Bitten by a vampire

They slink about at night, suck your blood, and turn mortals into the living dead. Why are vampires so popular?

How big is the vampire business?
It’s a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Novelist Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, about the vampire Edward Cullen, has sold 42 million copies since 2005, while the film version has grossed more than $382 million since its release last fall. The HBO vampire series True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris’ best-selling Southern Vampire Mysteries, is one of cable’s biggest hits; sales of first-season DVDs led all other TV titles this summer. Harris’ latest entry, Dead and Gone, debuted in May at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. This fall will see the debut, on the CW network, of The Vampire Diaries, based on L.J. Smith’s young-adult novels. In Los Angeles last month, the first Vampire-Con featured panels, movie screenings, and costume contests attended by devotees wearing capes, white makeup, and plastic fangs. “The undead sure are lively,” says cultural critic Johanna Schneller. “Everywhere you look in entertainment these days, you see vampires.”

When did this fascination begin?
Legends of ghoulish, blood-sucking zombies who can turn themselves into bats have been around for more than 2,000 years. At the turn of the 18th century, much of this oral tradition began to be recorded and published in Eastern Europe, and those accounts traveled west. Eventually, much of the Continent succumbed to what might be described as vampire hysteria. Many people began to believe in vampires; some even drove stakes through corpses that seemed “undead.” Historians have cited various reasons for this paranoia, including fear of every scourge from rabies to tuberculosis, whose emaciated victims cough up blood before dying. By 1734, the word “vampire,” which derives from an Old Slavic term related to the verb “to fly,” had entered the English language.

How did vampires become cultural icons?
Credit goes to an English doctor, John William Polidori, and his 1819 short story “The Vampyre.” Until Polidori, vampires were depicted as bloated, smelly monsters. But Polidori drew upon one of his most famous patients, Lord Byron, to create Lord Ruthven, a sleek, aristocratic gentleman who moved in society’s rarefied circles and had a mysterious magnetism, especially over women. In 1847, Scotsman James Malcolm Rymer added to vampire lore with his pulp novel Varney the Vampire. Ryder’s corpse-like protagonist had fangs, superhuman strength, and powers of hypnosis. With the publication in 1897 of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the modern vampire was born (see below).

What explains their appeal?
Vampires tap into deep and powerful themes. They are simultaneously living and dead, human and nonhuman. Their bloodsucking bites are potent metaphors for kissing and sexual relations. And with their dark, anti-social skulking, vampires are the ultimate outcasts—a role that adolescents, in particular, identify with. Charlaine Harris says readers love “the idea of beings who are always at peak condition, never age, never have to get their teeth capped, never have to get their knees replaced, never have to die—or diet.” Veteran horror film director Wes Craven calls the vampire “the seducer, bringing death and promising immortality. He embodies social ambivalence about sex and death.” The tagline for the 1987 teen-vampire movie The Lost Boys says it all: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.”

Why do they go in and out of vogue?
Social conditions play a part. Vampires’ popularity increases, says University of Texas Slavic studies professor Thomas Garza, “every time we have periods of economic stress, social disarray, or disorder.” The original film version of Dracula, released during the depths of the Depression and the rise of fascism, was a huge hit. And one reason Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire and its sequels were so popular in the 1980s was that many readers saw allegories to the AIDS crisis in her blood imagery. Some pop-culture experts link the current vampire mania to the war on terror and the global economic meltdown. At the same time, the vampires that populate today’s fiction are far sexier than the musty castle-dwellers of yore. In Twilight and similar offerings, they typically have buff bodies and sharp clothes—and they can be found not just in Transylvania but right in your neighborhood.

Have vampires always mirrored their times?
Yes. Stoker’s original Dracula—an old man with prominent teeth, bad breath, and hairy palms—came to represent foreign cultures that were viewed as a threat to Britain’s national character. In the 1960s, the ABC horror soap opera Dark Shadows starred Jonathan Frid as vampire Barnabas Collins, whose struggles over his identity reflected America’s dilemmas over Vietnam and the counterculture. This moral ambiguity is especially apparent in Lestat de Lioncourt, the brooding, conflicted hero of Interview With the Vampire, which appeared in the aftermath of Watergate. Such underlying contexts give vampires a cultural cachet that werewolves and mummies simply can’t match. “Vampires in literature became familiar because they conveyed some broader meaning,” says Peter Logan of Temple University, “not just because they are scary.”

The Dracula legend
The world’s most famous vampire, Count Dracula, was conceived by Irish civil servant and theater manager Abraham “Bram” Stoker around 1890, reportedly during nightmares he suffered after glutting himself on dressed crab at dinner. Taking almost seven years to research and write his novel Dracula, Stoker created or popularized almost all of today’s major vampire motifs. Using Transylvania, Romania, as his launching point, Stoker posited that vampires emerge only at night and sleep by day in consecrated earth; they are terrified of holy objects such as crucifixes, as well as of garlic. Dracula—whose name derives from “dracul,” the Romanian word for “devil” or “dragon”—has no reflection in a mirror, but he can transform himself into a bat and a wolf. Although well received, Dracula was no best-seller; Stoker’s widow called it “the second bathroom book” because its royalties just about paid for a new bathroom in their home.


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