and doors, invisible to mirrors, but it will be found wherever – to attempt a definition of the interface – one thing meets another.

An interface is much more than the place where one thing meets another, of course; or at least, the nature of that meeting is more complex than such a shorthand will allow. It would be restrictive to adhere closely to computer science contexts and definitions, or to become distracted by discriminations between hardware interfaces (wires, plugs, sockets) and software interfaces (codes, languages). A soft definition offers richer hermeneutic possibilities, allowing for the subtleties and ambiguities of the ‘semantic’ dimension identified by Steven Johnson in his consideration of interfacial relationships ‘characterized by meaning and expression’.3

An interface is fundamentally a place of translation and feedback, where x is able to feel the presence of y and, more importantly, enjoy the illusion of contact with y or even of becoming y. The contact and the becoming are illusory, because the two sides of the interface never actually merge: instead, they become mutually implicated, more or less intimate. Touch-screen technologies, widescreen, surround-sound, the elsewheres and the somehows of virtual reality: these are all cultural fantasies of the erased interface or, in N. Katherine Hayles’ term, ‘material metaphors’ of full translation.4 The interface imagines a condition of achieved union, where x and y become indivisible, but it can only enact an approximate condition of divided commonality. The illusions of interfacial transcendence are closely associated with related illusions of aliveness, responsiveness, animation: the moment when the engine ignites, the laptop awakens, the avatar moves, or the corpse rises from the grave. The vampire is a product of this liminal ontology.

The concept of the medium – from medias: the middle, the junction, the in- between – is fundamentally connected to that of the interface. I have sketched a general arc of the vampire through mass media forms, from print to pixel, but it might be useful to think of media in more expansive terms. For Marshall McLuhan, media are not objects

– a television, a newspaper, a telephone – but environmental and social processes. In his well known but often misunderstood axiom ‘the medium is the message’, the medium is anything that extends the human, and its message is its social impact or effect rather than its informational content.5 In this respect, a car, a house, a woolly hat or the pockets in a pair of trousers are all forms of media, variously extending the legs or the hands or the hair on the head, effectively shrinking space or overcoming physical limitations.

Adapting McLuhan’s ideas, it is possible to see the relationship of the vampire and the

interface in a more historically and culturally alert way: offering to ‘extend’ its victims in tantalising but grim ways, the vampire doesn’t simply follow the evolution of representational media forms but it also embodies the social changes, anxieties and periods of unsettlement that are the correlatives of this evolution. This is recognised by Stacey Abbott when she examines the rise of ‘vampire cyborgs’ in film and by Allucquère Rosanne Stone when she adopts and adapts Anne Rice’s Lestat de Lioncourt as a prototypical boundary figure for the dawn of the digital era, ‘a vampire for our seasons, struggling with the swiftly changing meanings of what it is to be human or, for that matter, inhuman’.6 It is also evident in Freidrich Kittler’s seminal essay ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, in Jennifer Wicke’s exploration of ‘the technologies that underpin vampirism’ and, more recently, in Van Leavenworth’s reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as the source text for Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto’s Slouching Towards Bedlam (2003). 7 In this interactive fiction, set in the Bethlem Royal Hospital in nineteenth century London, a vampiric word virus threatens to disintegrate the communication networks of incipient modernity.

Unsettlement is a key idea here, and it can be related closely to the changing nature of the media interface. In particular, it can be observed that all media, when new, seem to undergo a period of unsettlement or radical instability, which is characterised by formal self-consciousness and experimentation. The early years of the printing press, of the novel, of photography, of cinema, of the computer, all provide evidence of this. An initial period of creative openness and cultural uncertainty is followed by absorption into a ‘mythic’ (in the Barthesian sense of the word) world-view, characterised by more settled and comfortable processes of narration, representation, reception.8 Once a medium

has been culturally assimilated, the restless energies of its inception are diverted into marginal practices which nevertheless inform and, at times of major political or cultural change, challenge the mainstream. One of the persistent myths of modernity is that the media of the past (unlike those of the present) were always stable, settled, known, welcomed, understood. The vampire, constantly embodying resistance at the interface, conveys an awareness that this state of settled grace was never the case.

The vampire is, after all, a profoundly unsettled creature. It drifts between.

Neither alive nor dead – definitively un-dead – it dramatises humanity’s troubled sense of being vulnerably, temporarily, uniquely alive while the rest of the universe is either differently (unselfconsciously) alive, inanimate, or dead. It is caught in the eternally collapsing architecture of oppositions, an inhabitant of the anomalous zone. As a myth, the vampire embodies erotic allure and necrotic repulsion, the dead flesh made sexy, the kiss that kills but at the same time embalms. It is both vagina dentata and ‘a penis with teeth’, sexually restless and disoriented, veering between the asexual, the homosexual, the heterosexual and the pansexual, between a pitiful impotence and the most compulsive potency. The vampire represents impossible antiquity and an infinite present, both the ultimate old age and the promise of eternal youth. Typically depicted on or beyond the edges of society, it attains the classlessness of the outsider even as it oscillates wildly between the extreme coordinates set by the peasant Peter Plogojowitz and the aristocratic Lord Ruthven. The vampire is at once the most desolate remnant of the human and the most inhuman manifestation of the monstrous. It can be ferociously atavistic, transported in the soil of a melancholy nationalism, but it is also stateless, nationless, dispossessed. It belongs nowhere but is found everywhere.

