In his book Gothic Pathologies, the critic David Punter observes that the complex, contradictory and somewhat confusing nature of adolescence is integral to gothic fiction. As a fundamentally transgressive genre, a fictional mode preoccupied with the crossing of boundaries, the gothic appears uniquely well suited to adolescent experience. After all, the lived reality of being a teenager is often defined by liminality, a strange inbetweeness, where one feels neither child nor adult, dependent nor independent. Punter claims that adolescence, like gothic horror, is defined by a “fantasised inversions of boundaries”:
“To put it very simply: [teenagers] exist on a terrain where what is inside finds itself outside (acne, menstrual blood, rage) and what we think should be visibly outside (heroic dreams, attractiveness, sexual organs) remain resolutely inside and hidden. All carnival, therefore, is adolescent; it is the return of this inverted world […]”
While this unsettling return of the inverted adolescent world and the concomitant ability to give form to vivid teenage fancies are often viewed as key aspects of horror’s distinctly grotesque allure, it is perhaps the figure of the vampire who most forcefully encapsulates this transgressive fantasy. From Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1871-2) to The Lost Boys (1987) and Twilight (2008), vampirism is a condition uniquely suited to exploring the fantastical tendencies and intense longings of adolescence and young adulthood. If adolescence is the time of life when we find ourselves most preoccupied by the phantasmagoria of the erotic, at the mercy of biological rhythms and bodily fluids, perhaps the abject form of the vampire, motivated by its lust for blood and capable of circumventing both sexual and moral boundaries, exists as the ideal fantasy double for the confused teenager.
Although adolescence and vampirism have intersected repeatedly in the popular imagination – the success of millennial television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Vampire Diaries offer sufficient evidence of their enduring connection – one of the most visceral and powerful explorations of teenage vampirism, George A. Romero’s Martin, is less the product of a witty, self-aware youth culture, and more a result of the social upheaval of the 1970s. Released in 1978, Martin is often overshadowed by the earlier Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the technicolour gorefest Dawn of the Dead, which premiered later the same year. Yet, despite its often-marginal status in the canon of Romero classics, Martin is a striking and unsettling film precisely for its conflation of teenage fantasy and blood-soaked vampiric violence. The eponymous creature of the night exists not as a glamorous seducer of women, but as a sexually-frustrated, confused boy whose nocturnal hunts and clumsy murders reflect the all-consuming nature of adolescent fantasy.
When we first meet Martin (John Amplas), he is a gawky and unassuming young man. While Martin’s age is never specified, and the actor who played the part was well into his thirties, we learn from various contextual clues that he is probably somewhere between late adolescence and early adulthood. His cousin Christine (Christine Forrest), for example, repeatedly refers to him as a “boy”, and his lack of sexual experience combined with his youthful features suggest that if he is not still an adolescent, he is not far removed from his teen years. In the opening scene of the film, Martin boards a train from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh, casting furtive glances at an attractive young woman (Francine Middleton). Scrawny and awkward, Martin watches this pretty, vivacious woman with a sense of longing that conveys the immense gulf that exists between them. Throughout the film, Martin appears lonely, alienated from those around him and lost within immense landscapes that render him insignificant. We learn later that Martin is travelling to Pittsburgh to meet his cousin Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), with whom he will then journey to the bleak industrial suburb of Braddock, a rotting casualty of economic decline crowded with abandoned buildings and rust-encrusted factories crumbling as they lie idle.
