September 12, 2005
Source: University of Toronto:
Profile: Professor Elizabeth Miller, vampire queen
Studying the literature of the living dead is very much alive
by Michah Rynor
It isn't every day that a student asks a professor's advice on becoming a vampire but it’s a relatively common question for Elizabeth Miller, who is teaching The Literary Vampire at the School of Continuing Studies this fall.
“Usually it’s teens accessing my website and I have to tell them my course isn’t a how-to but a serious analysis of where vampires came from in literature using folklore, historical accounts and early literary texts,” she says. Miller has become one of the world’s best known authorities on the prince of darkness and vampirism and just typing in “Dracula” on google will bring up her website as the most popular entry.
“There are so many vampires in literature because every generation creates its own versions and almost all cultures around the world either have these ‘living dead’ in their culture or they adapt them from the ubiquitous American themes,” she says.
There are now feminist vampires, vampires of almost every ethnic group as well as gay vampires she says. “In fact, a pre-Dracula vampire novel, Carmilla was written in 1872 and it included very strong lesbian overtones. And while some vampires are quite nasty and distasteful, others are quite romantic and sympathetic so it’s no surprise that there are very few fictional characters as instantly recognizable around the world as Dracula and his brood.”
Also, she adds, people are fascinated with anything to do with “the darker side” of human nature and the rebellious nature of vampires. “Unlike other gothic monsters, the vampire has a kind of versatility that isn’t possible with other demons,” she says.
“After all, there isn’t a lot you can do with a werewolf or with a Frankenstein but metaphorically speaking you can use vampires to explore certain evils and alienation in our society. Dracula can be used in a multitude of literary, psychological and social functions as different writers both past and present have done.”
Of course, there is a downside to being an academic expert on vampires as Miller is quick to point out. “Occasionally, people think I’m a vampire and expect me to hang out in graveyards with fangs and a black cape but I remind them that scholars who study Shakespeare don’t go around dressing as Queen Elizabeth I or Falstaff. But I do admit that I’m rarely seen without my bat earrings.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1990 that Miller took an interest in the world of the undead and hadn’t even seen a vampire movie that she can remember.
Miller was considering including a woman writer in her course on British Romanticism at Memorial University when she thought of Mary Shelley’s famous Frankenstein which led to her rereading Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “I was amazed at the number of layers and possibilities in Dracula and I began to wonder where this novel had come from. Had Stoker come up with this idea all by himself or did he use bits and pieces from other texts? That’s when my research began in earnest.”
After her stint at U of T, Miller is off on a lecture tour with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which is once again staging choreographer Mark Godden’s Dracula — this time in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Miller believes there will always be another vampire movie or novel coming down the pike because they can be moulded to so many themes and messages. “The very nature of vampires is guaranteed to shock us and a lot of wannabe vampires out there like the idea that you would never take a vampire home to meet your mother,” she says.