Blood brings life to the body, and almost as long as humans have been alive, they’ve imagined monsters stealing blood away from them. Stories of vampires and other blood-sucking creatures have cropped up around the world for centuries. They channeled people’s fears even as they gave explanations for certain unknown diseases and other natural phenomena. Now, they’ve become an integral part of the horror genre.
Ancient cultures all around the globe had legends about vampires or similar creatures with different names. Pottery shards from ancient Persia show blood-drinking demons. Babylon and Assyria had Lilitu, a name which is related to the blood-drinking woman Lilith of Hebrew culture. You can even find the world “Lilith” in some translations of the Bible in Isaiah 34:14 (without the blood-drinking stories that emerged separately), though most translations use other words like “night animals”. The Common English Bible reads, “Wildcats will meet hyenas, the goat demon will call to his friends, and there Lilith will lurk and find her resting place.” Greco-Roman mythology had a number of blood-drinking women, most notably the lamia, who was actually half-woman, half-snake.
Different cultures have different lore surrounding their vampires, like what powers they possess. For instance, while some European vampires are said to turn into bats, vampiric creatures in Africa can supposedly take the forms other animals like a large taloned bird or a firefly.
Vampires are also said to be created in different ways. While most people in modern America are mostly familiar with legends involving people being transformed through the bite of another vampire, this is one of many stories out there. Russian folklore says that a witch of someone who rebels against the Russian Orthodox Church can become a vampire when he dies. Chinese and Slavic tales say that someone can become a vampire if an animal, especially a cat or dog, jumps over the body.
Of course, different methods are also used for warding off and destroying vampires. Most cultures agree that the bodies of the vampires need to be destroyed in some way (like being staked through the heart or beheaded). People try to protect themselves from vampires in a wider variety of ways including religious symbols, like crosses and holy water, and secular apotropaics (protective magical items), like garlic, mirrors, and certain plants. Some stories even maintain that if you drop a bag full of rice in front of a vampire, it has to stop to count every grain (just like the vampiric Count on Sesame Street).
The 1600’s and 1700’s saw a rise in vampire scares, especially in Europe and North America, where supposed vampires were hunted along with witches and werewolves and other supernatural beings that people feared. Many of the more famous instances occurred in Protestant England and New England. (For reference, the Salem Witch Trials went from 1692-1693 in Massachusetts.) Living people were killed and corpses were staked or destroyed.
It was an uncertain time, and when people met the unknown, superstition and fear often took over. Some explanations behind certain vampire myths include diseases like porphyria, which can make people extremely light-sensitive and sometimes stain their teeth red in a way that looks like they’ve been drinking blood.
Tuberculosis (historically known as consumption) was a factor in vampire scares in the 1800’s, when the disease killed 2% of the people in New England and more around the world. One famous incident occurred in Rhode Island in 1892, when a woman named Mercy Brown died of tuberculosis after her mother and older sister. Her brother, Edwin, also became seriously ill, and friends of the family believed he was being preyed on by a vampire. They convinced Edwin’s father, George, to exhume all three bodies, and they found that Mercy’s hadn’t decomposed the way they expected. This was probably because she’d been stored in a freezing crypt after her death instead of being placed in the ground immediately, but locals were convinced that she was a vampire, so they burned her heart and liver and made a tonic for Edwin to drink. He died two months later. If you want more details about this event, you can check out the first episode of the podcast Lore by Aaron Mahnke.
Vampire scares and vampire hunts never completely died out, but they did start to phase out in the 1800’s and 1900’s. Meanwhile, vampire literature was on the rise.
The Gothic Villain
The Gothic movement began in the middle of 1700’s and encapsulates a variety of arts including architecture and literature. Gothic fiction is brooding and romantic and centers around emotion, beauty, and pleasure. That includes the pleasure of being scared, so the Gothic horror subgenre flourished alongside other works.
Poetry was starting to give way to prose, but a lot of the early examples of vampire horror are in poetic form, with one of the earliest modern vampire poems, “Der Vampir”, published by German author Heinrich August Ossenfelder in 1748. The earliest English poem is still up for debate, with most scholars pointing to the unfinished poem “Christabel” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, published in two parts in 1797 and 1800. The poem doesn’t mention vampires explicitly, but most people believe that’s the nature of Geraldine, the woman preying on the innocent Christabel. The first English poem to mention vampires was Robert Southey’s “Thalaba”, published in 1801. Vampires crept into other arts as well, like Silvestro de Palma’s Italian opera I Vampiri, which opened in 1800.
When it comes to prose fiction, the earliest English example comes from John Polidori, the personal physician of Lord Byron. In 1816, these two men met at a house Byron was renting in Switzerland, along with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley (who would soon marry Mary), and Claire Clairmont (Mary’s stepsister). One night they read from a collection of horror tales and challenged each other to write a ghost story. This challenge started Mary writing a story that would eventually become Frankenstein, and it started Polidori writing The Vampyre, which he would publish three years later.
Our modern image of vampires, though, mainly comes from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (published in 1897) and from its various adaptations. When Stoker started writing Dracula, he pulled from some dark and disturbing sources, like the myths and pseudo-history surrounding the Wallachian ruler Vlad the Impaler. His surname, Dracula, means “son of Dracul” or “son of the Dragon”, and it refers to the involvement that his father, Vlad Dracul, had in the chivalric Order of the Dragon. Historians also believe that Stoker read about the Mercy Brown incident in newspapers and based the character of Lucy off of her. Whatever sources he used, Stoker crafted his novel around a magnetic gentleman with a large castle and strange powers, who would become a common template for vampires in fiction ever since.
