Nina Auerbach

What scares you might also be what attracts you, according to Nina Auerbach, author of "Our Vampires, Ourselves" and Penn's John Welsh Centennial Professor of English.

A Victorian studies scholar with a penchant for the paranormal, Auerbach has achieved something of a cult status with her vampire research and classes. She has no interest, however, in being the "Anne Rice of Penn." She takes her vampires personally, as she does all her scholarly research, which is no less academic or weighty because it involves bloodsuckers.

Penn is full of vampires, says the Penn professor and Victorian scholar. Now, she's calling up some ghosts.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

For the University of Pennsylvania Press, Auerbach is finishing up a biography of Daphne Du Maurier, a writer most widely known because of Hitchcock's adaptations of her work - including "The Birds" and "Rebecca." Auerbach has also accepted a deal for her next book - about ghosts.

Does she have a personal interest in fear? Yes. However, in "Our Vampires, Ourselves," Auerbach wrote that the nervous political climate in which she imagined the book taught her that "no fear is only personal: it must steep itself in its political and ideological ambiance, without which our solitary terrors have no contagious resonance."

Q. Will your work with ghosts be parallel to the sociological nature of "Our Vampires, Ourselves"?

I thought my vampire book was comic - not necessarily funny, though I think vampires are funny and my book is sort of funny - and my ghost book is supposed to be more, if not tragic, then sad. I see them as companion books. I'm teaching a graduate course in the Victorian occult, which is in preparation for my ghost book. A lot of it is spiritualism and not only ghost stories, but seances and theosophy.

Q. Is spirituality implicit in these subjects?

I'm not a spiritualist, but a lot of women were, in the 19th century. It was one of the few professions really available to women, because women were more spiritual and you could do it at home. You could just have a seance in the parlor; you didn't have to go out into the harsh, male world. And, everybody thinks of Dracula as the archetypal Victorian monster, but "Dracula" is a very late novel - 1897. Ghosts were really much more popular among the Victorians. Sometimes they're menacing, but often they were sort of household pets and embodied memories and surrogate religion.

Q. Are ghosts more personal than vampires?

Usually they are the ghosts of somebody, but a vampire is that person's body. Both are very individual in Victorian England. I think ghosts are sad creatures because they can't touch you. A vampire can actually bite you and transform you into another vampire and take your blood and embrace you and do sexual things. But, traditionally, a ghost not only can't harm the living, but can't touch the living.
   So, a ghost is personal and intimate, but also always half-evaporated. That's why I saw this as a sadder book. In my vampire book, that's really about how vampires change with taste, whereas I don't think ghosts change like that. They don't have that sharply contoured identity.

Q. You show in your book how vampires have changed along with political climates. What kind are we in store for now in the current political crisis?

Vampires have mutated so much that they're not the vampires that I grew up with in the 1950s. They're clans. They identify themselves not by who they are or what they do or feel, but by their clan. They're like teenage gangs. This is not, to me, a vampire; they're pack animals.
   So, perhaps you could say that the Republicans in Congress are playing vampires - they're a carnivorous pack. And this whole business of sex being evil, it's beyond me. One thing I used to like about vampires when I was a teenager is that they were very sexy. And we were in this repressed society of the 1950s and early '60s, and vampires were erotic liberators. And now vampires are anti-sex, anti-individual puritans. But, I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow.
   There has been a lot of good vampire stuff that's come out since I wrote the book. I just saw "The Addiction." What was really great is that it was analogous to drug addiction, which I thought was a tedious idea at first. But it's also about sin and the soul and I really like that. Usually they're about sin and the soul or the body and drug addiction.
   My students like television's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I never saw it. I hate television; I think it's a vampire in my home, except to watch movies on. When I was writing the book - and I probably shouldn't admit this - I had never seen "Dark Shadows."

Q. Do you think vampires are scary?

I think they're scary, but desirable. Vampires got very sweet in the '70s and '80s; they became social victims. That's why I liked them originally - they're about transformation and immortality. And, at least, in Anne Rice and in most vampire stories, you are still you. There's a continuum between your history and undeath, and that's scary because it's against nature. But, it's also a nice thought. As with most gothic things, there are things we are afraid of because we want to be them.

Q. In your book, you said Penn is "rich with vampires." What's that about?

That's true. I really would not have written this book if I were elsewhere. I've been here for 26 years, with some interruptions, and I've never seen students who are so into vampires. I've taught in Los Angeles and they were totally indifferent to vampires. And, ever since I came here, they really know a lot about vampires and they taught me things. They not only knew more than I did, but they saw vampires so differently than I did.

Q. How so?

They didn't like sexy vampires. I showed them Hammer films [out of England's Hammer Studios], which I loved in the '60s. [Students] have no relation to Hammer vampires. Those were the Christopher Lee ones where you have some pointy-breasted matron living under the authority of these boring patriarchs and then the vampire comes through the window and transforms her and liberates her and they were very cheeky.
   I hesitate to say Hammer movies were feminist, but they sort of were. They were about vampires flinging open the window on women. At least that's how I read them. And the students did not. They loved a movie called "The Hunger" [featuring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as vampires], which I now also love. At the time, I not only didn't love it, I didn't understand it. They didn't like these male vampires who liberated women because they thought he was still a man and that was not true liberation.

Q. And Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles?

I taught "Interview" and they liked that because they thought it was about drugs. Then, two or three years later they were just saturated with Anne Rice and they didn't really like anything else. A lot of them were really Goths. They used to come in with black make-up and cloaks and I thought it was funny. I thought they thought it was funny, but I don't think they thought it was funny - I think they thought they were Anne Rice vampires. It was getting a little obsessive.

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Originally published on October 29, 1998