Glampires: Why Vampires Should (Almost) Never Sparkle

If you want to skip ahead, right to the glamour shots, go ahead. Nobody will stop you. But, if you’ve got the nerve to read some analysis, there’ll be a slight, surrealist detour.

A Vampire : Bites

The other day, I was thinking about the fang marks vampires leave on their victims.

(No, I’m not crazy. The doctor said the tests were inconclusive—joking! And if you think I have too much time on my hands, you should know, I was thinking about this during a staff meeting—joking! Well, kind of.)

Seriously, if I were to ask anyone, anyone on the street, what marks vampires leave on the necks of their prey, what would this everyman reply? I’m willing to bet that he would answer with some variation of the description below, uttered by a doctor reading from a coroner’s report in Dracula’s Daughter.

“Marks: two small punctures near jugular vein, resembling pinpricks. Swollen slightly. Faint discoloration.”

It’s a very graphic image—and I mean graphic not in the sense of bloody, but in the sense of supremely visually stylized. Two dots. Two points. Two pinpricks. Really, from before the 19th century to True Blood, we haven’t changed that mental image because of its sheer imaginative power. It’s so elegant. So simple. (This is the point in my train of thought when I noticed that my colleagues were kind of quiet in that meeting. Oh, you’re waiting for me to talk? Oh. Alright, now, about our core competencies…)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. From a True Blood poster.

And then I was possessed by the spirit of Roland Barthes. For those of you who may not know, Barthes was one of the greatest critical minds of the past century and he was a big proponent of word games as research tools. (By the way, vampires also like word games, as Son of Dracula proves when Count Alucard—hmm—comes to town. They don’t like crosswords, though.)

Barthes’ methods, though rigorous, could verge on surrealism. Beyond just literary symbolism and thematic analysis in the often stale ways we’ve come to accept, Barthes played around with character names, sentence structures, even messed around with the order of his own texts so as to examine how the textures and the often superficial or surface qualities of works can tell you a lot about their deepest layers significance and almost certainly yield refreshing interpretations.

So, I ask you, dear reader, isn’t a vampire bite a bit like a colon?

You know, the punctuation mark. Dot. Dot. This thing, “:” That’s also quite a “graphic,” stylized visual figure, huh? I mean, what, the vampires don’t have any other teeth? How do they leave just two dots? That’s pretty vivid and colon-like.

Which begs the question, what exactly is a colon? (Stay with me here. I’ll get back to the horror in a second. Keep your eyes on the prize. Bear with my grammar fetish.) This is from the Merriam Webster Dictionary online:

1  plural cola : a rhythmical unit of an utterance; specifically in Greek or Latin verse : a system or series of from two to not more than six feet having a principal accent and forming part of a line 

2  plural colons 

a : a punctuation mark : used chiefly to direct attention to matter (as a list, explanation, quotation, or amplification) that follows

b : the sign : used between the parts of a numerical expression of time in hours and minutes (as in 1:15) or in hours, minutes, and seconds (as in 8:25:30), in a bibliographical reference (as in Nation 130:20), in a ratio where it is usually read as “to” (as in 4:1 read “four to one”), or in a proportion where it is usually read as “is to” or when doubled as “as” (as in 2:1::8:4 read “two is to one as eight is to four”) 

Origin: Latin, part of a poem, from Greek kōlon limb, part of a strophe
First Known Use: circa 1550.

To condense this, as a mark, a colon (two dots, like a vampire bite) represents a separation, specifically one of time. When we see a colon, we know that something must come afterwards. It can’t end a sentence, only open into another clause. A colon is forever between two things.

Hm. Like a vampire dwells between life and death? Like a vampire bite, that ruby colon, ushers unsuspecting innocents into another state of existence?

And what about that word origin. Colon originally meant limb? As in a disembodied limb? A severed part of a poem, just as much as a severed part of a body? So, a colon is kind of the Leatherface of the punctuation world? It’s a connotation that continues on to this day. According to a professor I know, “In computer science, colons are used for slicing,” for chopping up data strings. Wow. Who would’ve known that this punctuation mark that we all take for granted has such a horror pedigree already.

