Humor, Vampire(pop culture)
To some, the stage vampire was essentially humorous, and the thought of being lampooned in the press was partially responsible for keeping Hamilton Deane from bringing his original Dracula play, which had been quite successful in rural England, to London. In fact, a comedic version of the Deane play, Dracula, the Comedy of the Vampire, appeared at various locations around Europe in the 1930s. With his knowledge of the theater, Deane could have expected some amount of fun to be had at his play’s expense. A century earlier, Charles Nodier brought the vampire to the stage in Paris. Within a few months, several other vampire plays, all farces and most comments upon his play, opened in competing Parisian theaters. The fact that vampire humor first appeared on stage was an indication of its future. Vampires as objects of humor made their primary appearance on the stage, and more recently in motion pictures, rather than in novels. Vampire books usually have been horror stories with only very rare hints of humor. Meanwhile, a stereotypical vampire was gradually created in the successive productions of Dracula, Hamilton Deane’s original play in England (1924), and the portrayals of Bela Lugosi in the American play in 1927 and Universal Pictures’ movie version in 1931. The creation of the vampire’s image on the stage and screen provided the context for future opportunities to lampoon that image. To a much lesser extent, vampire fiction was not tied to the Lugosi vampire, while even the most variant vampire movie had to use the stereotypical Dracula as its starting point.
The spread of popular vampire humor awaited the creation of the widely recognized stereotypical cinematic vampire by Bela Lugosi in the 1930s. The first major attempt to exploit the humorous possibilities of Lugosi’s Dracula occurred in the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The plot of the movie revolved around Dracula’s attempt to steal comedian Lou Costello’s brain and place it in the head of Frankenstein’s monster. Lugosi returned to his Dracula role for the spoof, which in retrospect received high marks as one of Abbott and Costello’s best movies. It was said to be far superior to Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), in which an unnamed actor made a cameo appearance as Dracula.
The 1950s: Mainstream vampire humor in the 1950s was limited to two movies and a play. Early in the decade, Lugosi traveled to England to portray another vampire, Count Von Housen, in one of the series of Old Mother Riley comedies. Mother Riley Meets the Vampire (1952; a.k.a. My Son the Vampire) was one of his less remembered roles. Lugosi’s stereotyping as a horror actor drastically limited the roles offered him as he aged and led him to construct a 1954 Las Vegas stage production, “The Bela Lugosi Review”, in which he was forced to play a spoof of the part he had made famous. In the second 1950s comedic vampire movie, The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, the vampire was secondary to the plot, which featured one of the Bowery Boys (Huntz Hall) being turned into a werewolf. More important than both of these movies was the first new vampire play in several decades. I Was a Teenage Dracula, a three-act mystery by Gene Donovan, heralded some 40 subsequent plays featuring Dracula for high school and other amateur productions, the great majority of which were comedies.
The 1960s: The 1960s saw the production of one of the best comic vampire movies ever made, Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). Polanski’s film (originally called Dance of the Vampires) concerned the antics of two vampire hunters, Professor Ambronsius and his assistant (played by Polanski), as they tracked down the villainous Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). Among the more memorable scenes was a bizarre dance sequence from which the movie took its name.
However, the comic vampire really found a home on two television series, The Addams Family and The Munsters. Both shows attempted to place the classical “monsters,” including several vampirelike characters, in an ordinary, “normal” middle-class American setting, and both ran through the 1964/65 and 1965/66 seasons. Both shows inspired early comic books that introduced the comic vampire to that medium. The Munsters, which featured a thinly disguised Count Dracula, led to a movie, Munster Go Home! (1966). The gothic soap opera Dark Shadows became a hit daytime show on NBC during the last years of the decade. Among the items created as a result of the show was possibly the first vampire joke book, Barnabas Collins in a Funny Vein, published in 1969. A second Dark Shadows joke book appeared in 1981, Die Laughing, compiled by Barbara Fister-Liltz and Kathy Resch. A comedy drama featuring the Transylvanian Count included several plays simply entitled Dracula that originally were staged in 1965 and 1966, respectively.
The 1970s: The 1970s opened with a new vampire play, I’m Sorry, the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night, a musical comedy featuring the songs of Sheldon Allman and Bob Pickett. Allman had made a record titled Sing Along with Drac, which included such memorable titles as “Children’s Day at the Morgue” and “Fangs for the Memory.” Pickett had been the Dracula voice in the 1962 album The Monster Mash, which included not only the title song but “Blood Bank Blues” and “Transylvania Twist.” The spoof opened in Los Angeles on April 28, 1970 at the Coronet Theatre. It featured several of the classic Universal monsters and included the insect-eating R. N. Renfield, from Dracula, who had his solo moment with a song called “Flies.”
Several other vampire plays made their initial appearance in the 1970s. Both Count Dracula or A Musical Mania for Transylvania and Monster Soup or That Thing in My Neck Is a Tooth were staged in 1974. They were joined by The Vampire’s Bride or The Perils of Cinderella (1979) later in the decade. The decade closed with what generally has been considered the best of the many comedy vampire movies, Love at First Bite (1979). George Hamilton played a modern Dracula in prerevolutionary Romania. As the movie opened, Dracula played the piano. The howls of the wolves grew louder and louder, and, in a slightly altered version of one of Bela Lugosi’s famous lines, he shouted out, “Children of the night, shut up!” Forced out of his castle by the Communist government, he took the opportunity to search out a New York fashion model (Susan Saint James), with whose picture he had fallen in love. There he met Saint James’s psychiatrist, a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing (Richard Benjamin). The movie was a delightful mixture of hilarious one-liners and humorous situations, such as Dracula waking up in the midst of a funeral service in an African American church.
