Sunday, March 27, 2011


This is a story I wrote for Orange and Blue magazine.

    “Welcome to my castle,” Dragan Kudjunzic says with a smirk, beckoning me into his cave-like office for what he calls our “intravein.” He removes his black jacket to reveal a charcoal shirt, buttoned to the brim so his neck is hardly visible. There are three jars of chocolates at the edge of his desk, and he signals me to try one of the round ones in the middle jar. 
    “I like to give my students something to sink their teeth into,” he says, the smirk reappearing.
    Dragan is a professor of Slavic and Jewish studies at the University of Florida and the pioneer of the undergraduate course Vampire Stories: Jewish and Christian Studies. He even has an Eastern European accent eerily similar to Count Dracula’s. But he made it clear that he doesn’t actually believe in vampires – except, of course, the ones that live inside every one of us.
    “There is something in vampires that are a part of us,” he said.
    Every human, fully fanged or still teething, has instinctive desires similar to vampires, he says. Even his students – whom he calls his “children of the night” – come to him with a hunger for knowledge. They crave the truth about the bloodthirsty villains haunting recent television shows and movies. 
    But Vampire Stories allows them to indulge in more than just the taste of the pop culture vampire and leaves them satiated with a deep knowledge about the real-life significance of the classic vampire tale.
    Christine Farina, a sophomore nursing student, said vampires had always been her favorite creatures of the night, a fascination that sprang from her adoration of Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 novel, “Dracula.”
    “I saw a course about vampires, and I figured you really can’t go wrong there,” Farina.    
    She expected to study the classic and contemporary vampire novels and films. What she didn’t expect was to learn how vampires shape modern culture, and that they roam our own country.
    “Before, vampires were just mythological creatures with no ties to real life,” she says. “Now I feel like I take them seriously.”
    “I urge my students to sink their teeth into the rich vein of vampire narratives,” Dragan says. “Once they do, they’re hooked.”
    He knows from experience. Because he’s been hooked for over a decade.

vEmpire: The Monstrosity of Our World
    He sunk his teeth into that rich vein back in 2000, when he was teaching at the University of California, Irvine. Born in the former Yugoslavia, now Serbia, Dragan moved to the United States in 1986 and graduated with a Ph. D. from the University of Southern California.
    After a close study of Stoker’s novel, Dragan was intrigued when he learned that the count, a 15th century Romanian prince, was avenging the battle of Kosovo. That battle, he said, fought by the Serbian troops in 1389 against the Ottoman empire, ended up in Serbian defeat but stopped the onslaught of the Turkish empire into Europe.
    Dragan started looking at the vampire’s presence in geopolitics, examining the rise and falls of the world’s empires, past and present. The more he researched, the more he started to believe that vampires do, indeed, exist.
    “I believe what vampires stand for. I know that to be real.”
    It’s a concept he coined vEmpire. Examining both the historical and modern geopolitical climate, he sees that humans have been waging the same war since the beginning of time: “good” versus “evil,” a dominant force versus “the other.” The vampire narrative is legend of this battle, though perhaps a bit more romantic. The world, Dragan says, views the vampire as something that must be destroyed or purified. In the real world, nations view their enemies as monsters, as entities that must be destroyed or, perhaps, democratized.
    “There is a constant monstrosity of ‘the other’ as repugnant and threatening,” Dragan said, citing the Holocaust as an example. The Nazis had their own definition of what was pure, and anyone who did not fit the blue-eyed mold was eliminated. The Holocaust is a disturbing portrayal of the vampire tale, he said. It’s chilling proof that the desire to purge evil is deadlier than any vampire figure, that human desire to destroy anything unordinary is eviler than any monster.
    But in reality, he said, there’s no one “good” side in the battle, as every culture – and every human – has a dark side.
    “Every culture is a culture of blood,” he said, adding that blood can stand for several resources, such as oil.
    Every culture, Dragan emphasized, including the United States. And what is the stage for a America’s production of the classic vampire tale? The South, slavery’s stomping grounds. And in this rendition, the whites are the monsters.
    “The white folks were feeding on blacks, and the blacks were left drained,” he said. 
    And though slavery is gone, vampires still roam in our own backyard. They even walk among us on campus. They sit next to us at football games. Take a closer look and you’ll notice that Albert’s and Alberta’s razor-sharp teeth may resemble those of Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” series. The seemingly harmless Gator chomp so many fans perform is alarmingly similar to a vampire’s bite.
    “Our university has a jaw as its totemic emblem; we want to devour the competition,” he said.

It’s All About Sex
    Destruction isn’t the only thing vampires want.  They want what everyone else wants. They want what every teenage boy daydreams about in Algebra II. They want sex.
    And luckily for them, vampires are downright sexy.
    “Vampires are frightening but enticing. They’re terrifying yet erotic,” Dragan said. “Everything about them is sexual.”
    Vampiric desires dwell in even the purest forms of affection, kissing. He says even most innocent pecks stem from our inner desire to eat one another.
    The vampire bite itself is a metaphor of sex, sex that sees no gender.
    “The mouth is not gendered,” he explained. “There is a unique fluidity of gender in vampires.”
    This sexy side of bloodsuckers is one of the main reasons the vampire narrative has become so popular in literature and film, Dragan says.
    But he makes it clear during the first day of class that “no bodily fluids will be exchanged in this course.”
    Farina said she knew Dragan was a different breed of professor on the first day of class. He walked in and immediately requested the class to pull down the light shades because “my skin is sensitive to light.”
    “He’s humorous in a different sort of way,” said Brett Pokorny, a senior journalism major enrolled in the course. “He does make some pretty bad jokes here and there.”
    Along with an abundant stock of tantalizing candies, Dragan promises an exciting course, and eternal life.
    “I guess that is why they keep coming back, the children of the night.”

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