Making their mark: the rise of the vampire in folklore, film and fiction


The earliest vampire tales probed the horrors of death and taboo. How do the blood-suckers of cinema and literature compare?

Vampire stories have been around as long as there have been people to tell them. In his 1929 text about vampirism, witch-hunter Montague Summers writes:

“origins of a belief in vampirism, although, of course, very shadowy, unformed and unrelated, may be said to go back to the earliest times when primitive man observed the mysterious relations between soul and body.”

The Origins of the Literary Vampire

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) established vampire lore in a way that still shapes the genre. And yet, Stoker’s novel is itself a bridge to, and borrows from, much earlier tales.

In 1896 ‘vampire’ movie Le Manoir du diable (aka The Haunted Castle), the devil turns into a bat a whole year before Dracula flits into view. Serbian author Milovan Glišić’s story of Sava the vampire predates the film by 16 years.

John Polidori’s The Vampyre appears even earlier, in 1819. It features the hallmarks of the genre, including an undead character who seduces victims, then drains them of their blood. The short story enjoyed “immediate success” (though partly because it was misattributed to Byron).

Of course, the folklore of many cultures features vampires and similar creatures. But, Heide Crawford writes, it’s German poets who most influenced western fiction.

Der Vampire (1748) marks the first appearance of the literary vampire. Its author, August Ossenfelder, was one of several German poets who drew on the oral histories and superstitions of central Europe.

Moreover, Crawford notes, these early authors added motifs that have since become inseparable from the genre, including the femme fatale, and the lover who comes back from the grave.

True blood in vampire mythology

Tracing the lineage of literary vampires is fascinating because the earliest stories are of ‘real’ hauntings (or, at least, real fears).

When Petar Blagojević died in Serbia in 1725, villagers accused him of returning from the dead to kill others in the following days. The locals disinterred his grave, looking for signs of vampirism. As feared, Petar’s hair and fingernails were freshly grown, his mouth bloody.

They responded by driving a stake through his heart … yet what they recognised as vampirism we now consider legitimate signs of decomposition.

Before science, then, vampirism explained the mysteries of death. Legends also flourished during outbreaks of disease and ill-health.

Here’s Hampl and Hampl writing in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1997:

“the term nosferatu, popularized by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, is an archaic term derived from the Greek nosophorus, which means ‘plague carrier’”

They go on to argue that “pellagra, a dietary deficiency of niacin and tryptophan” related to corn consumption may be a source of vampire myths (see also the rotting crops in The Witch).

“At that time, where corn went pellagra was sure to follow.”

Hampl & Hampl

Their theory maps Stoker’s depictions of vampirism to pellagra. Thus Dracula’s pale skin and dread of daylight mirrors pellagra’s dermatitis and sun sensitivity. Bloodied, lascivious lips replicate the pellagrin’s red, swollen mouth, while the nocturnal habits of the undead mimic sufferers’ insomnia.

While there may be pellagra parallels in Dracula, keep in mind that Stoker’s novel neither invents vampire mythology nor reflects its range.

Still, disease inevitably influenced folklore. Pellagra’s domino chain of localised illness and death was due to shared sources of corn. But with little understanding of disease, folklore conjured up revenants instead.

What’s the point of vampires?

Beyond making sense of the world, early vampire tales indulge our fascination with fear. We like being scared, certainly within the bounds of make-believe.

As with fairy tales and superstition, vampire mythology has social uses, too: it warns us of danger, and models ‘proper’ behaviours. And even now, horror helps us navigate death and grief.

Vampire stories go further, though, in exploring the most taboo subjects. Drinking blood – a sister act to cannibalism – is most obvious. Social conditioning demands we respect the dead; vampire lore has us pulling them out of their graves and beheading them.

The rampant sexualisation of horror needs no excuse – we’ve always told sexy stories – but vampires upend acceptable narratives. There are shades of necrophilia and bestiality, of wanton sexuality in women (heavens!) and of shared partners and orgies.

By the time Stoker gets his hands on vampire lore, it’s in full blown Gothic excess. Still, the question remains: what’s functions do vampires serve in Dracula, and the fictions it continues to inspire?

Vampires, sex and sensationalism

In which ‘undead’ is shorthand for ‘unclean’

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is an outrageously sexualised novel – perhaps even more than the explicit erotica of works like Fanny Hill (1748) precisely because it’s cloaked in narrative propriety.

The Count’s castle is home to ghostly femme fatales. These are “ladies by their dress and manner” who hide darker appetites that drive Jonathan Harker giddy with lust:

“The girl went on her knees, and bent over me, simply gloating. There was a deliberate voluptuousness which was both thrilling and repulsive, and as she arched her neck she actually licked her lips like an animal”

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

When Jonathan brings to mind fiancée Mina as a talisman of sexual purity, it encapsulates the dualism at the heart of the story. Time and again, its tensions return to male constructs of feminine nature: angel and whore (see also Coppola’s film).

The ‘angelic’ Lucy Westenra captivates all who meet her, but under Dracula’s spell becomes a fallen woman. Van Helsing reveals that: “this so sweet maid is a polyandrist”. Without her consent, Lucy is bound by blood – a metaphor for sex – to multiple men, like psychic lovers.

Death sexualises Lucy … and her mourners see it as the greater horror:

“the blood-stained, voluptuous mouth – which it made one shudder to see – the whole carnal and unspiritual appearance, seeming like a devilish mockery of Lucy’s sweet purity”

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

When Mina takes Lucy’s position in the narrative, she’s similarly exalted for her purity. The men turn their devotion on her, swearing endless loyalty and love.