Yet, while Martin’s journey to Braddock appears to progress with an air of resigned inexorability, it is during this train ride and before his meeting with Cuda that Martin’s true nature is revealed. In a bloody spectacle of lust and thirst, we learn that Martin is a vampire. No ordinary vampire, however, Martin sedates his victims using a syringe and slashes their wrists with a razor in order to drain their blood. As the train hurtles through the middle-American night, Martin stalks through the silent train car where his fellow passengers sleep behind rich red curtains, luxurious draperies evocative of the decadent splendour of Hammer horror films. Reaching his target, the beautiful young woman he initially spied boarding the train, Martin briefly imagines an erotic scenario, shot in monochrome and scored with soaring music, where the woman is a willing victim of the creature approaching her door. In Martin’s mind, she embraces him, clad in the sultry white nightdress of an innocent gothic heroine, with her arms open and her breasts heaving. This black and white romantic interlude is fleeting, and seconds later the flat tones of 1970s colour cinema are restored when Martin enters her sleeper car. In contrast to the now vanished gothic daydream, the young woman is surprised by her nocturnal visitor when she emerges from the bathroom blowing her nose, wearing cold cream and an unflatteringly baggy nightshirt. Rather than seducing a willing virgin, Martin grapples with his syringe and struggles to subdue the terrified woman who calls him a “rapist asshole”. The scene that follows is grainy, dirty and uncomfortable. Martin’s attempts to sedate his victim are protracted, they go on for so long that they become awkward and even pathetic. When he finally succeeds in subduing the woman with the syringe, Martin appears more like a fumbling drug addict, a hapless casualty of hedonistic youth culture, than a seductive creature of the night. Slashing her wrists and undressing before drinking the blood of his prey, our vampire evokes nothing so much as the frustrated fumblings of the sexually-maladjusted serial killers who dominated the TV news cycles of the 1970s and whose violent brutality had long since replaced the suave black cap of Bela Lugosi in the nightmares of the moviegoing public.
Martin, then, appears to be a new vampire for a new age. With his needle and syringe, he is the vampire of Nixon’s war on drugs. With his violent, incompetent sexuality, he is the vampire of a nation paralysed by the atrocities of David Berkowitz, Edmund Kemper and the Manson Family. More than this, however, Martin is the vampire of a confused and alienated adolescence. Martin, it seems, occupies a twilit realm between fantasy and reality, existing alternately in a muted, mundane reality and a monochrome dreamworld. As Martin stalks his largely female prey through the desolate streets of Braddock, his hunt is depicted in stark, realistic tones that emphasise his meticulous, though occasionally clumsy, pursuit of his victims. Yet, these stark shots, whose flat colour palates and natural lighting accentuate the squalor of the industrial wasteland he inhabits, are intercut with extended sequences shot in black and white, lit by candle and enveloped by an ominous mist. In these sequences, Martin is powerful and romantic in his loose white shirts. He emerges from the shadows of towering gothic castles where he is welcomed, even desired, by a beautiful woman in a white dress bearing a candelabra and calling his name. The question posed by these intercut scenes and the central ambiguity of the film therefore becomes whether Martin’s visions are fantasies or flashbacks. Is Martin, as he claims, an 84-year-old immortal monster or simply a delusional teenage boy? It is in this ambiguous space that Martin excels as an exploration of adolescence.
Martin embodies the awkward liminality of youth. Existing between dreams and reality, Martin literalises the teenage preoccupation with fancy and erotic desire. In his pursuit and consumption of beautiful women, he externalises the internal fantasies of frustrated adolescence. Moreover, as a vampire, a being who transgresses the boundary between the living and the dead, rupturing the corporeal wholeness of his victims and revelling in the release of bodily fluids, Martin exemplifies the inverted world of the teenager. He exists in a space that is nothing if not the fantasised inversion of physical, moral and sexual boundaries. Although the film refuses to definitively answer the question of whether Martin’s visions are fantasies or flashbacks to a more elegant, Old World vampirism, it seems most likely, considering the unrelentingly bleak tone evidenced throughout the movie, that Martin is simply a delusion teenager, the victim of his family’s madness. In this way, Martin’s vampiric fantasies are simply a manifestation of his repressed urges and his desire to escape the mundanity of his existence. In her book Volatile Bodies, Elizabeth Grosz identifies a profound connection between adolescence and fantasy. Observing that the teenage years are often defined by major biological upheavals, Grosz contends that “it is in this period that the subject feels the greatest discord between the body image and the lived body, between its psychical idealized self-image and its bodily changes. Experientially, the philosophical desire to transcend corporeality and its urges may be dated from this period.” The vampire lover who stalks the gothic shadows of Martin’s Universal-inspired fantasy is his idealised self-image: a more elegant and powerful self who transcends Martin’s base physical desire for what he calls the “sexy stuff”. His romantic double is confident and experienced, whereas Martin is naïve and awkward. His vampiric daydreams offer Martin an opportunity to escape the bleakness and the brutally of life, as well as to transform the violence of his sexually-frustrated actions into a glamorous fantasy.
