THE WILD EVOLUTION OF VAMPIRES, FROM BRAM STOKER TO DRACULA UNTOLD
As we’ve discussed here before, the tropes that define fantasy and horror literature are fluid, which is exactly why they persist. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, aliens, witches, ghosts—for several centuries, these archetypes have figured prominently in genre fiction, in no small part because they’ve adapted to suit the specific needs (and fears) of society at any given time.
The vampire in particular has had quite a colorful tenure. Vampiric creatures and spirits date at least as far back as Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, but the vampire as we know it emerged in the early 1700s, when natives and foreigners alike began recording the folklore and superstitions of the Balkans, that cluster of eastern European countries that would become home to the most famous vampire of all time: Count Dracula.
The latest adaptation of a vampire myth, Dracula Untold, arrives in theaters tomorrow. Its Vlad the Impaler-centric plot, like many popular origin stories of late, gives the first Count (Luke Evans) a sympathetic origin story: making a Faustian bargain with demon Caligula (played fittingly by Tywin Lannister, a.k.a. Charles Dance) to save his family from Turkish Sultan Mehmed II (played maybe not quite as fittingly by Dominic Cooper a.k.a. … Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter?). “Men do not fear swords,” the Count says. “They fear monsters. They run from them. By putting one village to the stake I spare 10 more. Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero—sometimes what it needs is a monster.” It’s no longer the monster providing the terror, but the ideology that formed him. On such occasion, it seems only relevant to explore how the vampire arrived at this particular (and CGI-heavy moment) in time. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?
Carmilla, Carmilla and The Karnstein Trilogy, 1871, 1960, 1964, 1970
Creator: Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu Archetype: Lesbian Vampire
Historical Context: Le Fanu’s lesbian lady-vamp novella came to fruition at a time when the British empire was full-tilt obsessed with morality. Sex and sexuality weren’t necessarily repressed—it was (weirdly) understood at that time that both men and women enjoyed sex—but conversation surrounding the topic was often incredibly euphemistic. Still, homosexual acts had been de-listed as a capital offense a decade prior to Carmilla’s publication, and just a year before, psychiatrist Carl Friederich Otto Westphal had published a medical paper describing “contrary sexual feeling” in two male patients, thus classifying homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder (though it wouldn’t be named until 1895). Carmilla, the immortal bloodsucking namesake of this story, about a secluded father and daughter and what happens when they take in a seemingly ill stranger as a young companion for the 18-year-old girl, is explicitly a lesbian; she also walks through walls, shapeshifts into a cat, loathes Christianity and steals the lifeblood of young Laura (as well as other young female victims) in the dead of night, all of which made her the perfect embodiment of the moral terror that gripped readers of that era.
Contribution to the genre:Carmilla is the most obvious counter to the assumption that vampire horror stories began with Bram Stoker. In fact, Western Europe had been raking it in for at least a century before Count Dracula, thanks to terrors stemming from religious misgivings about the crazy amount of imperialism going on at the time. (More on that in a minute.) Remember that summer Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley spent in Lake Geneva with her baby-daddy/future husband Percy and several other writers in 1816, during which she wrote Frankenstein? Poet Lord Byron, also in attendance, and his physician John William Polidori both came away from the summer-long ghost story competition with vampire stories very similar to those later tales credited with the genre’s genesis. Carmilla in particular is notable for the progressive groundwork it laid for LGBT-centric and otherwise liberally sexual vampire lore.
Count Dracula, Dracula, 1897
Creator: Bram Stoker Archetype:The Archetype
Historical Context: For much of the 19th century, the literate English public was transfixed by stories about threats of invasion. Imaginative authors like H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made a killing off stories that involved supernatural beings that menaced the country (see: War of the Worlds). Ironically, this was at the tail end of the Victorian era, a century-long period in which England had been doing pretty much 100% of the actual invading, into countries like India, Argentina, China and Siam (modern-day Thailand).
Contribution to the genre: By most accounts, Stoker’s Count Dracula invented the genre. (Or at least, his was the template most authors thereafter decided to use.) Theories abound when it comes to Stoker’s inspiration for the title character, a hermity, weirdly hairy aristocrat (“scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion…[and hands with] hairs in the centre of the palm”) with pointy ears and teeth and the ability to shapeshift. Most, including the forthcoming Dracula Untold, agree that Vlad the Impaler (Vlad III, prince of Wallachia and son of Vlad II Dracul, a member of the Ottoman Order of the Dragon) gave Dracula his name, but Stoker’s inspirations also may have come in forms ranging from the original Slavic folklore (see: Transylvania) to predecessor Le Fanu’s Carmilla to—yes—Walt Whitman, who had had a profound effect on the author.
