Thinking about how Kate Beckinsale from the Underworld movies embodies the uncanny is totally what’s getting me through the last couple of papers I have to write before finals. It just gets to me how she makes the mysterious, dark, unseen aspects of herself so familiar and yet so unknowable at the same time.
Imagine that there are 10 robots standing in front of you in a line. The one farthest to the left looks entirely like a robot, such as R2D2. The one farthest to the right is indistinguishable from an actual human, such as the android in Alien. All the robots in between these two, from left to right, appear increasingly more human than the one next to it.
The third robot from the right would fall into what is known as the uncanny valley. It is almost, but not quite, human-looking. It would evoke the macabre sensation of encountering something that has been reanimated from the dead. Consider the unintentionally grotesque computer-animated children in The Polar Express for an example.
Contemporary zombies and vampires lurk in the most discomforting portion of the uncanny valley. Zombies embody its grossest, most-diseased attributes. They resemble the human form, but are festering and bloated. Their movements are jerky and jagged like those of a poorly operated marionette.
Vampires, on the other hand, represent the most seductive aspects of the uncanny valley. Vampires are radically similar to us humans and yet are simultaneously rather animalistic. Vampires have the fangs, claws, speed and agility of the animal kingdom while also having some semblance of a soft, human exterior.
Pre-Dracula vampire fables were most likely fictionalized forewarnings of several diseases, porphyria being foremost among them. Symptoms of porphyria include a sensitivity to light, vomiting, mental disturbances and a purple hue to the skin and urine when exposed to light.
There is a type of ancient Chinese vampire that is adverse to bodies of water, not unlike the hydrophobic symptoms of a severely rabid human. Other symptoms of rabies include manic-depressive symptoms followed by a coma and then death due to acute respiratory failure.
Beginning with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire trope was used in Western European literature to describe psychological and social maladies rather than just physical ailments. Dracula was written by Bram Stoker in the the late 1800s, the same era that Freud’s psychoanalysis popularized skepticism of the rational capacities of the human mind. The blood, sex and death surrounding vampiric characters would have been regarded by Freud as indicative of mental illness.
At that time, Eastern Europeans were flocking into Western Europe’s factories. The traditions and appearances of these immigrants seemed threatening and foreign to the xenophobic Western European elites who perceived Eastern Europeans as falling into the uncanny valley.
Count Dracula’s castle was originally located in Germany, but some retooling by Stoker moved the story to the more exotic Transylvania, a region in modern-day Romania. To Stoker, this part of the world straddled the gap between familiar European and foreign Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.
Dracula contains images that would have been familiar to Western imaginations — kings, castles and lost loves. This familiarity’s pairing with the disturbed sexuality and exoticism of a man ruling over throngs of enchanted women intimately entwined the vampire trope with the uncanny to such a degree that we are still enticed by what lies beneath the leather trappings of a sexy vampire heroine’s outfit today.
It’d be cool if I got bit by Kate Beckinsale and turned into a vampire. Winter Quarter has made me pale and nocturnal so I feel like I’m already halfway there. That being said, after finals are over, I’m going to speak to more diurnal, human women.
MICHAEL FIGLOCK can be found hanging upside-down from his pull-up bar made of pure steel at firstname.lastname@example.org.