And yet, like Lucy, Mina becomes a carnal creature – one whose husband sleeps beside her while she sucks Dracula’s blood (and an audience of watching men). Yes, this is double entendre bingo.

Contagious love

Where there are vampires, sex follows, the two inextricably bound in the romance, horror and erotica genres. Centuries after the contagions that birthed it, vampire lore has come full circle. If vampires bring sickness, that sickness is full-blooded hyper-sexuality.

In Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, Robert Neville is the sole survivor of the disease that ends civilisation. Robert is left to battle the undead: those who die and come back as vampires.

Each night, the vampires taunt him. And their greatest line of attack? Sexy, undead women.

I Am Legend dwells on Dracula’s mythology. But it particularly amplifies transgressive sexuality to illustrate Robert’s struggles with lust and loneliness:

“It was the women who made it so difficult, he thought, the women posing like lewd puppets in the night on the possibility that he’d see them and decide to come out.”

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

In the Twilight saga, Stephanie Myers conflates vampire sexuality with puberty. She recasts taboos of necrophilia (sex with the dead) and haematophagy (drinking blood) as a Romeo and Juliet tale of first love, outsiders and ‘finding one’s tribe’.

Rather than damned and the despised, the vampires in Twilight are – for protagonist Bella Swan and the franchise’s fans – the new pure. The series reverses the stigma of the earliest mythology, embracing the desire and longing that has always been part of the lore.

The vampire aesthetic

Like I Am Legend, Twilight features the vampire starter kit of sex and incredible strength. However, Myers’ development of certain traits over others recasts her revenants as super heroes (with echoes of Marvel superhero Blade).

Twilight’s vampires no longer shape-shift (Myers bounces this trait to a rival wolf tribe). Instead, the Cullen clan gain the super-speed of comic book characters, along with mind-reading, prediction and forms of flying. Naturally, they only use their abilities for good … that too to benefit humans.

These vampires assume the virginal purity of figures like Lucy Westenra, Mina Harker, and even Bella Swan. In Twilight, Edward, with his shimmering skin and devotion to Bella, is the more angelic character.

Modern vampires, then, are desirable – for sex, sure, but also for purity and power. Their tools of seduction mirror the secret desires of the consumer age: heroism, beauty, sartorial elegance, agelessness.

In Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976), protagonists Louis and Lestat are traditional vampires: murderous, cruel and not at all heroic. Yet the secret of their success lies in their looks, wealth and foppish, fabulous lifestyles.

Such tales speak to our craving for excitement and eternal youth, but the latter is a double-edged spell. Consider Claudia’s rage, for instance. When Lestat turns his young companion into a vampire he condemns her to eternity in a child’s body, even as her mind matures over decades.

Jingo what?

Early vampire tales are local legends. That is, they’re about local people who die and return from the grave to terrorise their communities. In transporting Count Dracula to London, Stoker both makes the fear relatable, and situates horror in foreignness.

The Count at home in Transylvania is foreign to Englishman Jonathan Harker, and remains foreign when he comes to London (keep in mind who narrates the novel). His foreignness is both supernatural and racialised, i.e., the long aquiline nose and beastly behaviours.

The dread of the vampire is partly of invasion, a term long used against immigrants. Dracula plans his assault from afar – with maps and history books – then wages an invisible war of contagion. It’s not enough that Dracula plays at Englishness, but that he seeks to convert the English to his kind.

There’s a similar Otherness to the vampire horde in I Am Legend. Robert Neville’s friends and neighbours are bloodless and white-faced, and yet the narrative dwells on their ‘blackness’:

“It was no use; they’d beaten him, the black bastards had beaten him.”

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

The vampires that crawled out of central European folklore, across the sea to London and from there to Hollywood, are pale-faced and red-eyed (… with high, aquiline noses). Yet in Matheson’s novel, revenants function as metaphor for marginalised Black America.

Dorothea Shuller writes:

“Written shortly before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I Am Legend thus resonates with the ‘cultural anxieties of a white [1950s] America’”.

As the clamour for equality rises in the real world, Matheson’s protagonist finds terror in the birth of such a new society … and he’d rather die than submit.

The rise and return of vampires

Centuries later, we’re still enthralled by vampires (some people go so far as to drink blood). Stories even retain the original functions of vampirism: sex, seduction and belonging, for instance.

The genre has grown new shoots, too, including I Am Legend’s notable influence on the zombie genre. There are parallels, too, in an increasing appetite for stories about cannibalism and the consumption of human flesh.

This includes Earthlings and Tender is the Flesh, but also in the now-stylised figure of Hannibal Lecter. Originally seen in Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s later TV incarnation is as a well-dressed, debonair, fine-dining gastronome. If he were dead, he’d be the perfect vampire.

We no longer turn to revenants to explain disease … though some responses to the Coronavirus pandemic on social media demonstrates we still create origin stories for the things that flummox us.

Either way, modernity can’t outrun the conditions that gave rise to the undead in the first place. Vampires, it would seem, are alive and kicking.

What to read or watch next

Vampire mythology has inspired countless books and films; this guide touches on a mere handful. If you’re keen to sink your teeth into more, try these:

  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897 novel and the 1992 film adaptation)
  • Interview with the Vampire (book, film & TV series)
  • Twilight (book & film franchise)
  • The Lost Boys (film – teen take on vampires before Twilight)
  • I Am Legend (novel and 2007 film)
  • Blade (comic, films, reboot – action hero vampires)
  • Nosferatu (1922 film)

→ Self-styled clergyman and occultist Montague Summers is a fascinating character in his own right.

Picture credit: Karolina Grabowska