Dracula (Bela Lugosi and Carlos Villarías), Dracula, 1931
Creator: Tod Browning (director), Hamilton Deane & John L. Balderston (playwrights) Archetype: Definitive/Classic-Cinema Vampire
Historical Context: This adaptation of a 1924 stage play (there was an almost identical Spanish production filmed on the exact same set at night, after the English cast and crew had gone home) was the first true horror movie American viewers had ever experienced. Filmmakers didn’t minimize the seriousness of the supernatural terrors on-screen; in fact they actively encouraged people to believe vampires were real, to the point where audience members openly fainted in the theaters. The infamous Hays Code had been enacted a year before, which meant that the effectiveness of Dracula and its brethren (like Frankenstein, which premiered later that year to similar success) didn’t last for long; just three years later, the MPPDA (now the MPAA) began strictly enforcing the code, which dramatically sterilized horror films until the mid-1960s, when director defiance and an influx of foreign films rendered it impossible to enforce.
Contribution to the genre: Like its literary inspiration, it birthed the horror genre and influenced its tropes for decades to come. It was so defining, in fact, that Lugosi was immediately typecast and basically couldn’t play anything but a vampire for the rest of his career.
Count Dracula (Christopher Lee), Horror of Dracula series, 1958-1976
__Creator: __Terence Fisher (director), etc. Archetype: Fancy Charismatic Vampire
__Historical Context: __The Horror of Dracula films were the British answer to Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Stoker adaptation, and effectively established horror as a profitable genre. The original installation arrived in cinemas at a time when postwar England had finally gotten back on its feet, and its citizens were enjoying the same kind of prosperity as America’s middle class—including going to the movies. Thus was born “Hammer Horror,” the wildly successful, seemingly endless series of monster movies produced by Hammer Films from the ’50s through the ’70s. Thanks to Alfred Kinsey’s sex studies, which had been published in 1948 and 1953, sexuality was seeing a revolution, too; the glamorous, aristocratic vampire that Christopher Lee portrayed was less an abject terror than an erotic one: slightly dangerous, yet irresistible.
__Contribution to the genre: __ Christopher Lee ended up playing the Count in not one, not two, but eight moreDracula titles over the next 18 years. One could say Lee’s portrayal popularized the fancy vamp, the one who lured his victims with sophistication and charisma rather than lurking in the shadows and waiting for them to stumble upon his property.
Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and Friends, Dark Shadows, 1966-1971, 2012
Creator: Dan Curtis Archetype: Teen Soap Vampire, Vampire With a Heart of Gold
Historical Context: Before Twilight came along, the teen supernatural soap opera belonged to Dark Shadows, the six-season daytime show that cornered the afterschool market for ABC. The show—which follows a young woman who becomes governess for a family prone to spooky subplots—nicely dovetailed with the film horror boom of the era. Meanwhile, America was embroiled in real horrors of its own in Vietnam and at home (see: the Civil Rights movement, the Kent State shootings, etc.), which made the kitschy monsters of the era—including Dark Shadows‘ brooding vampire Barnabas Collins—a benign escape.
Contribution to the genre:Dark Shadows‘ success proved that the teen market could flock to vampire stuff. At the time, gothic horror was like pop culture crack, totally essential to Hollywood and the young moviegoers of the era, many of whom would go on to become creators of the supernatural genre, solidifying it as the multi-billion-dollar monster it is today.
Blacula (William H. Marshall), Blacula, 1972
__Creator: __William Crain (director), Raymond Koenig and Joan Torres (screenwriters) Archetype: “Dracula’s soul brother.” Need we say more? __Historical Context: __See: Blaxploitation films in general. Why not bring vampires into it? Contribution to the genre: I mean, it did give us a sequel with Pam Grier in it. Otherwise? Not a whole lot—not too much of the legend was altered to fit the Blaxploitation model, and most contemporary vampire lit is still overwhelmingly White and European. Blacula may have partially inspired the vampire-hunting dhampir Blade (see below), if only because there were so few examples of vampires of color in mainstream pop culture.