Something of the mythic power of the vampire’s paradoxical nature is captured in another piece of television viewed by my ten year old self. State of Decay (1980), a story from the classic series of the BBC’s Doctor Who, features the eponymous hero in an encounter with Zargo, Camilla and Aukon, the three vampire rulers of an exploited, drained, medieval culture.9 The power behind this triumvirate is revealed to be the Great Vampire, the last of an ancient scourge that was supposedly eradicated by the Doctor’s own people, the Time Lords. Examining the chronicle of ‘the last great battle’, he reads that the king of these gigantic cosmic parasites apparently escaped the field, ‘vanished, even to his shadow, from Time and Space.’ The Great Vampire has, it transpires, been recovering for millennia beneath the Tower of the three vampire rulers, feeding on peasants, and it is now beginning to stir. More significantly, from a mythical perspective, it has been recovering on a remote, insignificant planet in E-Space, or Exo-Space, a space beyond known space, a kind of nowhere between universes, a celestial interface. Luring a ship full of Earth colonists from the 22nd century into its bleak, marginal refuge, the Great Vampire has transformed the crew into his vampiric servants and fixed the descendants of the original passengers into a state of unchanging, pre-modern, superstitious abjection. Outside everything, poised among the lost, waiting on eternity for its terrible return, this monstrous creature is a figure of the vampire as unsettled interfacial shadow.

Significantly, it is represented only as a spectral trace on various troubled interfaces: present in the ritualised, camply intertextual language spoken by both the peasantry and the rulers (The Great One, The Three Who Rule, The Wasting, The Selection, The Arising), it is also glimpsed briefly as a blurred image on a forbidden and antiquatedly hi-

tech scanner screen (see figure 2), and finally as a gigantic clawed hand breaking through the membrane of its underground resting place as it attempts resurrection.

[figure 2 near here]


Examples of vampiric unsettlement at the interface are innumerable, varied and ramifying. When The Vampyre was published in 1819 – in an unsettled period for the novel itself, as it transformed rapidly from an elite artefact into a popular medium – the issue can be traced in both the fabric of the narrative and in the briefly disputed question of authorship. Worked up by Polidori from a prose fragment abandoned by Byron, it was initially attributed to Byron, has a main character partly based on Byron, and became the focus of an irritable display of pique from Byron, who simultaneously laid claim to the tale (by publishing his original fragment as an appendix to his contemporaneous poem Mazeppa) and distanced himself from it: ‘Damn “The Vampire,” – what do I know of Vampires? it must be some bookselling imposture.’10 Issues of parasitism, influence, and infection – not to mention society politics and literary fashion – haunt the authorial interface of this founding fiction of modern vampire mythology just as much as they haunt the tale itself.11

When F.W. Murnau came into conflict with Florence Stoker over questions of authorial rights for his film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) a hundred years later – at a time when cinema was arguably emerging from a quarter-century of

unsettlement into a state of cultural self-assurance – the shadow of The Vampyre might have been seen to fall across them. Intriguingly, the exaggerated shadows which are one of the most powerful visual tropes of Murnau’s film have been recognised by Abbott as spectral links between the myth and the medium, specifically in the scenes where the Count attacks Hutter and Ellen: ‘In these sequences, Orlock’s “shadow” is projected onto the bright, white surfaces – Hutter’s bed and Ellen’s nightgown, respectively – like film itself is projected onto a screen.’12

In the early years of sound cinema, the vampire again appeared to mark a troubling of the interface. Bela Lugosi’s selection for the title role in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) was remarkable for its counterintuitive brilliance, his limited English meaning that his lines were delivered with such slow, relished determination that he would forever seem to be straining against the newly sonic medium as much as against the language itself. Within a year, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray (1932) – a talkie that almost entirely abstains from talk – would exploit a comparable unease to gloriously poetic effect, affecting an apparent nostalgia for the recently deceased silent film. As Jean and Dale Drum have written, with wonderful understatement: ‘Dreyer’s first sound film was a radical departure from other sound films of the time, for the dialogue of Vampyr is very sparse.’13 In fact, as the Drums reveal, Vampyr was actually shot as a silent film, with sound being added in post-production.

Even more strikingly, it was shot as a silent film in three different versions, with English, German and French mouthings respectively. The polyphonic complexity of a world of mass communication, symbolised by the rise of global sound cinema, is indulged through

Dreyer’s perfectionist multiplication of effort and expense at the same time as it is parodied by his presentation of a talkie that feels like a silent.

