No matter what Twilight says, vampires are some of the scariest creatures to grace pop culture and color our imaginations. Vampirism as an idea has existed for hundreds of years and dates back to the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans. However, the vampires we know today come from a far more recent source: 18th-century Europe. In fiction, poetry and short stories such as John William Polidori’s The Vampyre shared stories of vampires created from the souls of evil beings or being bitten by an existing vampire. To their credit, these legends became so pervasive that in some areas it caused mass hysteria and public executions of people accused of being vampires.
As time went on, vampires became more fearsome with the addition of fangs, vulnerability to sunlight, and transforming into bats. No depiction of vampires in fiction has been as influential as Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. Its portrayal of vampirism as a contagious disease struck a chord in Victorian Europe where tuberculosis and syphilis ran rampant. Eventually, the vampire described in Stoker’s work dominated folklore and created the modern vampire we now know.
In 1927, Dracula was first brought to life on Broadway by Bela Lugosi’s performance and it became an instant success. With those three simple drawn-out words, “I am…Dracula”, coupled with Lugosi’s transformation from vampire to bat and back, a legend was born. This legend was soon immortalized on the big screen as Lugosi reprised his role in the 1931 film by the same name and now, almost every vampire legend owes some of it’s life to Dracula.
Alongside of these, an unauthorized adaptation of Dracula called Nosferatu was released. Various names and other details were changed: “vampire” became “Nosferatu” and “Count Dracula” became “Count Orlok”, but the story remained largely the same. As a silent film, the physical performances were incredible. With his a gaunt face and impossibly long, taloned fingers, slinking around like something out your worst nightmare, this vampire was a monster without equal.
From there, vampires exploded into popular culture. Dracula was remade and followed by seven film sequels, and hundreds of vampire films followed. With each film, the vampire became scarier in new ways. These diverse characters include an African Count in Blacula, immortal biker boys who “never grew up” in The Lost Boys, and a half-man, half-vampire who protects the human race from the undead who roam the night in Blade and Blade II. In 30 Days of Night, vampires overrun an Alaskan town where they can escape the sun and prey on the townspeople and in From Dusk Till Dawn, two bank robbers seeking shelter stumble into a bar where everyone from the bartenders to the house band become blood-hungry vampires at a moment’s notice.
Literature has also extensively explored the world of vampires. In Anne Rice’s break-out novel Interview With a Vampire, a reporter sat down with a 200 year-old vampire to get his story. This book and her others have gone on to sell nearly 100 million copies. One of the modern masters of horror, Stephen King, also had a place for vampires throughout his fictional multiverse in the novels Salem’s Lot, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, and The Dark Tower.
Vampires have also had an impact on the small screen. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was more a lifestyle than just a TV series. A young cheerleader, thrown into being a vampire slayer, has to fight against soulless, undead demons that had possessed human corpses and fed on human blood. In the long-running HBO’s True Blood, a small town waitress falls in love with a vampire after the invention of a synthetic blood allows vampires to “come out of the coffin” and mingle with humans.
Throughout the decades, vampires have interacted with humans in hundreds of ways, from feeding on them to falling in love with them. However, what hasn’t changed is that they fascinate us by horrifying us. Just as the people living in 18th century England feared, vampires could be walking among the living, waiting to feed on an unsuspecting victim without us ever noticing their presence and perhaps that is the most terrifying thought of all.