Building a Better Predator: Vampires
The Horror Subcultures Across Media
In today’s installment of Zen and the Art of Screaming, we take a deep dive into the origins of vampires—how they originated as an Eastern European myth, to how they came to represent “the Other,” to how the evolved into sexy supernatural beings in modern media offerings.
The vampire has not always been in the form it is today. Everybody knows about Dracula with the tuxedo and the capes, and everybody knows the sexy vampire with Anne Rice’s characters such as Lestat, Adam, Louis, and others, but what about before? Let’s go back, back to where this myth actually came from: Vampyrs. In its earliest incarnation, it was an Eastern European myth, centered in Romania and Yugoslavia. The prevalent mythos was of evil creatures rising from the dead to spread disease and to feed on the lifeblood of their families called Strigoi [ 1 ]. They were hideous, incestuous monsters literally draining the life from their living relatives, returning to life from the power of their own evil intent.
That myth has stayed strong to this day in that region. There was a case in 2003 in the remote village of Marotinu de Sus in Romania where a family believed a man’s spirit was not at rest so they “enacted an ancient Romanian ritual” [ 2 ]. Believing that the man was a Strigoi, they cut out his heart, burnt it to ashes, and then drank a potion made for them to cure or to put to rest a vampire they believed was preying on the community [ 2 ]. This happened in not the 17th or the 18th century, but in our own modern day. In a time where we have cell phones and cars that drive themselves, we have people digging up bodies, cutting out their hearts, and burning them. So just imagine how a Romanian would react when Vlad Tepes, one of their ancestral folk heroes, was turned into one of those monsters [ 3 ].
We will return to Dracula in just a moment. As discussed previously, creatures and symbols evolve. Vampires began as a symbol of fear of disease, of a plague of the past coming back to haunt you, and the fear of being under the control of evil relatives. Sometimes they are also symbols of the fear of death, as there have been many recorded cases to this day of what are called vampire burials [ 4 ]. This is similar to the works of Edgar Allan Poe, who very strongly expressed a concern for being buried alive. These fears gave rise to traditions such as poking the body with a pin or placing a mirror under their nose to see it would fog.
Evolved at exactly the same time that Mary Shelly created the iconic story Frankenstein, a fellow by the name of James Malcolm Rymer created a character for the Penny Dreadfuls. As the predecessor of pulp magazines, these publications were like the tabloids of the day. They were cheaply printed stories on poor quality paper circulated for a very low cost, basically a form of entertainment for the masses. Rymer invented a character called Varney the Vampire, the first instance of the vampire as an aristocratic figure [ 5 ]. Now Varney the Vampire, for all his historical value, was portrayed as somewhat buffoonish and was played more for comedy than drama or horror, but he was one of the first vampires to see print.
From those origins of having been aristocracy, being foreign, evil, taking our jobs and stealing our womenfolk arose the first vampire as sex symbol: Dracula, the alluring foreign aristocrat who came to their country to literally drain the life blood from it. You can see the modern age analog in much of the current conservative rhetoric that casts Central and South American migrants in the exact same role. It hits all the keynotes: foreign, stealing our jobs, and bringing drug-fueled violence to the country.
Dracula and Sexuality in Vampirism
It is no accident in that in Dracula, the vampire focus is on a married Englishwoman. Monsters, it seems, are used for morality plays all the time. Mina Murray’s friend Lucy falls prey first because she is a wastrel and is not a “good girl.” Her lack of virtue causes her to fall afoul and become under the sway of Dracula [ 6 ]. Such a story is not new; we’ve seen it a thousand times. Each era sees the vampire take on a new form, to reflect the fears and the transgressions of whatever age they are in, and the Victorian era settled on the unsettling sexuality of the Other.
This is going to be where we focus on the works of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and his creation, Carmilla [ 7 ]. Carmilla Karnstein was the epitome of the vampire. She is from an old and mysterious house that has long since fallen into ruin. She preys upon the innocent young girl, by literally throwing herself in front of the carriage that they are driving in to be taken in. In this way she circumvents the requirement of vampires have to be invited in, an important part of the vampiric identity. Carmilla represents the transgression of the lesbian vampire. If the womenfolk are up to no good we need to watch them, keep them under our boot, lest they get up to unacceptable behavior like being lesbians and not needing men.
