From Myth to Legend:

The Transformation of the Vampire in Mythology and Literature Over Time


According to Katherine Ramsland in her book The Science of Vampires, when one thinks of a vampire, it's "more of a feeling than a creature: the dread of losing control to something that invades us and slowly drains us while holding us enthralled" (xiii). Whatever it is about these nocturnal bloodsuckers, humans have long been held enthralled by the idea of them. The idea started in the ancient empires of Greece and Rome—but what brought the idea of the vampire in the literary world so far since then? Many changes have occurred in the idea, character, powers, and personality of the vampire since ancient times.

The first evil bloodsuckers of ancient origins were of Greek, Roman, Babylonian and Hebrew mythology. Surprisingly enough, many ancient vampire-like creatures were female, though after the 1500s they were primarily male. This probably stemmed from the fear of female sexuality held by the societies of ancient times. Lilith is a good example of this. The story of Lilith is of Babylonian and Hebrew origin. She was the first wife of Adam, before Eve. According to the myth as told by Russel Roberts, she and Adam had an argument about power and sex. Afterward, she flew to the Red Sea and acquired evil powers. She was angry because she was unable to have children, so she used her evil powers to kill newborns by strangling them and sucking their blood (33). Lamia is another female vampiric creature, though she is of Greek origin. In Greek mythology, as told by Roberts, the Libyan queen Lamia had children with the Greek god Zeus. This angered Hera, the wife of Zeus, so she took the children from Lamia. Distraught, Lamia hid away in a cave and took revenge on all children because she was not powerful enough to take revenge on Hera. Eventually, the word Lamia was used to describe a group of female demons that could turn into beautiful young women and seduce young men, though they primarily attacked children (32). The Empusai is an evil creature of Greek origin that has no shape of its own but can possess people and use them for its own evil purposes. This creature was featured in the book Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostraus. In the story, Apollonius marries a woman who is an Empusai in order to save his best friend, who was engaged to her, for she would have devoured him and drank his blood (Roberts 32). Empusai are also known for seducing young men (Roberts 32). Also part of Greek and Roman mythology was the creature known as Strige, a nocturnal demon who preyed on young children. A Roman poet named Ovid describes Striges in the following passage:

Voracious birds they are…that fly forth by night and assail children who still need a nurse's care, and seize them out of their cradles, and do them mischief. With their beaks they are said to pick out the child's milk-fed bowels, and their throat is full of the blood they drink. Striges they are called. (qtd. in Roberts 32)

Vampire folklore also flourished elsewhere in Europe, especially after the fall of the Roman Empire. Many Vampire tales of the Middle Ages rose from the fact that the people of those times didn't understand what happens to a body after death, during decomposition (Ramsland 13). As Paul Barber states, "the vampire tale is an 'ingenious folk hypothesis' to explain clearly observed phenomena that otherwise seem impossible" (qtd. in Ramsland 16). Other observed phenomena that may have accounted for vampire folklore include diseases like tuberculosis and rabies. In many old vampire tales, the vampire first attacks members of its family or those it was close to. Since many diseases are spread by proximity and the people of the Middle Ages knew nothing of bacteria and viruses, vampirism may have been the only explanation the people could accept for the spread of diseases (Ramsland 16-17).

The Catholic Church aided the spread of vampire myth. The Church encouraged belief in vampires to draw in members and it spread the theory that the Church was the only institution that could banish vampires (Roberts 33). The Church added to the myth by claiming that not only were vampires evil, but they were minions of Satan (Roberts 33). In 1215, at the 4th Lateran Council, the Catholic Church officially stated the existence of vampires (Roberts 33). However, something would cause them to rethink this statement. The only way to "tell" if a corpse had indeed succumbed to vampirism at that time was to exhume and examine it. If a corpse was a vampire, it would have a reddish tint to it, be in a different position than when it was buried, have "new" skin or bright red blood, be thicker from bloating, have longer hair and nails, or have limp limbs (Ramsland 12). We now know that all of these things occur with normal decomposition (Macnair). Hysteria about vampires soon started to spread as peasants began to dig up graves and burn the bodies, and this is when the Church finally reversed its view about the existence of vampires (Roberts 42-43).

