Picture this: You’re sitting at a table in a candlelit room. A woman in a deep red dress sits across from you, holding a glass of what seems to be wine or, at least, what you hope is wine. Even in the darkness, the liquid looks a bit too bright, too thick to be just a good vintage. She strokes the onyx teardrop pendant of a lace choker wrapped tightly around her deathly pale neck. She seems amused by you. Now, roll a Wisdom saving throw.
What you’ve just read is a custom opening to a heavily altered version of Curse of Strahd, a gothic horror story for the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition that sends players to Barovia, an alternate dimension shrouded in perpetual darkness. It’s basically a re-skinned version of the Transylvania we see in pop culture with a much more terrifying vampire eager to ‘romance’ other characters in the game.
The titular Strahd von Zarovich is an undead warlord that ticks off all the boxes for a sociopath. He’s handsome, eloquent, and appears to be the perfect gentleman. That is, until the characters, who are often female, refuse his advances. He then reveals himself to be the monstrous creature he has been all along, unraveling in a fit of narcissistic rage that’s determined to see characters destroyed if he can’t have them.
Interestingly, the vampire is also the subject of actual romance novels. Compared to Strahd, Edward Cullen of the Twilight series is portrayed as an almost angelic figure that glows in the sunlight, fighting against his beastly urges to become a better vampire for Bella Swan. He’s one of the most popular vampires of the 21st century, the vast majority of which are increasingly portrayed as troubled souls finding their way back to the light or, at least, as morally gray heroes like Blade.
But why the big change? Most importantly, what is it about the vampire that has kept it in our cultural awareness, simmering in the darkness of our collective nightmares, for centuries?
The Bloody Origins of the Vampire
To paraphrase Matthew Beresford, author of From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, our cultural fear of the vampire’s possible existence is even more important than the actual existence of the vampire itself.
We see the first signs of vampirism taking hold of the public consciousness as early as the pre-historic era. There are no new ideas, as the saying goes, and the vampire is one of them. The origins of the vampire are rooted in a mix of burial rituals, supernatural explanations of the unexplainable, and, much later, cautionary tales regarding sexuality, particularly female sexuality.
Think about our modern burial rites for a second. We bury the dead six feet in the ground and bring them flowers at least once a year. Funerals and the practice of giving graves offerings are just a way for us modern folk to process our grief and pay our respects to a person’s legacy. But our death rituals aren’t all that feel good. At a deeper level, they are manifestations of our existential fear of our own death, a fear of contracting disease, and a fear of the undead.
Stretching as far back as the Neolithic period, our ancestors would place cairns, stacks of stones that would later transform into the modern tombstone, atop graves as a way to seal souls to their final resting place. The dead would also be buried with food, valuables, and personal belongings in order to keep their spirits pacified.
Moving forward to the Roman period, people would bury pariahs, criminals, and other unsavory outcasts at crossroads with the goal of confusing them. This may have been to prevent the spirits of the deceased from getting their revenge on the community that’s kept them on its fringes. This theme of the undead being solitary would follow later iterations of the vampire who is often depicted alone, in a dark dreary castle like the one in Dracula.
As much as we loved our deceased family members, it seems we feared them coming home more.
Speaking of home, there’s a common pop culture misconception that the vampire originates in Romania. But according to The Vampire: Origins of a European Myth the vampire, at least in the west, doesn’t even start out in Transylvania nor in the neighboring Balkans. Instead, the vampire first takes form in 12th century England.
The steady growth of Christianity in the Middle Ages supported the belief in a split between the soul and the body, an idea that lent itself to the concept of a monster whose body continued to terrorize the living long after it has lost its humanity. As Christianity attempted to reconcile the the certainty of death with the promise of an afterlife, fears of not being able to pass on properly intermingled with the draugr, a creature brought by Norwegian Vikings around 870 A.D. The draugr were living corpses that weren’t like the ghosts and spirits the local English were accustomed to but weren’t quite living people, despite the fact that they had animated bodies.
Like the Romans, Norwegian Vikings believed that the spirits of the wicked would return to terrorize them. Yet instead of burying their dead at a crossroads, the Vikings gave us one of the first canonical ways to kill a vampire: burning its corpse.