Carmilla as a character has resonated deeply over the years; there have been several films made of her and there are even YouTube channels dedicated to her. She’s inspired countless works of art thanks to her enduring symbol of transgression against the social norm. She is a personal favorite of mine among the vampires because she is unapologetically what she is, a fine example of the evolution of the vampire over time, and how sex appeal can be parlayed into slowly evolving into a better predator.
In an interesting note, the Netflix series Castlevania, an adaptation of the video game series, taps into this rich tradition of early vampire stories. In addition to Dracula himself being a core antagonist in the series, other vampire characters central to the plot happen to be named Carmilla and Varney. Such choices by Castlevania writer Warren Ellis are undoubtedly not a coincidence [ 8 ][ 9 ].
Moving ahead a few years from where Dracula was in print, we come to the point where the vampire would find his way into film [ 10 ]. Everyone of course is very familiar with Bela Lugosi’s work, and that Lugosi went to great personal effort to make sure that the film saw the light of day. Bram Stoker’s widow was notoriously unenthusiastic of people besides her late husband having anything to do with Dracula. She didn’t want them to touch it as she didn’t want anything to mar that legacy. This lead to an emphatic “no” anytime someone asked her for the film rights to the story. There was, however, a stage play in which Lugosi starred that had her permission; the film we have today is based on that stage play [ 11 ].
However, not every production met with such success, largely due to the fact that Lugosi’s charm was quite legendary. Sometime before Dracula was given life, a group of people, led by German actor Max Schreck, did not get permission to create their own version of Dracula, He was going to call the film Dracula but for legal reasons went back to an older name, Nosferatu [ 12 ], which means plague carrier. It is a clear homage to its earliest beginnings, and if anyone viewing the surviving footage of Nosferatu today the image of that creature, a spooky, rat-faced monster, is in keeping with the concept of the vampire being a scary, animated corpse. Also, much of that footage and imagery was used in tabletop roleplaying, with White Wolf creating its Nosferatu clan in Vampire: the Masquerade as a group of grotesquely deformed vampires [ 13 ].
Since Lugosi’s original turn as the dashing count, however, a number of Dracula films have been made with others in the starring role. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both portrayed famous iterations of Dracula in the classic Hammer and Universal monster films, well before their roles in the Star Wars universe. Dracula, in his fictional form, has been seen in cinema, many, many, many times. Yet the progenitor of the fictional Dracula is due to a real man, Vlad Tepes.
A man of deep contradictions, strongly held beliefs, and more than a little bit of psychotic madness, Vlad the Impaler ruled Wallachia, a 14th-century kingdom that today exists in regions of Romania and Transylvania. He was a brilliant tactician who, through sheer intimidation and fear alone, brought the Ottoman Empire to its knees. The Ottomans may have conquered much of the world, but not Wallachia; those haunted mountains, and the win-at-all-costs Vlad Dracula, held their ground [ 3 ]. Most interesting, considering how the vampire myth is tied to being set up in opposition to Christianity, is an ironic twist of fate: Vlad Tepes saw himself as a guardian of Christendom [ 14 ]. He was keeping the foreign Middle-Eastern Muslims out of Europe. The resonance with today’s geopolitical landscape is all too telling; I would not be surprised if we see yet another Dracula film with him being portrayed as a hero fighting off these Middle Eastern forces.
Vampires in Modern Day—Anne Rice and more
The evolution of the vampire has continued into modern day in the hands of Anne Rice, who decided that she was going to make vampires even sexier. Her talents in this are obvious: she made vampires the likes of the depressed vampire Louis de Pointe du Lac and the fabulous Lestat de Lioncourt. Lestat represents a wilder, less controlled example of the aristocracy of his time, exemplified by his words: “we are dark angels, God kills indiscriminately and so shall we” [ 15 ]. Despite his villainy, he has his devoted fans, as his rugged good looks and unabashed wicked ways are attractive to some.
