A Short History of Vampires

A Short History of Vampires
Vampires. Okay, they’re not technically scifi TV. But let’s face it, there’s some overlap. And many of us who like real science fiction shows also find ourselves drawn to these creatures of the night as well. Here’s what I find fascinating about them: the way the mythology has changed, within just the last couple of decades, from an evil stereotype to actual humans with big problems and darkness in their soul. The vampire legend has been totally restructured within my lifetime. And they’re everywhere. “Twilight”’s sparkly vampires, Buffy, Sookie Stackhouse--they all play a role in this change. So, in honor of “True Blood,” which returns to HBO for a 12-episode third season beginning on Sunday, June 13 at 9 p.m. ET, I’m posting a quick summary of vampire lore and the way it’s changed, including some famous names and some commentary.

A Short History of Vampires

Vampire lore has been around since prehistory, in cultures all over the world. The first written reference to a vampire came in 1047, in a document referring to a Russian prince. Vlad the Impaler, also known today as Dracula, lived in the 1400s. Between then and 1897, a number of hysterical vampire outbreaks took place--in East Prussia, Hungary, Wallachia, England and other places. And a number of books, treatises, poems and even operas about the topic were published, including Goethe’s Bride of Corinth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Christabel (the first vampire poem in English), Lord Byron’s The Giaour and Robert Southey’s Thalaba. John Polidori wrote the first vampire story in English in 1819. Even Alexandre Dumas got in on the act with a theatrical drama called “Le Vampire,” and Rudyard Kipling’s The Vampire was influential in creating the vampire stereotype.

But it wasn’t until Bram Stoker published Dracula in England (1897) that things really heated up. With the advent of motion pictures in the early 1900s, vampires made the transition to the big screen. Possibly the first vampire movie was “The Secrets of House No. 5” from 1912, but in 1920 the first film based on Dracula was made in Russia (no copies survive). Then came a Hungarian version in 1921, and German-made “Nosferatu” in 1922, and a stage version in 1924, and a Sherlock Holmes vampire story also in 1924, and another stage version in 1927, followed by more books. A Spanish version of Dracula was released in 1931, and an American version with Bela Lugosi premiered that same year.

Several more vampire movies, books and stage versions trickled into the media during the following decades. Vampires were actually banned by the Comics Code from comic books in 1954 (for a time, anyway). In 1961, the first Korean adaptation of Dracula, called “The Bad Flower,” was released. “The Munsters” and “The Addams Family” from 1964 were the first TV shows to feature vampire characters, followed by "Dark Shadows” in 1966 (Barnabas appeared in 1967). The comic book Vampirella appeared in 1969. “The Night Stalker” appeared in 1972, and that year vampire martial arts films started to appear in Hong Kong.

Then came 1976, the year Anne Rice published Interview with a Vampire. This turned out to be another milestone, and her vampire Lestat has been influential for a whole new generation of vampire fans. Since the mid-1980s and early 1990s when her writing was starting to become widely read, there’s been a veritable explosion of vampire books, TV shows, movies and novels, lasting to the present day.

Game Changers

Bram Stoker: The stereotypical vampire that we know, featuring garlic and crucifixes and wooden stakes and all that, comes largely from Stoker‘s description and the way he culled together information from old legends. He’s the one who created the fangs, the unusual strength, the pale skin, bad breath and cold body. It’s thanks to him that modern day vampires can’t enter homes without an invitation, that they can’t see themselves in mirrors, that they only come out at night, transform into animals and that they sleep in coffins. Naturally Stoker didn’t create Dracula out of thin air, and he did a lot of research to create such a creature. But what we think of as the modern vampire myth was developed largely by him.

Barnabas Collins: Introduced during the second year of the Gothic daytime soap opera “Dark Shadows,” the character of Barnabas quickly became the show’s main character. In a storyline which spanned centuries, his character was given depth and complexity. He was not an evil guy, despite his diet of blood. He had morals, he loved, and he was a victim. Barnabas was one of the first, if not the first, vampires to show sensitivity and goodness along with darkness.

Anne Rice: You can argue that it’s mainly Anne Rice’s works that have led to the resurgence of vampires in popular culture, and she helped complete their transformation from unabashedly evil creatures to flawed, complex beings. She introduced Lestat de Lioncourt in her 1976 book Interview with the Vampire, creating a rich New Orleans-based vampire culture with both good and evil vampire characters. She created a vampire community and explored the morality of vampires in a way that hadn’t been done before. Her vampires deviated from the Stoker stereotype in that they have no problem with religious symbols.

Today’s Vampire

These days, most of the vampires you’ll see on TV, novels and in the movies deviate in several ways from the stereotype. They can walk around in daylight with sunglasses, like Edward in “Twilight.” They exist alongside humans and drink animal blood from special bars. They enjoy nightclubs. They live in societies alongside humans, or they choose to be outcasts. They still have super-strength, but most of them don’t transform into animals or need to sleep in a coffin. They are people instead of monsters.

Here’s the thing. Good stories are all about conflict. Any playwright or fiction writer worth his salt will tell you that. Those old-school vampires like Count Dracula, they definitely caused conflict, but they were also rather one-dimensional. They were evil because they needed to drink blood to live. But vampires have changed to suit our modern sensibility. We’re more sophisticated than we used to be, and we find the old vampire stereotypes to be limiting when it comes to telling stories with human interest. We currently live in a character-driven media landscape, and we know that people aren’t all good or all evil. We’ve all got some light and some darkness within us. It’s that conflict within vampires that makes them so fascinating. To me, this recent transformation in the story of the vampire is important because it reflects the change in us.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to J. Gordon Melton’s The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead for historical information included in this article.

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