Vampires have captivated the public imagination for centuries, appearing in folklore, literature, film, and television. But who actually invented the version of the blood-drinking immortal that persists in popular culture today? To answer that question, we must look back through the history of vampire myths and stories to uncover their origins.
The roots of the vampire myth
Tales of supernatural beings that feed on human blood or life force are ancient and appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide. Beliefs in entities such as demons, spirits, and witches that preyed on humans were common in antiquity and the Middle Ages.
The ancient Mesopotamians recorded stories of immortal blood-drinking spirits called Lilu or Lilitu that later became known as Lilith. In ancient Greek and Roman folklore, tales of creatures like the Empusa, Lamia, and Striges described female demons that fed on human blood and flesh. Medieval European folklore contained stories of revenants – animated corpses that returned from the grave to attack the living.
Elements of these early myths laid the groundwork for the vampire legends that emerged in Europe beginning in the early 18th century. However, they lacked the level of detail and narrative continuity that would characterize the vampire stories that proliferated across Europe and eventually sparked widespread popular obsession.
Vampire traits coalesce
In the early 1700s, vampire myths and stories started to take on a more defined set of characteristics and appear in more fully fleshed out narratives, particularly in southeastern Europe. Reports of vampire attacks and sightings increased in frequency, sparking public hysteria in some areas. Common elements began to emerge in these tales that established tropes now associated with vampires, including:
- Blood-drinking from victims
- Nocturnal habits
- Fangs or sharp teeth
- Paleness or cold skin
- Undead status – neither fully living nor deceased
- Staking or beheading to kill
- Fear of garlic, mirrors, and holy symbols
These vampire characteristics coalesced into more standardized folklore and expanded into more detailed stories with recurring narrative elements. While based on old legends and myths, this new incarnation of the vampire reflected specific social and cultural conditions in Europe, serving as a metaphor for disease, immorality, and other perceived threats.
The emergence of literary vampires
The increased prevalence of vampire folklore in Europe set the stage for vampires to transition to literary figures during the late 1700s and early 1800s. A few key works of poetry and prose helped launch the vampire as a popular phenomenon in literature:
- The Vampyre (1819) – John Polidori’s story based on folkloric sources was one of the first pieces of vampire fiction in English and an influence on authors like Bram Stoker.
- La Morte Amoureuse (1836) – In this French story by Theophile Gautier, a troubled priest recounts his tragic encounter with a female vampire.
- Carmilla (1871) – The novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu featured one of the earliest female vampire protagonists/antagonists and introduced the lesbian vampire trope.
However, it was Irish author Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula that cemented the vampire as a major figure in literature and popular culture. Drawing on folkloric sources, Stoker created an intricately detailed fictional world incorporating many aspects of vampire mythology that had developed over the prior century. His charismatic vampire antagonist Count Dracula embodied many classic vampire traits and introduced new elements like shape-shifting into a bat.
The cinematic vampire
In the early 20th century, vampires made the leap from page to screen with the advent of cinema. Silent films like F.W. Murnau’s surreal Nosferatu (1922) and adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula (1931) delivered blood-drinkers to the big screen. Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula in the 1931 film became iconic, establishing the look of the aristocratic vampire in a tuxedo and cape.
Later vampire films like the Hammer Horror series starting in the late 1950s added more overt sexuality and gore to the cinematic vampire formula. Dramatic changes came in the 1970s and 1980s with movies like Blacula, The Hunger, and The Lost Boys that diversified the portrayal of vampires in terms of race, gender, and youth culture. Vampire movies proliferated through the 1990s and 2000s with films like Interview with the Vampire, From Dusk Till Dawn, Blade, and the Underworld series.
The evolution of literary vampires
Vampire fiction expanded dramatically in scope and popularity in the later decades of the 20th century. Key works include:
- I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson – An influential sci-fi/horror novel about a pandemic that turns humanity into vampire-like creatures. Helped inspire George Romero’s zombie films.
- Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice – Rice’s bestselling novel centered on introspective vampire antihero Louis and established the vampire chronicles series. Focused on immortality and existential themes.
- The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice – Rice’s highly successful series that spanned multiple novels helped fuel the rise of vampire-focused fiction.
- The Vampire Lestat (1985) by Anne Rice – Established vampire rock star Lestat as a charismatic, complex protagonist/antihero.
This literary development coincided with a surge in vampire-themed entertainment like the tabletop roleplaying game Vampire: The Masquerade and the massively popular TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By the early 2000s, vampires were deeply embedded in popular culture.
The vampire goes mainstream
Vampires achieved unprecedented mainstream popularity and commercial success in the 2000s and 2010s due in large part to:
- The Twilight book and film series (2005-2012) – Stephenie Meyer’s YA books and blockbuster movies brought vampire romance stories to a mass audience.
- The Vampire Diaries TV series (2009-2017) – Followed in the footsteps of Twilight as a hit supernatural teen drama series on The CW network.
- True Blood TV series (2008-2014) – HBO’s sexy, bloody vampire series targeted at adults captivated viewers.
