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31 October 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 2:50pm

“Hardly the basis of a healthy relationship”: A brief history of the vampire

The myth emerged at a time when Eastern European folklore seemed particularly exotic to Western Europeans.

By Rebecca Rideal

There comes a moment in every young person’s life when they fall hopelessly in love with a vampire. For me, it was Tom Cruise’s Lestat, closely followed by Gary Oldman’s Dracula (the young version, obviously).

For others, there were Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Angel and Spike, Salma Hayek in From Dusk Til Dawn, the rebellious vamps in The Lost Boys, the Twilight saga’s Edward Cullen, Aaliyah’s Queen of the Damned, the unreasonably pretty casts of True Blood and The Vampire Diaries… I could go on. And on.

I’m not going to pretend our fascination with the bloodsucking undead isn’t problematic. While the prospect of being granted immortal life might be vaguely appealing, having a manipulative paramour who is chronically conflicted over whether to eat you or love you is hardly the basis of a healthy relationship. Yet, even in this #MeToo age, the vampire persists. So, because it is Halloween, perhaps it is worth briefly exploring how the modern vampire came into being.

From the Chinese Jiangshi to the Haitian Zombie, myths, legends and folklore about the undead have existed across the globe for millennia. Similarly, tales of bloodsucking creatures preying upon the innocent can be found in most corners of the world, from Lilith and Lamia to the monster Grendel in Beowulf.

Yet, the distinct vampire as we recognise it today – an undead creature who feeds on the blood of the living, appears at night and can only be destroyed by specific means – emerged during the period known to history as the Enlightenment. In other words, at a time when Eastern European folklore seemed particularly exotic to Western Europeans.

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The loss of Ottoman territories such as Serbia to the Habsburgs in the early 18th century prompted a raft of reports on local customs and traditions to be circulated abroad. Included in these reports were stories of people returning from the dead to wreak havoc on the living.

One such example was that of a Serbian peasant named Petar Blagojević, who in 1725 allegedly rose from the dead to kill nine people, sucking their blood in the process. His corpse was exhumed and found to be unusually well preserved, with blood on the mouth. To prevent further attacks, it was reported that the corpse was staked through the heart and cremated. Blagojević was labelled “vampyri”.

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This story was closely followed that of Arnold Paole, a Serbian infantryman who died in 1726 only to reappear and kill 16 people. Over a relatively short period of time, a body of literature grew detailing the presence of corpses in Eastern Europe not looking at all like corpses and having ruddy complexions and blood oozing from their faces. It was reported that men, women, children and even babies were exhumed and staked.

The historian Nick Groom has shown how, in Britain, these stories resulted in the term “vampire” rapidly entering common usage and taking on a metaphorical as well as literal meaning. In the shadow of the South Sea Bubble, it was used as a way to criticise a “ravenous minister… who preys upon human Gore, and fattens Himself upon the Vitals of his Country”.

The literal belief in vampires persisted, too. Groom also details how, according to Horace Walpole, George II “had no doubt of the existence of Vampires & their banquets of the dead”. In this, he was far from alone.

As the 18th century progressed, the vampire entered poetic works by the likes of Heinrich August Ossenfelder and Robert Southey. It is perhaps also no coincidence that there was also a renewed interest during this period in the life of Elizabeth Báthory, who was believed – probably erroneously – to have bathed in the blood of her victims in order to remain beautiful. Over time, vampires would come to be linked to imperial oppression, racism, the waning aristocracy and the 19th century obsession with the supernatural, the Gothic and the science of death.

It is telling that the first explicit English language vampire novel, The Vampyre (1819), was written by a physician who was numbered among Lord Byron’s circle. Aggrieved at having been sacked by his patron, John William Polidori fashioned his vampire, Lord Ruthven, in the shape of his former master – he was an antihero and a sexual predator, evil and charming with dead eyes. In Ruthven, Polidori bound together sex, or predatory desire, and death. A theme that has pulsated through vampire literature ever since – from the lesbian vampire Carmilla (1872), and Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula (1897) to 20th century cinematic portrayals and books series by the likes of Anne Rice, Stephanie Meyer, and Deborah Harkness.

The Byronic vampire is by no means the only version to have emerged in English literature and Hollywood – Nosferatu and the earthy depiction of Vlad Tepes in Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian differ somewhat from the usual, as do the creatures in the film 30 Days of Night – but it is by far the most resilient incarnation. Its hold is probably best summed up in the words of Deacon in the pitch-perfect parody What We Do In The Shadows: “When you are a vampire, you become very sexy.”