During this time, many people started expressing their ideas about vampirism in writing. In 1653, in An Appeal to the Natural Faculties of the Mind of Man Whether There be Not a God, Henry More states that anyone who commits suicide will become a vampire (Roberts 39). The first fictional vampire was a character in Travels of Three English Gentlemen From Venice to Hamburg, Being the Grand Tour of Germany in the Year 1734, written in 1810 (Ramsland xv). In this novel, a vampire is a reanimated corpse that rises from the grave to suck the blood of the living, which kills the human victim and turns them into a vampire (Ramsland xv). To kill a vampire, it is necessary to drive a stake through his heart or burn his body (Ramsland xv). This is very nearly the old, archetypal vampire.

In April of 1819, a story called "The Vampyre" was published in the New Monthly Magazine by John Polidori, a friend of Lord Byron. In this piece, a vampire is a "sinister nobleman who carefully plans his evil actions" and not "a European peasant who returns from the grave to wreak mindless vengeance" (Roberts 48-49). In fact, Polidori's Lord Ruthven is a popular aristocrat that highly resembles a human (Polidori). Lord Ruthven is said to have a "dead gray eye, which. . .at one glance can pierce through to the inward workings of the heart," his face has a "deadly hue," and he has "strength that seems superhuman" (Polidori). In Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood published in 1853 by Thomas Preskett Prest, the vampire Varney is a nobleman that attacks women in bed. He has sharp fangs, pale skin, long fingernails, and shimmering eyes; he is also the first vampire able to shapeshift into a bat (Ramsland xvi).

Then came Dracula. The book was published in 1897 by Bram Stoker in the United Kingdom. It came out in the United States in 1899 and hasn't been out of print since. Dracula is one of the most popular vampire novels of all time. In fact, Count Dracula has become the epitome of the archetypal vampire, with his black clothes, white hair, pale skin, sharp teeth, and reddened eyes (Ramsland 4). He differs greatly from past vampires in that he acquired many new aspects of character. He is an aristocrat, just as Lord Ruthven and Varney are, but is much more than just a man who attacks women to get the blood he needs for sustenance. The story of Count Dracula, as summarized by Douthat and Hopson, starts off with the travel of Jonathan Harker, a young English lawyer who is journeying to Castle Dracula to make a real estate deal with the Count. As he draws near, the people warn him about the castle. It is not until he has been in the castle for a while that he discovers that there is something strange about his well-educated and hospitable host. Harker is seduced by three female vampires during the night, but Count Dracula stops them, telling them Harker is all his. Fearing for his life, Harker tries to escape by climbing down the walls of the castle. Meanwhile, back in England, Harker's fiancée Mina visits her friend Lucy at the town of Whitby on the sea. There is a shipwreck and the only sign of life on board is a big dog that bounds off the ship and runs away. The only cargo is 50 boxes of soil shipped from Castle Dracula. Soon afterward, Lucy sleepwalks and is found in the graveyard, where it seems as if a red-eyed creature had been bending over her. Garlic is used to protect her, but she is very ill. There are two small holes in her neck, and she suffers from an unknown illness. She receives four blood transfusions, though they don't help. When Lucy's mother removes the garlic unwittingly, Dracula breaks into the house in the form of a wolf and kills Lucy. She turns into a vampire and is slain by Van Helsing, her fiancé Holmwood, Dr. Seward, and Quincey Morris. The group, once reunited with Mina and Jonathan, who were away in Budapest, study all they can to figure out Dracula's whereabouts. Meanwhile, Dracula feeds on Mina and takes her with him to Transylvania. The remaining people battling Dracula trap him at his castle and slay him with knives. With his death, Mina is released from her state of vampirism (Douthat and Hopson, Plot Overview).

