The History of Vampires in Popular Culture

Contemporary vampire stories are pieces of popular culture worth analyzing and exploring due to their roots in real-world beliefs and the sheer amount of movies, television shows, novels, and other media featuring the creatures of the night. Vampire fiction has a long history, going back to old superstitions, as well as legends surrounding historical figures like Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory, also known as the Blood Countess. The fear of the dead and beliefs over the qualities of blood can be found in cultures all over the world—even the Greeks spoke of Empusa, the daughter of the goddess Hecate, who feasted on the blood of young men she seduced and killed.

Initially the vampire was seen as a horrific monster, akin to ghouls and zombies. Contemporary vampire characters are different. They’re rarely considered only monstrous, although they can be violent and murderous, they’re equal parts sexy and seductive and desirable. They are also “humanized”. Maybe they’re cursed with a soul or they’re vegetarian. They’re a protector of the weak and innocent. They’re emotionally tormented in a way that makes them more relatable. This might explain the tremendous popularity behind vampires, but how did this come to pass? How did ancient fears and misunderstandings of human body decomposition turn into a widely popular market of vampire fiction? In order to find the answer, we must first explore the historical roots and beliefs around vampires and their growing influence within popular culture.

The Introduction of the term ‘Vampire’

02-transylvanian-cemetery

The concept of the dead returning to feed off the living saw its influence build in Christian Europe. In the twelfth century, English historian William of Newburgh spoke of cases of the dead coming back to attack people in the night, and identified these fiends with the Latin term, sanguisuga or “bloodsucker.” The only way to defeat these creatures was to unearth and burn their bodies. Meanwhile, a wave of similar stories swept across areas of Eastern Europe from the sixteenth to the eightieth centuries. Terms like the Serbian vudolak–taken from the word for “werewolf” and the Russian upyr were used to describe such creatures. It wasn’t long before disturbing reports of real-world incidents involving vampiric activities began to spread, including the deaths of several villagers in a small Serbian town.

Petar Blagojević was a Serbian peasant and believed to be a vampire following his death in 1725. A wave of new deaths occurred shortly thereafter and within eight days, nine people died. Before dying, several of the victims allegedly claimed that Blagojević attacked them at night. The case was one of the earliest, most sensational accounts of vampiric activity. His body was exhumed, but officials were stunned to see that the body was undecomposed, the hair and beard were grown, and his nails and skin had regrown. Imperial Provisor Frombald, an official in the Austrian government, witnessed the staking of the body. 

In Western Europe, conversations around the vampire began to spread, partially in thanks to the January 7, 1732 official report of an investigation of vampirism in Serbia. Regimental Field Surgeon Johannes Fluckinger of the Austrian government detailed several accounts of deaths in the village of Meduegna, which were blamed on a man named Arnold Paul who had claimed to be bitten by a vampire before his death. The locals believed he came back from the dead to torment them. According to the Vampire Encyclopedia, his body was discovered well preserved, but blood flowed from his head and spurted out of his body when he was staked. Fluckinger and his team of assistants investigated a wave of vampiric attacks and examined other bodies of those believed to be creatures of the night.

After the report was signed, it was published across Europe. The word vampire first entered the English language when Fluckinger’s report was published in the London Journal and 1732’s Gentlemen’s Magazine. The report was widely discussed in English circles, and figures like Dom Augustin Calmet, a French Benedictine abbot and famed biblical scholar, published a treatise on vampires in 1746 in which he retold the Aaron Paul story and referenced other vampire accounts. His treatise was so controversial that in 1755, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria instituted laws to prevent the unearthing of suspected vampires.

Vampires in Early Fiction

But first, on earth as vampire sent, 
Thy corpse shall from its tomb be rent: 
Then ghostly haunt thy native place, 
And suck the blood of all thy race;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife, 
At midnight drain the stream of life; 
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce 
Must feed thy livid living corpse: 
Thy victims ere they yet expire 
Shall know thy demon for their sire, 
As cursing thee, thou cursing them, 
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
Lord Byron

One of the first pieces of art featuring vampires was the 1748 poem by Heinrich August Ossenfelder, which tells of a man whose love was rejected by a pious maiden. He threatens to visit her at night and drink her blood, and prove to her that his teachings would better serve her than the teachings of Christianity her mother passed on to her.