As the influence of Dracula spread, so did the images and devices that fans would use. For instance, when Hamilton Deane played Dracula in early stage adaptations, he came up with the idea of wearing a tuxedo and cloak to make the character appear more urbane. The cloak served another purpose, and it was attached to wires in one scene so that Dracula could fall through a trap door while leaving the cloak behind, in a cool disappearing trick. Actor Bela Lugosi, who played Dracula on film, also contributed a face, accent, and mannerisms that later vampires would mimic. Some famous works inspired by Dracula include the 1922 silent film Nosferatu and the Stephen King novel ‘Salem’s Lot. There have also been a fair number of kids’ characters in this category like Sesame Street’s Count or cereal mascot Count Chocula. Dracula himself has become one of the most-portrayed characters of all time, appearing in books, movies, tv shows, plays, and more.
Every culture has a counterculture, though, and in the 1900’s, the elite vampires were forced to accept the common masses into their ranks. As media became grittier and more realistic, some vampires did, too. They were no longer rich nobles. They were average people who were cursed to become vampires. A lot of them became physically less attractive, and instead of terrorizing people individually, they often traveled in groups that could easily be slain by the protagonists.
For instance, vampire hordes appeared in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. They’re also regular antagonists in various comics. Marvel comics created a half-vampire hero named Blade in 1973, and he regularly mows down his vampiric opponents with guns, swords, and anything else he can get his hands on. Another popular vampire hunter is Buffy Summers, who debuted in the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer but was rebooted for the 1997 television show of the same name.
The plebeian monster is still not the norm for vampires, even if some buck stereotypes. For the most part, fiction still showcases refined vampires while other creatures like werewolves and zombies are usually the commoners.
The Tortured Protagonist
Modern trends in fiction reject straightforward good vs. evil narratives in favor of complex characters in morally grey situations. It makes sense that this filtered into the horror genre, since horror is the perfect genre for moral quandaries. It’s a genre designed to make people uncomfortable, and moral dilemmas can do just that. That means that recent fiction with vampires (of the gentleman or monster variety) will sometimes have a vampire hero or antihero in the mix. This vampire is a rarity in his world, since he doesn’t want to kill humans. Sometimes he’ll drink human blood without killing humans, and sometimes he’ll drink animal blood. Often, he’ll fight the other bad vampires.
The vampire protagonist is older than you might imagine, dating back at least to the serialized story Varney the Vampire, which started in 1845. This was in the “penny dreadful” era, where people paid small amounts of money for stories with cheap thrills. In this particular story, Sir Francis Varney becomes a vampire against his will and eventually kills himself to escape the curse. (Fun fact: this story is the first to talk about vampires’ sharpened fangs.)
The vampire protagonist wasn’t a big trend until the 1900’s, though. One major influence in this trend was Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, which debuted in 1976 with Interview with the Vampire. The trend found new life (so to speak) when Stephanie Meyer put out her first Twilight novel in 2005, which seemed almost like the younger sibling of Anne Rice’s series. The Vampire Chronicles and the Twilight Saga are aimed at different demographics, with Anne Rice delving into more graphic content and Stephanie Meyer treating on young adult themes, but the stories hit a lot of the same points.
The two authors have their own take on which aspects of vampire lore they maintain and which their characters scoff at. However, both sets of vampires are immortal creatures with enhanced speed, strength, and senses. They become vampires through a painful bite-related transformation, and their bodies become beautiful and uncanny versions of their previous forms. They’re frozen that way forever, meaning children who become vampires can never mature. Certain vampires also get extra special powers like mind-reading. The vampires might live alone or in small covens, and they value secrecy. Most believe that it’s natural to feed on humans, while a select few protagonists think that this is wrong and try to live off of animals as much as possible. They each have a minority fringe society that knows the truth about their natures (the slaves in Vampire Chronicles and the Native Americans in Twilight). The list of similarities goes on. Both series also capitalized on the torturous angst of the protagonists so that their wide fan base could feel sympathy or even love for them.
These are two of the most prominent examples, along with Angel and Spike in the Buffy universe, but other vampire protagonists are still trendy now. This is especially true in media marketed towards young adults and new adults, thanks to the feelings of loneliness and suffering that these demographics relate to. Some of the more popular novel series include The Vampire Diaries (starting in 1991), The Southern Vampire Mysteries (starting in 2001), and Vampire Academy (starting in 2007). You can also find plenty in manga series like Vampire Knight and Chibi Vampire, since the vampire protagonist is popular in Japan, too. They also crop up in television shows like Being Human. Even the musical version of Dracula composed by Frank Wildhorn has a remorseful Dracula killing himself with Mina’s help. If you enjoy this trope, there’s no shortage of options out there for you.
Later this month, I’ll post a short, spooky story to get you in the Halloween spirit! It’s not about vampires, but let me know in the comments below if you have any favorite vampire fiction. Mine is Dracula, which I know is a cliché, but it’s creative and well-written and sustains a lot of suspense throughout.