Many, though, prefer Louis, the more sensitive, caring individual, tortured by his own existence (but still ruggedly handsome). This is where something unique happens in the vampire mythos that did not happen previously. Louis feels remorse for his actions; this is a very humanizing element and is a work of brilliance on the part of Rice. To have evolved the character thusly, to have a human conscience, you now have a point of connection to the audience, humanizing him despite him being a monster. In many ways, characterizations in Rice’s vampire novels harken back to another famous vampire from the small screen: Barnabas Collins.
Dark Shadows started as a typical melodramatic soap opera airing in the ’60s and ’70s [ 16 ]. The introduction of the supernatural caused it to become iconic and survive as well as making it a huge deal at the time. They introduced the concepts of witchcraft, ghosts, haunting, time travel, and chthonic entities to the vampire mythos: they hit all the points, and Barnabas was one of the sexiest vampires who ever walked the earth. Barnabas Collins as a character was much beloved, part of which may be due to his unique origin story. Instead of being bitten by a vampire, he became the victim of a witch’s curse as the direct results of his own actions. His conflict with this curse is a running thread throughout the entirety of the series, providing Dark Shadows its life’s blood. Johnny Depp’s characterization in the modern film remake of Dark Shadows captures that pathos, making it is an excellent homage to the original series [ 17 ].
There are many elements in Dark Shadows we see in the classic vampire mythos as we know it, as well as a few new ones. They integrate in being tied to the land and having singular obsessions with reincarnation becoming part of the story, as the vampire has a reincarnated love they are trying to regain. It wasn’t in the original telling mind you, but various film versions of Dracula have him going for Mina not because he was an evil foreigner who wants to take our women but because she is someone he is destined to be with. Even Lugosi’s Dracula was moving away from the villainous aspect of the vampire and towards the heroic, the vampire being in some way a positive thing: a hero, not a villain to be fought against. Dark Shadows clearly shows Barnabas Collins as a protagonist, just as Anne Rice shows Louis and Lestat as protagonists.
When we get into later periods and some of the other versions of the vampire, we see the vampire continuing to evolve to suit the society and the people whose transgressions they represent. Instead of being a monster that causes you to crouch in fear before death, they now offer immortality. They are beings that transcend the grave because of their desire, because their want drives them forward. We even see this in yet another more recent Dracula film, Dracula Untold, in which they attempt to combine the vampire story with the reincarnation angle and some of the actual historical events of the life of Vlad Tepes [ 18 ].
Anne Rice’s work may be considered by many to be the pinnacle of the modern vampire tale however, there have been some very original concepts since. Another brilliant author who is very transgressive and also a genius, Poppy Z. Brite, features vampires that are kind of rough around the edges and not for the weak of heart. He was very influential; his works, such as Lost Souls [ 19 ] and Drawing Blood [ 20 ], often deal with gay or bisexual vampires. While Brite (whose real name is Billy Martin), may have gone into semi-retirement in 2010, stating on his livejournal that he had “completely lost the ability to interact with my body of work,” his work had a lot to say about vampires of “non-mainsteam” sexualities and most definitely did not skimp on the violence as his work is both very graphic and descriptive [ 21 ].
LGBTQ+ themes are not new in vampire fiction, of course. It’s not just Carmilla that transgressed when it came to loving one’s own gender more than the other. Interview with a Vampire is Anne Rice’s take on a gay vampiric romance. The story of Louis, Lestat, and later Armand, where Louis is literally being seduced away by another man who is more worldly and sophisticated is laden with tension. It’s interesting to note that Rice was writing in a time when AIDS and HIV was becoming a disease which people feared. With some mixed results people wanted to keep their head in the sand about both AIDS and being gay.
