Illustration by Ben Beechener
Literature and popular culture have long had an obsession with vampires. From 19th century Gothic novels to modern teen romances, audiences are fascinated by these mysterious, often alluring bloodsuckers. But where did they come from?
The myth of the vampire, while popularised by Victorian literature, has its roots in various folklore from across the globe. R. McNally suggests that early notions of blood as a source of life influenced stories of blood-drinking monsters in a range of cultures: ancient Greece and Rome, Babylon, Egypt, and China, just to name a few. In Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus travels to the land of the dead he communicates with the departed by pouring out an offering of ram’s blood, which the shades must drink before speaking to him. 18th century Chinese scholar Ji Xiaolan describes jiangshi, re-animated corpses who absorb the lifeforce of their victims. The draugr of Old Norse folklore was a bloodthirsty undead creature who disturbed people and livestock alike. Medieval accounts of ‘revenants’ who rose from their graves to pester the living may have had a basis in genuine belief: in 2017 archaeologists working in the deserted medieval village of Wharram Percy, North Yorkshire, uncovered corpses which had been burnt, decapitated and cut up to prevent them returning.
Despite the long history of such myths, the vampire was only solidified as a literary figure in the 19th century. John Stagg’s 1810 poem The Vampyre depicted a man staked in the heart by his wife to prevent his undead resurrection. Vampiric themes were also explored by Lord Byron, who wrote in The Giaour (1813) of a curse which would afflict the titular character, leading him to “suck the blood of all thy race”. But it was Byron’s friend and associate, Dr John Polidori, who wrote what can be considered the first vampire novel, creatively also titled The Vampyre, in 1819. This story was developed from ideas formulated by Byron himself in the literary contest at the Villa Diodati, which also produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It tells the story of Aubrey, a young gentleman who encounters the mysterious and dashing Lord Ruthven, and gradually recognises his vampiric inclinations. While we might think of the ‘sexy vampire’ as a more modern innovation, Polidori’s Byronic villain lays the groundwork, mixing with English nobles and passing for human until his thirst for blood comes to the fore.
The 19th century saw a glut of vampire literature. There was the 876-page-long Varney the Vampire (1845-1847), a penny dreadful which depicted an early ‘sympathetic’ vampire who despised his own condition (a forerunner to Anne Rice’s characters and to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel). There’s also the batshit-crazy La Ville Vampire (1867), by Paul Féval, which features real-life Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe as a proto-Buffy, hunting vampires with a gang of misfit friends. But the most influential Victorian vampire novel is of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Unlike the debonair Lord Ruthven, Count Dracula is not, initially, a particularly alluring figure. Described as having bushy white eyebrows and pointed ears, along with sharp teeth and oddly red eyes, the Count’s mere presence is enough to induce an inexplicable feeling of nausea in Jonathan Harker. As the novel progresses and his lust for blood is increasingly satiated, Dracula does take on a more youthful appearance. But his “lofty domed forehead” and “heavy moustache” are a stark contrast to the image of the suave Count popularised by Bela Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 adaptation of the novel.
Cinema was hugely important to the longevity of the vampire genre, giving the literary villain a lasting face. Both the silent German-Expressionist Nosferatu (1922) and 1931’s Dracula are based on Bram Stoker’s source material – the unauthorised production of the former led to a rights battle with Stoker’s widow Florence. Yet the two differ greatly in their visual interpretation of the vampire. Max Schreck’s Count Orlok with his sunken eyes, pointed ears and claw-like fingers presents a much more monstrous, inhuman version of the vampire than Lugosi’s urbane, aristocratic Count. Both have had an indelible impact on the vampires of subsequent pop-culture, but the ubiquity of the dark-haired, sophisticated and ambiguously-European vampire surpasses that of more grotesque interpretations.
In more recent depictions of the vampire, emphasis has been placed increasingly on their sexual allure and emotional depth. Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (1976-present) put vampires at the centre, casting them as anti-heroes rather than villains, eternal beauties who fall in love with each other and feel everything very deeply. Films like The Lost Boys (1987) and television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) brought the fanged immortals into the present day, combining traditional vampire mythology with modern coming-of-age tales. And one can’t write an article on vampire literature without acknowledging the sparkly teen vampires of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (2005-2008), who dominated both book sales and the box office. Meyer’s vampires upend many of the conventions of the genre. They have reflections, are unharmed by garlic, holy items and wooden stakes, and walk about freely in the daylight. The appeal lies, for many fans, in the romance of a dangerous love affair with an eternally sexy adolescent. Yet there is a more complex sexual subtext, with Bella’s purity held up as the reason for Edward’s infatuation.
The use of vampires as a vessel for exploration of sexual desire is nothing new. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) is often described as an early example of erotic vampire fiction, although by modern standards it’s pretty tame. Nonetheless, it provides a fascinating exploration of lesbian desire, through the relationship between protagonist Laura and her mysterious new friend Carmilla. Laura’s infatuation with Carmilla stems from the vampire’s beauty and captivating charm. But there is also an element of pathos, with Laura, a lonely motherless girl, desperate for female companionship. Her health ails as Carmilla feeds off her, yet Laura struggles to recognise the vampiric qualities of her friend, too captivated by her to see the truth. In the sexually repressed atmosphere of Victorian society, Carmilla allowed for an expression of bottled-up desires, with the vampire myth used as a filter to distance Le Fanu’s characters from reality.
The vampire has now permeated almost every facet of popular culture, from selling breakfast cereal to teaching children to count on Sesame Street. The Victorian version of the vampire casts the longest shadow, with Dracula forming a blueprint from which all subsequent versions either stem or diverge. This does not mean, however, that the vampire is stuck in the past. Dracula is deeply preoccupied with modernity, from Jonathan’s use of shorthand and Dr Seward’s phonographic journal to Mina’s reflections on the ‘New Woman’. Even Dracula himself is focused on the present, keeping a library of magazines and books on contemporary English society, the better to ingratiate himself into the modern world. Part of what makes the novel so appealing is this collision between ancient evil forces and contemporary society. The ability of the vampire to adapt and move through time has kept the genre fresh, evolving to confront the issues of the moment. Vampires can be a metaphor for whatever social matter one wishes to apply, explaining their enduring presence in our culture. New additions to the Twilight Saga are now being published, and the television series What We Do In the Shadows, riffing comically on all the conventions of the genre, has found appreciative audiences. The popularity of vampires in the public consciousness seems, appropriately, to be immortal.