The birth of the vampire in fiction began when the Lord Byron and the great writers of the 1800s, including Mary Shelley–the mother of Frankenstein–got together and shared scary stories at the Villa Diodati outside Geneva. Present at the gathering was a young writer and physician, an Italian immigrant named John Polidori, who was familiar with Calmet’s treatise on vampires. Polidori listened with intent as Byron shared his story about a man on the verge of death who makes his traveling companion swear never to reveal his death to anyone. Years later, Polidori combined Calmet’s treatise with elements from Lord Byron’s story and created the vampire, Lord Ruthven, a cruel world-traveling aristocrat who feeds on the blood of young women. Polidori published his story under the name The Vampyre which was the first English fictional story about a vampire, and was considered by many to be the foundation of modern vampire fiction.

Lord Ruthven became a popular figure in both France and England, with an unauthorized sequel to Polidori’s story written by Cyprien Bérard called Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires. Charles Nodier, an influential French author and librarian, adapted The Vampyre into the first vampire stage melodrama, Le Vampire.

These works of art inspired the writer James Malcolm Rymer, who published Varney the Vampire which appeared in penny dreadfuls– cheap popular serial literature produced during the nineteenth century. Similarly to Lord Ruthven, Varney seeks out young women to feast on their blood and use for his nefarious schemes. In 1872, Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu published a short story entitled Carmilla, which was the first to connect the vampire mythos with a Gothic setting. The story follows the female vampire Carmilla, who develops an obsession with Laura, the narrator and heroine of the tale. Carmilla was one of the first works of vampire fiction, along with the poem by Ossenfelder, to introduce the idea of eroticism around vampires and the strange bond that develops between the creatures of the night and the victims they prey upon.

Several of Carmilla’s powers, like her super-strength and ability to transform into various animals, would become staples in vampire literature and inspired none other than the father of Dracula himself, Bram Stoker.

Dracula and the Popularity of the Sexy Vampire

Everyone is familiar in some way with Count Dracula. His is one of the most recognizable names in all of popular culture, alongside Batman and Darth Vader. The character was introduced in the 1987 horror gothic novel Dracula, written by Irish author Bram Stoker who introduced several conventions of contemporary vampire fiction. The story follows Count Dracula as he moves from Transylvania to England to feast on the blood of the innocent and spread his vampiric curse. Stoker utilized concepts from fellow authors Polidori and Le Fanu to produce a dark tale with a gothic backdrop. The Count himself bore some resemblance to Lord Ruthven as an aristocratic predator stalking and feasting from the blood of young women.

In the Encyclopedia of the Undead, author J. Gordan Melton writes that Stoker “revealed the full impact of the psychosexual connotations involved in the relationship between vampire and victim, showing a striking similarity between the bloodlust of the undead and the repressed carnality of mere mortals.” The release of Dracula ushered in the idea of forbidden lust and desire, and the vampire became romanticized in a way the creature hadn’t been before. While the stories around Carmilla and Lord Ruthven featured erotism, the sexual undertones of the vampire feeding and lusting after beautiful young women became even more prevalent in Dracula and proceeding works in vampire fiction.

It wasn’t just the idea of the vampire as exotic and erotic that Stoker introduced. He had a hand in creating some of the most popular vampire tropes that exist to this day, such as the idea that the vampire must sleep in a coffin by day, the vampire can turn into a bat and other animal and mist forms, and the creature doesn’t have a reflection. Following the release of Dracula, few other works of vampire fiction were published, although short stories featuring the creatures of the night would be popular in the penny dreadfuls published at the time. The greatest public perception of vampires that reached a wide audience came in the form of the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Garuens (Nosferatu, Symphony of the Night).