In the making of this novel, Stoker greatly expanded the powers, characteristics, and personality of the vampire. Many new ideas appeared in the novel. As Ramsland explains, Dracula did not have a reflection or shadow, was unable to cross running water except at high or low tide because it was considered pure, and needed to be invited before crossing a threshold. He was physically agile; could see in the dark; had hypnotic mind powers; could shapeshift into an animal, dust, or mist; had sharp canine teeth; was cold to the touch; could command rats and other lower animals; had to rest in his native soil; and could make more vampires via his bite. His personality also changed greatly. As a vampire, he was energetic and animalistic, driven by his need for blood. He was clever and calculating, feeding on weak and vulnerable people, and had lived for centuries. His weaknesses were garlic and religious objects such as crucifixes and holy water. Garlic was probably used as one of his weaknesses because it was known as a healing agent, was known to cleanse the blood, and had "acquired the reputation of an effective treatment against supernatural powers." Vampires in Dracula could be killed through decapitation and stuffing the head with garlic, a stake through the heart, or being stabbed in the chest. Dracula's victims were left with two holes in their neck and blood loss. Despite transfusions, Lucy, one of Dracula's victims, did not recover. The victims become almost addicted to vampirism and started to become vampires themselves. When Lucy died, she became a vampire. However, when Dracula died, all the vampires he created who were still living were released from their vampiric addictions (Ramsland 3, 4, 10, 11, 41, 55). It is through the state of the victims that Stoker reveals the strong psychic power of Count Dracula. Ramsland says "as Dracula chooses and connects with a victim, he appears to create a telepathic bond. . .after Mina is bitten, she has a subliminal awareness of her attacker's whereabouts. Under hypnosis, she can describe what she sees and hears as if she were inside the monster" (Ramsland 73).

The movie Dracula, released in 1931, starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and produced by Tod Browning further transformed the character of Dracula. The film made him more aristocratic and less brutal, even to the point of being charming. The Count dressed in a cape and tuxedo and had a Hungarian accent, which all became key aspects of the archetypal vampire. He didn't attack his victims as Dracula did in Stoker's novel; instead, he seduced his victims, turning him into an erotic character. The transformation from ancient vampire to archetypal vampire was finished.

The vampire, though having undergone quite a change, still had a long literary journey to undergo before it would become the terrifying modern image seen today. Ramsland notes the significance of this change by saying "Dracula is to the postmodern vampire as Newtonian science is to quantum mechanics" (186). The biggest change from Dracula to the contemporary vampires is that Count Dracula is unquestionably evil—end of story. But now contemporary vampires can be either good or evil, or some terrifying mix of both, depending on what the author does with the character (Ramsland 56). Ramsland notes the changes in the following passage:

Vampires today do not have to avoid the sun, kill anyone, or even drink blood. They can have families, get a tan, and drink wine…We have sex vampires, energy vampires, emotional vampires, mortal vampires prone to illness, and vampires who've inherited their condition, or become that way by sorcery, reincarnation, or a virus. Vampires can eat food (including garlic), work on Wall Street, walk in daylight, steal souls, come from Mars, faint at the sight of blood, and put their makeup on in a mirror. (176)

The change has been huge. An author can now decide which pieces of the archetypal vampire puzzle he or she wants to keep in the piece. They can keep all of it and write of a very Dracula-esque vampire, they can keep some pieces and not others, or they can create something terrifyingly evolved from Dracula, having next to none of his qualities. "Decades ago, we 'knew' what a vampire was," Ramsland says. "Now no one can be told that her version of this creature fails to match the standard." There seems to be a very wide variety in powers, characteristics, and personality of a contemporary vampire, but there are three things that define a vampire as contemporary. The contemporary vampire is evil, has a romantic dark side, and is a "manifestation of an alternate spirituatlity" (Ramsland 178).

According to Ramsland, the first semi-contemporary vampire was introduced in 1954 in the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. The novel revolves around Robert Neville, the only human left in a world of vampires. While investigating, Neville finds that the vampirism gripping the earth is caused by a bacterium. The vampires in this novel can see themselves in mirrors, don't shapeshift, and stay in during the day because the bacterium induces a coma while the sun shines. In this sense, they are very different from Count Dracula. However, they need blood and must avoid the sun and garlic. A stake through the heart kills the bacteria because the air causes them to mutate (45-46). These vampires are semi-contemporary because they are very different from Dracula, as their vampirism is based on a disease, yet they are not truly contemporary.

