It may seem like vampires are having a hot minute in popular culture—or maybe a hot decade is more like it, since Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight was first published ten years ago, creating a juggernaut franchise that’s inspired wannabes including The Vampire Diaries and innumerable others. Vampire teens may be a popular twist at the moment, but the fact is that vampires have been “hot,” in a pop-culture sense, since pretty much the beginning of time.
As characters in Bram Stoker’s Dracula like to remind each other, almost every recorded culture has some version of the vampire legend: tales of eerie creatures who both terrify and fascinate the living with their ability to straddle the life-and-death boundary that most of us, at any given time, are pretty firmly to one side or another of.
More than anything else, it was Stoker’s gothic horror novel, published in 1897, that set the terms in which vampires would subsist in the modern era. Synthesizing various traditions, Stoker gave us a detailed description of how vampires work. They suck your blood until you die, and if you’ve drank their blood, then you become a vampire too. They’re super strong, they can assume alternate forms including bats and dogs, and they’re nocturnal (though only mostly—unlike some later vampires who couldn’t tolerate the sun at all, Stoker’s Dracula is merely trapped in human form during the day, which doesn’t impede him running errands in town). You kill them by driving stakes through their hearts (and/or cutting off their heads), and they hate garlic and blessed artifacts.
Besides codifying the terms of vampirism, though (and the rules I mentioned are just the basics—the Dracula characters list several more, with a crucial plot point revolving around the precise circumstances under which vampires may go to sea), Stoker gave us the unambiguously sexualized vampire. Not that Stoker’s Dracula was particularly good-looking:
A tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere […] 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.
The sexualization of this vampire comes in a quintessentially Victorian manner: though he’ll suck any good blood, his preferred prey is young women, a trio of whom he keeps as a sort of hellish harem. The book’s female characters know they shouldn’t yield to his neckward advances—and yet, they find themselves unable to resist. Reports one such victim:
I was appalled and was too bewildered to do or say anything. With a mocking smile, he placed one hand upon my shoulder and, holding me tight, bared my throat with the other, saying as he did so, “First, a little refreshment to reward my exertions. You may as well be quiet; it is not the first time, or the second, that your veins have appeased my thirst!” I was bewildered, and, strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him.
Ultimately, this young woman is horrified at what Dracula’s done—and the men around her talk about him as though he’s a serial rapist. Still, the book is suffused with a fear of sexuality generally—and of women’s sexuality in particular. Ironically, the woman who narrates the passage above turns out to have been victimized only because her husband wouldn’t allow her to go vampire-hunting with the men, leaving her home alone to be visited by the Count while his house is haplessly ransacked. Henceforth she’s recruited to join the men’s ranks, and by the end of the book, she’s holding Gypsies at bay with her Winchester.
Less famously but just as crucially, Dracula also gave us the self-hating vampire: the vampire who at some fundamental level deplores what he’s done, though he can’t resist the evil impulses that animate his soul. Stoker thus gave vampires a new psychological complexity: they live forever, but they want to die. He even suggests that Dracula has a sort of happy ending: when the Count finally meets his demise (his “true death”), observes one character, “there was in the face a look of peace, such as I never could have imagined might have rested there.”
In the classic film Nosferatu (1922), Dracula still looks hideous; it was Bela Lugosi, in 1931, who came to personify the suave vampire. Lugosi’s Dracula, a man in the prime of undeath with his jet-black hair slicked to a sheen, remains the default image of what a “vampire” looks like.
Of course, by now pop-culture vampires have popped up in every age group, sex, and species—including James Howe’s furry “Bunnicula,” the poignant child of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In, and of course Meyer’s quasi-sensitive Edward. The parade of vampires will certainly continue, because vampires touch on our two most timeless cultural obsessions: sex and death.
The vampire promises an encounter of unprecedented intimacy. After receiving his kiss, you might live forever—but by suspending time, one suspends all that is good and meaningful in life. Life is finite, relationships are imperfect, lovers are human. To accept the vampire’s offer of transcendent perfection is, of course, to make a deal with the devil. We know that, and still it’s a thrill to lay those cards on the table again and again and again.