A consonant case study is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which, at the beginning of the digital screen era, saw Francis Ford Coppola and his son Roman determinedly, even obsessively, exploiting the possibilities of primitive cinema technologies. The effects of this go beyond the ‘affectionate recuperation of early cinematic styles’ identified by Ken Gelder.14 Appearing between James Cameron’s visual effects milestones The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and John Lasseter’s game-changing computer animation Toy Story (1995), the film – disliked by many vampire scholars – is remarkable for the opulence of its ‘in camera’ effects.15 Spatial juxtapositions and distortions, appearances and disappearances, inversions of physical laws, and other elements of baroque spectacle, are achieved using methods which frequently date back to the origins of cinema itself, to the founding experiments of the Lumière Brothers, Georges Méliès, R.W. Paul and Cecil Hepworth. Physical projections, multiple exposures and combined takes, forced perspective shots using scaled model work, matte paintings and glass shots, hand-cranked footage filmed with an antique camera, jittery first-person viewpoints achieved with an intervalometer: such regressive techniques achieve a quality of visual force, noise and fluidity which is comparable to that of the ‘hybrid aesthetics’ associated by Lev Manovich with the innovations of the digital age.16

When Dracula’s eyes burn in the sky, or his shadow takes on a life of its own, or a train rattles along the top of Jonathan Harker’s open journal, spilling steam across the pages, these effects are accomplished with an immediacy equivalent to that of many

digital sequences. This immediacy – to adopt the ‘twin logic’ of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s influential book Remediation – is also a form of hypermediacy.17 In other words, its very transparency draws attention to itself, the active presence of the medium being visible at the moment of its illusionistic erasure.

Just as many critics have indicated a law of diminishing returns for Coppola’s ‘postmodern’ adaptation, the insistence on pre-digital effects might be seen as a gratuitous and hollow nostalgia at odds with the blockbuster context. This would be, however, to miss the sophisticated ironies that Coppola’s film implies and, in its physical realisation of a digital age spectacle, masks. These are typified by the elaborate simplicity and primitivism of Coppola’s technique in realising the shaving scene, in which Jonathan is surprised by the Count’s sudden appearance at his shoulder, the mirror having shown no reflection (see figure 3).

[figure 3 near here]

A mirror-shaped hole is cut into the wall and the actor, Keanu Reeves, stands behind it, his face visible in opposition to a stand-in actor who has his back to the camera. The mirror is a glassless window: the assumed interface is absent, the reflective surface perceived but never present. Reeves, in other words, performs as his own reflection, and Gary Oldman’s Dracula is seen to lack one altogether. A live and naïve trick stands in place of – in a sense, simulates – a post-produced digital illusion. Brilliantly, the mechanics of the scene embody several of the thematic oppositions of vampire

mythology – presence/absence, self/other – at the same time as literally merging two of its recurrent interfacial tropes, the transparent glass and the reflective one.18

Just as Dreyer’s Vampyr performs a redaction of silent era cinematics within the new contexts of the ‘talking’ interface, so Coppola’s version of Dracula enacts a critique of the emergent digital spectacle through retrospective celebration of the physical. From a metacritical point of view, it embodies an extreme form of Fredric Jameson’s notion of le mode rétro, one taken beyond the surface details of intertextual referencing and into the mechanical interior of the production.19 Dreyer’s near-silent talkie might, in a similar sense, be seen as expressing something of the spirit of Rudolf Arnheim’s Film as Art, which dates in its original form from 1932, the year of Vampyr’s release, and which famously probes the impact of speech on cinema.20

The formalisation in these films of distinct critical sensibilities – sensibilities alert to unsettlement in media – is evidence of the particular responsiveness of the vampire myth to deep cultural change. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula this is manifested to such an extent, and with such an overflow of excited self-awareness, that the entire film effectively becomes – to borrow from William Empson – a ‘self-inwoven simile’.21 Empson coined the phrase in order to characterise a form of figurative poetic language in which,

not being able to think of a comparison fast enough [the author] compares the thing to a vaguer or more abstract notion of itself, or points out that it is its own nature, or that it sustains itself by supporting itself.22

Empson’s exemplar for this is Percy Shelley (‘So came a chariot in the silent storm/ Of its own rushing splendour’),23 but in relation to Coppola’s version of Dracula it is possible to see a tendency towards extreme symbolic self-referentiality, a kind of intertextual implosion of the mythic representation. This seems to be what many of the commentators who have denigrated the film have targeted, Fred Botting’s analysis being representative:

Coppola’s film mourns an object that is too diffuse and uncertain to be recuperated: it remains, reluctantly, within a play of narratives, between past and present, one and other.24

Botting uses the adaptation to close his survey of the Gothic mode in culture: ‘with Coppola’s Dracula, then, Gothic dies.’ Nina Auerbach prefers to confine the film almost entirely to the endnotes of her study, where she argues that it ‘turned the quest for authenticity into a sad joke’, her judgement chiming with Botting’s: ‘it may be that Coppola has killed Dracula at last.’25 Gelder, in a bracketed aside, simply accuses the director and co-producer of ‘self-monumentalisation’.26 In the interfaces of academic practice – notes, parentheses, conclusions – the critics lament the decadence of vampiric apotheosis. Then again, Tomasz Warchol (in unusually approving tones) makes the point titular and core to his 2003 paper ‘How Coppola Killed Dracula’.27

In blunt terms, Coppola’s film is so saturated in awareness of its sources, its predecessors, its points of historical, folkloric, literary, technological and cinematic reference, that it becomes a spectacular paradigm of empty and self-parodying excess.

