A while before writing this article, I was reading a vampire novel (“Vittorio, The Vampire” by Anne Rice) and was delighted to find that it contained much more horror than I’d been expecting 🙂 After all, although vampires are a fairly traditional part of the horror genre, they aren’t always presented in a very frightening way.
Whilst there are some good creative reasons for this – including everything from exploring the themes associated with vampirism, because vampires are one of the coolest types of monster in the horror genre (see the “Blade” and “Underworld” movies, Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels etc… for good examples) and/or because the gothic melodrama traditionally associated with them is a brilliant source of comedy (see the TV show “What We Do In The Shadows” for a hilarious example of this), there’s also something to be said for scary vampires too. If only because they are a great way to surprise jaded readers.
So, how can you make vampires scary?
1) Other types of horror: Most of the scariest vampire fiction out there will often include other types of horror that aren’t traditionally associated with vampires. For example, the opening segments of Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger” present the vampire characters in a way reminiscent of the serial killer villains in slasher movies.
Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” takes a hint from Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and presents the vampires in a very zombie-like way, allowing for a level of ultra-gory, fast-paced apocalyptic horror that you don’t typically see in the vampire genre. Yes, zombies aren’t very frightening – but including elements of this genre creates a chillingly bleak, nihilistic and grim atmosphere that you really don’t see that often in the vampire genre.
An especially creepy example of including another type of horror in the vampire genre (SPOILERS ahoy!) can be found in Anne Rice’s “Vittorio, The Vampire”.
In this historical vampire story, the main character flees from his ancestral castle after surviving a vampire attack and finds sanctuary in a nearby town called Santa Maddelena. Initially, the town appears quiet, friendly and idyllic… too idyllic. With a series of brilliant hints and subtle moments, Rice gradually reveals the blood-curdling secret behind this town’s joyous façade. It is a brilliantly unexpected use of the “flawed utopia” trope (typically found in the sci-fi genre) and it is used to exquisitely chilling effect here 🙂
So, the lesson here is to incorporate other types of horror into the vampire genre, to read widely (eg: not just horror fiction) and surprise your reader with scary stuff that they won’t usually find in a typical vampire novel.
2) Moral horror: One of the things that separates “feel good” vampire fiction from genuinely scary vampire fiction is how the morality of vampirism is presented. In “feel good” stories, the vampires will either just be “100% evil” villian characters or, if they’re the good guys, then they will drink synthetic or donated blood, bite in a non-lethal fashion etc… In short, these “feel good” vampires are presented in a way that doesn’t conflict too much with the reader’s moral sensibilities.
In scarier vampire stories, the vampires will be the protagonists, but will actually have to bite and kill other characters. These vampire characters are complex, ordinary people who have been forced into a cold and grim life of repetitive murder because of either a tragic accident, an unexpected vampire attack and/or a misunderstanding of what it is to be a vampire. How the characters reconcile themselves to this evil life and how it changes them can be a potent source of subtle, creeping horror that can really catch the reader by surprise 🙂
Interestingly, the very best example of this type of morality-based horror can actually be found in a computer game. I am, of course, talking about “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines“. In this game, you play as a newly-created vampire and have a lot of freedom to make decisions. Although the game may not feel or look very frightening at first, expect to feel a slow, creeping sense of horrified revulsion shortly after your first session with the game, when you actually think back on all of the evil decisions that you made in order to survive and/or thrive in the game’s harsh and seedy world.
3) Realism: One of the simplest ways to make vampires frightening is just to add a bit of realism to your story by thinking about the life of a vampire in practical terms. This can work in so many ways.
Whether it is adding elements of science to the vampires (eg: vampirism working like a disease, scientists wanting to study vampires etc…), whether it is just presenting your vampire characters as being ordinary and unremarkable people (giving the reader the impression that anyone could be a vampire, waiting to drink their blood!), whether it is showing a vampire protagonist trying to cover up evidence of their crimes and/or being chased by the police or whether it is just showing all of the gory after-effects of a vampire biting someone, one of the best ways to make vampires scary is to add a bit of realism to your story.
Yes, the idea of a hidden world filled with gothic vampires who read poetry, drink absinthe, visit cool nightclubs, have passionate romances etc… is one of the central appeals of the vampire genre 🙂 It is really cool. But, at the same time, it isn’t very scary for the simple reason that it isn’t very realistic – it is an escapist fantasy, rather than a terrifying nightmare.
Horror is often at it’s very scariest when it is grounded in the real world, when the reader really thinks “this could happen!” and shudders at the thought. So, if your vampires exist in a stylised gothic world, then they are going to be less frightening than if they just live down the road from wherever your reader happens to be.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