Lestat and Friends, The Vampire Chronicles, 1976 to present
Creator: Anne Rice Archetype: Genteel, Beautiful Vampire/Self-Loathing Vampire __Historical Context: __The late ’70s was a fertile time for supernatural fiction. Thanks to authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice, creaky horror archetypes (from vampires to witchcraft to ghosts to serial killers to haunted houses) got facelifts. At the same time, the nation at large was seeing similar change: advances in gender equality and civil rights as well as a growing cynicism about American economic dominance were all liberalizing the world. Combine these factors with the fact that the era was being called “The Me Decade”—in which personal identity was paramount, just as it was to Rice’s navel-gazing, undying vampires—and you get a great new breeding ground for metaphors with which to terrorize and captivate the public.
Contribution to the genre: Rice’s readers, who number about 80 million today, were treated to new tropes when it came to the vampire mythos: not only were the traditional garlic/cross/wooden stake defenses totally useless against these creatures, but they also got powers of self-healing, flying without shapeshifting, and the ability to subsist on animal blood when humans are scarce (or unappealing). They’re also prettier, smarter, and more talented than any human could ever hope to be. Oh, and they’re immortal. Sound familiar? That’s because pretty much every 21st-century vampire “borrowed” Rice’s whole steez for their own.
David and Friends, The Lost Boys, 1987
Creator: Joel Schumacher Archetype: Angsty-Cool, Teen Punk Vampire
__Historical Context: __The 1980s were teen-movie central: John Hughes and Cameron Crowe were making a killing off of exploiting high-school archetypes that had been around in film since the ’50s, but were just now hitting a pop culture fever pitch. Vampires’ dangerousness appealed both to teens looking for cool capital and parents terrified their children were doing crack and getting AIDS when they weren’t around. Plus, as far as metaphors go, finding out the mean/cool kids in your new town are bloodthirsty, manipulative monsters isn’t a huge stretch.
__Contribution to the genre: __Attributes like being able to make a “half vampire” by making a human drink blood (and turning them full vamp by having them kill someone) didn’t stick around, but while Dark Shadows proved teens would take to vampires, The Lost Boys introduced the idea that they could be them, too.
Angel (David Boreanaz), Spike (James Marsters) and Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992, 1997-2003
Creator: Joss Whedon Archetype: (Feminist) Vampire Love Interest
Historical Context: The victimization and vilification of women in Hollywood existed long before the ‘90s, but Whedon’s vampire-hunting, ass-kicking cheerleader kicked off a decade in which casual onscreen misogyny ran particularly rampant. Buffy‘s empowered eponymous hunter—and occasional love pursuit of the same dudes she was trying to kill—countered slutty-vampire gore like From Dusk Till Dawn, which upheld the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. The stories’ supernaturals, while dangerous to Buffy, were hardly terrifying; instead, the 1992 movie and subsequent TV show “subverted the idea [of the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie]” to explore themes like female power and adolescence more candidly (and ultimately, effectively) than even the most progressive non-horror teen shows of that era.
Contribution to the genre: Nobody had really done smart vampire comedy before; elaborating the high-school vampire tropes built by flicks like* The Lost Boys*, Buffy‘s corny pacing, inside jokes, and liberal use of the entire horror/fantasy-trope firmament made it a perfect foil to the more traditional, male-centric vampire tales that came before and after—and turned it into a cult hit that has since informed lady-fueled supernatural successors like Dead Like Me and MTV’s Teen Wolf.
Eric “Blade” Brooks (Wesley Snipes), Blade films, 1998-2004
Creator: Stephen Norrington (director), David S. Goyer (screenwriter) Archetype: Dhampir, Half-Vampire Protector of Humans
Historical Context: The ’70s Marvel Comics vigilante is most widely known thanks to Wesley Snipes’ portrayal in the live-action movies of the late ’90s and early ’00s. The culture that spawned the character and his success is almost identical to the one that birthed Buffy: a largely male, largely white European vampire tradition that was ready for some serious subversion. The major conflicts among vampires, primarily about pure-blooded vs. “turned” vampires, are veiled stand-ins for discussions of race and ancestry.
Contribution to the genre: Blade is a good, if hard-nosed, dude who’s seeking vengeance for his mother’s death at the hands of a vampire (the same one whose mid-labor bite gave him his vampire genes). The bi-species hero gave vampire lore the same boost of sociocultural subtext featured in Buffy and Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels (more on that below). Also, Wesley Snipes offered to hunt down “the Twilight kids” in a hypothetical fourth Bladeinstallment, so the possibilities are endless.