Why burn the undead? More common-sense solutions to a being of pure evil would be holy water, the rosary, or screaming, “The power of Christ compels you!” at Nosferatu. But these solutions assume that the vampire only poses a spiritual threat.
As we move into the 19th century, when the modern vampire really takes off, the monster’s associations with disease make it the most real and most defined of any supernatural creature to date.
The Vampire Myth as a Disease
No other monster is as well-documented as the vampire.
In “Letter to Beaumont“, a response to the then Archbishop of Paris, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau writes, “If there is a well-attested history in the world, it is that of the Vampires. Nothing is missing from it: interrogations, certifications by Notables, Surgeons, Parish Priests, Magistrates…And with all that, who believes in Vampires?”
The vampire myth is more than a story of folklore; it’s also a story of how our understanding of disease has changed over the years. Though the vampire appears too supernatural to be true, its traits and origins are intimately connected to some of the most influential diseases in history.
First and foremost of these is rabies, a virus that spreads through the bite of infected animals. Vampires share this pathological origin with the zombie, another creature that’s known for spreading its undeadness through its bite. Rabies can be found in the European bat, an animal that vampires are known for shape shifting into.
In his paper Rabies: a possible explanation for the vampire legend, Dr. Gomez-Alonso makes several connections between the rabies epidemic of Hungary in the 1720s and the meteoric rise to fame of the vampire in the following decades.
For one, rabies made its victims highly sensitive to strong stimuli. These include bright sunlight, the smell of garlic, and their own appearance in mirrors. All of these are what we understand today as classic vampire traits, hence the warding off of vampires with cloves of garlic.
The disease also led further credence to the vampire myth by making its sufferers prone to nocturnal habits. People with rabies would sometimes have a hard time sleeping, leaving them awake and active throughout the night.
Lastly, the rabies theory of the vampire’s origins explains why literature, art, and movies seem so inclined to depicting the vampire as a man and his prey as a woman: rabies affected men more often than it did women. According to the doctor, the difference could be as much as seven times that of the rates of female rabies infections.
The vampire myth wouldn’t stay in Europe, though. When European settlers arrived in the New World, they brought their beliefs in Christ as much as they brought their fear of the vampire. By this time, the vampire changes shape from undead shambler to a gaunt figure haunting the decks of ships in the form of a disease that was once called consumption.
If you’re not big on gothic or Victorian literature, you might know consumption by its modern name: tuberculosis.
Following the heels of the Salem Witch trials was a wave of paranoia about vampirism. Retired Connecticut state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni told History, “Consumptives lost weight, coughed up blood, their skin turned ashen and sometimes died a slow death—almost as if something was ‘sucking the life’ out of them.”
This slow and highly visual death in which a person with tuberculosis wasted away fueled suspicions that they were being fed upon by vampires. It’s a convenient enough explanation, given the lack of a known cause for the disease at the time. Fearful locals would then exhume the bodies of suspected vampires, most notable of which was Mercy Brown. The young woman was found having supposedly ‘grown’ longer fingernails and remaining suspiciously preserved.
In Van Helsing style, the Rhode Island locals tore out her heart and burned it before making one of her supposed victims consume the ashes. He still died of course, but you have to admit that was pretty metal.
The last documented vampire exhumation in New England took place in 1892 thanks to the valiant efforts of physicians who figured out that it was cold, damp environments that were making people get tuberculosis, in addition to the germs they didn’t know about yet.
But of the diseases associated with the vampire myth, porphyria, a disease of the blood, is the closest to the creature’s often aristocratic heritage.
Porphyria is a disease caused by the buildup of porphyrin, a chemical crucial to red blood cells, in the body. It’s porphyrin that gives red blood cells the ability to carry oxygen. When it doesn’t work as it should, porphyria begins to affect the nervous system in ways that are strikingly similar to rabies. It also made a new contribution to the vampire myth: porphyria made one’s gums recede, giving the appearance of fangs.
The difference between porphyria and rabies? Porphyria was no commoner’s disease. While rabies could be contracted with an unfortunate encounter with a bat, porphyria is a rare genetic disorder. It’s rarity is due to it being recessive, meaning that you’d have to have two defective copies of a gene to develop it. This meant that families prone to inbreeding were often the only ones who would suffer from porphyria. Notable porphyria sufferers included George III and Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria. This is roughly around the time we see the first appearances of what would become the modern vampire in gothic literature.
