What are ‘vampires’?
Often associated with the Gothic, vampires have ignited imaginations in many forms over many centuries. The longer that the vampire myth has germinated, the more fervently this mythology has embedded itself in popular culture and refused to die. Across history, vampires appear in various incarnations: but how does the vampire story extend from the brutal Hungarian ruler Vlad the Impaler to Christopher Lee in Hammer Horror and the glittery Edward Cullen in Twilight? And what do these variety of incarnations reveal about the living? In order to answer some of these questions, we are going to unearth the very birth of vampire stories.
The earliest records of UK vampires date from the medieval era. During this time, they were referred to as ‘revenants’ meaning ‘people who return’. They were very different to modern vampires. They had no Edward Cullen glamour or strange beauty and revenants certainly didn’t sparkle. They were simply reanimated, decomposing corpses. The chronicler William of Newburgh detailed revenants that rampaged through the UK. Newburgh wrote that villages were under attack from these fiends from the grave.
The creatures detailed by Newburgh are far from the modern concept of vampires and perhaps closer to the 21st century understanding of zombies. However, there are a few elements in Newburgh’s accounts that are consistent with modern vampire lore: the idea that the deceased will return to people they knew when living and the idea that they can be destroyed by decapitation.
Although elements of vampire lore originated in the UK, much vampire lore originated in Europe. Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Bathory were two powerful Europeans who are frequently cited as influential to vampire mythology. Vlad the Impaler or Vlad III Dracula was a bloodthirsty prince from Romania. He is widely recognised as the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He was known for punishing enemies in a particularly cruel and violent way. Notably, as he retreated from a battle in 1462, he left a field filled with thousands of impaled victims as a deterrent to pursuing Ottoman forces.
Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian countess who purportedly tortured and murdered six hundred young women in the 16th and 17th centuries. She reportedly believed that bathing in blood would retain her youth and beauty. The idea of rejuvenation through victim’s blood is an essential element of modern vampire stories. Perhaps this mythology was inspired by Bathory, or perhaps these tropes fed the gruesome legend pertaining to the countess.
It is important to note that these two individuals were both unorthodox figures in a world where the genuine fear of vampires was becoming increasingly orthodox. Through much of Europe, vampire mythology was becoming increasingly common. The bad-breathed vampire of Pentsch is a notable example. According to accounts, the bad-breath vampire of Pentsch reanimated and caused a great deal of havoc and violence. They reportedly turned milk into blood, left strange footprints in the town, caused dogs to bark at night, strangled people, walked around like a horse on all four limbs, vomited fire, sucked milk from cow’s udders and threw goats around.
The bad-breathed vampire of Pentsch is of particular interest because accounts record that the revenant was an unlikable and unpleasant character in life. The revenant returned to not only be a peevish nuisance but also a dangerous character in death. Through these oral stories emerged the notion that vampires returned from the dead as an exaggerated version of the person they once were. This is mirrored in modern vampire stories. For example, in Ann Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, the vampire Lestat was a fop in life and an insufferable snob in his vampire form. Vampires are caricatures of their living selves and perhaps this idea began with local myths such as the bad-breathed vampire of Pentsch.
Local mythology pertaining to the undead relentlessly struck terror into the living. Two hundred years after the bad-breathed vampire, these myths continued to haunt society. In England, a Theologan called Henry Moore began the convention of writing about the supernatural in factual, scholarly accounts. He framed his accounts in a medical and philosophical narrative. This would prove a template for Stoker’s Dracula, which is compiled of letters, diaries and journal entries, including the writing of characters employed in medical professions.
And as softly thou art sleeping,
To thee shall I come creeping,
And thy life’s blood drain away.Der Vampir, Heinrich August Ossenfelder, 1748
In 1748, the vampire in fiction was born. German writer Heinrich August Ossenfelder penned a poem called Der Vampir which is the first literary vampire in the western tradition. Der Vampir details a vampire who plans to suck the blood of a maiden while she sleeps. In the UK, vampire mythology and iconography had not yet been embraced in literature. However, it had been adopted in everyday vernacular. The word ‘vampire’ was used in the early 18th century as a metaphor, particularly to criticise those who were perceived to benefit from the suffering of others. Although Walter Crane’s cartoon The Capitalist Vampire dates from 1885, it perfectly demonstrates the use of this metaphor, which was evidently still in use. Crane depicts a poor labourer who lies dead or dying as his helpless body is savaged by a huge vampire bat with the words ‘capitalism’, ‘religious hypocrisy’, and ‘party politics’ displayed on its wings and back. Meanwhile, ‘socialism’ emerges as a winged angel attempting to protect the poor from blood-thirsty capitalism.
Shortly after the arrival of vampire as a metaphor for political commentary, the first ever vampire in British literature emerged. In 1810 John Stagg wrote The Vampyre. This gothic poem details the woes of Herman as he explains to his wife Gertrude that a close friend is not truly dead: he is a ‘goblin’ damned who has been visiting his bedside and sucking his blood at night. Herman tells Gertrude that he visited his friend’s tomb and found the body undecayed.