Bill Compton and Friends, The Southern Vampire Mysteries/True Blood, 2001-2014
Creator: Charlaine Harris, Alan Ball Archetype: Sexy, LGBT-Friendly Vampire
Historical Context: Anybody who’s seen the opening credits of the HBO series adapted from Charlaine Harris’s pulp novels can tell you that these vampires are a not-so-subtle stand-in for the LGBT community. In True Blood‘s America, it’s the vampires who have to “come out of the coffin,” revealing themselves to humans in the hopes of peacefully co-existing with them thanks to the production of a synthetic blood beverage called TruBlood. The fight for vampire rights, of course, harbors extremists on both sides, from Christian evangelist humans to thousand-year-old vampires tired of playing nice with their food. But the novels and series are also the product of the fanfic era in which crossover supernatural fiction is at an all-time high, which means a cuckoo descent into fairies, maenads, witches, werewolves, werepanthers, shapeshifters and voodoo-practicing mediums. As long as it’s fantastic (and freaky), it’s fair game.
Contribution to the genre: If you stopped watching the show a few seasons in , you might say *True Blood *contributed “a big ol’ disappointment to the vampire family,” and even those who watched to the end can’t totally disagree. But the series’ goopy, unapologetic camp and the use of absurdly supernatural situations to normalize queer characters like flamboyant fry cook-turned-medium Lafayette gave mainstream vampires explicit political themes and real-world parallels (whereas before they exhibited mostly unconscious undertones) while still maintaining the sexiness that gives the trope its contemporary allure.
Edward Cullen and Friends, Twilight series, 2005-2012
Historical Context: The now-infamous Cullen clan isn’t the first instance in which a human teen and a vampire get together, but after Harry Potter sparked a YA-for-grownups resurgence, the *Twilight *books were perfectly suited to ride that wave. At a time when gender roles and understandings of sexuality are rapidly evolving, Meyer’s strict Mormonism gave her characters similarly conservative views on sex and marriage, and the series paints all its protagonists in inexplicably broad strokes. Consider the saga’s success a backlash to the liberal direction in which vampire lit had been heading: a story that mashed prior mythologies into an adventure-romance that shed both terror and social criticism to appeal to a massive global audience.
Contribution to the genre: Meyer’s vampires could walk around in daylight like The Lost Boys, were devastatingly alluring like Anne Rice’s Lestat, and called themselves “vegetarians,” preferring to drink only animal blood like Rice’s Louis—but their skin also literally glittered in the sun, a purely YA romance-tailored addition, Otherwise, it was whitewashed vampire romance to the nth degree, to the agony of literary agents everywhere.
Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013/2014
Creator: Jim Jarmusch Archetype: Existential/Suicidal Vampire
__Historical Context: __Now that we’ve decided that vampires (mostly) live forever, it’s surprising how infrequently creators have veered from the glamorous to explore the darker psychological implications of immortality. Jarmusch’s Adam and Eve, an overly cultured and emotionally battered vampire couple of several hundred years, are constantly on the run, whether in fear of being discovered or merely to avoid feeding on humans, opting in favor of buying pints from a dwindling supply of uncontaminated “good” blood sources (global warming, anyone?).
__Contribution to the genre: __Only Lovers was less a horror story about vampires as menaces and more a meditation on how crappy it must be to maintain the will to live after centuries of having to reinvent oneself every few decades. Adam and Eve’s connections with humans are sentimental, but never strong enough to commit to any the way the Cullens and Vampire Bill do; their story is sexy-cool, but fatalistically. On the whole, it’s a much more fitting vampire identity than most of their predecessors formulated.
Vlad the Impaler, Dracula Untold, 2013/2014
Creator: Gary Shore, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless Archetype: Nationalist Vampire
Historical Context: In 2014, we’ve reached the Vampire Singularity: so inundated with vampiric interpretations are we that we’re frankly tired of new ones. That’s where Dracula Untold comes in: it’s both an origin story and a retelling, two story tropes that are particularly en vogue, thanks to the uncertainty of the 21st century. Our Internet-enabled omniscience makes morality and fear more subjective than ever, and the U.S.’s waning global dominance makes for an anxious public, one that hankers for ambiguity and darkness in its media escapism.
Contribution to the genre: While screenwriters Sazama and Sharpless have done their best to get back to vampire culture’s roots with Vlad III as the protagonist, the movie’s heavy reliance on origin-story means a distinct lack of ingenuity. It’s not exactly indicative of what actually scares us…except maybe originality. (source)