A colon suggests incompleteness. Like a body without a soul. I think it’s interesting that we tend to define a vampire’s nature mostly in terms of absences: no soul, no reflection, constant thirst for, and therefore lack of, blood.

To make a long argument short (yeah, right), vampires, colons, and the mark of the vampire are all symbols or signs of severance. Two dots. No connection whatsoever. Isolated. Precise. Here, one is inclined to think of Lugosi’s luminous eyes, enhanced by penlight beams.

This “rhythmical unit of utterance” business also strikes me as quite apt, since the archetypal vampire, Lugosi, talks in a particularly odd meter: “What music THEY make?!” His words don’t seem to link together to form a sentence. They’re like beads lined up—that fail to string together as a necklace.

Again, we brush up against the paradigm of separation, disunity, fragmentation of speech. Why is it that our pop culture remembers Lugosi as Dracula much more than Nosferatu? I would argue that it’s because of the sound, particularly because of the discordant sound. Horror films, just as much as gangster films, benefited immensely from talkies thanks to the askew, jarring sound choices made by directors and actors.

Which brings me to glamour. The movie vampire is the nonpareil glamourous monster. Let’s remember that the Dracula of the novel is not the exotic matinee idol that Lugosi was and that the Laemmles had originally considered Conrad Veidt for the role. I do consider Veidt’s face beautiful, but glamorous? I wouldn’t entirely say so.

Glamour, I’d say, is an unnatural thing. In a good way. It’s not fresh, effortless loveliness, but rather studied aesthetic appeal. In my mind, true glamour approaches “dead perfection,” to rechristen a phrase from Tennyson.

Guess what, children? Turns out that glamour is unnatural and dangerous, completely justifying Hollywood’s decision to make vampires lacquered, smooth, and silky. Here’s another definition for you, folks.

1  a magic spell <the girls appeared to be under a glamour — Llewelyn Powys> 

2  an exciting and often illusory and romantic attractiveness <the glamour of Hollywood>; especially : alluring or fascinating attraction—often used attributively <glamourstock> <glamour girls> <whooping cranes and…other glamour birds — R. T. Peterson> 

Scots glamour, alteration of English grammar; from the popular association of erudition with occult practices 

First Known Use: 1715

And, by the way, I am in no way the first person to use this glamour-grammer-spell link in film analysis. A friend directed me to The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, in which Robert Ray—perhaps the most genius person writing about movies nowadays—explores a similar crossover.

So, we can follow the whole circle of associations:

  • Vampires seduce.
  • Their magnetism is glamourous (in Hollywood at least).
  • Glamour is a spell, as grammar was considered to be. It’s actually still mysterious and powerful for many people—myself included.
  • A colon conforms to/is part of the rules of grammar.
  • And vampires bite in colons.

All of these things, as unrelated as they may seem, enlighten the vampire as a film trope. He puts people under a spell, but there’s kind of underlying order to the way he operates, to his charms, and it’s all contained in the ruthless elegance of that dot-dot bite.

And, in case you were wondering, no hallucinogens were involved in the making of this blog.

would be caught dead in this…

To my mind, there are two classifications of movie vampires (that aren’t teenage drags): horror vampires (lineage of Max Schreck) and glampires (lineage of Lugosi).

If I were to outline three features that characterize vampire glamour as a coherent aesthetic, they are as follows:

  1. Exaggeration, especially in terms of contrast,
  2. Simplification, that is, a lack of excess,
  3. An extreme tendency towards stasis (i.e. as far as possible from anything we’d characterize as alive).

Dracula (1931): The Standard

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Dracula’s Daughter, Marya Zaleska, reminds me of vampire Wallis Simpson (if she had been a vampire that would actually explain a lot). She favors tailored cuts, sharp lines, and a relatively minimalist, regal look in Louise Brymer’s designs.

