Literary vampires have undergone huge changes over the years. What was once a monstrous blood-sucker ready to wreak havoc on humans has transformed into a handsome, refined character with human emotions. Despite what we know from Stephanie Myers’s Twilightseries, vampires were once connected to extreme misfortune and disease.
The belief was not always that one had to be bitten to become a vampire. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the recently deceased or became vampires, returning from the grave to unleash evil on a town that somehow wronged them. Decomposition processes that scientists now understand were mistaken for clear signs of the undead. For example, if a body did not immediately begin decomposing, townspeople blamed immortality rather than factors like cold weather1.
The vampire panic made its way into literature, further popularizing the belief. Though one of the most popular vampires today, Count Dracula was not the first recorded instance of vampires in writing. Heinrich A. Ossenfelder was one of the first to write of the creatures in his 1748 poem “The Vampire.”
In 1819, John William Polidori wrote the first vampire novel, “The Vampyre.” Polidori’s novel began the trope of vampires as aristocrats rather than mindless zombies. This new romanticized narrative of vampires sparked a cultural craze. Sheridan Le Fanu later published the tale of the lesbian vampire, Carmilla, in his novella of the same name. This was the first female vampire protagonist to appear in literature. Carmilla (1872)happened to inspire popular works like Bram Stoker’sDracula (1897)and characters such as Van Helsing2.
Since Polidori and Le Fanu were some of the first to write about vampires, they were able to create their own rules. Polidori popularized superhuman strength in vampires, seduction, gothic mansions as homes, and the destruction of towns surrounding vampires3. Le Fanu, too, gives Carmilla superhuman strength, but he also allows her to have abilities of supernatural speed, walking through walls, evaporating into thin air, and the ability to transform into giant cat.
Not all of Polidori and Le Fanu’s vampire traits carried over to modern vampire fiction. Rather, their flexibility with the creatures may have led to literature that depicts every vampire having a different set of powers like in Twilight. This goes to show that you can also make up your own rules in horror literature featuring vampires. With these creatures, anything is possible – even turning into a monstrous cat.
- Barber, Paul. “Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality.” Yale University Press, 1988.