The more it strives towards definitiveness, authenticity and a rich distillation of meaning, the more it lapses into circularity and hectic imitation, the ‘short-circuited comparison’ that Empson bemoans in Shelley. It is unsurprising, perhaps, that criticisms of Coppola’s adaptation should so consistently sound like the criticisms traditionally levelled at both Romanticism and postmodernism within cultural discourse. ‘The Form is its own justification,’ Empson writes, ‘it sustains itself, like God, by the fact that it exists.’28

A self-inwoven simile is vampiric, auto-vampiric, feeding off itself. The same might be said about the vampire genre in fiction. Coppola’s film, named explicitly after the book that is its primary source text, is also thick with the cinematic tradition of adaptations that it can never escape but that it consciously seeks to transcend. The distorted shadows that attend Oldman’s Count are projections from Max Schreck’s Count seventy years earlier. In the same way, Coppola’s foregrounding of the technologically mediated nature of the story environment is predicated on Stoker’s novel, with its newspapers, typewriters and phonographs, its mindfulness of the medical and psychological trends of the late 19th century. Conscious that Dracula was written at the interface of the Victorian and Modernist eras, Coppola creates a version of the myth that aims to be definitive not only in its putative closeness to the novel but also in its depiction of cultural paradigm shift. The shift (to the mass media age) that textures the world of the film is in balance with that (to the digital era) which negatively informs its production. A strict adherence to pre-digital methods of spectacle becomes, in this respect, far more than a wilful eccentricity on Coppola’s part. It enacts a formal irony that is fundamental to the film’s representation of Stoker’s novel.

An irony that has not gone unnoticed is the emphatic presence at the heart of the film of the one major mass media technology that is pointedly not referenced by Stoker: the cinema. In a conspicuous deviation from fidelity to the original book, Bram Stoker’s Dracula extends the Count beyond the bitter, brittle ancientness of his literary original – closely approximated in the initial scenes between Dracula and Jonathan – and introduces a rejuvenated byronic anti-hero, bursting naked from the crated earth of Transylvania and into a distinctly modern England. The Count transforms from a withered, alienated, ethnic grotesque into a youthful, attractive flâneur, a cosmopolitan European who reads the newspapers and – when he first encounters Mina (or re-encounters Elisabeta) – is eager to experience the wonders of the kinematograph. This transformation has irritated many,29 but it is consistent with Coppola’s tendency to see suppleness as the abiding characteristic of both the Dracula myth and the idea of authenticity. The true copy – the accurate translation – is as elusive and illusory as the vampire. It is, like the idea of settled, stable, discrete traditions, a figment of the interface.

Oldman’s Dracula, sauntering through London as love-struck tourist rather than pestilent invader, has inevitably proven controversial. Even so, those who have held up his blue-tinted sunglasses as evidence of Coppola’s travesty might consider that, far from being incongruously ‘cool’ anachronisms, they are both historically accurate and mythically cogent. After all, one of the accursed undead, walking in daylight, would be well advised to sport a pair of such interfacial screening devices, designed by the English optician James Ayscough in the mid-1700s.30


The fundamental interfaces are the door and the window. These quiet translators of experience – from one to other, here to there – are the symbolic and actual locations of boundary rituals ranging from the baby’s first arrival home to the deceased’s final exit from it. They are built into the customs of intimacy (the bride carried over the threshold) and those of state (the arrival of Black Rod); they are culturally ingrained as sites of rapture (Romeo: ‘what light from yonder window breaks’), trauma (Catherine’s ghost in Wuthering Heights), voyeurism (Hitchcock’s Rear Window), trepidation (Philip Larkin’s ‘Sad Steps’ or ‘Aubade’) and daily domestic routine (Mrs Ogmore-Prichard: ‘before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes’). A door that creaks or slams, that is locked, knocked at, or bricked up; a window that is jammed, boarded over, or broken: these are resonant, evocative signs.

Within the mythos of the vampire, of course, the door and the window have a potent place, making the site of encounter a key feature of any narrative representation. The entrance of Sir Francis Varney into the gigantic tale which bears his name is relevant here:

A tall figure is standing on the ledge immediately outside the long window. It is its finger-nails upon the glass that produces the sound so like the hail, now that the hail has ceased.31

Dracula’s first appearance in Stoker’s novel is similarly emblematic. Following a nightmare journey, Jonathan is confronted by ‘a great door, old and studded with large

iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone’. He is immediately menaced by a sense that the apertures of this ‘vast ruined castle, from whose tall black windows came no ray of light’ are barriers rather points of transit: ‘Of bell or knocker there was no sign; through these frowning walls and dark window openings it was not likely that my voice could penetrate.’ Revealingly, it is thoughts of familiar windows which comfort him at this point – ‘I expected that I should suddenly awake, and find myself at home, with the dawn struggling in through the windows’ – and light and sound through the castle door which fixes him in the terrible present:

… I heard a heavy step approaching beyond the great door and saw through the chinks the gleam of a coming light. Then there was the sound of rattling chains and the clanking of massive bolts drawn back. A key was turned with the loud grating noise of long disuse, and the great door swung back.

