Monday Musings – Concerning Vampires (A Brief History)

I recently put together a series of Facebook posts on the research that’s gone into The Van Helsing Legacy and Liminality. When I stepped back and looked at them, I wound up kind of proud of the result, so I collected and edited them into a sort of vampire primer for my email newsletter. It went over quite well there, as well, so I’ve touched it up once again to put up here.

“Every culture has vampires.”

Yes and no. It’s become a pretty common idea that all cultures have vampires, but there are some problems with that. Not with the idea itself, but with using “vampire” as an umbrella term. Vampires are a European concept. Specifically, Slavic Eastern European.

So when European folklorists started collecting and studying stories, those were some of the first they came across. But then they went further afield and started calling other people’s monsters “vampires” as well.

Bear in mind that the systematic study of folklore started in the eighteenth century but really hit its stride in the mid-nineteenth century, when Europeans were… not great at treating other people’s cultures with respect. That extends to little things like treating other people’s monsters as “types” of this one specific European monster. That’s like saying that ramen is just one type of minestrone instead of that they’re both distinct types of soup.

They often don’t even have much in common. Some might drink blood, some might be reanimated corpses, but few are both, and a lot are neither but got lumped in just for being evil (or even just mischievous) spirits.

It’s a weird situation. Language evolves, and “vampire” doesn’t mean what it did 150 years ago. But it does still bring to mind a specific image, and it’s not the image of a jiangshi, or an adze, or an ekimmu, or a mandurugo.

I think it’s time we called a Manananggal a Manananggal and admit that what we consider a vampire doesn’t supersede all the other fascinating monsters out there.

Modern pop culture has developed a set of pretty standard rules for vampires in fiction, but the only thing that’s really, truly constant about vampire stories, even sticking to Europe, is that it’s all over the place. There are no constants.

The folklore is even weirder. Vampires are often repelled by garlic, but they were also repelled by pretty much any smelly plant, like onions, wild roses, basil, or rosemary. It’s pretty much taken for granted now that vampires shouldn’t be able to have sex or have children, but they used to be very commonly blamed when an unmarried or widowed woman turned up pregnant. They also didn’t even always drink blood. One story tells of a vampire who stood on a family’s roof and howled down the chimney every night, depriving them of sleep until they all went mad.

Vampires got a lot less weird after they went from folklore into fiction. The difference, of course, being that folk tales are stories told aloud from person to person. They’re part of a culture, and they’re told to be believed and to serve as a lesson or a warning. Fiction is to entertain. Everyone knows the author made it up, and the author doesn’t intend anyone to think it’s real.

But fiction also tends to be written down more often, so it’s able to spread, and fiction quickly affected the way Europe thought about vampires.

The first time a vampire was ever a suave nobleman was in John Polidori’s 1819 story, The Vampyre. Polidori’s character Lord Ruthven made vampires sexy and intelligent, though still completely evil, and after that it was over a century before they started to be written as bloated, stinking corpses again. The character of Varney the Vampire in 1845 gave us the first sympathetic vampire, one who wanted company and hated that he couldn’t stop hurting people. Carmilla (1872) was the first vampire romance, and a queer one, at that. Of course lesbianism is used to signal that Carmilla is True Evil™, but she is also shown as truly caring for Laura.

And then there was Dracula in 1897, the first vampire story to become hugely popular. After Universal Studios got their hands on him, the idea of a vampire became a charming, slick-haired aristocrat in an opera cloak. Bram Stoker was the first one to take away a vampire’s reflection in 1897 – the theory about silver mirror backings is a much more recent addition that never appeared in the older folk tales. But Stoker’s notes also reveal details that never made it into Dracula: he intended that vampires also could not be painted, and that in a photograph, only their skeletons would appear!

The first time a vampire ever burned in the sun was in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, and even that was a misunderstanding. The evil Count Orlok does fade into smoke at sunrise, but it was the informed and willing sacrifice of a pure woman that killed him, not the sun.

The earliest example I can find of vampires and werewolves being mortal enemies is the World of Darkness games, starting in 1991, and then it became almost the norm after Underworld came out in 2003. There had been werewolf/vampire fights in film before then, but nothing about two whole species being naturally at war with each other.

Dracula may always be the image that comes to mind, but modern vampire fiction is always looking for ways to be fresh and original, and there aren’t so many caped aristocrats with widow’s peaks running around, anymore. It really fascinates me how thousands of authors can write about basically the same old thing, but each is unique and inventive. The Twilight Saga is definitely unique and inventive whether you think it’s good or not.

Personally, one of the best “Our Vampires are Different” stories I’ve read is the Ouroboros Cycle by G.D. Falksen. His vampires, the Shashavani, are a secret society dedicated to preserving knowledge. They keep to themselves, only killing in self-defense, and you can’t become one by being bitten, only by surviving a mysterious trial.

The vampires I write in the Liminality Series follow a lot of the usual rules. They’re undead creatures, and they don’t have a heartbeat or have to breathe. They are superhumanly fast and strong, with heightened senses, are burned by any holy symbol the wielder believes in, and have an anaphylactic reaction to garlic. They also follow some of the more uncommon rules, like being unable to enter a dwelling until invited, having no reflection, and being unable to cross bodies of water.

They have to consume blood, and most of them have to consume human blood, but a few of the elders know that if the very first living blood a new vampire ever drinks isn’t human, their body will attune to it, and they’ll be able to survive on animals. Unfortunately, it’s not a well-known fact, and few care enough to go find a pig or something for their offspring’s first feed.

They also lose their conscience when they change. A lot will continue to behave morally for a few years out of habit before they realize they’re not sure why they bother. They’re not naturally evil or cruel, just see the world in terms of consequences and survival instead of in terms of right and wrong. But there are a few very rare individuals who keep a conscience, and no one is quite sure why.

I love vampires, but I’ve always been a fan of the vampire hunters, too, ever since I was scared out of my pants by The Horror of Dracula as a wee tot. I wanted to be Peter Cushing when I grew up.

In The Van Helsing Legacy series, vampires are kind of an ambiguous idea. My characters use it to mean any supernatural parasitical creature that feeds on human beings in any way.

There are revenants, mostly-mindless corpses that are brought back by extreme emotion and will completely shred their victims in their search for blood. Murder victims and suicides can also become revenants, or someone infected by a bite.

There are also necuratul, the word that was corrupted into English as Nosferatu. They are demons that live in blood and will possess their host’s corpse after death. Worst, they have all of their host’s memories and often impersonate them to spread the infection to their families through an exchange of blood.

They both have a tendency to keep coming back, so they have to be pierced through the heart, decapitated, and then incinerated to be sure.

Then there are all sorts of energy vampires, like incubi and succubi, or dream-eaters like mares. Many are otherwise ordinary human beings who just need more life-force to survive than their own bodies can produce. Others can use the energy they steal to perform black magic and necromancy.

Because vampires aren’t a single species and every individual is subtly different, my hunters have to be extremely prepared with large quantities of supplies. Meg van Helsing carries stakes, holy water and oil, a pistol with lead and silver rounds, garlic, wolfsbane, symbols of faith, salt, magical talismans… And always a really, really big knife.

It’s a long and complicated history, which really ought to make sense for immortals, and storytellers’ fascination with vampires shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.


View the archives of the Journal of Dracula Studies.


My favorite vampire reads: Dracula, The Historian, The Vampire Flynn, The Quick, The Viscount’s Son, The Ouroboros Cycle, The Dracula Sequence, Morrigan’s Brood

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