Conference Report

Darren Elliott-Smith, of Royal Holloway, University of London, has posted an excellent report of the conference here.

Conference Report

Our original inspiration for the Open Graves, Open Minds conference came out of the gradual dawning upon us of the sheer volume of vampire fiction in all media that has been produced and greedily consumed in recent years and then through Sam’s meditations on the notion that vampires cast no reflection. This image predates Stoker and is an elaborate metaphor for the vampire’s lack of a soul. In Stoker’s novel, Dracula has no soul as physical existence and appetite are all that concern him. Dracula’s lack of a reflection suggests that Stoker is afraid to let us see a likeness-however uneasy or strange-of ourselves. It is evident that Stoker’s refusal to allow us to acknowledge our kinship with Dracula (we cannot see a reflection) is symptomatic of wider cultural anxieties. The more one thinks about this the more striking is the irony of creatures with no reflection becoming such a pervasive reflection of modern culture.

We had a huge response from all over the world, with would-be delegates responding from Iran, the US, Turkey, India, Tunisia, Poland, Germany, and elsewhere, with proposals for papers from all perspectives, achieving the interdisciplinarity we had set out to achieve. Unfortunately, of course, this global display of interest in the Unholy doings of the Undead would face the Divine Wrath of the Airborne Toxic Event which prevented many visitors from setting off and left others stranded on their way. Some very interesting topics were thus, alas, never brought before the conference, but we will be circulating the papers that the authors have kindly sent us.

As well as the enthusiastic response from the calls for papers, we generated an inordinate amount of press attention, from The Guardian; The Daily Telegraph; Rock FM; German, Taiwanese, and Australian radio; the local papers, and even a mention by Chris Evans! Headlines included ‘Vampires Make Leap to Academia’ and ‘Vampire Lit Gets its Scholarly Due’, and a personal favourite ‘Coffin Boffin Syllabus: Twilight Craze Sparks Chance to Study All Things Undead as Part of a New University Degree’. Not all of this reportage quite understood the aims of the conference and there was a certain amount of misrepresentation which seemed to cast us in a jingoist response to an imagined plague of American vampirism, whereas the spirit of the conference was always intended to be truly cosmopolitan. However, at least it provoked interest and discussion.

Despite the transport crisis, enough people successfully arrived to make this a stimulating and fun conference, bringing with them a breadth that not only spanned disciplines-translation studies, film and new media studies, literary criticism, sociology-but periods, texts, and media. Thus we had panels on ‘Undead Teens’ and ‘Undead Romance’, together with ‘Dracula Lives’, ‘Appetites of the Undead’, ‘Undead Victorians’, ‘Politics of the Undead’, ‘The Gay Undead’, ‘Undead TV’, ‘Undead in the New Media’, ‘Identity, Legality, and the Undead’, and ‘Gendering the Undead’.  Areas of interest ranged from nineteenth-century novels through films of the 1980s and 1990s to the novels, films, TV series, videogames of the twentieth century, including the current fascination with Twilight and the more adult response of True Blood. Among individual papers were ‘”Who Ordered the Hamburger with Aids?” Blood Anxiety in True Blood‘, ‘”My Boyfriend is a Vampire!” – Gender Roles and Teen Dating’, ‘Death is the New Pornography!’: ‘Gay Zombies and Fascist Hypermasculinity in Queer Horror Film’, ‘Fundamentalism, Hybridity and Remapping the Vampire Body: Postmodern Vampirism and the Presidency of George W. Bush’, ‘He Walks Again: The Digital Translation of the Man’s Vampire in Legacy of Kain’, and-magnificently-‘”Bloody hell. Sodding, blimey, shagging, knickers, bollocks. Oh God, I’m English”: Translating Spike’.

In addition to the very high level of the conference papers, we were luck to find three excellent plenary speakers, chosen to reflect (that word again!) the interdisciplinary concerns of the conference-one broadly from literary and cultural studies, one from TV and film studies, and a writer of fiction.

On the Friday, Dr Catherine Spooner, University of Lancaster (Contemporary Gothic, 2008; The Routledge Companion to Gothic, 2009), opened the sessions. Catherine’s talk, ‘Gothic Charm School, or, How Vampires Learned to Sparkle’, linked vampire narratives in film and TV, from Twilight to True Blood and Being Human, to manifestations of and reactions to Goth subculture including a Goth etiquette blog, Gothic Charm School, the Columbine massacre, and the murder of Sophie Lancaster. As Catherine said, of the fashionably sympathetic vampire, ‘in these narratives, the erosion of vampire otherness replays Goth subculture’s own conflicted desire for acceptance by the mainstream’. Catherine is working on a new monograph on Gothic in the twenty-first century, provisionally entitled Sparkly Vampires, Huggable Mushroom Clouds, and the Rise of Happy Gothic.

That afternoon, Dr Stacey Abbott, University of Roehampton (Celluloid Vampires, 2007, Angel, 2009), spoke about late twentieth and twenty-first century blockbuster vampire films and explored how the re-imagining of the vampire through the language and iconography of science has impacted on public consciousness. Stacey argued that the medium of film has completely reinvented the vampire archetype: ‘rather than representing the primitive and folkloric, the vampire has come to embody the very experience of modernity. No longer in cape and coffin, today’s vampire resides in major cities, listens to punk music, embrace technology, and adapts to any situation; sometimes she’s even female’. We were thrilled and scared by clips from Blade, Underworld, and other films, with some wincingly gruesome dissection scenes.

As the finale to the conference, we were privileged to hear the novelist, Marcus Sedgwick (My Swordhand is Singing; 2006; The Kiss of Death, 2008; Revolver, 2009). Marcus gave a presentation that was intelligent and witty and, with the aid of-for once-entirely appropriate PowerPoint images, led us through the images of vampires past and present, the landscape and folklore of Romania, The Golden Bough, and Joseph Campbell in order to show the genesis of his very scary, very powerful vampire novels for young adults.

This was one of the friendliest conferences we have ever attended and this was enhanced by the spirit of playfulness fostered by the serving of cake from coffins, the gothic cupcakes, spooky atmospherics at the drinks reception, and vampiric menus at dinner. Our thanks, then to Conference Hertfordshire and the catering staff for their hard work and creativity.

The energy and enthusiasm generated at the conference will, it is hoped, feed into a book and a special journal issue of selected papers from the conference. There will be a further conference in 2012 and we intend this to be a regular event. From out of all this will emerge an MA module, Reading the Vampire: Science, Sexuality and Alterity in Modern Culture on the Modern Literary Cultures programme, beginning in October 2010.

Finally, we’d like to thank all those who made this such a wonderful event: the delegates, of course, and the plenary speakers; the chairs (Gavin Budge, Darren Elliott-Smith, Rowland Hughes, Andrew Maunder, Janice Norwood, Ivan Phillips, Anna Tripp, Pat Wheeler, Jennifer Young); Jillian Wingfield and Lucy Clark who worked very hard on the registration desk; Kerry and Chris from Conference Hertfordshire; the catering staff; Brandon from publicity.