Ramsland states that the first truly contemporary vampire was perhaps Barnabas Collins on the ABC TV series Dark Shadows. Barnabas had an affair with a witch and when he scorned her, she cursed him with vampirism. It is later discovered by a doctor in the series that vampirism is caused by a disease. However, even though a disease caused the vampirism, it was still associated with a degree of the occult. Barnabas wanted desperately to be human again. He was even cured by his love interest on the show, the doctor, though he was re-infected by the witch later. "The overall effect of this popular series," says Ramsland, "was to transform the vampire depicted in Dracula from the evil Other that had to be destroyed into a sympathetic creature who wished only to be human again and to have a normal life" (47-48). This was the first humanistic vampire.

The image of the vampire really began to change in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1970s were a time filled with "people searching for self-growth, companionship, and truth. . .many people were experimenting with drugs, therapy groups, alternative forms of religion, and new identities" (Ramsland 56-57). It was in May 1976 that Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire was published. This is probably one of the most popular contemporary vampire books of all time. As summarized by Ramsland, Rice's main character, Louis de Point du Lac, was transformed by the evil vampire Lestat. Though Louis was a vampire, he was very humanistic. He expressed the "depths of grief, loneliness, and guilt." He desperately wanted to find the truth about God and finds out that he's no closer to it as a vampire than as a human. To be turned into a vampire by Lestat, Louis de Point du Lac had to go through many things. First, Lestat put him through an initiation process, then brought him to the edge of death. Finally, he drained Louis nearly to death, just to the point before the heart stops beating, and fed Louis his own magical blood. Louis' body went through the dying process, then changed into a vampire. The process had become much more elaborate since Dracula's time. No more was a simple bite enough to change a human into a vampire. Louis is very sensitive as a person. He is introverted and quiet, though he can be very cold and indifferent at some times (56-57, 92-93). He seems undeniably human through it all, which is one trademark, it seems, of the contemporary vampire.

With many contemporary vampires, humans are seen simply as a blood source. Only a select few are seen as possible companions and transformed by the vampire (Ramsland 90). Many times, the victim begs to be changed, though they are sometimes still tricked or seduced into it (Ramsland 90). Victims who are not seen as possible companions tend to be killed quickly. Readers don't get to know them as characters. Also, Dracula's victims mirror addiction, which is an aspect lost in contemporary victims (Ramsland 5).

In the late 1980s, it seems that vampire powers were generally expanded by writers to include, as listed by Ramsland, expanded physical, mental, and other miscellaneous powers. Physically, a vampire now had superhuman strength greater than that of Dracula, which included the ability to move with great speed, levitate, fly, jump to great heights, and scale unclimbable walls. A vampire's expanded psychic powers included the ability to project an astral form (which means they could appear in dreams, etc.), read minds and experience clairvoyant phenomena, shut out the telepathy of other creatures, hypnotize people or scramble their thoughts, move objects at will (telekinesis), and read traces of a person's history from an object (psychokinesis). Many other expanded vampiric powers that can't quite be categorized, appeared at this time. They include a limited ability to endure the sun, the weeping of blood tears, heightened senses, and the ability to project their voice to ear-shattering levels, speak in tones too low for a human to hear, heal their own wounds or the wounds of others, regrow their hair to its original length, mimic languages and musical instruments, read with hyperspeed, see in the dark, command animals, and shapeshift. Also, it seemed many new ways to slay vampires appeared at this time, including exposure to the sun, burying the body on an island, tossing the body into a body of water, causing them to bleed to death, shooting them with a silver bullet, and cutting the body open and washing it with boiling wine, as well as the normal beheading, cremation, and staking found in previous vampire novels (Ramsland 65-66, 68, 168-169).

Another type of vampire emerged in the late 1980s. A good example of a non-blood-drinking vampire is in the novel Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons. Published in 1989, the novel featured energy vampires who fed off the fear, hatred, and other negative emotions of humans, according to Ramsland. In fact, not only did these vampires feed on these emotions, they penetrated the minds of humans to create them. In the novel, it is said that this type of vampire caused major world events like the Holocaust and slavery. In fact, to the vampires portrayed in this novel, it was all just a game. They wanted to see how much destruction they could cause to the human race (181).

From the mythical woman who drinks the blood of children to the vampire that doesn't even require blood, the personality, character, and traits of one of the oldest literary images has changed in an almost indescribable way. There is one thing that is certain—the vampire will keep changing over time, and will keep entertaining us.