What is it about those wily bloodsuckers? Every decade or so, we see another surge in popularity from everyone’s favorite fanged, eternally emo paranormal being.
With the recent announcement of Stephanie’s Meyer’s Midnight Sun, the vampire hype train is pulling into the station, but did vampires really ever go away? Or does vampire media simply switch from trickle to flood every few years?
The real question is, when did the vampire go from mythological monster to an increasingly fetishized romantic icon that eventually pops out the ‘pure husband material’ that is Edward Cullen?
Welcome to another post of Friday Fun readers! We couldn’t quite let go of our word nerd caps after our May the 4th post, and the history of vamps is just too titillating to pass up (see what I did there?).
The Wide World of Bloodsucking Mythology
Humans have had a long fascination with the idea of vampirism. There are variants of vampiric monsters all over the world, in some of our oldest myths. The Greeks had immortal entities in their roster that fed on blood or souls, such as the Empusa and Lamia, as well as the myth of Ambrigio, who was cursed by the god Apollo to endure a fate similar to vampirism.
Jewish myth has the Estries. The Philippines have the aswang, evil shape shifting spirits that included vampiric incarnations. There is also the Slavic Upir. One thing these myths have in common? The vampirism presented is grotesque in act and appearance, a far cry from some of the modern interpretations of these very myths, such as the Upir in 2013’s Hemlock Grove.
These creatures listed above are a sampling, you can find a myth based in some form of vampirism, the forceful taking from one being by another, in nearly every world mythology. Vampires have long been considered monsters, thieves of our essence, and a fate to be feared. They were cautionary tales, a designation attributed to people who did horrible things such as the infamous Vlad the Impaler (for obvious reasons) or Elizabeth Bathory (she who bathed in the blood of virgins). So where did that narrative truly begin to change?
Those Crazy Kids at Villa Diodati
In 1816, a group of authors, artists, and one physician kicked back at a Swiss Villa on Lake Geneva and, likely after some wines and smack talk, dared each other to write a story to scare the pants off the others. I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened. Well out of that writing session, we got the birth of the science fiction genre and the seeds of romantic vampire fiction.
Did I mention this was the party attended by Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidari? Further proof writers daring each other to do a thing has been an effective motivator through the ages.
From this challenge, we not only got Frankenstein, but Polidari went on to write The Vampyre, based on a fragment of a story abandoned by Byron, with a character modeled after the notorious Lord Poet.
The eponymous Vampyre in Polidari’s tale, while grotesque himself, used his powers to seduce the young women he killed. It was the first seeds of change, further maturated by the release of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic Novella Carmilla in 1872 which not only featured a vampire with romantic feelings towards her victim, but the first depiction of a lesbian vampire.
Then we get the grand daddy of the narrative fulcrum. In 1897, Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula hit the scene with the fully fleshed out character of the count himself. Dracula held a lot of sexual undercurrents, not only from his dogged pursuit of Mina, but also his collection of brides, and his seduction of the doomed Lucy. Dracula is still monstrous, but there is a romantic tragic note to his story as well, one further embellished and built up by film interpretations a few decades later. Everybody loves a good tragic love story.
There was a lull in vampire fiction for a while in the mid 20th century. We saw a LOT of heckin' versions of Dracula. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in 1954 had firm horror and science fiction overtones, combining vampires with zombies to thoroughly root his interpretation on the monstrous side.
The 70’s: Disco, Divas, and the Darkside
Who would have guessed the same decade that gave us Abba would also see the biggest literary shift in vampires since old Drac?
A precursor to this advent, who must get some credit where credit is due, is the short lived 1960’s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. From Dark Shadows, we got Marilyn Ross’s Barnabas Collins series, which portrayed its vampire as a tragic and poetic figure rather than just a monster. Barnabas wedged open the door for another author to step in and give us the full blown ‘beautiful monster’ trope.
In 1976, Louis de Pointe du Lac appeared on the scene, in all his sad boi glory on the pages of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. But honestly, Louis was the opening act to everyone’s favorite bad boy vampire rock star trouble maker Lestat De Lioncourt. In the Vampire Chronicles, the vampires are physically beautiful, powerful, alluring beings. While characters like Louis wrestle with the morality behind their immortality, the constant sense of loss and stagnation, Lestat revels in his nature. The dichotomy presented by these two brought the fascination with vampirism kicking and screaming into the light of day. What was once considered a cursed fate was now tempting. A sign of the times perhaps, as modern culture shifted away from the religious certainty of an afterlife, the model of immortality for a price gained a new perspective. And Rice’s darkly sexual vampires were plenty tempting, creating a full blown fetish that continued to grow and develop over the next few decades.
Vampires: the Redemption Arc
The next shift we saw in vampire literature, including in the Vampire Chronicles, was the vampire redemption. This is not only on a character to character level of vampires overcoming their monstrous nature through love and sacrifice. This was a full blown shift of vampire from monster to dark hero.
Welcome to the modern vampire. The 1990s and early 2000’s gave us a huge surge in the vampire as hero archetype. We got everything from the Salvatore brothers in L.J. Smith’s Vampire Diaries (brought to life on screen over a decade later with 8 seasons of drama and two spin offs) to Sita/ Alisa in Christopher Pike’s The Last Vampire. The late 90s brought us the gifts of Angel and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who both underwent full blown heroic arcs.
However, even though the vampire was presented as a protagonist, (or an antagonist turned protagonist) there was still that tragic undertone that immortality, while tempting, was ultimately painful and tragic. Many of these redemptive arcs end in the death of the vampire, though a lucky few got the ultimate mulligan: resurrection as a human to live a full life of love, blah, blah, blah here we go.
Enter Captain Sparkles
Strap in, because here is where the vampire narrative gets the full glow up. Literally.
Listen, love or hate the interpretation of diamond skin vampires, what Meyers fundamentally did here was transform the vampire from tragic hero to full blown husband material. What is more interesting than the body glitter makeover is the full blown morality play happening beneath the surface. Meyers has a very conservative view of love here, the ultimate traditionalist framework of courtship and marriage before intimacy, HOWEVER, she also presents the ultimate vampire fetish→
Immortality without consequence.
Yes, the vampires in Meyer’s series do struggle with blood lust. There are the baddies, aka the Volturi and the vampires on the plan A diet of human blood who feed with bare bones restraint. But there are also several clusters of vampires on the plan B diet, or vampires who live with a moral code, as evidenced by Carlisle’s gathering of allies in the last book. These vampires have found the ultimate loophole, they meet their dietary requirements, they live forever, they love forever.
Edward and Bella even manage to achieve the ultimate vampire fantasy and have a family together, without the consequence of their child aging and dying like a human. Everybody wins. Even Jacob.
Our fascination with the beautiful undead isn’t going anywhere. With the advent of modern medicine and technology, humans are living longer, and are ever more fascinated by the romantic ideals of immortality without consequence. So as the vampire hype train leaves the station, what will the latest iteration of the literary vampire bring us? Well, we could continue to see further divergence from the mythical monster to the romantic hero. Vampire romance has remained a hot and heavy sub genre in Romance for the last couple decades, still going strong. We could see a further idealization of immortality and vampires as moral figureheads.
Or we could see a dramatic humanization of the vampire, from glamorous other-worldly figure to not only a more sympathetic creature but one that is far more like a human being with a dietary restriction than ever before.
Or, we could see the resurgence of the grand old monster. Where vampires ruled the night with ruthless violence and reveled in bloodshed. Cold, cruel villains we love to hate and hate to love.
What sort of vampire renaissance are you hoping for?