Fangs, a thirst for blood, and the notion that they could be standing right outside our door waiting to be let in: vampires have been around for centuries and will definitely continue to play an important role within both the horror genre and in pop culture as a whole. Whether it’s a series of popular teen culture movies, your six year old’s favorite cartoon, or another page-turning novel, vampires are here to stay.
But where does the concept of vampires stem from? Were they merely tales that townsfolk came up with to keep themselves entertained, or is there some truth to the popular lore? Let’s have a more in depth look at the most famous vampires throughout history and how their legends have developed over time.
Where else to start on vampires other than the perennial legend of Dracula? Count Dracula of Transylvania is the main character of Bram Stoker’s classic novel of the same name. He possesses shapeshifting powers, can turn anyone into a vampire by biting them and drinking their blood, and control the undead. Although he himself is fictional, his namesake, who was just as bloodthirsty and terrifying, was not. His name was Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, and he was the ruler of Wallachia, Romania in the 15th century.
Vlad the Impaler had a tumultuous childhood, having been a prisoner of war during battles with the Ottomans as a teenager, and he did not take lightly to being held captive. He was cruel and uncompromising, according to historical texts. And, as his nickname reveals, his chosen method of execution was impalement, which served the purpose of not only killing his enemies but scaring others away. Historians describe it as ‘psychological warfare’, stating that he did what he had to do to fight a much larger and more powerful army.
So what does Vladimir the Impaler have to do with Dracula? Many historians trace Bram Stoker’s novel to Vlad the Impaler, and suggest that Vlad himself enjoyed drinking the blood of his fallen enemies. More specifically, he would dine among the lifeless bodies of his adversaries as he dipped his bread in their blood.
Others say that the historical texts implying that Vlad used to drink his enemies’ blood are horribly mistranslated, and that he used to wash his hands with the blood of his enemies before dining, not drink it. Still pretty disturbing.
Although Dracula might be the most famous vampire novel, it certainly was not the first. Carmilla was written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and published in the 1870s. Carmilla deviates from modern mainstream vampire mythology in more ways than one: first of all, Carmilla is a woman, with no family, which we do not see very often. Secondly, the book is somewhat erotically charged, hinting at a level of lesbian attraction between Carmilla (the vampire) and the narrator of the story. While vampires have always been described as attractive and alluring, they have remained firmly heterosexual in mainstream media. Moreover, Carmilla’s animal form was a large black cat, not a bat as commonly seen in modern films and literature.
However, Carmilla sleeps in a coffin and is killed (spoiler alert!) by having a stake driven through her heart. The inspiration of this novella and its details is said to be legends of a vampire-like entity terrorizing a Hungarian town, visiting and tormenting inhabitants in the night.
Despite being less popular, Carmilla was probably one of the prime influencers of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The two novels have many parallels: both are in first person, both main female characters (Carmilla in Carmilla, Lucy in Dracula) are described in very similar fashion, among other parallels.
The accolade for the first-ever piece of literature talking about vampires goes to John William Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819. Prior to that, vampires were only mentioned in Gothic poetry. Polidori’s novel was the first of many in the vampire fantasy fiction genre. Such is the success of the novel that it sparked a ‘vampire craze’ across Europe, as it was adapted into theatrical performances in production houses all over the continent.
The story’s main character is a suave British gentleman, who also happens to be the vicious, monstrous vampire. The plot revolves around murder, seduction and betrayal. Without giving too much away, anyone who meets Ruthven (the main character/vampire) ends up suffering, predictably. The interesting part, however, is how Polidori’s novel depicts vampires. In this case, they are not on the fringes of society – he is not a social outcast like other monsters depicted in literature so often are. He is, on the contrary, a very social and attractive person, who manages to befriend a wealthy gentleman and even seduce said gentleman’s sister. It tells us that a vampire can be anyone from the people around us, seeing as they can slip in perfectly with a crowd, so one can never be too careful.
Nosferatu is a 1922 German expressionist horror film which is now considered one of the most renowned works in horror cinema. The film is an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the producers never obtained permission to adapt the novel into a movie. Of course, the film changed the names, so for example, Count Dracula became Count Orlok, but the core characters and the plot remain strikingly similar. So much so that members of the late Bram Stoker’s family filed charges and the court ruled in their favor. All copies of the film were to be destroyed, but one copy that had already been distributed worldwide survived the purge, and was then redistributed by a loyal following, making Nosterafu one of the first cult films.
Nosferatu was, and continues to be, well-received by viewers, who are mesmerized and terrified by its powerful imagery. The film, directed by F.W. Murnau, was lauded by critics and fans. The role of the fanged, ghostly-pale and eccentric Count Orlok, portrayed by Max Schreck a little too well (whose last name translates into “fright’’, funnily enough), remains a point of reference till now, almost 100 years later. Murnau also made the decision to shoot most of the film on location rather than inside a studio, adding to the realism and authenticity of the film. Furthermore, the smooth gliding camera movement added to the mysterious aesthetic set forward by the director. Nosferatu forever altered the landscape of horror and vampire films. Not just through the shots, but through the costumes, the lighting and even the music score – some would go as far as to call it a masterpiece.
Arnold Paole: Real Life Vampire?
Finally, far from all the historical depictions of vampires in the media, we address the supposed existence of real-life vampires.
More specifically, the story of Arnold Paole, a 17th century Serbian soldier. He had seen some horrible things throughout his life, and rumor had it that he was bitten by a vampire. After returning home, Paole died and was buried in the village cemetery. Within a month of his death, people began reporting strange attacks and other haunting occurrences. Many would swear that they were being pursued at night by none other than the late Arnold Paole, with four victims allegedly dying at his hands. The villagers decided that they had had enough, and went to dig up his body and rid themselves of the vampire once and for all.
When Paole’s body was exhumed, they found that it had not decomposed. His skin and nails were untouched. There were even fresh streams of blood flowing from his mouth. Wasting no time, they drove a stake through his undead heart, which resulted in a loud groan from the monster. His body was then burned, and the villagers disposed of all of Paole’s victims in the same manner – just in case.
The stories will never die
Vampires have been a part of folklore for hundreds of years, developing and taking different forms. Their legends have endured, their stories repeated and replayed, and the feelings they invoke, whether terror, fascination or both, remain. They are one of the genre’s most sought after monsters, and not without merit. Horror author Stephen King has even gone as far as to add vampires to his three tarot cards of horror, alongside ‘the werewolf’ and ‘the thing’. They are both the horrific beast that waits to devour you, and the beautiful anomaly that strikes our fancy.
And they will always be there, in the shadows, waiting, lurking, and most of the time, scaring the hell out of us all!