Unusual classes: Vampires lure students into Slavic literatures course

Joel Brady and Marc Wisnosky


“What’s fun” about teaching the Slavic department course, “Vampire: Blood and Empire,” says Marc Wisnosky, “is seeing the modern vampires and where all the pieces come from” in folklore — and their evolving portrayals in literature and movies.

“What students are least aware of,” says Joel Brady, “is that most beliefs about vampires are attributable to what happens to bodies after death.”

Vampire bookFaculty members Wisnosky and Brady teach different sections of the popular course, which traces the origins of the vampire legend, its spread through Europe to America, and the changes in its shape and meaning. As one if its course texts, “Our Vampires, Ourselves” asserts: “… every age embraces the vampire it needs, and gets the vampire it deserves.”

No, the course is “not rocket science,” Wisnosky tells students in his syllabus, “but … you can expect a work load and intellectual challenge comparable to any other of your other courses at this level which don’t have ‘vampire’ in the title.”

Indeed, says Brady, the class examines what our fascination with vampires means through ethnography, film analysis, forensic anthropology and cultural studies, as well as the lens of various critical theories.

The legend has remained alive, of course, because it’s about sex and death, the pair says. The vampire’s pale visage and need for blood reflect mankind’s misconceptions about what happens to the body after we’re gone. The vampire represents whatever danger seems most prevalent in any particular age, from the contagion of disease to more open sexuality among women. And what defeats the vampire has morphed from religion (a cross held aloft) to nature (mere sunlight) as the power of each force shifts within the culture.

“Zombies are the vampire of our time,” Brady says. “They represent the destruction of capitalism” via the overuse of resources. The idea of vampires, like vampires themselves, is very much undead.

He and Wisnosky take the legend from commentary and literature by Voltaire and Goethe to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and the 1970s blaxploitation film “Blacula,” as well as more current works.

“Getting students to think this is interesting is not a huge sell,” Brady says.

But he and Wisnosky hope that, as the Dracula character in books and movies has turned more introspective through the ages (until they get downright talkie, in “Interview with a Vampire”), so too will the students learn how to pick apart the lives of these mythical creatures for greater insight into our changing culture.

Marty Levine is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.