This is noise at the interface, what a communication theorist would identify as entropic information, a perplexing overload of stimulus. Dracula has arrived to greet his guest but can make no initiating move towards him, must wait on the frozen moment until approached:

He made no motion of stepping to meet me, but stood like a statue, as though his gesture of welcome had fixed him into stone. The instant, however, that I had stepped over the threshold, he moved impulsively forward, and holding out his hand grasped mine with a strength which made me wince…32

The vampire, in one tradition at least, requires invitation: the predator must be welcomed, permitted to cross the interface.33 (Ruthven, we might remember, is ‘invited to every house’ in London society.)34 This aspect of the folklore provides the titular, narrative and emotional core of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In (2004) and its cinematic adaptations by Tomas Alfredson (2008) and Matt Reeves (Let Me In, 2010).

Drawing its title from a song by Morrissey, that quintessential inside-outsider, the story reinvents the vampire as Eli, a misfit living among misfits in the anonymous 1950s- built Blackeberg suburb of Stockholm. An eternal and subtly androgynous twelve year old, Eli forms a desperate and touching bond with her bullied next door neighbour, Oskar Eriksson. Psychologically aligned with her, Oscar is both sexually drawn to her and physically disgusted by her, even before the many secrets of her existence are revealed.

From the title of the tale onwards, it is fundamentally concerned with margins, boundaries, thresholds and moments of crossing. Most obviously, Eli must receive an invitation before entering a dwelling, as in her first visit to Oskar at night:


It was coming from the window. He opened his eyes, looked over. He saw the contours of a little head on the other side of the glass. He pulled off the covers, but before he managed to get out of bed Eli whispered, ‘Wait there. Stay in bed. Can I come in?’

Oskar whispered, ‘Ye-es…’ ‘Say that I can come in.’

‘You can come in.’ ‘Close your eyes.’

Oskar shut his eyes tightly. The window opened and a cold draught blew into the room. The window was carefully closed.35

[figure 4 near here]

Powerfully, in Alfredson’s film adaptation, the scene in which Oskar confronts Eli about his suspicions of her vampirism, presents the children talking through the glass pane of a door in the girl’s bare flat, their outspread hands touching – or seeming to touch – through the interface (see figure 4). This can be seen as a crystalline refinement of the solid wall through which the two, who have adjacent rooms, have previously communicated using Morse Code. Common to the novel and both films, this ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ tableau embodies the theme of connection-and-division and is given added richness by the contrast between Oskar’s trompe l’oeil picture wall – depicting ‘a forest meadow’ – and Eli’s blank partition:

Oskar lay there with his hand pressed against the green surface and tried to imagine what the other side looked like. Was the room on the other side her bedroom? Was she also lying in bed right now? He transformed the wall into Eli’s cheek, stroked the green leaves, her soft skin.36

Even before it is ‘opened’ by a shared code, the wall becomes a screen for Oskar to play out his fantasies of otherness and association.

Dominated by an architecture of connections – not just windows and doorways, but also bridges, paths, subways, underpasses, staircases – Let the Right One In might almost have been written as a model of the vampire tale as interface fable. The novel begins with a metaphorically freighted description of the first inhabitants crossing the Traneberg Bridge in 1952 ‘with sunshine and the future in their eyes’, and much of the action, notably the killing of Jocke Bengtsson, takes place in the Björnsongatan underpass and on the nearby pathways.37 This is made explicit when Lacke follows Virginia after their row in Gösta’s flat and sees her being attacked ahead of the point ‘where “Jocke’s path” – as he had started to call it – met “Virginia’s path”’.38

The symbolic importance of these physical interstices is emphasised in both film adaptations, Alfredson’s especially. Here, as well as recurrent shots of bridges, underpasses, and so on, the poetics of transparency are employed not only in the previously mentioned scene between Eli and Oskar, but also in the episode in which Jocke’s body is recovered from the river. Cut from the ice, the corpse is raised high by a crane, embedded in a glassy slab, caught in the interface between water and air. In Reeves’ version – in which the main characters are renamed Owen and Abby – the voyeurism of the former is accentuated through his habit of spying on his neighbours using a telescope. This is, indeed, how the audience first encounters him. Oskar, in the Alfredson film, is first seen staring into his own reflection in his bedroom window.