Zaleska’s one adornment, a huge jewel, serves a specific purpose: dazzling potential victims.

I also love how the make-up and wardrobe people set the naturalistic textures (fur, gardenias, curly hair) of potential victims against the slim, streamlined look of the Zaleska.

The camera is so infatuated with the Countess’ impassive, corpse-like visage that the last shot of the film consists of this fetishistic close-up… as off-screen male voices talk about how beautiful she was.

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

If you don’t like spoilers, don’t read this one. So, in this odd murder mystery, we learn that some vampires have been scaring the hell out of a little Carpathian town.

Wait, this is the apparition scaring people? I’m sorry, but I could never be scared by a vampire with hippy hair. That’s too much. Ratty and not nearly glamourous enough to suit me, even if M-G-M designer Adrian got the shroud-gown spot-on.

What’s with the Kabuki make-up? Vampires are exaggerated, but not this excessive. This is wrong somehow…

Um, Bela… vampires do NOT wear ’70s-tuxedo-style ruffled cravats. Puh-leez. There’s something fishy about this vampire. The undead know that less is more.

Guess what? COP-OUT ALERT! They’re not real vampires. Their vaudevillians: Luna, “The Bat Woman” and her sidekick. As Buffy could tell you, clothes tell you a lot when identifying vampires. When you’re dealing with the kinds of people (or things) who lack souls, you’ve got to take ’em at face value.

Son of Dracula (1943)

In this strange entry, the Count is no glampot. I adore Lon Chaney, Jr., but let’s face it, one could not describe him as angular, which fits his performance of a vampire past his prime.

The glamour comes in the form of his bride, Katherine, who shows an unfortunate taste for torch-singer beaded gowns while alive, but acquires the hard, impenetrable lacquer of the darkest femme fatales upon her transition to the undead.

She’s basically Kathy Moffats from Out of the Past. If redesigned by Satan. Smooth, matte, and menacing.

Latter-Day Sinners

As color infiltrated the horror genre, the contrast between black and white, dark hair pale skin, succumbed to the red and white (or blonde) binary.

It takes one badass chick to wear a gown of all sequins and not look trashy. Countess Bathóry in Daughters of Darkness (1971), played by the achingly gorgeous Delphine Seyrig whom you might recognize from Last Year at Marienbad, will suck your blood when you least suspect it. She plays sweet one moment, the next launches into an erotic elegy about torturing young girls. And, yes, she could be Marlene Dietrich’s double.

All reasons why she stands out as the only vampire with the right to sparkle. Because she doesn’t, really. She conjures not an unpredictable, living sparkle, but rather an icy, fluid candlelit glint that glows around her, as though she were absorbing light, rather than emitting it. Even when she does break “the rules” of what we’ve come to associate with vampires by, say, wearing purple marabou feathers, she still radiates decay and decadence, as though she’d just taken her 30s-style togs out of a closet that had been untouched since that era. She is immutable and deadly.

Now, The Hunger (1983) owes a lot to Daughters of Darkness, as does Deneuve’s glampire, who epitomizes lost elegance with a punk edge. With an up-do right out of Vertigo, it’s so swirly and geometrical, perfect structured outfits, and red lips, her refinement presents a modern female counterpart to the continental sophistication, with a fringe of rawness, that Lugosi brought to Hollywood.

I particularly love how the V made by the brim of this militaristic cap mirrors the graphic widow’s peak of the archetypal vampire. The glasses remind me of bat wings.

Exaggerated? Uh-huh. This is Ilsa of the S.S. meets Coco Chanel. But excessive? Well, not really, if you remember that sunglasses are practical for vampires. This image could be easily reduced to a few elements. And, best of all, there’s nothing flashing, waving, fuzzing. All unnatural and spellbinding. It’s all stripped-down, slick. This is truly a daughter of Dracula.

