“I want you to believe…to believe in things that you cannot.” Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
This Irish writer managed to create a novel where he blended the lore of centuries past with popular contemporary topics, thus allowing his readers to believe even the most unusual occurrences. Although myths and folktales about monsters who become immortal by feeding on the life essence of the living can be found throughout the world, it is impossible to prove when and where they originated. These creatures take many different forms— they appear as evil spirits in Chinese mythology, ghoul-like beings in Indian tales, female creatures who feast on children in Greek lore and blood thirsty demons in Persian legends.
In Europe, the myths about vampires gained popularity during the Middle Ages. The beliefs surrounding these beings were rooted in mistaken assumptions about postmortem decay as well as superstitions, particularly concerning outsiders or individuals who stood out due to minor deformities. The notion of these irrational beliefs surrounding people who were different or who died inexplicably could still be seen in many parts of the world. It was for similar motives that some people in 18th and 19th century America would dig up graves and remove the hearts of cadavers if the deceased in question were believed to have caused misfortune.
European Vampire novels from the late 19th century were often influenced by contemporary travelogues and reflected a wide-spread fear of reverse colonization as well as a fearful fascination with local customs that the travel writers had witnessed. Similar to people’s reactions in other parts of the world, it was mainly the people who were perceived as being different from the writers and their audience that were characterized in a frightening way. In order to stir fear, the Vampire has since been presented wearing various masks, often adapting stereotypes for political purposes. Thus, aside from being from the dangerous East, the vampire has also found a place in anti-Semitic mythology and his despotic nature has been compared to the monopolistic position of capital by Karl Marx.
In modern times, vampires have become popular subjects in fiction and movies. The black cape, which might have been a reference to the wings of vampire bats, first appeared in stage productions in the 1920s and helped Count Dracula to disappear on stage. Though most fictional vampires are still portrayed as having fangs and being sensitive to sunlight, the majority of the modern bloodsuckers do not wear cloaks anymore. The sexy or romantic versions of vampires in popular film adaptions like Twilight or the films based on Anne Rice’s novels seem to stem from 19th century literature where fear was often used as a substitute for desire as sexual references were taboo in these days. In its most extreme form, this morbid desire can lead to psychopathological rituals of sadism and cannibalism, such as in the case of the two most prominent real life role models for Count Dracula: the infamous Vlad the Impaler and Elizabeth Báthory, a countess, who used to bathe in the blood of her victims.
In case you are thirsty for more – here are a few book recommendations for further reading:
Richard Greene and K.Silem Mohammad (ed.), Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy. New Life for the Undead,
Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire
Glen Whitman and Dow James (ed.), Economics of the Undead: Zombies, Vampires and the Dismal Science