With its liminal concerns articulated through topography as well as character and event, Let the Right One In demonstrates a continuation of the classic thematic

structuring of vampiric mythology through opposition: life/death, youth/age, human/non- human, desire/repulsion, male/female. It also indicates how intricately and forcefully these are bound into the fabric of the imaginative interface, not least in the tension between morality and immorality. Håkan Bengtsson, the paedophile who ‘cares for’ Eli, is able to justify his feelings for the child – and the crimes he is prepared to carry out for her – by reflecting on her anomalous condition:

It was the best of all possible worlds. The young, lithe body that brought beauty to his life, and at the same lifted him from responsibility. He was not the one in charge. And he did not have to feel guilt for his desire; his beloved was older than he. No longer a child.39

When he is discovered in the act of child murder, acquiring more blood for Eli, his response – to protect her, since his face is now known in Blackeberg – is to destroy his own first interface, his face, his skin, ultimately his identity, using acid. Significantly, when he returns as a mutilated, brain-dead, priapic vampire following his eventual death (an element of the plot removed from both films), it is on the Traneberg bridge that he is first seen.40

A prominent facet of Eli’s boundary nature in the novel is her androgyny, movingly poised alongside her uncertain humanness in a question to Oskar: ‘Would you still like me even if I wasn’t a girl?’41 The theme of gender ambiguity is understated in the films, particularly in the US adaptation, but one of the most haunting qualities of Alfredson’s production is the design of Eli’s voice. Deciding that the voice of teenage

actress Lina Leandersson was too childlike and girlish, he had her lines overdubbed throughout the film by the adult voiceover artist Elif Ceylan. In a fascinating replication of the dubbing of Dreyer’s ‘silent talkie’ in the 1930s, Anderson modulates the sonic interface to convey the alienated, indeterminate existence of his vampire. Eli’s voice, sultry, uncanny, not-quite-right, effectively ‘speaks’ the anomalies of her being, neither alive nor dead, neither adult nor child, neither male nor female, neither human nor monster.

The melancholy paradox of Eli’s condition – of the the vampire in general – is communicated with terrible beauty in the moment when she is goaded by Oskar into entering his flat without invitation:

He stopped when he saw a tear in the corner of one of Eli’s eyes, no, one in each eye. But it wasn’t a tear since it was dark. The skin in Eli’s face started to flush, became pink, red, wine-red and her hands tightened into fists as the pores in her face opened and tiny pearls of blood started to appear in dots all over her face. Her throat, same thing.42

A spectacular gift for the filmmakers, this scene – Eli ‘bleeding out of all the pores in her body’ – represents a collapse of boundaries, spatial, physical, ethical, mythical. Eli, having reluctantly breached Oskar’s dwelling, suffers perforation of her own physical limits. The existential liminality of the vampire has never been so vividly, painfully, tragically represented. Lindqvist’s in many ways highly traditional vampire tale nevertheless constitutes a radical restatement of the essential features of the mythology.


Claiming cinema as ‘the rightful place of occupation for the vampire’, Gelder describes it as ‘a suitably nomadic home’ for the creature, one which ‘eventually goes everywhere’ as ‘an internationalised medium43’. Abbott’s Celluloid Vampires, which begins by referencing Méliès’ Le Manoir du Diable (1896), is written from a similar conviction.

The exploration within this paper does nothing to contradict (and much to confirm) the centrality of the cinematic depiction, but hopefully suggests a slight adjustment to our sense of how the mythology has been mediated since the early 20th century. As we move further into the 2000s, it is clear that the structures of the media world are becoming increasingly complex and involved, bringing a profound transformation in the nature of knowledge and information, of creativity and audiences, of the possibilities of storytelling, the relationship between media forms, the meanings and significance of the interface. This would seem to endorse Milly Williamson’s portrayal of an alternative, non-mainstream tradition within recent vampire culture, one in which ‘creativity takes numerous shapes; sartorial self-expression, fan fiction, role-playing, the creation of clubs, journals, websites, and more’.44 Williamson’s socio-political reading – reminding us of Marx’s invocation of the ‘vampire’ of capitalism45 – accepts that the mythology can never escape the ‘hierarchical cultural field’ of the market, but the most cursory internet search will indicate the extent of the vampire’s web-based nomadism. Similarly, a brief sampling of computer game history illustrates the occupation of this bright young

medium by the forces of the undead, from The Count in 1981 to Vampire Rush in 2011. If

nothing else, the migration of the vampire across the new media environment might suggest that counterculture and culture have never been harder to disentangle.

[figure 5 near hear]

Perhaps what the vampire manifests most powerfully is the cultural narrative of change, specifically the tension between imposed change and desired change, between the attack and the seduction. This, I have argued, is why the notion of the interface – the point and process of translation, transition, transfer, transformation – is such a useful one when considering the mythic endurance and adaptability of the vampire. It offers a means of seeing anew those representations of the undead which have ghosted modern media since before 1819, especially those moments when the creature stands at a threshold. In Browning’s Dracula, for instance, there is the iconic scene in which Renfield arrives at Dracula’s castle. The Count bids the solicitor to follow him up the vast, curved staircase, and in doing so passes through the colossal screen of a spider’s web without breaking or even troubling it (see figure 5). Renfield, understandably disturbed by this event, is forced to tear at the silk with his cane to gain entrance. We are reminded, at this moment, of one of the key features of the vampire, its ability to transcend the continuities of physical space, in a vital sense manifesting the fantasies of virtual reality. To pass through a giant web without breaking it is to pass through the interface as if it wasn’t there. The dream of the erased material interface that seems to drive so much of 21st century technological design is a dream that the vampire (excepting the barrier of an invitation) takes for granted. This is a point given detailed and persuasive attention by

Abbott, when she traces the technologically determined shifts between the material and the spectral vampire in modernity.

