No creature haunting Western society's collective imagination has proven more enduring, more compelling, or more alluring than the vampire. But it was only with the his transformation from emaciated, plague-carrying "nosferatu" (literally, "not dead") to suave, sexually appealing anti-hero that the vampire's status as pop cultural icon was assured. Authors and poets ranging from Byron, Goethe, Baudelaire, and Le Fanu to Poe, Wells, King, and Rice have made contributions to vampire lore. Dracula, the best-known and most resilient vampire, has appeared in more films than any other fictional character save perhaps for Sherlock Holmes. On television, vampires have starred in dramas (The Kindred, 1996), sitcoms (The Munsters, 1964-1966), soaps (Dark Shadows, 1966-1971), and countless made-for-television movies. On the radio, Orson Welles' portrayal of Dracula for The Mercury Theatre in 1938 became an instant classic. In addition, vampires have been made the subject of such cultural castoffs as stamps, comic books, lunchboxes, breakfast cereals, cartoons, role-playing games, and do-it-yourself makeup kits--in short, just about anything capable of sustaining an image or supporting a narrative.
In pre-Christian times, the vampire was a regular in Middle European folklore. Typically portrayed as an unkempt peasant with terrible breath and a craving for the blood of farm animals, his taste underwent a profound change in the seventeenth century--instead of sheep and oxen, he began turning to members of his own family in search of nourishment. This shift in sensibility most likely occurred because distraught villagers needed a face to attach to the deadly plague infecting their neighbors.
The vampire entered the literary realm by way of German gothicism: in Ossenfelder's "The Vampire" (1748), Bürger's Lenore (1773), and Goethe's The Bride of Corinth (1797) the once-shy bloodsucker slowly made the transition to sexual predator. But the first truly modern vampire appeared in John Polidori's extended revision of a fragment written by the English poet Lord Byron in 1816; amazingly, it was during the same session of story-telling at a villa near Geneva that Mary Shelley conceived the plot of Frankenstein. In Polidori's The Vampyre (1819), the dashing Lord Ruthven quenches his thirst with the blood of attractive young women. To cash in on Ruthven's surprising popularity, a number of plays, burlesques, and operas were quickly brought to stage in France, Germany, and England.
With the publication of James Malcolm Rymer's 868 page penny-dreadful, Varney the Vampire, or the Feast of Blood in 1847, the vampire became a pop culture phenomenon. Many elements of Varney's comic-book adventures were appropriated by Bram Stoker for use in his celebrated gothic novel, Dracula (1897). Female vampires also came into their own around this time; Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla (1871) recounts a destructive lesbian affair, a theme exploited years later in such films as Dracula's Daughter (1936) and The Velvet Vampire (1971), as well as in the homoerotic vampire fantasies of novelist Anne Rice.
In preparation for his novel, Stoker read everything he could find on vampires at the British Museum. He was fascinated by stories of Vlad the Impaler, a fifteenth century Romanian prince with a penchant for staking his victims. This real-life Dracula (Vlad's father was a member of the paramilitary group, "Dracul") provided Stoker with a historical basis for his monster. Dracula effectively synthesized the vampire legend's major motifs (including shape-shifting, mind control, avoidance of daylight, lack of reflection, and talismans such as garlic and crosses), and moved the Count out of his castle and into a bustling urban locale. Stoker's rendition of the vampire as a sexual oppressor roaming the streets of London tapped into the public's fear of serial killers such as Jack the Ripper, who not 10 years earlier murdered six women in the city's East End.
In 1922, German director F.W. Murnau brought the folkloric vampire back to life with his silent expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. Max Schreck stars as Count Orlock, a gaunt, bald, rat-like vampire who bears almost no resemblance to Bela Lugosi's suave, aristocratic Count Dracula. Four years before gracing the silver screen in Tod Browning's 1931 classic, Dracula, the Hungarian-born Lugosi established his reputation as the world's leading vampire by starring in a Broadway production of Stoker's tale (a half-century later, Frank Langella would play the Count in a successful New York revival). Lugosi's exotic accent, distinctive mannerisms, and sinister charm captivated audiences, and Universal Studios contracted him to reprise his role in a slew of horror films.
Celluloid vampires suffered from burnout until 1958, when Christopher Lee reprised the role of the Count in Hammer Films' elegant bloodfest, Horror of Dracula. Numerous sequels, also starring Lee, soon followed. Other notable vampire pictures include Carl Dreyer's Vampyre (1931), Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers (1969), a 1972 blaxploitation film entitled Blacula, Werner Herzog's remake of Nosferatu (1979), campy satires by Mel Brooks and Andy Warhol, a porno (Dracula Sucks, 1979), Coppola's big-budget rendition of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and a 1994 adaptation of Rice's Interview with the Vampire. Vampires even turned up in such unlikely genres as science fiction (Lifeforce, 1985) and Westerns (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, 1966).
Vampire iconography has exerted a powerful influence on communal style and behavior. A whole "Gothic" youth culture, complete with all-black clothing, somber music, and atmospheric nightclubs, arose as an offshoot of punk in the 1970s, and an underground cult of real-life blood drinkers has steadily increased in numbers. The socially-revealing image of vampire as obsessive blood-junkie has been thematized in such films as Deathdream (1972), Martin (1978), and The Addiction (1995).
There are many reasons for the vampire's enduring popularity. While most monsters are portrayed as ugly, even grotesque, vampires are often handsome or beautiful. They are surrounded by large and arcane bodies of knowledge concerning their origins, powers, and weaknesses. Foreign, well-traveled, aristocratic, charming, even magnetic, they possess an undeniable erotic appeal. What is more, they are subversive, challenging traditional ideas about death, religion, science, sexual mores, and patriarchy. And lest we forget, they have what we all want: money, power, sexual attractiveness, and, above all, eternal youth.
Author: Steven Schneider
Source: St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 2002 Gale Group.