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So, Where Do Vampires Come From?

Let’s talk about one of our favorite mythological creatures from this spooky season: vampires. These blood-sucking nightcrawlers have become an icon in the pop culture industry, especially in series and movies, but were they always this popular? You’d be surprised to know vampire mania came from way back, and I mean Medieval back. But first, let’s discuss some of their main defining qualities.

Vampire Characteristics

So, first thing’s first, vampires are bad. They are mythological creatures that hunt at night to feed upon human blood. They typically do this by piercing their sharp fangs  in the victim’s neck and killing them to turn them into vampires. Vampires also tend to morph into bats or wolves, have super strength, hypnotic powers, and are quite sensual to trap their victims. They do not come out at daylight because it weakens them. We cannot see their images in mirrors, nor can we see their shadows. Sometimes, this is due to vampires being transparent; at other times, it’s because the silver compound of the mirror’s reflection would otherwise burn them. 

That wraps it up, more or less. Yet, were vampires always portrayed this way? Who was the first iconic vampire? When did vampire mania start? Well, vampires weren’t fictional characters at all. Some people actually thought they existed!

It All Starts in Medieval Europe

Though creatures that drained human bodily fluids and attacked at night can be traced down to ancient Greece, it is during Medieval Europe that the vampire superstition began.

Tales of walking corpses that drain the blood of people began in the Middle Ages during the times of the plague, to be exact. The black plague was a mortal disease that often left its victims with mouth lesions, which uneducated people thought was a sign of vampirism. As a matter of fact, it was very typical to label people who had unfamiliar physical or emotional illnesses as vampires. But there was one condition that appeared much later on that fit into our typical vampire characteristics: porphyria. This blood disorder causes severe blisters on the skin of the victim when exposed to sunlight. Guess what remedy was believed to treat porphyria…You guessed it: ingesting blood.

People became very suspicious of corpses, believing vampires rose from their coffins at night to hunt people down. So, they began to examine dead bodies more thoroughly. The natural characteristics of decomposition, such as receding gums and the appearance of growing nails and hair, began to reinforce the belief that corpses were continuing life after death. Also, the pronouncement of death when ill people were, in fact, not dead raised even higher superstitions. These were people who were very ill, or even drunk, and who were thought to be  dead. Later, out of “nowhere”, they rose and recovered from their death sleep.

When the fear of vampire corpses was at its peak, people started to impale corpses through their hearts before they were buried to prevent them from coming out of their graves. And in some cultures, the dead were buried face down to prevent them from finding their way out of their graves.

Real Vampires?

The most iconic vampire of all time has to beーno, not Edward Cullenーbut Count Dracula. It is said that Bram Stoker’s inspiration came from Vlad Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler. He was a ruthless man in power who ruled Walachia, Romania during 1456-1462. Born in Transylvania, he was a cruel man that earned his nickname out of his favorite killing device: a wooden stake. He would impale his enemies and kill them with a wooden stake into the heart. Legend suggests that Vlad Dracula feasted with his dying victims and dipped his food into their blood. Not a pretty sight for sure. This fact is actually unknown, but it served as inspiration for a great novel. Stoker knew all about this story since his creation of Dracula involved a vampire from Transylvania who sucked his victim’s blood and could be murdered after being impaled by a wooden stake into the heart.

Another iconic vampire that stands next to Dracula is Mercy Brown. However, Mercy was a real person, not a fictional character. Our first female vampire came from Exeter, Rhode Island, daughter of the farmer George Brown. After tuberculosis finished off the Brown family, including Mercy, they blamed all the deaths on her because her body showed signs of vampirism. Her body was unearthed, and it did not display severe signs of decay, so the townspeople accused her corpse of being a vampire and for making her family sick from her grave. To stop her from infecting other people, they took out her heart and burned it. For some reason, they thought it was a good idea to feed its ashes to her sick brother. He obviously died afterwards, and Mary wasn’t actually a vampire at all, of course. Her body simply didn’t suffer that much decay because her corpse was placed in an open casket near an open passage of the dire winter cold, so her body was being preserved by the climate, not because she was a blood-sucking creature…but oh well.

What about vampires today? Well, there are some people who claim themselves to be vampires because they drink small amounts of blood in an effort to stay healthy. This is probably a misunderstanding. There are also communities of self-identified vampires all around the world. Today’s vampires, however, like to keep their blood drinking rituals in private. Thank God!

The Modern Vampire

Modern vampire myths come from Gothic European Literature (18th-19th centuries). From Heintich August Ossenfelder’s “Der Vampyr”, which depicts the story about a vampiric narrator who seduces a female victim, to the first vampire prose published in English, “The Vampyre” by John Polidori, about an aristocrat who seduces young women to drain their blood. These stories, and much more, began to shape the vampire figure we’ve come to know and love today.

However, literature was not the only outlet to talk about vampires. The classic film Nosferatu (1922) was inspired by Stoker’s mind-controlling and shape-shifting Dracula. Nosferatu was the first story in which we see a vampire being vulnerable to sunlight.

It was during the 20th century that vampires began to lose those animalistic traits and instead displayed more human characteristics. For instance, Ray Bradbury’s “Homecoming” gave the vampire character a more sympathetic approach. The soap opera Dark Shadows showcased a lovelorn vampire. By this time, the vampire figure starts to be portrayed as a misunderstood romantic hero, especially in the U.S.

By the end of the 20th century, we have writers such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro whose series of Germain books portrayed a vampire of moral character whose bite for blood is all an erotic experience. We have writers such as Lori Herter who published Obsession during 1991, which is one of the first vampire romance novels rather than science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Sorry Twilight, but she was first.

Vampires were also seen as unlikely action heroes as portrayed in Underworld, Blade, and the Japanese manga Hellsing, whose protagonist name is Dracula spelled backwards: Alucard. 

Finally, vampires became a thing in mainstream television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), in which we see a star-crossed romance between a vampire and a human. True Blood was also a main show of the vampire genre, based on the book series by Charlaine Harris Sookie.

Entering the 21st century, vampire romance for teens broke loose with books such as the Vampire Diaries by L.J Smith (later turned into a TV show) and the Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer, of course. This landmarking high-school romance of vampires that sparkle in the sun rather than bursting into flames has become the vampire canon of today and has inspired many other vampire tales throughout the years.

Looking Back on the Vampire Journey

Vampires have come a long way. From Medieval superstitions, they became a plethora of things: from animalistic, gory creatures, to seducing and emotional beings, to unlikely action heroes, and to the romantic and sparkly vampires we have come to know today. What will the next vampire be like? Perhaps a futuristic, blood-sucking robot with a cape? We’ll see.

Claudia Colon is majoring in English Literature in the University of Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras Campus). She is the Vice President of HC at UPR and an Editorial Assistant for Sargasso Journal. She is an aspiring writer and editor who spends her free time reading, writing fiction, dancing, watching anime and playing Animal Crossing! Her article content centers in mental health awareness and relationships.
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