Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this series, Muriel Baillyprofiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.
Distinctive signs: Pale skin, sensitive to the sun, fond of drinking blood, sleeps in a coffin, not a fan of garlic
Likely to say: “I have crossed oceans of time to find you.”
When one thinks of vampires, Dracula is likely the first name that comes to mind. With it comes the image of an elegant, charismatic man with an otherworldly presence and pale complexion. Today, Dracula may be the yardstick against whom all other vampires are measured, but it used to be a very different story.
Until the 18th century, vampires or their folkloric equivalents were described as swollen and of ruddy or dark appearance. An origin of the vampire myth put forward in a scientific paper in the 1980s is porphyria, a condition affecting the skin, leading to photosensitivity, blisters and necrosis. This was rejected en masse, however. A slightly more convincing case has been made for rabies, although there are still too many inconsistencies to make it the likely inspiration for vampires.
Blood drinking creatures appeared throughout antiquity but the word “vampire” (from the Hungarian vampir) appeared for the first time in the 18th century. Previous to that, drinking blood was the matter of demons and other mythological creatures. Such as Lilith, Adam’s first wife in Hebrew mythology, who drinks baby’s blood. We’ve written about Lilith previously.
Vampires in the classic sense appear heavily in folklore from Eastern Europe in the late 1600 and 1700s. It is these legends that form the basis of the vampire myth that later became popular in the UK and Germany, although they were significantly embellished.
The 18th century saw a widespread vampire scare throughout Europe, eventually leading to mass hysteria referred as the ’18th Century Vampire Controversy’. This allegedly started with increasing reports of vampire attacks in Prussia in 1721. A wave of paranoia swept Europe at the time with members of the population, including the authorities, digging up and staking individuals suspected of vampirism.
This paranoia even affected the cultural elite of Europe with authors such as Voltaire writing in his 1764 Philosophical Dictionary:
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer. We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces.
This idea that vampires can shroud themselves among the rest of the population may be the origin of the sophisticated and elegant image of vampires we have today. Although Bram Stocker’s novel Dracula, published in 1897, has become the reference for vampires, John William Polidori’s novel The Vampyre was published in 1819 and had already been an immense success. Both portray vampires as suave, charismatic and manipulating characters, although with an air of foulness about them.
Vampires were greatly popularised in such gothic literature, known as gothic horror: combining fiction, horror and romanticism. Since Polidori’s book, vampirism has been a clear metaphor for sex and sexuality. They both involve lust and desire; penetration; and the exchange of bodily fluids. Even the subsequent physiological effects are comparable: a short-lived adrenalin high and flush of colour giving way to feeling drained. It’s no surprise that from Buffy to Twilight and from True Blood to The Vampire Diaries, recent representations of vampires have focused on this in different ways: looking at first love, forbidden love, virginity, promiscuity and so on.
From the 1700s to the present day, vampires have spent centuries inspiring numerous novels, movies and TV shows. Although some of the specific characteristics might change between one iteration and another, the essence tends to be the same. Whether rank or rakish, shimmering or smoking in the sun, vampires will exert their powers on you and immutably attract you to your end…or a new beginning.
Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
Read the rest of the series as they become available.