Flesh and Blood
Author’s Note: This essay contains descriptions of racial and domestic violence.
“Modernity’s endless technoscientific entanglements of blood and race are the zenith of vampire culture. It’s a history of blood spilt in the name of bloodlines…Modernity is the Age of Vampires — as much as it’s an age of undead empires.” — Sabel Gavaldon, ‘Bad Blood: Or, the Impure Origins of Vampire Culture,’ Nosferasta: The Book
Known by many names over the centuries — adze, peuchen, vrykolakas, soucouyant, mandurugo, asanbosam, penanggalan, jiāngshī, strigoi — we recognize vampires by their sharp teeth and mouths red with blood. They tend to live forever. Sometimes they look you and I. Sometimes they can only hide parts of their monstrosity, inadvertently revealing their strangeness through long fingernails, hypnotic gazes, or skin fizzles and smokes in the sun. Sometimes they don’t look human at all.
Much to the chagrin of my Romanian ancestors, vampires have always been my favorite supernatural monster. Besides the fact that vampires usually appear as impeccably dressed creatures of the night, the vampire embodies destructive greed and power through its fanged anatomy. They are ever-hungry hunters both blessed and cursed by immortality. Long passages of time are etched into the way they speak, dress, the wealth they have, the way they see the world. They are perpetually displaced in time, cursed to outlive (or murder) every mortal they encounter.
In the weeks between Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Halloween, I went to Someday to see Nosferasta: First Bite. Directed by Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, the 2021 short film stars artist and musician Oba (whose sculptures are also included in the gallery’s multimedia installation) as his alter ego, an enslaved man who is bitten and turned by a vampiric Christopher Columbus. Yes, you read that right. In this vampire story, Christopher Columbus himself is the supernatural villain.
Khalil, an Ojibwe filmmaker, approaches this 500-year legacy of exploitation, and dehumanization with a biting sense of humor (pun intended). He repeatedly shows us how absurd these colonizers are as they assert their ideas of white supremacy. Before he discovers Oba washed up on the shore after escaping from a slave ship, Columbus already has an Indigenous man under his control who carries him on his back and out of the sun. We see Columbus clumsily stumble through tangled seaweed in bloodthirsty desperation before awkwardly throwing himself at Oba’s throat. He expresses his frustration at not reaching the Indies, and ponders how he’ll turn this mistake into profit. At one point, he swipes mud across his face in a mocking gesture of blackface. Columbus is a carrier, infecting victims as he makes his way into the Americas with both very real diseases and systemic violences of colonial expansion.
Under Columbus’s control, Oba is sent to infiltrate Indigenous groups (and later does the same to abolitionist and racial justice groups). He’s now a pawn in the European colonial project. For all that Columbus calls him ‘family,’ Oba is never taught how to read or write despite Columbus’s promises that he’ll give Oba a “second life.” Columbus keeps him “two races apart” from the rest of the world, an outsider both as a Black man in the West’s racist socioeconomic hierarchy and as an undead man among mortals. While Columbus, despite the atrocities he committed, is still celebrated as a heroic figure in America, Columbus himself notes that he “came here as a pirate,” more concerned with genocidal destruction and domination.
When we meet Oba again, he returns New York and now has to navigate the unjust systems Columbus created. Despite his supernatural powers, Oba has to go through racist bureaucracies, such as meeting with a lawyer to renew his green card and doing a stint on Rikers Island for weed possession. Even as an immortal vampire, he’s still subjected to criminalization and racist judgment. As we follow him around, Khalil draws our attention to the use of Columbus’s name on city landmarks from the Columbus Circle subway stop to other statues and monuments dedicated to the colonizer. It’s worth noting that Indigenous Peoples’ Day is still not recognized by most states as a replacement for Columbus Day and that many governments will sometimes celebrate both. In New York City, the removal of the Columbus Circle statue was proposed back in 2020 because of the racist legacy his figure represents, yet the statue remained. The specters of colonization still haunt us.
Khalil invites us to wonder: “How can you decolonize yourself, if it’s in your blood?” Oba, now a Rastafarian, wrestles with this question in the present day. As he hunts down Columbus to kill him and end his pursuit of world domination, Oba decides he also wants his life story recorded, separating his own identity from Columbus’s control. In the centuries that passed since he first bite, Oba has begun to reconnect with humans. He no longer sees his fellow man as prey in his quest for self and collective liberation.
After I saw Khalil’s film, I began watching Interview With The Vampire, the latest adaptation of Anne Rice’s classic series. Set in New Orleans beginning in the 1910s, this show depicts this entanglement of vampirism and race in an important way.