Of course, a vampire doesn’t just walk through cobwebs, float through windows, seep under doors: one way or another, it punctures skin, the locus of our primal and most fundamental interface. It bleeds one self into another self and, in doing so, radically disrupts the idea of boundaries. This is the significance of the solid undead flesh becoming immaterial mist, or the human(oid) figure transforming into bat or wolf or rat- swarm. In its physical metamorphoses and its predatory modus operandi the vampire destabilises the line between transformation and permanence, the line where all our dreams and nightmares of technology begin.

As I suggested earlier, the interfaced machines of the digital age fascinate us, in part at least, because they affect the appearance of life. Just as the steam engines of the early Victorian Age must have astounded and unnerved with their animal warmth, their growling motion, their steam-farts and bellows, and the disembodied voices of the phonograph, the telephone and the wireless must have haunted the late Victorians, so the winking lights on our own sleeping technologies, the vibrations of our mobile phones, the actions of our on-screen avatars, the voices of our Sat Navs, seem to either seduce or threaten us with their apparent aliveness.46 It is an aliveness conjured from the interplay of memory, calculation, responsiveness, and dialogue. In the early days of cinema, Maxim Gorky reacted with unease to the travesty of life he saw projected before him at a Lumière Brothers screening. For Gorky, Lisa Bode has written,

[t]he screen becomes a window onto a disturbing terrain between life and death, between flesh and shadow, and between the animate and the inanimate, where apparently living figures appear ‘condemned’ and ‘bewitched’ by the actions of this, then new, image technology.47

[figure 6 near here]

This recalls to me the horrific poetry of the episode in Dreyer’s Vampyr, where Allan Gray – disembodied, apparently dreaming – witnesses himself staring up out of a windowed coffin, alive but dead (see figure 6). Briefly glimpsing the withered vampire, Marguerite Chopin, peering down at him, he is presented with a view of a burning candle dripping wax, then massing clouds in a sky beneath which he is being carried, presumably to be buried. This scene communicates, perhaps better than any other, the ideas that this paper has been presenting; it captures perfectly, disturbingly, the presence of the vampire where x meets y in the mediation of experience. It also, in its conjuring of sheer frozen terror, takes me back to that ten year old boy watching Salem’s Lot in a Cornish caravan park in the days of Margaret Thatcher.

1 Stephen King, Salem’s Lot (London: New English Library, 1976). The visits of the undead Ralphie Glick to his older brother Danny is not detailed in the novel (pp. 68-71, pp. 74-6, p. 104) but Danny’s subsequent attack on his friend Mark Petrie is clearly an influence on Hooper’s screen adaption (pp. 239-41).

2 See, for instance, Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromola, Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital Art and the Myth of Transparency (London and Cambridge,

MASS: MIT Press, 2003), and Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti To Microsoft (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006).

3 Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate (San Francisco: Harper Edge, 1997), p. 14.

4 N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), pp. 21-4.

5 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964; repr. London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), p. 7 et passim.

6 Stacey Abbott, Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), pp. 197-214; Allucquère Rosanne Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), p. 178.

7 Freidrich Kittler, ‘Dracula’s Legacy’, Stanford Humanities Review, 1 (1989), pp. 143- 73; Jennifer Wicke, ‘Vampiric Typewriting: Dracula and its media’, ELH, vol. 59, no. 2 (Summer, 1992), pp. 467-493; Van Leavenworth, The Gothic in Contemporary Interactive Fictions (unpublished doctoral thesis, Umea University, 2010), pp. 144-179. The study can be downloaded in full via the SwePub website at [accessed 13 July 2011].

8 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), trans. Annette Lavers (London: Paladin, 1972). According to Barthes ‘the very principle of myth’ is that ‘it transforms history into nature’: ‘it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences’ (p. 140, p. 150).

9 Doctor Who – State of Decay, written by Terrance Dicks, directed by Peter Moffatt (BBC TV, 1980). The story was originally transmitted on BBC1 between 22 November and 13 December 1980 and was subsequently novelised as Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who and the State of Decay (London: Target Books, 1981). It is currently available as part of the DVD box set Doctor Who: The E-Space Trilogy (2 Entertain, 2009).

10 Byron, Letter to John Murray, 15th May 1819, in Selected Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: Picador, 1984), p. 194. In a letter to Galigani’s Messenger, which had attributed the novella to him, Byron wrote: ‘I have a personal dislike to vampires, and the little acquaintance I have with them would by no means induce me to reveal their secrets.’ The Works of Lord Byron: Letters and Journals, IV, ed. Rowland E. Prothero (London: John Murray, 1899), p. 119. Byron’s antipathy to the vampire had not, of course, prevented him from utilising the myth to dramatic effect in his earlier poem The Giaour (1813).

