tape_2046 / beatrice vorster                    © 2023 


Immortality through duplication, mimicry and fidelity

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is central to the vampire media myth, its narrative formula has generated the most copies and the most recognisable icon because of its relationship to film. Much later than its Victorian vampiric counterparts, Stoker’s novel utilises pre-existing literary, folk, and factual material to form an assemblage - a kind of ‘original’ bootleg whose own first cinematic adaptation was unlicensed. What marks Dracula as distinctly different from its predecessors is its engagement with contemporary technology. The numerous references to train travel, Kodak, phonographs, and typewriters all amount to the body's extension and dislocation, each of these loosening the parameters of body and technology. The disintegration of the material body and formation of the filmic vampire (the cinematic dissolve obliteration of Nosferatu in 1922) indicates that the vampiric body is tied to the material reality of the medium it is recorded upon. Moreover, the shift from desynchronised sonic disembodiment in the silent era, to synchronised sound, only further embeds the vampire in cinematic landscapes - offering the sonic qualities of this shapeshifter in a way which gives testament to its existence. Like animated characters, their physicality is rendered through sound. Vampirism is a medium-specific threat tied to recording practices and their distribution.

Thus, Dracula’s source material is intimately related to technologies of duplication and it is presented as the way in which Count Dracula can be defeated. The novel itself uses an epistolary format, a composite of diaries, articles and invoices, merged into a master copy which is itself duplicated and distributed. Although imperceptible, the role of imagined sound is crucial to the novel, offering a firsthand account of Victorian sonic imagination. In this extract, Dr Seward, one of the vampire hunters, who records his diary on a phonograph, agrees to share it with Mina to make a typed version for their database.

That is a wonderful machine, but it is cruelly true. It told me, in its very tones, the anguish of your heart…. I have copied out the words on my typewriter, and none other need now hear your heartbeat, as I did…I think that the cylinders which you gave me contained more than you intended me to know. (Stoker, 209).
depicted in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula 1992

It is clear that at the advent of recording sound, there is a suspicion that this mode of data collection carries with it something extra - an intimate marker of its source which can be paused, rewound and replayed. The ability to replay the tones of heartbreak is presented as one which exposes, makes vulnerable the subject in the separation and documentation of the voice in a particular moment: audio recording has an almost supernatural power in its revelatory capacity. Although the sonic ‘reality’ of this fictional recording was surely distorted; the voice in competition with surface noise and lacking in definition by our standards, our encounter with the imagined sound amplifies the emotional affect and places us (and Mina) in ghostly proximity with the moment. The ghostly quality ascribed to recorded sound - the process of fixing - is tantamount to the anxiety produced from un-human disembodiment in vampirism. Julian Henriques discusses the intersection of the spirit and the human world as a kind of added value (147). He highlights that digital technologies have deepened this intermingling through facilitating the immediate recall of the entire and ongoing history of recorded music - an action of flattening and active dehistoricising in which “the past has all become equally present” (149). Digital immortality dislocates and distorts as it preserves. This fragmentation of the recorded moment is presented by Henriques in the context of Jamaican belief (and the Gothic tradition) as one which becomes interweaved with ideas of folk. His description of the duppy figure as “fly[ing] between these worlds” presents a parallel with the vampire in which the spirit world becomes embedded in technologies (149). Or, as Kittler puts it: the alternative lives of technologies is a place where “the dead and ghosts become technologically reproducible” (10). This however, is reliant on the preservation and resurrection of these fragments.

Myth becomes data once memory is technologised. In Stephan Norrington’s 1998 Blade, the antagonist, Deacon Frost, breaks into a high-tech ‘vampire archive’ - presented in the film as the site of ancient power. As Frost is duplicating and analysing data, Source Direct’s drum&bass track Call & Response is presented somewhere between the rendering of filmic diegesis and desire to make audible: bleeding from his headphones, yet unnaturally amplified for this to be fully ‘real’. Rather it is a post-production auditory illusion which adopts to sonic qualities of headphone amplification as an idea. Although the library is commonly presented in Stoker’s text (and many filmic iterations) as the site which enables The Count’s negotiation of contemporary life as a legacy figure; this rendering of information transfer exhibits the hyper-speed afforded by recording technologies which operate outside of linear chronology. This scene highlights myth-as-data while foregrounding the role of software in the creation and fixing of this moment for narrative film. Aligning Call & Response with the act of illicit downloading foregrounds the music genre's relationship to the sample as fixed sound - the relentless resurrection of the ‘amen break’ carries with it not merely the formalisation of an improvisation, but also the energy exertion that produced it. Like Steyerl’s Poor Image, the ‘aura’ evoked through the duplication of this break is “no longer based on the permanence of the ‘original’ but on the transience of the copy” (44). The vampire is the amen-break-in-motion which, like Fisher’s spectre, “acts without (physically) existing” (Hauntology, 18).