When we first meet Louis de Pointe du Lac, he’s managing his family’s sizable estate through a portfolio of gambling houses, clubs, and brothels in New Orleans, sustaining his mother, brother, and sister despite the loss of the family’s sugar cane fortune from his late father’s dealings. While his wealth and prominence in the local economy grant him certain privileges in white-owned establishments in the area, we see how he still has to endure racist comments and disrespectful attitudes both from white patrons and fellow businessmen. Yet all of this changes when he encounters Lestat, a Frenchman who is newly-arrived to the “New World” and has decided to settle in New Orleans after being dazzled by the city’s multiracial life. Despite his attractive charm, Lestat and Louis begin their relationship with a tense exchange after Lestat comments on Louis’s ability to enter through ‘the front door’ of this establishment, offending the other man with his playful tone so much.
It should come as no surprise that Lestat frames Louis’s becoming a vampire as a way to regain power in a racist world: “This primitive country has shackled you, kept you in permanent exile. Every room you enter, every hat you’re forced to wear, stern landlord, differential businessman, the loyal son, all these roles you conform to and none of them your true nature. What rage you must feel as you choke on your sorrow…I can take away that sorrow…” In the end, Louis agrees, seeing a way out of his old life.
Something I’ve found fascinating is the way the show establishes the power dynamics of Lestat and Louis’s relationship. Viewers watch helplessly as Louis falls prey to Lestat’s seduction. When he finally submits to becoming a vampire, you can’t help but wonder if this is really his choice, especially since Lestat has spent so much time up breaking down Louis’s defenses by forcing him to confront his queer identity, openly challenging the casual racism Louis endures, and making him feel seen in a society that treats him as inferior. The pair speak French with each other, a colonizer’s language, offering them a greater degree of intimate secrecy. Beyond his hypnotic veneer, Lestat sets a trap of emotional abuse that ensnares Louis. When asked his decision to work with Lestat, Louis replies: “He ain’t white, he French. He’s different.”
After Louis becomes a vampire, the racism he deals with doesn’t magically go away. It becomes apparent that a lot of the power Lestat can exert and violence he can get away with is due to his white privilege. Whereas Lestat can be bold, flirtatious, and kill on impulse, Louis has to be more restrained. This is not just because Louis has a hard time seeing people as “savory inferiors,” but because when he does murder a racist councilman who nearly shuts down his club, other white men in the city retaliate by burning down his whole neighborhood as revenge. “You could be a lot of things in New Orleans,” Louis recalls, “but an openly gay n*gro was not one of them.”
Race complicates Louis and Lestat’s relationship, but it becomes even more strained with the addition of Claudia, a 14-year-old who Louis rescues from a burning building and begs Lestat to turn. She becomes a vampire with no choice in the matter, now forever trapped in the body of a teenager. As Louis and Lestat both take on fatherly roles, it’s clear just how different their views on vampirism are. Lestat humors her impulses and hunting instinct, while Louis, who now feeds only on animals, tries to instill ideas of morality and mercy into her. It’s clear that Louis is protective of her, sees something of a daughter or sister in her, and we see the way Claudia, like Louis, can never fully escape oppression based on her race and gender. The vampire family experiences some short-lived joy, like an amusing trip to watch Nosferatu.
In the most recent episode of Interview With The Vampire, we watch Lestat and Louis’s relationship reaches its breaking point. When Claudia returns to their home and asks Louis to come and leave the abusive Lestat behind, Lestat attacks her and Louis jumps to her aid. Lestat’s capacity for physical violence — which had always been lurking under the surface of his tensions with Louis — finally explodes. Louis ultimately pays the price both for Claudia’s recklessness and Lestat’s rage. He’s left severely injured while Lestat, hardly a scratch on him, once again reasserts his superiority. In the end, Louis remains stuck in a kind of supernatural bondage.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon writes, “The N*gro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” We see how it takes 500 years for Oba to escape Columbus’s control while Columbus’s determination to assert racial dominance facilitates the traumatic violence of colonizing the Americas. Likewise, Louis is still trapped within racist social structures, yet Lestat is so caught up in his own power and privilege that his inability (or refusal) to understand Louis’s experience leads to their downfall.
While we tend to associate vampires with Eurocentric stereotypes like pale skin and aristocratic stylings, both Nosferasta and Interview With The Vampire show us how the classic tropes of vampirism can be a to reckoning with and explore the intergenerational traumas of systemic racism and colonial violence. At one point in Interview With The Vampire, Daniel Molloy, a journalist who speaks to Louis in the present day, quips: “Take a Black man in America, make him a vampire, fuck with that vampire, and see what comes of it.” Yet, it’s not that simple. An individual act of violence as the result of pent-up rage can’t overthrow a whole oppressive system. Vampirism ultimately is a false promise of privilege and an act of forced assimilation. Between these Black vampires and their white counterparts, a rift grows that even the greatest promises of supernatural abilities and immortality can never fix. Where there might be a desire to destroy, both Louis and Oba remind us that we should never give up on our fellow man, that in finding community we keep the transformative fire of hope still alive, that the predatory empires of colonialism will meet their own end.