A certain part of society wanted to say it was a gay only disease; they would lie to themselves and say that it didn’t affect heterosexuals—until it did. Lots of monsters got their power from fear of that. What Anne Rice did with that was take it in a new direction. She didn’t openly proclaim any of her characters’ sexualities, but there were an awful lot of men with strong feelings for other men. These men would sleep in the same beds. Meanwhile, turning someone into a vampire wasn’t just some random curse you threw. It was a very intimate act. It was something where you took them in, made them part of you and you a part of them, very clearly an aspect of intimacy and love was there [ 22 ].
Sympathetic and Comedic Vampires
The final evolution of the vampire, where we see them as protagonist, is present in many cases in young adult or children’s literature. Stories such as the Vampire’s Assistant and Bunnicula, with the latter being a story based on the concept of a vampiric rabbit that drains the juice and color out of fruits and vegetables [ 23 ]. The concept of the vampire has obviously outgrown its transgressive beginnings to being something completely different, part of mainstream culture, a thing that is accepted, the thing that is part of our world, and is portrayed accordingly. There are some very interesting twists and turns with that. With movies like Vampire’s Kiss with Nicolas Cage, we start to see the vampire as the transformative victim [ 24 ]. You see that in a personal favorite one of mine Near Dark, where a young man became enraptured with a lovely young girl who has a slight problem, she happens to be a vampire [ 25 ]. Their solution to solving the vampire problem? Give them a massive transfusion! The film also has one of my favorite lines in a vampire movie that has ever been uttered. One character, Meg, stands, wide-eyed, looking out into the night, and says, “Just listen to it, listen to the night, isn’t she deafening?” [ 25 ].
This inevitably brings us to the most popular and well known modern incarnations of the vampire: the vampires from Twilight [ 26 ]. The story is a polarizing one for many. An ancient vampire hanging out with a high school girl? Once again, this returns to being transgressive. The vampire in this story, however, is not treated as transgressive. He is a vehicle for traditional values. Instead of being a foreigner who takes our married women, he finds a high school girl and encourages her to marry as quickly as possible—and if you don’t marry, sex will kill you. The point of existence in the world of Twilight becomes finding the most attractive, interesting, powerful man you can and marry him. That’s what Edward Cullen is about. The sunlight doesn’t burn him anymore; the sign of their transgression, that the sun, the pure and holy thing which would cause them to flee, to burn, and to suffer, now makes them sparkle and shine and display his light for all to see.
It becomes clear that the symbolism has shifted. He is no longer the transgressor but the standard bearer for what is considered to be a conservative, correct, just, and true tradition. Thus he has evolved to its ultimate form where you no longer flee or have a moment’s hesitation, but open your arms wide to it and say, “You are the past. We wish to embrace the illusory past that we thought we had. You are it.” We take you in and offer our sons and daughters to you.
That’s how it has evolved, because monsters always evolve. They look at Twilight and they deride the fact that Edward Cullen sparkles. But they don’t see it for the symbol it is. Sunlight doesn’t burn him. It causes him to revel, it causes him to sparkle like a gem, like a diamond, like a thing to be desired. That’s where that story goes.
So what’s in the future for the vampire? What will their next evolution be? They have found their way into our high schools, our homes, and into the hearts of our sons and daughters. It may go back to where it started, Disease is a thing we still fear and there is a lot of distrust and disdain between the generations. I don’t know if the vampire can survive being a millennial. That troubled generation has problems that vampires don’t have: vampires are rarely shown as poor. That’s why Near Dark was so unique; they showed vampires as poor, as struggling, living in hotels and stealing cars. They weren’t wealthy aristocrats but people like us, people without means. Truth be told they were evil people, they were people-eating people, but they were still like us. That aspect of them, and the interpersonal relationships between the various vampires, made the story quite memorable. What will the vampire be in the future? I don’t know, but I’ll know it when I see it.
- “With its airships and pulp fantasy motif, the setting is a compelling one that continues to draw in fans of JRPGs and anime.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/vampire-night-sky-bloodsucker-327357083 (“vampire in the night sky, bloodsucker of the night“). Shutterstock. Svetlana Rib.
