How popular culture changed our view of the vampire

From a very real 18th century fear to the Halloween iconography we know and love—we owe it all to the enduring, mystifying appeal of the vampire.

Max Schreck as the vampiric Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922.)
Photograph by Alamy

When they dug up Arnold Paole's dead body 40 days after his death, what they discovered was the stuff of nightmares. The corpse’s clothing was all bloody. There was fresh blood flowing from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears. His original fingernails and toenails had all fallen off, replaced by newly grown ones.

For the Serbian villagers and military officials tasked with the disinterment, these gruesome signs were a clear indication that Paole was a vampire. Furthermore, following his death, villagers complained they had been attacked by him—their blood sucked from their veins; they later fell ill and died themselves. So, when the officials opened his grave, they plunged a wooden stake into the dead man’s heart. According to a 1732 report by Johannes Fluckinger, an Austrian military doctor sent to investigate the case, the corpse then let out a loud groan, and blood poured copiously from his chest.

This was back in the 1720s, in the southern Serbian town of Medveda. Fluckinger’s report went on to describe how, in the years following Paole’s demise, there was an epidemic of so-called vampirism in the region, with dozens of locals succumbing to mysterious deaths. Many were later exhumed, their hearts staked, heads decapitated, and corpses burned in an effort to stamp out the epidemic.

(How did 19th century vampire hunters identify the undead? Blood and fingernails.)

Not surprisingly, these macabre tales quickly spread throughout Europe. The philosophers Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all became intrigued. Scholars have subsequently suggested that Paole’s story—one of the very first documented cases of the undead sucking the blood of a living human— influenced the subsequent portrayal of vampires across modern culture.

Sir Christopher Frayling is one such scholar. A broadcaster and cultural historian based in Bath, he is author of Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years. “The modern vampire begins with Arnold Paole,” he tells National Geographic (U.K.) “He was the one all the philosophers talked about. There were debates about Paole in the Paris salons.”

Frayling offers several scientific theories on the real explanation behind Fluckinger’s report. Had Paole accidentally been buried while still alive? Had he been suffering from rabies? Perhaps corpses in cold climates decay much more slowly?

The location of these 18th century vampire epidemics—in frontier villages on the outer reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—is significant. Frayling points out how the vampire myth is a parody of the Christian resurrection and a “satanic version” of transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that during Holy Communion the bread and wine change into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

“There’s theological confusion here,” he says. “There’s a battle royal going on between the Greek Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism, between Catholicism and Protestantism; between the centre of power in Vienna and these far reaches on the frontier.”

Changing form

By the 19th century, the myth of vampire had progressed from folklore to literature. Violet Fenn is author of A History of the Vampire in Popular Culture. She suggests one of the first known printed references to vampires in the English language is in an 1813 poem by Lord Byron called The Giaour.

But as both Fenn and Frayling agree, it was the 1819 publication of a short story by British writer John William Polidori, called The Vampyre, that was the dawning of the romantic vampire genre we still cherish today.

“This leads to a huge craze in the 1820s of operas, ballets, plays and burlesques, all under the theme of the vampire,” says Frayling who used to be chairman of Arts Council England and a governor of the British Film Institute. “Out of those come all the clichés of vampirism: the seductive aristocrat, debauched young men, high society, cloaks and evening dress, and all that other famous iconography.”

Unlike the early vampires of eastern Europe—described by Frayling as “repulsive creatures… often agricultural laborers... just as likely to bite sheep and cattle as their own relatives”—the 19th century vampires were redrawn as charming, seductive, silver-tongued aristocrats, where predator and victim were “locked into this strange master-servant relationship”.

Infamy immortal

Inarguably the most famous vampire of all—Count Dracula, villain of the 1897 novel Dracula, by Bram Stoker—is the epitome of this aristocratic image. Here is how the novel’s protagonist, Jonathan Harker, describes his first meeting of the count: “His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. 

“These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.” 

This combination of repulsion and charm is, according to Frayling, at the core of our continued obsession with vampires. “It’s partly about the afterlife,” he says, attempting to explain the proliferation of the vampire myth across so much of our media and culture. “Life isn’t over when you die; you might come back, albeit in a satanic form.”

