The Vampire Lectures

Laurence A. Rickels,
The Vampire Lectures.
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
ISBN: 0 8166 3392 4 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

Uploaded 1 December 2001

The recent popularity of Anne Rice’s novels and the television series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (USA 1997) indicate that, no matter how many vampires we stake, the undead will always remain with us because we refuse to relinquish our hold on them. Since 1986 Laurence Rickels has fed on this fascination by teaching an undergraduate literature course on vampirism at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Vampire Lectures is an abridged version of the twenty-six episodes of his oracular discourse.

Rickels’ earlier research examined aberrant mourning in German literature, and the relationship between technology and contemporary American culture. The Vampire Lectures brings together these concerns. Rickels notes the historical links between the occult and technological innovation, especially in the area of communication. Thus, one aim of the vampire course is to “convey psychoanalytically conceived themes or topics of mourning and melancholia or technology and haunting via the host of cultural phenomena or symptoms served at our media mass” (x).

At first glance The Vampire Lectures is a smorgasbord for readers. There are appetising details of vampirism’s historical origins. Vlad the Impaler and Countess Bathory, who slew virgins to bathe in their blood, make spectral appearances. However, Rickels argues that (fear of) vampirism pervaded Eastern Europe for centuries. People dreaded the capture of their shadows, lest their other self rise again. Any mark of difference indicated a potential vampire. Accordingly, suicides were exiled from towns to prevent them from returning to complete unfinished business. In Russia the graves of alcoholics were unearthed to halt their consumption. In Bulgaria those born with teeth, a red caul or third nipple were suspect. Rickels suggests that one cause of the frequent reports on the nocturnal activities of the undead was premature burial, a relatively common occurrence even in the early twentieth century due to imprecise medical knowledge.

Rickels connects this uncertainty about the borders between life and death to a general cultural apprehension over the vicissitudes of mourning. If the dead have not truly departed then they cannot be mourned. Rather, they are encrypted psychically within the bereaved. This creates a boundary crisis for survivors. It is in the space of the in between that the vampire emerges as a double of the departed, the figure whose loss we cannot accept. Since, as Freud taught us in relation to the uncanny, doubling is unstoppable, this is why vampirism is so infectious. Thus, the eradication of the plague begins with the triumph of mourning proper over melancholia: once the borders of individuality are re-asserted, then the dead can lie still and replication ceases.

The main course of The Vampire Lectures is devoted to readings of the literary and visual corpuses attached to vampires. The selection is broad, the approach eclectic. For example, Rickels first analyses the group dynamics of the vampire hunters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in order to emphasise the paternal figure of the proto-psychoanalyst, Van Helsing. Subsequently, he discusses the relationship between the occult and new forms of technology, such as the typewriter used by Mina in the novel, drawing implicitly on Friedrick Kittler in the process. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (France 1932) is examined in terms of its self-consciousness, but also the melancholic projection of the vampire threat which Rickels asserts emanates from the theme of premature burial in the film. Anne Rice’s novels are considered through the prism of Nietzsche. As you would expect, there are lectures on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (USA 1990)´, Murnau’s Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi. Most of the better known texts of vampire literature and cinema are at least mentioned. Perhaps surprisingly, though, werewolves, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ed Wood’s transvestism and the Gulf War receive extended coverage as Rickels attempts to explore the outer limits of monstrosity.

Regrettably, there is no discussion of the television version of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (the film is merely a morsel in the book) or Angel (USA 1999). The omission of the latter is understandable given the book’s publication date, but one might have expected Rickels to have more to say on the grasp of the televisual medium over the contemporary viewer. More importantly, what do these programs and their popularity imply about our identification with the undead? The ambiguity towards vampires in both series might have reinforced Rickels’ fundamental point that, “The monster . . . is a traumatized hybrid – the monsters are us” (116). After all, Angel’s evil alter ego is called Angelus . . .

However, despite the diverse menu choices, one soon realises that The Vampire Lectures offers a rather restricted diet. Rickels is a practising psychoanalyst and it shows through his eternal return to the family relationships of vampire texts. He argues that, “The body, your body, every body, is the maternal body” (342). In a reversal of the law of exogamy that Lacan and Levi-Strauss theorise as the foundation of society, the vampiric imperative is to commit incest: “every haunting takes nourisment from the blood bond with mother” (287). The dark gift enjoins its recipients to indulge in every pleasure and transgression. The only way to overcome vampirism is to reinstate the Law of the Father. The paternal figure provides an “antibody” in the form of a “mournable, symbolizable death” (287). Although Rickels claims that “mourning is the most vulnerable point of articulation in psychoanalytic theory” (ix), his position is closer to Kristeva’s repetition of Freud’s misogyny in her Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia.

Rickels’ method of textual analysis is also problematic. Most of the books and films to which he refers do not receive any critical attention. Instead, they are reduced to their narrative shells and offered to the audience in short recitations, often near the end of a lecture, as alluring, camp, exotic or grotesque treats. Where Rickels bothers to explore texts in any detail, he concentrates on their familial trajectories. This narrative serial frequently omits one of the captivating elements of literature and cinema: style.

This failure might explain the absence of Buffy: Rickels’ woeful sense of humour prevents him from understanding the wit of Joss Whedon et al, let alone transmitting it. Yet Rickels gorges himself on nauseating puns. This recalls a certain playfulness of Freud in the period of 1893-1900, before his textual practices became stolid. Rickels’ approach is also inspired by the “wild psychoanalysis” of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s fresh interpretation of Freud’s most famous patient in The Wolf-Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy. Rickels, Abraham and Torok also share an intellectual ancestor in Derrida. It is the deconstructive possibilities of Rickels’ textual interpolations and fluid definition of vampirism that might have the best chance of remaining inside the reader. The Vampire Lectures destabilises identity and erodes disciplinary borders. In so doing, it mimes what are arguably the sources of our fascination with vampirism: our uncertainty about the distinction between self and other, life’s boundaries and eternity’s possibilities.

However, there is always a risk we will succumb to the vampire’s temptation. If we forsake textual specificity, as Rickels so often does, and make vampirism an amorphous concept, then one side effect is that we will see vampires everywhere as we create and project the figures of our unconscious on to the texts we read. In the process we will also enact an identification with the vampire’s victims. Subjected to the terrors of the night stalker we are at the behest of the vampire hunter, the expert in the field. Thus we become prisoners of Rickels’ discourse, his own extended nightmare.

How do we wake from this great textual dream? How do we stake this vampire and commence our intellectual mourning, the work of making this discourse useful? Perhaps we might re-cognise that it is not mourning which is the aporia that threatens to deconstruct psychoanalysis, but rather the affective tie. It is that unbreakable bond of the self and other which precedes the birth of the subject and eludes memory and representation that is the real blind spot of psychoanalysis and its adherents.

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

About the Author

Tim Groves

Dr Tim Groves is Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His research interests include horror and serial killer films, and post-classical film aesthetics.View all posts by Tim Groves →