The Evolution of Vampires in Popular Culture

Pop culture has become so saturated with vampires that it’s hard not to roll your eyes every time a shoddily-plotted vampire novel or half-rate vampire TV show comes along. These nighttime blood-suckers have become the quintessential representation of ‘otherness’ – creatures that look like us, but are markedly not like us. Where did this obsession come from, and how have vampires evolved through the ages?

It’s common knowledge that vampire-mania began with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897. Dracula canonized the major vampire stereotypes: bat transfiguration, light and garlic aversion, death by a stake through the heart – the works. But what about the real Dracula?

Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes (after whom Dracula was modelled) was a real prince of Wallachia, a region of Romania. Like Dracula, he was quite a gory figure, known for displaying his impaled enemies in gruesome displays of psychological warfare. But in Romania, Vlad isn’t so much a figure of horror as an acclaimed hero who fought to liberate the Romanian people from the Ottoman Empire. In fact, his father got the infamous name ‘Dracula’ by joining the Order of the Dragon (Dracul), which was created to defend Christianity in Europe. So we have a basis for the stake myth, but the hatred of crosses and holy water? Not so much. As someone who has visited Castle Bran – known as Dracula’s castle – on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, I can at least agree that there’s something shiver-inducing about myth and man alike. Let’s just say, I wasn’t allowed into the torture chamber.

Then we have Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, published in 1954. Matheson adheres to most vampire tropes, but unlike Stoker’s charming and exotic Count, Matheson’s vampires are more akin to brainless zombies. Vampires are not figures of seduction, but of the grotesque. Vampires are the product of a cylindrical bacterium that feeds on blood and maintains all bodily functions in the deceased. Here, vampirism is a disease: the bacterium uses the host’s body, but the host remains ‘brain-dead,’ completely lacking sentience. Matheson thus presents one of the first attempts at explaining vampirism in scientific terms. For him, stakes kill vampires because they allow air to enter the body, changing the bacteria from being anaerobic and symbiotic to being aerobic and parasitic. This causes the bacteria to turn on the host and devour it, turning it to dust.

The series Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran from 1997-2003, and popularized vampires like nothing since Dracula had done. It holds to much of the classic vampire mythos, but humanizes vampires to a greater extent than Matheson or Stoker ever dared. Vampires in the series can survive on animal blood, and even eat human food (remember Spike’s fondness for fried onion blossoms?). Most importantly, with effort vampires were able to regain their human souls.

Over the course of the series, Buffy, the girl sworn to fight vampires and all the forces of darkness, ironically falls for two charming vamps. Angel regains his soul (and, by extension, his humanity) as part of a curse meant to drive him insane with guilt over his soulless, psychopathic past. Spike deliberately earns his soul back so that Buffy can see him as human and return his feelings. Here we have vampires rejecting their inherent monstrosity, and even going so far as to fight alongside Buffy to eradicate other vampires. A noble endeavour, but let’s face it – we all liked Angel and Spike better before they were ‘tamed’ with human souls.

With his 2006 novel, Blindsight, Peter Watts restored vampires to their badass selves. In Blindsight, vampires are a subspecies called Homo Sapiens Vampiris, which preyed on early humans sometime in prehistory. The species went extinct, but humans resuscitated it – Jurassic Park style – by reconstructing the vampire genetic code. In line with Matheson, Watts also uses biology to explain the vampire. The “crucifix glitch,” for example, is the result of botched wiring in vampires’ visual cortex that gives them seizures whenever they see intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, or right angles. Vampires have to take drugs to counteract this glitch.

The novel’s main vampire character, Sarasti, is a cold, calculating genius who views his human crew-members (oh yeah, I forgot, they’re on a spaceship. The book is crazy awesome.) as beneath him on the evolutionary scale. Though only debatably sapient, Sarasti is tenfold more intelligent than even the brainiest human, calling into question whether it is better to be emotional and self-aware, or ruthlessly capable but without consciousness.

There you have it: a wide range of vampires, from brainless reanimated cadavers to empathic beings with souls, and everything in-between. These mythical creatures are so versatile that it’s no wonder they’ve captivated our imaginations for centuries. And for those of you wondering when I will talk about Twilight, don’t bother – I said I’d be talking about vampires, not boy-band wannabes.

-Contributed by Alexandra Balasa

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One thought on “The Evolution of Vampires in Popular Culture

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t talk about Anne Rice’s vampires: she laid the stage for the beautiful vampire, and her vampires deal with questions and existentialism that other vampires series only barely touch upon.

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