Vampires in Film

Nosferatu, Symphony of the Night was directed by F.W. Murnau, and presented audiences with a long fingered, bald, ghoulish-looking vampire. The film’s plot was based on Dracula, prompting Stoker’s widow to file for copyright infringement. This hindered the film’s widespread release, but it was soon rediscovered and hailed as proper vampire cinema from movie buffs, due to its weird and shadowy atmosphere and striking main villain. A host of similar vampire films were released in the late 1920s and early 30s, including London After Midnight (1927) and Vampyr (1931). Both films failed to make much of an impact until the 1931 release of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi in the lead role as the vampiric Count. The image of Dracula as a sinister aristocrat with elegant manners who dresses in a flowing black cape and formal evening wear became the standard for vampire antiheroes in proceeding media.

For many filmgoers and critics alike, Bela Lugosi was the definitive Dracula, and his methodical, sinister and icy performance presented the Prince of Darkness as a walking corpse, terrifying audiences and cementing the Count as a cultural icon. Despite Dracula’s wickedness, audiences rooted for the character and he became somewhat of antihero. It wasn’t just the attractiveness of Dracula or even vampiric life that enthralled audiences. In Signs of Life in the USA, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon write that in the past, the vampire “was very much an evil Other, a Transylvanian monster preying on English womanhood, and thus simulating not only Stoker’s audience’s desires to be titillated by a thinly disguised saga of sexual license and lechery but also their fear of ‘foreigners’. But several decades of multicultural education and enlightenment have taught that the Other is not a sinister villain and is more often than not a victim to sympathize with rather than persecute.”

Maasik and Solomon add that not only have vampires seen a rehabilitation in the multiculturalist era, but the attractiveness of the bad boy vampire has become especially prevalent in recent media. Lugosi’s distinct looks and Hungarian accent made his performance both memorable and frightening. While the quality of Dracula has sometimes been contested by film critics, there can be no denying the impression it had on audiences. Universal produced several Dracula-related movies throughout the 1930s and 1940s, but popularity of the Count and the vampire genre saw a resurgence when distinguished actor Christopher Lee played the character for Hammer Studios 1958 film, The Horror of Dracula. While some elements of Lugosi’s influence remained–like the flowing black cape and the elegant manners–Lee added several characteristics that would not only be attributed to Dracula himself, but other vampires as well. Now hiding beneath the exterior of the slightly sinister Count was a more monstrous version of the character, with elongated fangs that established the common appearance of vampire fangs for all time.

Lee’s Dracula became a more silent and terrifying Prince of Darkness, and audiences loved his causal air of aristocracy and the terror he’d invoke whenever he revealed his true vampire nature to his victims. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Lee reprised his role of Count Dracula for six films, and while Hammer Studios kept the role to that of an English actor, something else was happening in the United States, and that was the introduction of the vampire Barnabas Collins to the daytime television gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows.

Dark Shadows and the Tragic Vampire

The soap opera Dark Shadows aired on ABC from 1966 to 1971. Initially, the plot involved a governess, Victoria Winters, who begins working for the wealthy and secretive Collins family out of their creepy mansion in the town of Collinsport, Maine. Hoping to drum up the falling show’s ratings, producer Dan Curtis introduced supernatural elements into the show, including witches, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, time travel, a parallel universe, and of course the iconic vampire, Barnabas Collins. Played by Jonathon Frid, Barnabas was aristocratic and murderous, and became one of the most well know vampires in North America.

With the introduction of Barnabas, the show became a hit, and the writers started including the vampire in as many storylines as they could. Just as a more nuanced and layered Dracula began to be seen as more of a tragic and romantic figure, Barnabas became a tragic hero of his own, seeking an escape from his undead existence and becoming an antihero that audiences could root for. The Vampire Encyclopedia lists Barnabas as the first vampire to be presented as the tragic hero, and several years after Dark Shadows ended in 1971, Anne Rice’s novel Interview with a Vampire took the creature of the night and presented readers with a highly introspective look into the emotional torment of eternal undead life.