- “The progenitor of most ‘Hollywood’ vampires, Vlad Tepes, as the figure who inspired Bram Stoker’s narrative, was a far more gruesome figure than the sanitized depiction.” Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vlad_tepes.jpg
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
- “7 Blood-Thirsty Facts about Europe’s Real-Life Vampires.” Mental Floss, Dennis Publishing, mentalfloss.com/article/68886/7-blood-thirsty-facts-about-europes-real-life-vampires. Accessed 18 June 2021.
- McLaughlin, Daniel. “A Village Still in Thrall to Dracula.” The Guardian, Guardian Media Group, 19 June 2005, www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/19/theobserver.
- Pallardy, Richard. “Vlad the Impaler”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Jan. 2021, www.britannica.com/biography/Vlad-the-Impaler.
- Ghose, Tia. “Mystery of ‘Vampire’ Burials Solved.” Live Science, Future US Inc, 26 Nov. 2014, www.livescience.com/48924-mystery-of-vampire-burials-solved.html.
- Sutherland, Doris V. “Varney the Vampire: A Penny Dreadful Pioneer.” Women Write about Comics, 26 Oct. 2016, womenwriteaboutcomics.com/2016/10/varney-the-vampire-a-penny-dreadful-pioneer/.
- SparkNotes Editors. “Dracula: Lucy Westenra.” SparkNotes.com, SparkNotes LLC, 2005, www.sparknotes.com/lit/dracula/character/lucy-westenra/.
- Le Fanu, Joseph Sheridan. In a Glass Darkly. 1872. Oxford, Benediction Classics, 14 Oct. 2010.
- “Carmilla.” Castlevania: The Inverted Dungeon, inverteddungeon.com/index.php?section=bios&page=carmilla. Accessed 19 Sept. 2021.
- Saavedra, John. “Castlevania: Who Is Varney?” Den of Geek, 14 May 2021, denofgeek.com/tv/castlevania-varney-malcolm-mcdowell.
- Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning, Universal Pictures, 14 Feb. 1931.
- Rutigliano, Olivia. “The Copyright Battle That Gave Cinematic Life to Dracula.” CrimeReads, Grove Atlantic and Electric Literature, 26 May 2020, crimereads.com/mystery-history-dracula/.
- Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Directed by F.M Murnau, Prana Film and Film Arts Guild, 4 May 1922.
- “Vampire: The Masquerade – Clans.” World of Darkness, worldofdarkness.com/vampire-the-masquerade-clans#nosferatu. Accessed 17 Apr. 2022.
- Thehistorywriter. “Prince Vlad ‘the Impaler’: A Brief History of the Real ‘Dracula.’” The History Writer Blog, WordPress, 30 Oct. 2014, historywriterblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/vlad-prince-the-impaler-a-brief-history-of-the-real-dracula/.
- Rice, Anne. Interview with the Vampire. New York, Knopf, 6 May 1976.
- Dark Shadows. Produced by Robert Costello, Staring Jonathan Frid, ABC, 1966-1971.
- Dark Shadows. Directed by Tim Burton, Warner Bros., 11 May 2012.
- Dracula Untold. Directed by Gary Shore, Universal Pictures, 10 Oct. 2014.
- Brite, Poppy Z. Lost Souls. New York, Delacorte Press, 1992.
- Brite, Poppy Z. Drawing Blood. New York, Delacorte Press, Abyss, 1993.
- Martin, Billy. “I’m Basically Retired (for Now).” Dispatches from Tanganyika the Online Journal of Billy Martin, Formerly Poppy Z. Brite, 9 June 2010, docbrite.livejournal.com/2010/06/09/.
- McBride, Kelly. “Anne Rice and the Making of a Modern Vampire.” Sublime Horror, 22 Sept. 2019, sublimehorror.com/books/anne-rice-making-of-a-modern-vampire/.
- Howe, Deborah, et al. Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery. New York, Atheneum Books For Young Readers, 2010.
- Vampire’s Kiss. Directed by Robert Bierman, Hemdale, 17 Sept. 1988.
- Near Dark. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 3 Oct. 1987.
- Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. Bk. 1. New York, Little, Brown And Co, 2005.