Avant Glam: Hollywood Portraits and Surrealism


Which of these does not belong? From left to right: Joan Crawford by George Hurrell, Katie Holmes (apparently with a migrane) by Solve Sundsbo from the 2008 Holiday Issue of T Magazine, Hedy Lamarr also by Hurrell.

Today, whenever a magazine wants to channel the “classic Hollywood” vibe, the editorial staff thinks best to conjure up the era with an imitation of the Hurrell chiaroscuro paired up with a current celebrity, be it Angelina Jolie or Britney Spears, and act like they’ve captured the essence of the archetypal glam shot.

But something’s always missing. What exactly? Well, it does relate to the fact that they’re just not photographing stars with one iota of the charisma and untouchability they had in the olden days. “They had faces then,” declares Norma Desmond and she was right. Nevertheless, in my mind, it’s not just the they-don’t-make-stars-like-they-used-to attitude that accounts for why the homage so often falls short of the original.

No: there’s a subtle quality that makes many real old Hollywood glam shots so much more engaging, hypnotic and…for lack of a better word, trippythan their modern counterparts.

A subtly surreal texture infuses these images, beyond even the fetishist focus on the face or body that seems to exist in some kind glamorous limbo. Strange details, odd, angles, and inexplicable, looming shadows that call forth an uneasy tension between the star and something grim, dead, dizzily abstract, or just plain weird.

Now, please do note that I am not trying to say that surrealism influenced the photographers who sustained the Dream Machine with pictures like you’ll see below. That would be 1) obvious; 2) beyond the scope of this blog; and 3) pretty boring. Instead, I hope that the series of images I’ve put together will encourage you to reflect on the way of seeing and looking that classic Hollywood produced, which even I can sometimes take for granted but which I consider every bit as provocative, modern, and unsettling as avant-garde art. I used a lot of Hurrell shots because he was one of the most instrumental photographers in “branding” and perfecting the unique feel of the Hollywood glam shot, but I also threw in a few less-than-famous shots just to show how pervasive the aesthetic was.

These pictures seduce us, but don’t always ask us to realize how and why we’ve been seduced. They efface their own charm and wit. I think they deserve credit not just for their beauty but also for these visionary traits.

I went about coming up with this blog post by following a method that I’d describe as somewhat surrealist: I saw a few images of old time movie stars that slapped me across the face with their exoticism and eccentricity so I started searching for more and collecting files of the portraits that exuded that same surreal aura. I warn you: it’s an idiosyncratic collection more than anything else. A collage.

So, rather than write too much (too late!), I’ll let the pictures give you their thousand-words-worth.


Clara Bow

(c. 1920s ? I chanced across this photo—such is the surreal nature of the Internet—and cannot find anything about it in any language I speak. The strangest thing, though, is that the star’s face serves as all the provenance I need. I believe that the mask is a commedia dell’arte copy, but am no expert.)

“Noire et Blanche”

(Man Ray, 1926; the woman is Kiki de Montparnasse who “starred” in Ballet Méchanique)


Carole Lombard

(I’d say very early 1930s, just by the Crawford-ish look that Carole had in that period, but I have no clue what the hands have to do with anything.)

Dora Maar

(By Man Ray. N.B. Dora Maar also did at least one surreal hand photo herself that’s worth looking at.)

Rapunzel meets Ophelia: Floating Hair

Veronica Lake

(George Hurrell, 1941)

“Woman with Long Hair”

(Man Ray, 1929)

Fur-Bearing Curiosities

Joan Crawford

(Also by Hurrell, 1932)

“Le Déjeuner en Fourrure”

(Object by Meret Oppenheim, 1936)

Stop the Clocks

Adele Mara as a human sundial

(c. early 1940s. Again, details are not forthcoming. Mara, though, is quite an interesting dame—sort of a poor man’s Rita Hayworth—about whom you might like to read.)

