Sexual Contagions: vampires and tuberculosis

This is the outline of a talk I gave earlier this month at the Symposium for the bi-centenary of the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the book which changed our relationship with this supernatural monster forever.

Cristóbal Rojas Poleo’s  La miseria (1886), depicting a death from tuberculosis

According to Sir Christopher Frayling, all-round genius and nice guy, The Vampyre was ‘the first story successfully to fuse the disparate elements of vampirism into a coherent literary genre’.

In doing so, John Polidori essentially started the vampire craze that hasn’t really ever let up. It’s through his book that the vampire changes its face, and in my talk I argue why that supernatural transformation would not have been possible without one certain disease; tuberculosis, or to give it its common name of the period; consumption. Without consumption, and critically, our mysterious relationship to the disease, the vampire would probably have stayed what it was through the middle ages; the foul, swollen, ruddy-cheeked corpse of a peasant.

Very, very little was known about TB until the late 19th century – when Robert Koch isolated the agent responsible, Mycobacterium tuberculosis – and up to that point the vacuum of knowledge, which I like to call Undiagnosis, allowed all sorts of ideas to flourish. The so-called tubercular aesthetic, the desire to look, or even be, consumptive, was on the rise at the time, and this is part of the story, along with the incongruous fact that consumptives were held to be both pure and innocent, and yet wanton and with heightened sexual appetites, simultaneously. Though it comes later in the story, one only has to think of Verdi’s La traviata, based on Dumas’ story La Dame aux Camélias, to get the picture; think of the hundreds of ships launched by the one beautiful, tragic face of Marie Duplessis, the real-life courtesan on whom it was based.

Ailyn Pérez as Violetta in Richard Eyre’s La traviata © Catherine Ashmore/ROH 2011

Violetta, Nicole Kidman daintily spitting blood into a handkerchief as Satine, and Elizabeth Siddal catching her death in a cold bath as Ophelia would all come later, but back in that wet June of 1816 as Polidori and the gang hung out on the shores of Lake Geneva, the link between consumption and vampirism had already been made. Something other than Mary’s monster was stirring. This is the moment when the stars aligned just right and the vampire saw its chance to stop being a B-movie monster and hit the A-list big time, and it did so by parasitically attaching itself to a disease, using our strange relationship with consumption to further its own horrible ends.

Fading Away, 1858, a combination print by the always excellent Henry Peach Robinson

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