A common suggestion is that vampirism is highly erotic. “It’s partly about desire, submission and dominance,” Frayling states. “It’s seen as sex from the neck up.”

Fenn concurs. “When it comes to our innermost and most secret desires, blood and lust are often more closely entwined than we realise,” she writes. “Perhaps our love of vampires is in itself a type of kink? A form of power play in which we as humans get to play the outwardly unwilling submissive who is, if truth be told, thoroughly excited by the situation.”

There’s a political element, too, with undertones of Eastern Europe versus the West. Indeed, in Bram Stoker’s novel, it’s after Count Dracula travels from Transylvania to England that his true evil is manifested. Then there’s the question of social class. “Vampirism plays to middle class resentment about entitlement and aristocrats behaving badly,” Frayling adds.

Perhaps most crucially of all, the vampire myth allows us to examine societal taboos we aren’t always able to discuss. “It’s about wanting a demon lover to take you over; about desiring undesirable things,” Frayling explains. “It transposes them into this myth in a rather pleasurable way.”

A spooky season icon

All these factors help explain why there are so many novels, comic books, movies, TV series, plays—even operas, ballets and musicals centred on vampires. In turn, this has secured the vampire’s annual starring role at Halloween. “Much of the iconography of Halloween comes from Bela Lugosi as Dracula,” Frayling explains, referring to the 1931 movie. “Halloween has become Hollywood-ised, and the vampire is a very important part of that.”

In his book, Frayling catalogues dozens upon dozens of feature films dedicated to these infamous bloodsuckers, ranging from the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu, and the Hammer Film Productions of the 1950s to the 1970s (with Christopher Lee often in the title role) to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the 1990s and the Twilight saga in the 2000s. Frayling believes the total tally of vampire movies ever made runs well into the thousands. According to the authors of the 2011 book Dracula in Visual Media, no other horror character has been more depicted.

Such enduring popularity suggests there is an important role in society for the vampire myth. “I think we need gothic stories, the fantastical, the magical, the fairy tale, the fable and the fear,” Frayling says. “These stories can carry taboo subjects in interesting ways.”

He cites the example of Soviet-era Russia when anti-government themes were disguised from the censors within fables or magic realism. “It was the only way to tell stories without going to the gulag.”

There’s also a practical function to horror stories. “By representing your fears, you’re taming them.”

Nor should the pleasure of scaring oneself witless be underestimated. Frayling’s own introduction to vampires was as a teenager, in 1961, when he sneaked out from boarding school to the cinema to watch Christopher Lee in a double bill of Dracula and The Mummy. “There is something pleasurable about fear—that strange combination of, ‘I want to look away, but actually I want to watch as well’,” he remembers.

Determined to watch until the final scene, “when the count disintegrates and turns into ashes”, Frayling was late back to school. The harsh punishment was worth it, he insists.

What of the future of vampires in popular culture? Just about every genre of movie and novel—from action, sci-fi, romance and western to comedy, fantasy, super-hero, even pornography—has embraced the phenomenon. Frayling believes the old-fashioned image of the eastern European upper-class vampire swooping through a crumbling castle in a cape is now pretty much consigned to history. He suggests the COVID-19 pandemic might breathe life into a new idea of vampirism as a blood-borne plague.

‘Clinical’ vampirism

Amid all these fictitious vampires, is it possible that true vampires actually exist? Are there humans who really drink the blood of other humans?

Clinical vampirism or Renfield’s syndrome are medical terms used to describe this macabre practice. The latter term, named after a deranged character in the Bram Stoker novel, was coined by American psychologist Richard Noll in 1992, as a parody of all the jargon bandied about in his field. But it stuck. 

While there has been a handful of documented cases of psychopaths and serial killers consuming human blood, Renfield’s syndrome is thankfully exceedingly rare.

Frayling is quick to differentiate between blood drinkers and the myth of vampires. “[People] who get turned on by drinking blood,” he says, “...I don’t think that relates to the attraction of the myth. That’s a sideways step into something else.”

Vampire Cinema: The First One Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling is published by Reel Art Press.

This story was adapted from the National Geographic U.K. website.

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