“Young Sigismund, my once dear friend,
But now my persecutor foul,
Doth his malevolence extend
E’en to the torture of my soul.
“By night, when, wrapt in soundest sleep,
All mortals share a soft repose,
My soul doth dreadful vigils keep,
More keen than which hell scarely knows.
“From the drear mansion of the tomb,
From the low regions of the dead,
The ghost of Sigismund doth roam,
And dreadful haunts me in my bed!The Vampyre, John Stagg, 1810
It is also around this time, in the early 1800’s, that mortsafes become frequently used in graveyards. Mortsafes were a heavy, weighted device used to prevent the dead from rising. They were also used as a deterrent for a new, morbid threat that emerged during the enlightenment: body-snatching. The enlightenment sparked an increase in medical and anatomical research which made corpses valuable. Bodies were illegally exhumed from graves and sold to scientists and doctors in order to further the study of the human body. Mortsafes were used by those who could afford them in order to ensure that their loved ones neither rose form the grave nor became a victim of grave-robbers and body-snatching. Surely such a morbid means of obtaining specimens must have sparked fear for an already suspicious populace with little understanding of death and disease.
For all the science that was developing during the enlightenment, vampire mythology thrived beyond measure due to Romantic poets and writers, particularly Byron, Coleridge, Polidori (Byron’s physician) and Mary Shelley. In 1813 Lord Byron published his poem The Giaour meaning ‘infadel’ or ‘non-beleived’. It was inspired by stories from Greece that Byron encountered during his grand tour. The Giaour features a vampire protagonist who is cursed to return from the dead and eat his family.
Three years after The Giaour was published, Coleridge published the gothic ballad Christabel. Christabel chronicles a protagonist called Geraldine who transpires to be a vampire. Byron read this poem aloud when staying with Polidori, Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley. Percy Shelley was reportedly terribly troubled by the woman detailed in the poem. During their stay together, the writers agreed to the most famous and gloriously gothic writing competition in history. Inspired by Coleridge’s Christabel, they agreed to individually write the most terrifying work of horror possible.
As a result, Polidori penned The Vampyre (1819). Although unscrupulous publishers originally promoted Byron as the author, it was in fact his physician that was responsible for the first piece of prose fiction about a vampire. The Vampyre tells of a young Englishman who travels to Europe with a Lord. The Lord is killed and returns to surprise the Englishman as a vampire at a party in London. The vampire Lord was inspired by Byron and the Englishman was based on Polidori himself. Polidori’s vampire is brooding, dark and mysterious: key qualities of vampires in modern fiction and indeed all vampire fiction hereafter. It was Polidori who first penned these Byronic conventions in vampires. Polidori was inspired by Byron’s public image and immortalised it on paper: for the first time in fiction, the vampire was not depicted as a dastardly fiend but as a personality. Polidori’s vampire is markedly different from its predecessors because his vampire Lord is depicted as intelligent, sociable and able to pass for human.
At the same time Polidori was writing The Vampyre, Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein (1818). Although Frankenstein’s monster may, on the surface, seem unconnected to vampires, Shelley does refer to the creature as a ‘vampire’ in her novel. Not only did Shelley arguably invent science-fiction, Frankenstein also demonstrates that the Industrial Revolution’s vibrant burst in technology and writing saw the oldest fears are being re-imagined in the newest ways.
In addition to appearances in books and poems, vampires were also appearing in penny dreadfulls: sensational, cheaply available horror fiction that was often published in pamphlets. In 1845 the enormously popular Varney the Vampire was printed as a penny dreadful in an epic series of pamphlets. Varney was the first literary vampire to have fangs. They were also the first sympathetic vampire. While they were brooding like Polidori’s reanimated Lord, they were also sad and troubled by their fate. Varney hated being a vampire. The story ends with Varney throwing himself into mount Vesuvius in order to end his curse.
In the 1860’s and 70’s, French writer Paul Feval penned a trilogy of vampire novels. In Feval’s novels, there are clear links to the mythology pertaining to Bathory: the vampire kills women to take their youth. However, Feval’s vampires are unconventional in many respects. His vampires are fleshy robots that need to be wound like a clock and puncture victims with a barbed tongue. They also explode when they come into contact with another vampire’s burnt heart. Perhaps we should be grateful that the majority of Feval’s vampire conventions have not endured.
Shortly after Feval’s trilogy was published, in 1872, Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu penned his gothic novella Carmilla. In La Fanu’s novella, a lonely woman wills a vampire into existence. Both the protagonist and the vampire are women, and both are drawn to one another making Carmilla an early piece of literature not just about vampires but also about same-sex romances. Carmilla also features the first transformation of a vampire into an animal when La Fanu’s vampire character changes into a black cat. This novella marked the emergence of complicated and intense relationships between humans and vampires – an essential hallmark of contemporary vampire stories.
“Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine.”Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872
Towards the end of the 19th century, UK citizens became gripped by several fears that amalgamated and push the vampire myth into new and increasingly familiar territory. In 1859, Darwin caused scandal and fear with his publication On the Origin of the Species. With public knowledge of evolution bloomed the fear of devolution: the idea that humans might revert to animal forms, particularly if they behaved in ways considered sinful, uncivilised or violent. And through the smog-filled, gas-lamp streets of London, violence was menacing city dwellers. In 1888, London was terrorised by serial killer Jack the Ripper who preyed on vulnerable women in the Whitechapel era. Hysteria and legend accumulated around the mysterious identity of this seemingly phantom of a man who lurked in the dense London smog and preyed upon women.
Accompanying these terrors was a rising awareness of how disease is spread. The Victorians understood that illness could be hereditary and also gained the knowledge that close contact, from both the living and the dead, can transfer disease. The Victorians were terrified of contamination. It was a time when society was becoming increasingly educated in regard to the science of infection.
However, despite advances in knowledge and education, society was also becoming increasingly insular. Xenophobic and racist 19th century society was anxious of ‘reverse colonisation’ and was afraid that colonialism might literally bite back. In 1897 writer H.G. Wells published the seminal science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds. Wells wanted to criticise the treatment of other nations at the hands of the British Empire. His novel details martians that land in London and tear down key cultural landmarks such as Big Ben, decimate the city and destroy its population. Wells recognised the damage being exacted throughout the world in the name of Empire and imagined similar treatment being inflicted on the UK. His novel encompasses Victorian fears of outsiders while also criticising this hypocrisy.
It is no coincidence that, in this same year Wells was fanning the fear-filled flames of reverse colonisation, Bram Stoker published Dracula. As per Henry Moore’s non-fiction accounts of the supernatural, Stoker’s fiction book is compiled of series of letters and journals where the reader encounters the intimate thoughts of the main characters (except for Dracula himself). Although contemporary readers may consider Dracula an old-fashioned text, it was a daringly-modern novel when originally published. In Dracula, the Harkers use shorthand (which was a new way of writing), and Jonathan owns a camera. Stoker also uses slang. The Harkers epitomise everything that is new and contemporary, in contrast to the Count who emerges from the ashes of ancient myth and superstition.
It is no coincidence that Stoker’s Count Dracula is European and not British. It is a novel that reflects Victorian anxieties pertaining to reverse colonialism. Dracula is also overtly named after Vlad the Impaler or Vlad III Dracula. Stoker has Count Dracula transform into a variety of animals and forms including a bat, wolf and even fog. He used these transformations to suggest that sinful, immoral behaviour can cause devolution and explored the anxiety that industrialisation, smog and corruption were connected.
‘Hitherto I had noticed the backs of his hands as they lay on his knees in the firelight, and they had seemed rather white and fine. But seeing them now close to me, I could not but notice that they were rather coarse, broad, with squat fingers. Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which, do what I would, I could not conceal.
The Count, evidently noticing it, drew back. And with a grim sort of smile, which showed more than he had yet done his protruberant teeth, sat himself down again on his own side of the fireplace. We were both silent for a while, and as I looked towards the window I saw the first dim streak of the coming dawn. There seemed a strange stillness over everything. But as I listened, I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves.’Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897
Stoker’s Dracula also marked a time of change for women. The Victorian ideals of the purity and innocence conflicted with the feminist movement, which is referenced in the novel. Perhaps these feminists are encapsulated by the vampire women in the text. But is Stoker liberating these women or shaming them for breaking Victorian convention?
I am alone in the castle with those awful women. Faugh! Mina is a woman, and there is nought in common. They are devils of the Pit!Dracula, Bram Stoker, 1897
In the same year that Stoker published Dracula, writer Florence Marryat published The Blood of the Vampire. Although her novel is overshadowed by the fame of Stoker’s novel, it contains as many important themes and ideas as Dracula. The Blood of the Vampire is about a Jamaican vampire who seems to bring destruction, although not overtly, to those near to her. This leads readers to question whether the protagonist Harriet really is a vampire or if these deadly qualities are being interpreted by a racist, xenophobic and sexist society. Is Harriet really a vampire preying on society or is society preying on Harriet? Marryat’s novel explores themes that haunted Victorian imagination such as race, hereditary ailments, women’s roles and the occult.
In the early years of the 20th century, vampires began to emerge on film. In 1922, Max Schreck’s iconic Nosferatu, inspired by Stoker’s Dracula and the outbreak of Spanish flu at the end of the First World War, became available for viewers. The Spanish flu epidemic killed more people throughout the world in the latter months of 1918 than had died in all the years of the war. Rats feature heavily in the film in addition to the rodent-like appearance of the vampire villain Count Orlok. Cinema-goers watching Nosferatu in 1922 would have been acutely aware of the virus that had killed millions. They would also have known that the Black Plague was spread by rats. For viewers in 1922, the silent movie must have said much about pestilence in addition to horror.
Vampires in the 20th and 21st century are revenants of the past and presence. They are Frankensteins of new and old mythology combined. They still continue to tell us more about the living than the dead. They reflect our fears of both the known and the mysterious. And most importantly, vampires still refuse die. It will be fascinating to observe how these fears from our past continue to amalgamate in the 21st century.
Do you have a favorite vampire story or character?