Interview with a Vampire and the Popularity of Vampire Fiction

What was once the world of ghouls and sinister monsters bathed in shadow became a highly romanticized and erotic collection of novels published by Anne Rice known as The Vampire Chronicles. Interview with a Vampire follows protagonist Louise, a highly cultured and wealthy young man who is thrust into the world of the undead when he is turned into a vampire by Lestat, and must deal with his new immortality and existence as a bloodthirsty fiend. Louise is at odds with other vampires, including Lestat, who encourage him to fully accept his vampiric nature. Meanwhile, Claudia, the child Lestat turns into a vampire initially thrives with her eternal life but soon realizes the eternal anguish she must suffer as a child, never able to mature or break the confines of childhood.

Lestat de Lioncourt would become a hero in his own right and the central protagonist of much of the Vampire Chronicles. Despite his arrogance and self-centeredness, he was seen as both a gentleman and a savage , and the following novels in Rice’s series explore the dark intimacy of his vampire life. Thanks to her novels, Rice became one of the most famed vampire authors, next to Bram Stoker. Other vampire novels were published during the 1970s helped elevate the genre of vampire fiction to its famed heights. These included Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, The Night Stalker by Jeff Rice, and The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson.

The 1970s through 90s also saw an explosion of vampire films, with handsome leading men picked to play the roles of the featured vampire–most often Count Dracula–including Frank Langella who starred in the Broadway play about the Prince of Darkness before assuming the role of the Count for the film. A number of vampire films followed, including The Lost Boys, Blacula, Innocent Blood, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The creation of videotapes and cable ushered in a new era of vampire fiction popularity, since they made almost all vampire movies and television shows accessible to many. Not only were videotape rental stores devoting entire areas to Dark Shadows collections, but Sci-Fi Channel also gave new life to vampire films from generations past. Comic books started featuring Dracula and other vampire characters, like Blade, Vampirella and Morbius, and the book market became oversaturation with vampire novels.

The Modern Vampire

On March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on the WB network and was a television adaptation of the 1992 movie of the same name. The show about a young woman destined to fight the forces of darkness and aided in her quest by a staunch group of allies, became a massive hit. In the Atlantic, Katherine Schwab writes “Academics have found Whedon’s cult classic to be particularly multi-dimensional—trading heavily on allegory, myth, and cultural references—while combining an inventive narrative structure with dynamic characters and social commentary.” 

Hundreds of academic articles around the series were published, and the television show became an entire franchise, with novels, comics, video games, and spinoffs all centered in the Buffy universe. One of the many standouts from the series is David Boreanaz who played Angel, Buffy’s vampire love interest who’s cursed with a soul. Angel is the ultimate bad boy, complete with his trademark leather coat and tendency to revert to his evil alter ego, Angelus, should he experience a moment of true happiness. Not only was he incredibly good looking, but he could be lovable, menacing and awkward at the drop of a hat. SFX Magazine listed Angel as the third greatest vampire in television and film, and they wrote that he worked as both a brooding love-interest and a redemption-seeking hero.

Other modern vampire works, like The Vampire Diaries, The Southern Vampire Mysteries, and Twilight became some of the most bestselling books and film/television adaptations of all time. They presented their vampires as sexy and desirable beings, and the creatures further gained some degrees of human feelings which made them even more erotic. Vampire fiction was not merely relegated to the doomed gothic romance genre either, with Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel The Fledgling which fused vampire fiction with elements from science fiction and dealt with themes like racism, hybridity, and sexuality. Butler revealed that she wrote the book after being inspired by the vampire novels she read.

Vampires are Forever

 

The vampire genre continues to see reboots, sequels, and new material created almost every day. It is one of the most popular genres of fiction and will continue to be for years to come. What makes vampires so compelling are the ideas and themes of death, forbidden sexuality and fascination with the mysterious that surround the creatures of the night. For some, vampires are the symbolic rebels advocating for alternatives to conformity. They’re the embodiment of suppressed sexual urges, of lust and desire. Besides their thrilling and titillating nature, the vampire’s ability to adapt to any story or cultural belief means it will never die. 

By Mack Veltman

Are you a fan of vampires? What’s your favorite story from vampire fiction? Let me know in the comments and thank you for following along. As always, you can follow me on my Twitter (@mackveltman) or my Facebook page. Stay nerdy!

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