In this sense, the nature of Martin’s fantasies and his numerous vicious attacks on women also raise a number of interesting questions about teenage masculinity and sexual violence. While Martin’s brutal attacks on women are ostensibly carried out with the intent of draining his victims’ blood, Romero films them as though they were sexual assaults: forceful, aggressive, frenzied. The fact that the real-world equivalents of Martin’s fantasies are so unmistakably brutal and sexual in nature suggests that Martin’s attitude towards sexuality is one of possession and dominance. Indeed, while speaking to a local DJ about his nocturnal activities, under the pseudonym “the Count”, Martin laments that one thing the movies always get wrong in their portrayal of the undead is that Dracula and his cohorts “always have ladies; sometimes lots of ladies.” For Martin, there seems to be sense of entitlement associated with sex. “Ladies” to him are possessions, objects that embody both status and fulfilment. While our hero eventually comes to the realisation that as an eternally lonely creature of the night he doesn’t “need all that”, the film is dominated by the sense that Martin desires women only so that he can possess and consume them. His relationship with Mrs Santini may be somewhat more complex than this, but for the most part his sexual fantasies as well as his feedings are defined by notions of power and dominance. Even his gothic daydreams are permeated by an inescapable sense that he wishes to possess the young, virginal heroine who awaits him. After all, gothic romances are often defined by notions of dominance and control. The manner in which Martin enacts these daydreams suggests that the gender dynamics prevalent in both the media (from melodrama to gothic romance) and in the erotic fantasies of adolescents are grounded in power and violence. In his fantasies, Martin is merely replicating the dominant romance narratives of his culture. The fact his attempts to act out these narratives are violent and inhuman suggest an innate violence in how our culture often constructs sex and seduction.
Likewise, it is also possibly to see Martin’s relationship with his much older cousin Cuda as a major contributor to his vampiric delusion. Cuda is convinced that the boy is a vampire and that it is his duty to protect the world from his evil. An elderly Lithuanian, still bearing a heavy Old World accent, Cuda is a devout Catholic who warns Martin that if he drinks the blood of any of their neighbours, he will drive a wooden stake through the boy’s heart. Here, it seems as though Cuda’s fervent belief that Martin is a vampire indicates that perhaps his entire family has been consumed by this superstitious delusion, passing it on from one generation to the next. Indeed, on occasion Martin seems sceptical of his cousin’s faith, telling him that “Things only seem to be magic. There’s no real magic, ever.” Considered in light of this, Martin, then, may be nothing more than a young man poisoned by a family legacy of superstition. His conflicts with Cuda may be representative of intergenerational conflict: the struggle between the Old World and the New. However, Martin also seems to exemplify how young people can be twisted by family prejudices and corrupt legacies. In this way, Martin appears as both hero and villain, monster and victim. His monstrosity is not fantastical, but instead a manifestation of the complexities of adolescence. Martin’s vampirism and bloodlust are driven by the power of fantasy, his inability to distinguish dreams from reality, and the fact that he exists in a culture that identifies masculinity with power, and seduction with domination. At the same time, he is a victim of a familial delusion which has shaped his identity as a confused young man and cast him as monster before he could ever possibly understand what that means. Martin’s liminality – his existence somewhere between man and monster, reality and fantasy – renders him as the ideal manifestation of the brutality, conflict and confusion of adolescence. If Martin is a monster, a creature of the night, it is only because our culture fears the adolescents that it creates.