Vampires had evolved from folkloric villains to Byronic antiheroes to teenage heartthrobs. They continued their dominance in the 2010s with TV shows like The Originals and films like the stylistic Only Lovers Left Alive. Over two centuries after taking root in European folklore, vampires have proven their staying power and remain undead cultural icons.
The origins of vampire traits
Many distinctive vampire traits and weaknesses have murky origins in folk beliefs, medieval superstitions, and taboos. Some possible sources include:
|Taboo against consuming blood; belief in blood’s mystical properties
|Association with death, carnivores, demons
|Superstition about mirrors capturing the soul
|Association of vampires with death
|Preventing the undead from rising; apotropaic folk magic rituals
These traits evolved piecemeal over centuries, coalescing into the familiar vampire archetype we know today.
The biological impossibility of vampires
While culturally significant, vampires are biologically implausible for many scientific reasons:
- Human-like creatures cannot survive solely on blood – it does not contain adequate nutrients.
- Normal biology requires intake of food and liquid; blood alone would not sustain a complex organism.
- Rapid healing powers exceed any known organism’s regenerative abilities.
- Mind control is not feasible with any known biological mechanisms.
- Turning humans into vampires contradicts principles of conservation of matter and energy.
In summary, vampires belong wholly to the realm of the supernatural, transcending scientific understanding of living systems. Their endurance as mythic beings shows the human imagination can move well beyond the confines of biology to envision the fantastical.
The metaphorical role of the vampire
Scholars have analyzed vampires as metaphors within the fiction of different eras. Some symbolic interpretations of vampires include:
- Representing the spread of disease and contagion in epidemics
- Embodying societal fears of “the other” – outsiders and foreigners
- Personifying sexual transgression and moral corruption
- Conveying the darkness of the human psyche and capacity for evil
- Symbolizing exploitation of others and imbalances of power
- Reflecting obsession with mortality and human frailty
Vampires’ versatility as metaphors contributes to their endurance in the collective imagination. They represent different sociocultural threats in different contexts and time periods.
Impact of medical knowledge on vampire myths
Advancements in medical science over the past two centuries have intersected with and influenced the evolution of vampire lore. Some examples:
- Biology revealing blood’s nutritional deficiencies – showed implausibility of blood-only vampire diet.
- Discovery of microbial pathogens – offered disease model for how vampirism spreads through bite/contact.
- Invention of blood transfusion – suggested mythical basis for vampires’ blood-drinking.
- Understanding rigor mortis – explained mistaken reports of vampire corpse movement.
- Studying of mental illness – rationalized certain vampire myths as delusions or hallucinations.
Overall, medical discoveries weakened the aura of plausibility around some vampire myths. However, creative fiction writers adapted vampire lore around emerging discoveries to retain the compelling core of the vampire mythos.
Vampire popularity fluctuations
Vampire stories and mythology have waxed and waned over the centuries. Key periods include:
- 18th Century Folklore Rise – Reports of vampires surged in southeast Europe amid superstition and hysteria.
- 19th Century Literary Peak – Vampires featured in poetry and prose like Dracula as Gothic horror flourished.
- Early 20th Century Film Boost – Movies like Nosferatu introduced vampires to cinema screens.
- 1970s Resurgence – Books like Interview with the Vampire and movies like Blacula revived vampire stories.
- Late 20th/Early 21st Century Explosion – Vampires starred in hit TV shows, books, and films like Twilight.
Vampire popularity seems to come in waves aligned with cultural conditions. Currently their presence remains strong in media and fiction.
Key figures in vampire fiction
Certain authors and creative works played an outsized role in developing and popularizing vampire fiction:
- John Polidori – His 1819 short story “The Vampyre” helped pioneer the vampire as a literary figure.
- Bram Stoker – His classic 1897 novel Dracula codified vampire lore and became the archetypal vampire story.
- Anne Rice – Her Vampire Chronicles and other books drove the vampire fiction explosion starting in the 1970s.
- Stephanie Meyer – Her hit young adult Twilight series sent vampires into the pop culture stratosphere in the 2000s.
Many other creators contributed significantly to vampire fiction’s development, but these writers stand out for their epochal influence on the genre.
Vampire evolution timeline
The vampire mythos markedly transformed over the centuries. Key developments include:
- 1700s – Vampire folklore proliferates in southeast Europe; common traits established.
- 1800s – Vampires transition to literary figures; penny dreadfuls and novels.
- 1897 – Dracula codifies and popularizes vampire lore.
- 1920s – Vampires debut on film in movies like Nosferatu.
- 1970s/80s – Vampires diversify in books and film; moral complexity increases.
- 2000s – Twilight and other works cement vampires as mainstream pop culture phenomena.
This abbreviated timeline charts the vampire’s steady evolution from folkloric terror to romantic antihero to YA idol over several centuries in popular media.
The quintessential modern vampire archetype synthesized over centuries from ancient myths, medieval superstition, and early 18th century folkloric tales of the undead. Novelists and poets starting in the 1700s crafted compelling fictional narratives around these folk beliefs. Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 codified vampire traits and popularized vampires worldwide. Film and later television further expanded their appeal. They remain ubiquitous in the 21st century as highly versatile mythic figures that have captivated the public imagination for over 200 years, and likely for centuries more to come.