11 Famously, the story is a product of the same ghost story competition at the Villa Diodati in 1816 which furnished Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus (1818).

12 Abbott, Celluloid Vampires, pp. 52-3.

13 Jean and Dale Drum, ‘Film-Production Carl Dreyer’, p. 34, in the book accompanying Vampyr: The Strange Adventures of Allan Gray, dir. Carl Dreyer, 1932 (Eureka!, 2008) [on DVD]. The text is extracted from Jean and Dale Drum, My Only Great Passion: The Life and Films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000).

14 Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 88.

15 Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote: ‘This movie was imagined, written and directed, then somehow engineered into being as if it were one long, uninterrupted special effect.’ (‘Coppola’s Dizzying Vision of Dracula’, 13 November 1992).

16 Lev Manovich, ‘Image Future’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1:1 (2006), p. 26, p. 32, p. 43n8, et passim. See also ‘After Effects, or Velvet Revolution’ (2006) and The Language of New Media (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). Each of these – and much besides – is available to download at [accessed 31 July 2011].

17 Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, (London and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

18 This transposition recalls that of Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872; repr. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2007), the title of the volume which culminates in ‘Carmilla’ effectively converting St Paul’s shadowy spiritual window (I Corinthians 13:12) into a gothic mirror: ‘For now we see through a glass darkly.’ (p. ix)

19 Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti- Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: New Press, 1983), p. 116. See also Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).

20 Rudolf Arnheim, Film as Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957): ‘Not only does speech limit the motion picture to an art of dramatic portraiture, it also interferes with the expression of the image.’ (p. 228)

21 William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930; repr. London: Peregrine Books, 1961), pp. 160-1.

22 Ibid., pp. 160-1.

23 Ibid., p. 161. The quoted lines are from Shelley’s last, unfinished poem The Triumph of Life (1822).

24 Fred Botting, Gothic (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 177-80.

25 Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 213n50, p. 208-9n16.

26 Gelder, Reading the Vampire, p. 89.

27 Tomasz Warchol, ‘How Coppola Killed Dracula’, in Carla T. Kungl, ed., Vampires: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil (Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2003), pp. 7-

10. Available at> [accessed 22 July 2011]. Warchol concludes: ‘While the vampires he helped breed are alive and well, Dracula himself, for those of us who have seen and known him for the past century, has been dead since 1992. It was Francis Ford Coppola who killed him.’ (p. 9)

28 Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, p. 161. Empson goes on: ‘Poetry which idolises its object naturally gives it the attributes of deity, but to do it in this way is to destroy the simile, or make it incapable of its more serious functions.’ Coppola, it can be argued, has been led into a state of Shelleyan creative overexcitement by his idolisation of Stoker’s novel and the traditions of adaptation that have stemmed from it.

29 Auerbach, for instance, derides ‘Gary Oldman’s whimpering costume-changes’ (Our Vampires, Ourselves, p. 112).

30 See Richard D. Drewry, ‘What Man Devised That He Might See’ (1997), available at [accessed 28 July 2011] and Stephen J. Dain, ‘Sunglasses and Sunglass Standards’, Clinical and Experimental Optometry, 86:2 (March 2003), pp. 77-90, available at 0938.2003.tb03066.x/abstract [accessed 28 July 2011]. Ayscough’s tinted glasses – available in green as well as blue – were in fact developed to correct vision, not to protect the eyes from sunlight. Nevertheless, they are widely taken to be precursors of the filter spectacles which became popular in the early 1900s.

31 James Malcolm Rymer, Varney, the Vampyre, or, The Feast of Blood (1845-7; repr. Ware: Wordsworth Editions, 2010), p. 7.

32 Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897; repr. London: Arrow Books, 1971), pp. 22-3.

33 Here, interestingly, the classical formula is inverted: the implication is that Jonathan Harker must accept the Count’s invitation.

34 John Polidori, ‘The Vampyre’, in Christopher Frayling, ed., Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), p. 108. See also John William Polidori, ‘The Vampyre’ and other writings, ed. Franklin Bishop (Manchester: Fyfield Press, 2005).

35 John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In (2004), trans. Ebba Segerberg (London: Quercus, 2007), p. 184.

36 Lindqvist, Let the Right One In, p. 83.

37 Ibid., p. 7, pp. 77-83.

38 Ibid., pp. 243-4.

39 Ibid., p. 119.

40 Ibid., p. 323-6.

41 Ibid., p. 137.

42 Ibid., pp. 380-1.

43 Gelder, Reading the Vampire, p. 87.

44 Milly Williamson, The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 184.

45 Ibid., p. 183.

46 I am grateful to my colleague, Alan Peacock, not only for the phrase ‘steam-farts’ but also for a number of long, enjoyable conversations in which many of the ideas for this essay took shape.

47 Lisa Bode, ‘From Shadow Citizens to Teflon Stars: Reception of the Transfiguring Effects of New Moving Image Technologies’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1:2 (2006), p. 174.

Works Cited

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—————— Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).

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—————— ‘Image Future’, Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 1:1 (2006), pp. 25- 44.

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