With vampires a ubiquitous presence in pop culture, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk asks if there is any scientific basis for the humble vampire
Fangs bared, the ghastly black-cloaked vampire bends over the sleeping woman. His victim is a beautiful virgin dressed in a billowing white nightgown that signifies her purity and innocence. With a sinister hiss, the vampire bites into her fragile neck.
This scene is so popular and well-known throughout our culture, featuring in countless films, books and videogames that it is hard to find someone who is unfamiliar with it. And this is not only because of the recent wave of interest in vampire culture sparked by the Twilight phenomenon. The myth of the vampire had already integrated itself into our mainstream culture long before that, but where does it come from, and is there any fact to the legend?
Although tales of blood-sucking ghosts and demons are millennia-old and appear in the folklore of many ancient cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Ancient Greeks and Romans, the term vampire as we know it only really became popular in western Europe during the start of the eighteenth century. This occurred because of an influx of vampire superstition from eastern areas such as the Balkans, Greece and Romania, where vampire legends were rife.
These mysterious, evil beings had seized the imaginations of the Western world, and since then the legend of the vampire has continued to grow.
It was Irishman Bram Stoker’s immensely successful novel Dracula that generated the image of the sophisticated vampire, creating a basis for modern vampire fiction. The legend of the vampire exploded onto the silver screen with numerous films based on the popular book, such as the landmark silent film Nosferatu.
The last twenty years have seen a wide array of series and films about vampires, ranging from shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to movies like Interview with the Vampire, the Russian Night Watch, the Twilight Saga and True Blood.
But what is it about vampires that appeals to us so strongly? The classical myth of the vampire is about society trying to deal with its fear of death. People identify with immortal vampires because it lets them temporarily escape from their own mortality, and the mortality of their loved ones.
Although vampires cannot see their own reflections in the mirror, they are in fact a reflection of the culture of the era that created them. The different issues and fears of each time-period were reflected in its portrayal of the epitome of evil – the vampire.
The vampire has evolved in tandem with the society around him and distinct changes can be seen in the portrayal of vampires throughout the decades. Bram Stoker’s 1897 Count Dracula was anything but handsome and aristocratic – he had a large nose, pointed ears, squat fingers and hair growing in the palms of his hands. Stoker’s villain channelled the repressed sexuality of the Victorian era, as well as the subservience of women in their society. He was the perfect vessel for the fears and desires of that era.
But in the 1931 film Dracula, the evil vampire was depicted as the epitome of style. A powerful, alluring eastern aristocrat, with slicked back hair and expensive clothing. This became the standard for all vampires to come. During the cold war era, Dracula changed yet again, becoming the quintessential evil villain that audiences could not sympathise with. Christopher Lee’s 1958 depiction was a truly evil creature with long fangs and blood-red eyes.
A new trend has arisen in the past twenty-five years, with vampires becoming more and more youthful and rock ‘n’ roll. The vampires in films such as The Lost Boys, Queen of the Damned, Van Helsing and the popular series Buffy the Vampire Slayer exude sex appeal and charisma. A new breed of gothic vampires had emerged, and while often very attractive and alluring, they transform into grotesque creatures, revealing the ugliness beneath their handsome exterior.
Vampires of the previous years were pale, mysterious and often-vicious villains that burned in direct sunlight, while the vampires of the Twilight universe merely sparkle. Recent times have seen a shift towards genteel, abstinent vampires, such as the southern gentleman of the True Blood universe, or the brooding teens of the Twilight Saga and Vampire Diaries.
After centuries of existence in our culture’s imagination, vampires are more popular now than ever. But why are people, especially teens, so quick to immerse themselves in this myth? Believing that vampires are real in this day and age is ludicrous, yet they still hold an unnatural fascination over us.
Vampires do play an important part in mainstream culture, especially for teens and young adults. While in previous years, vampires were the villains, they have now become the new anti-heroes – caring yet potentially dangerous beings surrounded by mystery, excitement and sex appeal. They are killers by nature, yet they fight their base instincts for the sake of the humans they love.
In True Blood, the nineteenth-century vampire Bill Compton is a chivalrous and polite gentleman. In a world filled with both good and bad vampires, he is determined to protect his human girlfriend Sookie from the worst of his kind. Although he suffers from his thirst for blood, he reins in his basic instinct to kill, and it is his restraint that makes him more alluring in our eyes.
In the Twilight series, Edward is handsome, protective and in tune with his emotions and on the surface, he seems to be everything a teenage girl would ever want. As well as that, his brooding presence creates a sense of mystery and danger. There are also obvious sexual overtones in Edward’s battle with the urge to drink his human love’s blood.
However, with the rise of vampires in popular culture, so too have people claimed to be vampires themselves. There is no scientific proof that any human needs blood to survive, but underground groups have sprung up, in which individuals drink each other’s blood, sleep in coffins and engage in what they believe to be vampiric behaviour. As with any activity involving fluid exchange, drinking the blood of another person is incredibly dangerous as diseases such as hepatitis and HIV can easily be transmitted. It seems that in the case of vampires, fantasy is a lot safer than reality.