Recording is fundamentally severance and duplication - when propelled into web-space this duplication is exponential and the weight of accumulation is paradoxical: both removed from its physicality and increasingly heavy. This hyper-speed of information and narrative transfer is depicted in Guy Maddin’s 2002 Pages from a Virgin’s Diary in which the near entirety of the novel is cut-up and rearranged as a ballet at breakneck speed. Where Blade projects a futurist techno-vampirism, Maddin’s work reaches backwards, imitating the lost silent film makes use of contemporary technologies. The work utilises the fantasy of early cinema through renderings of title cards, tinting, shadowplay and music by Gustav Mahler. This mimicry is achieved through computer-generated special effects rather than utilising techniques of the silent film era; the selected Mahler pieces themselves incorporate music composed for other works in networked fashion. Maddin’s adaptation is simultaneously one of the closest to the source and the most abstracted due to its desire to show everything - text and subtext. It depicts the chaos of imitation and its awkward relationship to authenticity. The complication presented is one which connects the desire for ‘the real thing’ and the rendering of that. Michel Chion notes that there is “no reason for audiovisual relationships thus transposed to appear the same to us as they are in reality, and especially for the original sound to ring true” (96). He presents the notion of fidelity as one which is inherently complex. In contrast to definition which concerns itself with detailed audiovisual capture, fidelity is rendering which aligns with believability. It is not necessarily ‘real’, but a rendering of it which is convincing and can be recognised as what it is presented to be. Crucial to successful recognition is sifting through the noise, an emptying out to present the audience with a convincing facsimile of the event, however fantastical the content.

There are many qualities of the vampire - such as the bite - which are only rendered ‘real’ in sound design.  While Stoker’s novel contains no actual bite scene (it is inferred and occurs ‘offscreen’) it is surely one of the most iconic identifiers of the subgenre. User Iron Bite’s Vampire bites playlist is one of many on YouTube which contains a mass of bite-data, presenting us with several patterns. The first is that the audio quality of the bite is integral to the moment, relying so heavily on amplification to the point that the foley is even louder than the scream . We know that this sound is artificial as, unlike footsteps or other indicators of life, this certainly was not recorded at the moment of shooting. Knowing does not render us any less repulsed or give us distance from the moment of penetration. This ‘sounding’ of the vampire - particularly of the bite and mouth more generally - is the preoccupation of ASMR vampire videos which populate the online space alongside ‘legitimate’ filmic iterations, propelling listeners to almost inside the mouth. A truly uncomfortable proximity. The second pattern that emerges is that the bite is almost always scored (unless the voice becomes an orgasmic indicator), and the score often pre-determines this bite in an uncertain blend of terror and desire. More than that, the sonic buildup to the bite gives us a clue as to the ‘type’ of vampire in operation. An unidentified fragment extracted from the aforementioned playlist - vampire bites girl 2 Chinese - presents a scene where two young women approach a stylish, moody, sunglasses wearing man in a club. The audiovisual quality of this upload is poor at best, ripped from an unnamed film but presents an interesting case-study. We are located in a club, the saturated 4-to-the-floor kick reassures us of this, however, as one of the characters approaches there is an auditory friction. The man becomes recognisable as a vampire through the emergence of a painfully conventional score - reminiscent of James Bernard’s Hammer Horror pieces - which we hear before we see his elongated fangs. As the moment of the bite approaches, the soundscape is entirely overridden by a stylistic haunting of earlier genre pieces. A chromatic piano crash at the moment of contact confirms the character's vampirism, even more so when combined with the foley bite which is louder than either the club music or the score.

It is evident that the audiovisual encounter with the vampire cannot be based in lived ‘reality’, but is assembled to operate convincingly as a myth vehicle. It is codified through the consistency of its reproduction, a relationship to the poor image which, in its compression, offers a buffer to the fetishisation of high resolution and sharpness. What Chion presents as audio fidelity seems to escape from the chokehold of value judgements and rather can be aligned with the radical potential of the poor image which is not concerned with  “the originary original” but rather, “its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities” (44). It presents a complexity in determining the parameters of the film, not only due to the expanse of duplication, but further in the way that vampire films are often self-referential. Once in the ether, either as an original or a copy, it is already a bootleg. Consequently, the idea of delineating between different modes of diegesis becomes increasingly complex in this saturated filmic universe.