The Origins of Vampires

Aug 30, 2016 | Articles


Now’s another time for looking at the origins of the modern fantasy genre, and today we’re looking at vampires – those pasty-faced, hemoglobin-loving agoraphobics who’ve become the basis of several multi-million dollar franchises.

The Name of the Count

The word, vampire, is very much a European invention – either from German, French, or one of any number of Slavic languages, but the concept is older and found in many other cultures. The idea of some malevolent entity sucking out the life force of a person is a compelling one, and there is a certain logic in an evil, dead creature that must siphon the energy of the living in order to continue its own existence. In folklore, the most common trope associated with vampire-like myths is the acquisition of blood, and most other details will vary.

In modern fantasy, however, the vampires that we know and love came not from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but from an earlier work called The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Stoker, however, solidified the idea and invested it with the horror staples of sex, gore and death that made it so compelling to a Victorian audience. Thus was born the romantic association of vampires, and the metaphor of vampires as a representation of forbidden sexuality was born.

The Formation of the Legend

The iconic vision of what we would consider to be a classical vampire – formal dress, slick hair, pale skin, black cloak, thick accent, and menacing demeanor – comes straight out of the movies, and Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula in the 1930s. The turning of a human into a vampire through a bite or sharing blood apparently comes from Bram Stoker, and isn’t a part of folklore. The viral potential of the bite, and variations on the transformation can be anything from a long and drawn out process, requiring several steps, to an instant switch from human to vampire.

Holy water, crosses, garlic, salt, and especially stakes through the heart appear to be the most popular folklore beliefs regarding dealing with vampires, again from central Europe. Vulnerability to sunlight is a very new addition, seeing as Dracula was originally written as being weaker in direct sun but not actually hurt by it; possibly it was added from Nosferatu, in 1922. Other signs, such as having cold skin or no reflection or being able to transform into a bat, are a callback to the beliefs that vampires were the undead, or evil spirits with magical powers.

In Modern Storytelling

Today, vampires run the gamut from their folkloric roots as a hideous, malformed beast, to tragic anti-heroes who battle against their own darker nature. The most well known stories – Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and the Twilight Saga – play up the metaphor of vampirism as repressed sexual urges. They appear in fantasy and horror and any number of cross-genre mixes in-between with great regularity, as authors figure out their own takes on the vampire myth. Even if they sparkle in direct sunlight, vampires are not going away any time soon.