Of course, the vampire is more than just a creature to be feared. The dashing, mysterious monster is an object of sexual desire, a seducer of women that turns modest ladies into sex-starved fiends.
Medical professionals and literature experts alike have put forward the idea that Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a metaphor for syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that slowly consumes the flesh, as if it were a retribution for its sin of lust.
Vampirism in media is portrayed as an erotic act. Compared to the unwilling screams of zombie victims, the victims of the vampire are lured in by its charm. There’s a certain, undeniably sexual slant to the vampire’s bite. It is an act of taking and consuming the humanity, and therefore purity, of the victim.
Just take a look at this scene from the 1992 Dracula. In it, Lucy Westenra flits out into the gardens in a haze, covered in only the sheerest of red robes. She fixes her hair with one sensual sweep of her arm, walking in a way that can only be called a leisurely saunter towards a lover. It doesn’t feel like she’s going to die, no matter how much Winona Ryder panics.
When she and Dracula finally find each other in the privacy of a hedge maze, Mina Harker finds them on a stone bench, in a very compromising position.
You see, romance with vampires isn’t something Stephenie Meyer invented. As the vampire myth begins to fully take form, its dark romanticism becomes just as central to its character as the more terrifying aspects of its existence is.
We have Lord Byron to thank for that.
The Birth of the Romantic Vampire
Get Vlad the Impaler out of your head. Though the infamous Romanian noble gave his name to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, there’s nothing else about his personality that feeds into the vampire myth. In fact, Vlad III Dracula had never even set foot in Bran Castle, let alone lived there.
No, the honor of being the template for the modern vampire is a person you probably didn’t expect, the poet George Gordon Byron.
The modern vampire and the modern zombie share a birthplace: a villa on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The summer of 1816 was meant to be a fun vacation for the group of writers that had gathered in the villa, but as the weather became inexplicably dark and dreary, the general mood of the party dropped. Perfect weather and atmosphere for horror.
Among the distinguished guests at Villa Diodati were Lord Byron himself, John Polidori, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary’s step-sister Claire. Inclement weather forced the Shelleys to stay for three days.
As a way to liven things up, the charismatic Lord Byron invited his guests write their own ghost stories, an activity that would serve to betray their own fears and personal character flaws.
Mary Shelley, who was still Mary Godwin at the time, was the most successful of the group, coming out of the three day period with Frankenstein. This heralded the birth of the science fiction genre. But another terrible beauty was born in the throes of those three stormy days: the modern vampire.
For his story, Lord Byron came up with The Burial: A Fragment of a Novel which features an English aristocrat who ends up in hot water with Turkish vampires. John Polidori would then take that fragment of a novel and meld it with his own vision of Lord Byron. Polidori was likely gay or, at the very least, bisexual. This lens through which he saw Byron amped up the sex appeal of the creature he would create in The Vampyre.
Lord Byron’s The Burial starred Augustus Darvell as its hero, a moody British aristocrat who wouldn’t be out of place in a Dark Academia mood board. Together with a friend, who is wholly enthralled by Augustus, he sets off to Turkey where he dies in a way that is just like the disintegration process that vampires go through in the sunlight. Unless you’re one of Meyer’s vampires, of course.
Polidori’s novel The Vampyre also starts off with an intense male friendship between Aubrey and Lord Ruthven. They’re both men of high society but Ruthven’s misogynistic way of using women as sexual objects before tossing them aside disgusts Aubrey until he no longer finds Ruthven the dashing young man he had initially thought him to be. More so when Ruthven seduces his sister and kills her by draining her blood.
In what seems to be a show of self-awareness on Lord Byron’s part, both versions keep the image of the vampire as a sexually virile creature that ensnares its prey with the promise of love before taking from them everything that they hold dear.
Psychoanalyzing the Vampire
In A Psychoanalysis of the Vampire Myth, Steven Kimberley explores the psychological degradation surrounding the vampire, an aspect that runs adjacent to its associations with disease.
