A sure fang

The myths that fed the vampire tradition are all but exhausted. Yet in a world where the living are

For almost 200 years now, vampires have been battening on every fresh medium of entertainment that has come their way. No matter how often their obituary has been pronounced, still they keep rising from the grave. A new film version of Dracula will be released this summer, while another movie currently on release, Shadow of the Vampire, explores the making of the silent film Nosferatu (released in 1921), an early masterpiece of German expressionist cinema and one of the first adaptations of Bram Stoker's novel (published in 1897). But although we are accustomed to regard Nosferatu, eerily sensitive and close to its subject - and indeed Dracula itself - as the sources of our vampire tradition, in fact they both feed on traditions older still. As in all the best horror stories, the trail of blood left by a vampire stretches far back in time.

Despite a great deal of research, the origins of the vampire myth remain controversial. In a typically purple passage, Walter Pater wrote of the Mona Lisa that "she is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave . . . " The idea that the vampire is a universal phantom, haunting every age and culture, is still a popular one, but the refinements that distinguish the vampire as we know it today are actually highly specific. There are foreshadowings of them in both Judaeo-Christian and classical myth: Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who feeds in the night on the newborn; the sheeted dead in Homer, who can speak only once they have drunk from a trench of blood.

The strength of the vampire tradition in Greece in particular, has led some historians to posit the survival and mutation of classical superstitions, but more certain is the influence of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church. By proclaiming that the corpses of excommunicants would never decompose, it provided fertile ground for the belief that such corpses might be literally undead, a fear that rapidly gave rise to epidemics of terror. These swept eastern Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, until news of the most spectacular manifestation of all, that of Arnold Paole - a Hungarian bandit who had returned from the grave to feed on his relatives - reached England and France during the Enlightenment. The philosophes delighted in this example of backwoods superstition, and Voltaire and Diderot were both quick to compare vampires to priests - an insult made all the more piquant because vampires were presumed to be scarlet-faced, filthy and coarse peasants.

The contrast with our own version of the vampire - pale, elegant, aristocratic - is striking. So striking, in fact, that one cannot help seeing the modern-day vampire as something virtually distinct from his 18th-century forebear, the embodiment of quite separate fantasies and fears. Perhaps it is significant that we can date the origin of the modern vampire to a specific date: the same date (1818) which saw the birth of that prototypical myth of the industrial age, Frankenstein. Mary Shelley's novel was not the only bestseller to result from that celebrated evening in a storm-lashed Genevan villa with Lord Byron, who set his bored guests a horror-story competition. Byron's own story, the account of an English nobleman who had toured the Aegean and come to a mysterious end, was adapted by his envious and embittered physician, Dr John Polidori, into the first true work of vampire fiction. Published without Polidori's knowledge under Byron's own name, it told the story of Lord Ruthven, mad, bad and thoroughly dangerous to know. It was hardly surprising, then, that it should have been interpreted by most readers as a work of veiled autobiography. This assumption alone was enough to guarantee it bestseller status all across Europe, and to provide the image of the vampire with a wholly new brand.

As such, the vampire who haunts our cable channels and toy shops can convincingly be regarded as the most vital and enduring of all the varied expressions of Byronism. Touched by the sinister glamour of the milord, vampires in the 19th century remained resolutely titled, until, with Dracula, Stoker succeeded in for ever fixing the figure of the vampire as a feudal nightmare, complete with dungeons and gibbering peasantry.

Even in America, which Ruskin famously dismissed for its lack of castles, the vampire invariably sniffs out anything that can approximate to a European class system. Anne Rice's Lestat is perhaps the most celebrated of a whole host of bloodsuckers who have haunted the Deep South, where the twin inheritances of slavery and voodoo have provided scope for horror undreamed of in the Old World.

But the vampire inherited more than a title from Byron. Polidori's stroke of genius with his story was to associate the Byronic pose of ennui with the pallid lassitude of a vampire in need of fresh blood. In both cases, satiation serves merely as the prelude to an ever greater craving, for with the vampire, as with the libertine, the fleeting high is all, and the consequence the same: a restless pursuit of new and ever-escalating sensations. Vampirism, therefore, can be seen as a powerful metaphor for addiction - or, to be more specific, for those addictions that follow from the dread of boredom. In a pre-industrial society, it is hardly surprising that this should have been associated with the aristocracy: no one else had the money or the time to feel bored. But with the spread of wealth, ennui was democratised, and with it, increasingly, the vampire as well.

This made its significance as a metaphor all the more valuable to an outwardly prudish society such as Victorian Britain, where there were plenty of mortal shadows stalking the night. The figure of the predatory milord, exercising a sanguinary droit de seigneur over his female victims, began to mutate - to male eyes - into the far more threatening phantom of a diseased dominatrix, typified by Pater's Mona Lisa and Swinburne's Dolores, "Our Lady of Pain". In this context, Dracula himself is less typical of his age than are the three female succubi who prey on the hapless Jonathan Harker and reduce his manly resolve to a "languorous ecstasy". "A nightly visit from a beautiful or frightful being, who first exhausts the sleeper with passionate embraces and then withdraws from him a vital fluid," wrote Ernest Jones, an early disciple of Freud: "the explanation of these phantasies is surely not hard to find."

Nowadays, the vampire's function as a metaphor for transgression is so obvious that it leaves very little space for the myth. It is almost de rigueur for modern vampires to be gay, and many are drug addicts as well. Even as the outward appurtenances of the vampire - the castle, the cape, the crucifix and garlic - increasingly have become the props of a kitsch mass culture, so film-makers and novelists have responded with ever more desperate attempts to shock. Yet these, too, by the law of diminishing returns, would seem to spell the end of the vampire's allure. Perhaps that stake really is closing in.

Or perhaps not - for the vampire, like a virus, has endured by mutating. "The blood is the life", after all, and in a new century - which will be dominated by the transformative and almost magical potential of modern medicine - new nightmares, new horrors, will undoubtedly be bred. A world that sees dead babies' organs being cannibalised still has need of the vampire. In the future, as in the past, it will no doubt continue to stalk the shadows, a phantom bred by our modern world, the baleful mirror-image of all our ambitions and desires.

Tom Holland's The Vampyre, featuring Lord Byron as one of the living dead, is published by Abacus (£6.99)