“The Persistence of Memory”

(Salvador Dalí, 1931)

Space-Age Glampots

Clara Bow

(George P. Hommel, 1929)

Lee Miller

(Man Ray , c. 1930)

Subtle Distortions

For this final comparison, I will need to wade again into the muddy waters of analysis so I will revert to my old wordy ways. No, please, please don’t close the tab! Don’t touch the keypad! Okay, take a long look at these images:

Betty Grable

(Frank Powolny, 1943)

La Fourchette

(André Ketesz, 1928)

Unlike the other pairs, the link between these two images doesn’t slap you across the face. So why did I put them together?

The essence of surrealism, for me, is looking at an ordinary thing and seeing how extraordinarily strange it is, how perverse and ironic its very existence. That fork that you may unthinkingly use to shovel food into your mouth acquires a melancholy poignancy, an alien mutilated grace, that you may have never suspected when you really focus on its ponderous shape, purpose, invention—its personality, its soul. Kertesz can’t be pigeonholed as a surrealist, but this photo certainly is surreal in my mind and in my eye.

Like the fork, Betty Grable is, in many ways, an ordinary object. When asked, in 1958, about the perks and travails of making movies, she replied, “It pays better than slinging hash, but it’s a lot harder.” Perhaps the word most frequently used to describe her was and is “wholesome.” She is not Rita Hayworth, whose beauty was almost supernatural to begin with. Apart from her shapely gams, she’s so unremarkable that putting her before the lens automatically de-contextualizes her small-town charm to a certain degree. She is the unexamined small-town girl suddenly stripped of her veil of blandness to become something wildly sensual and weird. Any attention paid to her strikes me as paradoxical.

Then there’s the fact that we must consider this picture as more than a two-dimensional abstraction, and rather as a common physical object. Its meaning is bound up with its conception as a cherished, but quotidian possession: probably the number one pin-up photo of World War II, it must have peered out from the walls of heaven knows how many bunkers, submarines, and shanties. Pretty trippy, huh? A fork is something that we all experience individually, but consider to be basically nondescript. (A few tines and a handle, c’mon people, you don’t sit around giving much reflection to the anatomy of a fork. I hope not, at least.) Similarly, the same ordinary image of Betty Grable took on thousands of fantasy existences in men’s… minds.

And, the crazy part is, the subtle distortions of these images hint at the many askew, divergent lives of what they portray. Both Betty and the fork cast shadows that differ from the forms that we know and love. The pointy tines on the dish and the long stem underneath, on the table, are split from each other in the Kertesz photo, creating a sense of divided or bent space. Betty’s shadow (the darker one, to the right), though, reminds me of something from the movie Freaks. Her famous gams meld into one grotesque limb. There’s even another lighter shadow to the left so that she, like the fork, has been fragmented.

The oddly distorted shadows, in both cases, stand out against mostly white remainder of the images: white plate, white tablecloth, white bathing suit… The sum effect, on me at least, renders the form of the photographed object distorted. Betty’s legs appear too long and her torso is made to seem disproportionate by the famous over-the-shoulder glance, like the fork stands out as too long and lean. A woman’s body. A fork. Both awaken when scrutinized with a gaze that provokes as much, if not more, as it is provoked. When slanted slightly, tilted, pushed askew, the commodified star, the universal fetish serves as a vehicle not for looking, but for seeing.

That is what Hollywood glam shots managed to do with almost uncanny frequency: open our eyes to a beauty that wriggles out of definition but manages to be instantly recognizable. How do we pin down this specific glamour, this religion of visual textures that mutates, shocks, and frightens with its ability to transform perpetually and refresh our vision and concept of attractiveness?

Not to push the “open eyes” metaphor to far, but that notable surrealist Buñuel cut open an eye onscreen in Un Chien Andalou to prove to us how easily images could take hold of us with brutal, warped fantasies. Often considered prosaic or repetitive, old Hollywood glamour shots, and instances of classic glamour in general, do more or less the same thing. Only, if I may say so, they’re way easier on the eyes.

Simone Mareuil with Buñuel’s hand

(From Un Chien Andalou, 1929)

Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson

(In a still for Rain, 1932)