Our collective recollection of myths, it appears, is never static and while Byron and his fellow writers gave the vampire a name, the creature had already taken shape in our minds in the form of ‘schemas’. Schemas are psychological frames through which we structure the world we live in. It shapes how we make value judgments and how we form our opinions. As we continue to recall the vampire, we each reconstruct our schemas of it with alterations that suit the social mores of the times.
It’s an idea that bears a heavy resemblance to Carl Jung’s archetypes, the primordial concept we have of ideas, images, and states of being that we all share through the misty soup of our collective consciousness. The Victorian era’s emphasis on female chastity and the dangers that hunt down women, even in so-called high society, unveil the vampire for what it really is: a malignant sociopath.
‘Sociopath‘ is a term used for persons with antisocial personality disorder. Though not all persons with ASPD actively seek to destroy other people’s lives, there’s a certain eeriness to the ones that do that make them little different from the vampire. The bloodsucking creature is a human-looking, charismatic being that plays tricks on its victims’ minds. The sociopath does the same but without the telepathic powers. Both of them appear human, yet neither display genuine humanity.
In this way, Stephenie Meyer’s vampire is actually a massive break from the vampire tradition. But viewed in the light, or better yet, darkness, of what a vampire truly is, Twilight is a terrifying development in the evolution of the vampire, further encouraging romances with its kind.
In his foreword to Curse of Strahd, Tracy Hickman writes, “The romantic vampire…was not just a spouse abuser but a spouse killer…a selfish beast forever lurking behind a mask of tragic romance, the illusion of redemption that was ever only camouflage for his prey.”
To Tracy Hickman, the vampire represents a cruel lie that “if you love a monster enough, it will change.”
Yet not all vampires are modeled after this template of abuse. For that, we need only to look at Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla.
The Hidden Face of the Vampire Myth
Carmilla is a classic gothic novella of the vampire genre. It runs in the same vein as Stoker’s Dracula; or at least, it would, if it were not published 26 years earlier. It’s Dracula that follows in Carmilla‘s footsteps.
Carmilla is an explicitly homoromantic piece of literature centered on the dangerous entanglement between the titular Carmilla and Laura, the sheltered daughter of a wealthy Englishman. Laura longs for female company, the platonic kind, at first, and meets the beautiful Carmilla after a carriage accident outside their house gives her a pretense to live with them.
It goes through the typical motions of a vampire novel. Young women start falling ill and dying in the town after Carmilla’s arrival and Laura begins to have strange dreams of being bitten by a black cat.
As time goes on, Laura deteriorates and the only way to save her is to destroy Carmilla in her tomb. The men of the story, woefully incompetent compared to the guys’ team in Dracula, manage to stab Carmilla with a wooden stake, burning her head and body afterward.
You would expect Laura to make a complete recovery afterward, but she doesn’t. Instead, she remains shaken from the experience, a heavy pall of grief never leaving her. We get a real sense that the two may have truly been in love and that Carmilla held genuine romantic feelings for Laura, despite her monstrous nature. Even more surprising is the author’s non-judgment. Sheridan Le Fanu never bats an eye about his characters’ sexuality, writing fondly:
“I am sure, Carmilla, you have been in love; that there is, at this moment, an affair of the heart going on.”
“I have been in love with no one, and never shall,” she whispered, “unless it should be with you.”
Following Dracula‘s very straight-laced interpretation of the vampire, the film Dracula’s Daughter would attempt to bring back the homosexual themes of the vampire myth, albeit with censorship. But it was to no avail as following hits in the genre would be predominantly straight, keeping the sexuality of the vampire myth while stripping it of its LGBTQ+ roots.
Today, the ever-changing form of the vampire continues to shapeshift to fit our social climate. The lesbian vampire reappears in the web series Carmilla, in an era where women loving women isn’t as scandalous as it used to be, no longer needing to be buried in subtext. The vampire myth also rematerializes in I Am Legend as a lens for which to view the psychological impact of a global pandemic.
The vampire myth is a cautionary tale about the horrors of domestic abuse, the dangers of unchecked diseases, and the pain of love forced to hide in the shadows. Tomorrow, it will be something else, taking the shape of the world’s newest evils.
Perhaps that’s the secret to the vampire’s immortality.
Monsters aren’t obsolete. In fact, we’re creating new ones. Get acquainted with the newcomers in this list of Creepypasta horror characters.