Interview with a vampire professor

Whether your concept of “vampire” stems from Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic Dracula, Wesley Snipes blasting vamps into ash in Blade, or the Count adding up the number of bats in his castle on Sesame Street, Dr. Thomas Garza appreciates them all.

As the director of the Center of Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas in Austin, Garza has been the professor of one of UT’s most sought-after classes since the course was first offered in 1997.

In Introduction to Slavic Civilizations: The Vampire in Slavic Cultures, Garza teaches his students about the history of the vampire, from readings of 11th century Slavic text to modern day film adaptations. All variations on the topic, he says, are relevant in understanding the evolution of the vampire.

“I insist that students make connections between the historical, mythological figures and their own lives,” Garza, 49, said. “In order to do that they have to be able to say, ‘I saw this movie or this TV show’ or ‘I remember reading this book.’ If they want to connect with Buffy the Vampire Slayer I will ask, ‘What of this new interpretation is still true from the old stories?’”

With 140 students in his current vampire class (his largest in 10 years), Garza has observed a growth in interest in the topic each semester the course is offered. Part of the intrigue, he says, is the idea of death and what comes after it.

“I think the myth of the vampire is in every culture around the world,” Garza said. “With the vampire story, there is a real sense of being a creature of eternal youth and vitality.”

Originally from Refugio, Texas, Garza, a graduate of Harvard University, has always been fascinated with the history around the Balkan region near the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania. With a background in Russian Studies, Garza says he had a life-changing experience in 1987 when he was given the opportunity to travel to the area referred to by some as Transylvania.

“That trip redirected my career,” Garza said. “It was actually standing on the site of these castle ruins that really affected me. I realized there was so much of this story I needed to know about. From then on, all I did was research.”

Garza’s first class on the vampire culture started with 40 students. Year after year, the class grew to the point where Garza would have to find a new classroom to accommodate more students.

“So far this semester we’ve learned a lot about the basis of the vampire and the differences between them,” said Phillip Johnson, a senior English major in Garza’s class. “To be honest, I’m more excited about the second half of the class, but it’s still important to know where these stories came from.”

The first half of the semester comprises an in-depth look at the history of Eastern Europe and its association with vampirism. The second half, Garza says, is dedicated to literary and film versions of the vampire story and discussions on how pop culture has influenced the legend – from David Boreanaz in Angel to Anne Rice’s Lestat to the newest blood-sucking movie to hit the theaters, 30 Days of Night – a film Garza participated in as a historical consultant.

“The new 20th and 21st century interpretations of the vampire make the mythology richer and adds new life to it,” Garza said. “My students say they can see how the story has developed from centuries and centuries ago. So, this class will go on as long as the vampire story keeps going on, which means it will be here for a long time.”


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