Possibly second in popularity only to Love at First Bite as a humorous treatment of the vampire theme was Andy Warhol’s Dracula (a.k.a. Blood for Dracula, an Italian production in which Dracula traveled to Italy looking for the blood of “wirgins.”) The humor centers upon his comment on modern society and the inability to find a virtuous (sexually pure) young woman—a fact graphically displayed by his regurgitating every time he got blood from an apparently virginal female. In 1977, the first family of television comic horror, The Addams Family, returned with a full length movie, Halloween with the Addams Family, but response was disappointing. An adult sexually oriented comedy, Dracula Blows His Cool (1979), was produced in West Germany and dubbed in English for an American audience.
In 1974, Phil Hirsch and Paul Laikin compiled a new collection of vampire humor in Vampire Jokes and Cartoons. The 1970s also marked the appearance of juvenile vampire literature, specifically designed for children and teens. Overwhelmingly, the approach to the vampire in children’s books was very light (using vampires to teach tolerance for children who were different) to comedic. One of the more comic and delightful vampire characters for kids was Bunnicula (1979), a vegetarian vampire rabbit who slept during the day and attacked vegetables to suck out the juice at night. The rabbit presaged Count Duckula of the late 1980s.
The 1980s and 1990s: Vampire humor prospered in the 1980s with movies leading the way. By far the best of the comic films (harking back to Andy Warhol’s movie) was Once Bitten, in which a female vampire (Lauren Hutton) went in search of a male virgin in Hollywood. Unlike the Warhol vampire, Hutton quickly found the inexperienced Mark Kendall (Jim Carrey) and began to vampirize him. His attempts to discover what was happening to him and then extract himself from the vampire’s clutches provided the setting for the hilarity. Other comic vampire movies of the decade included I Married a Vampire (1984), Who Is Afraid of Dracula? (1985), Transylvania 6–5000 (1985), and Transylvania Twist (1989). During the 1980s, Elvira, the vampiric television horror show hostess, burst onto the national scene as a comic personality who combined features of the vamp with a Marilyn Monroe-type dumbness. Elvira attracted a devoted following and had her own fan club. She also developed a line of cosmetics and inspired a Halloween look-alike costume and a comic book. In 1988, she starred in her first feature-length movie, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Developing in the 1980s and coming into their own in the 1990s were vampire Halloween greeting cards. As Halloween emerged as one of urban America‘s most celebrated holidays, it dropped much of its earlier role as a harvest festival and became a time for fun for youngsters. Vampires and bats have been perennial Halloween characters. In response, the greeting card industry produced hundreds of cards featuring the vampire, most built around vampire-oriented one-liners, to send to friends at Halloween. Accompanying the cards were many cartoon vampire party products. These Halloween products illustrated most clearly the severe stereotyping of the vampire image. Vampires could be quickly recognized (and distinguished from witches, ghosts, or other monsters) by their fangs, cape, widow’s peak, and accompanying bats.
The 1980s also saw the flowering of vampire literature for children and youth. A large percentage of the more than 50 titles were humorous, though serious horror stories for teenagers also were produced. Typical of the comedic literature were the many titles of Victor G. Ambrus. Written for younger children, Ambrus developed a comical Dracula (complete with cartoon illustrations), who in his initial appearance in Count, Dracula (1980), was content to teach children to count. Dracula’s Bedtime Storybook (1981) had Dracula romping through British literature with Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Sherlock Holmes. A series of new titles continued into the 1990s. For older children, in addition to the further adventures of Bunnicula, there were such titles as Judi Miller’s A Vampire Named Murray, the story of a vampire cousin from “Vulgaria” who came to live with the Kaufmans. Murray was allergic to human blood, but loved V-8 juice (and could warm up to vegetable soup). Murray did stand-up comedy for the kids, and they loved him. But the neighbors thought he was too different, and they wanted him to leave town.
The 1980s ended, and the 1990s began as the interest in vampires reached an alltime high. From 1980 through 1993, the number of vampire novels doubled and the number of vampire short stories and comic books multiplied several times. Thus, it was fitting that the period should be capped with a doubling of the number of vampire joke books. In 1986 Charles Keller finished his compilation of Count Draculations: Monster Riddles, followed in 1991 by Gordon Hill’s The Vampire Joke Book, 64 pages of riddles. “Why did Dracula become a vegetarian? Because he couldn’t bear stakes,” was typical fare for Keller and Hill. The next year, Jeanne Youngson, president of the Count Dracula Fan Club, compiled The World’s Best Vampire Jokes. For example: “Why do vampires have such a tough time? Some people never give a sucker an even break,” or “What do you get when you cross a woolen scarf with a vampire? A very warm pain in the neck.” James Howe followed Hill and Youngson in 1993 with the Bunnicula Fun Book (1993), combining jokes with fun things for children.
Vampire humor continued, but at a decreased level in the first decade of the new century. While a few vampire movies and television shows had their funny moments, as a whole comedy was a significant part of either world, even in those movies and shows made for youth and children. Vampire humor primarily survived in new collections of vampire jokes and Halloween greeting cards.