The Victorians And The Influence On Modern Vampires

The Victorians And The Influence On Modern Vampires
Copyright © Photograph by Freyja Schimkus

Presently there are two distinct images of the vampire. First, there is a traditional vampire from Eastern European mythology. Here superstition and magical thinking are central threads in the fabric of understanding. Today, in countries such as Romania, much of the population retains a strong belief in the existence of vampires. Here, the vampire remains as it has for hundreds of years, a disgusting, foul thing; it is an animated corpse returned to bring death to its living relatives. However, in Western European culture, a society where scientific reason and logic comprise the basis of understanding, the vampire has ironically evolved into something that is not only civilized, beautiful, and romantic, but it is also rebellious, sexually deviant, and extremely dangerous. The vampire, in modern fiction, often appears as a stimulating dark hero.

The Western variant of the vampire myth owes much of its creation to the Romantic authors and poets of early Victorian society, a time in which Gothic romance was flourishing as a genre. In 1816, English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the first vampire poem of the era, ‘Christabel,’ in which a vampire pursues the blood of young girls. Also around this time, a group of young aristocrats including Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, George Gordon Byron and his lover, Clara Mary Jane Clairmont, and John William Polidori hold a contest to see who could write the best ghost story. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s contribution to the friendly challenge turned out to be the beginning of a masterpiece, ‘Frankenstein,’ (1818) while George Gordon Byron’s contribution, a fragment of a poem, was later adapted by John William Polidori into ‘The Vampyre,’ (1819) the first vampire novella in Romantic literature. The vampire here is seen as a creature more cunning than the primitive corpse of the traditional mythos. The story’s vampire, Lord Ruthven, is a Casanova preying on high society. It is said that John William Polidori based Lord Ruthven’s rakishness upon George Gordon Byron; John William Polidori was George Gordon Byron’s personal physician.

The next prominent Victorian vampire appears in Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s Romantic horror, ‘Carmilla’ (1872). ‘Carmilla’ is a tale of a female vampire’s, frightening and obsessive romantic relationship with a young girl. Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s terrifying tale is thought to have influenced Abraham Stoker in the creation of ‘Dracula’ (1897).

Published late in the Romantic era, ‘Dracula’ receives credit for developing much of the basic concept of the Western vampire myth and is a proven Gothic classic that continues to see numerous adaptations by modern artists. Like his predecessors, the Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel is not the same kind of ghoulish cadaver that appears in the Eastern European myth. Indeed, they all manage to move through society with little suspicion until their true nature is revealed. Neither is Count Dracula the same kind of irresistibly attractive vampire — like Anne Rice’s, Lestat — that appears in literature and film today. Rather, Abraham Stoker’s vampire is quite a repulsive image.

These qualities of aristocrat and fiend evoke an image of the Count Dracula as the other that is to be feared. He is a stranger lurking in the bushes; the proverbial boogie man in the dark; that is to say, he is a bad man that should be avoided. However, vampires of modern fiction are not always the boogie man. Instead, vampires in modern fiction have evolved to become more like vigilantes than villains where their fiendishness remains intact, but, is used for good instead of evil.

For almost thirty years, a renaissance of Gothic fiction has been underway in popular culture. The vampire, now a favourite villain turned dark hero, continues to rise and haunt the shadows of gothic tales. The vampire owes much of its success and popularity to the creative efforts of author Anne Rice. Prior to 1976, the vampire that haunts popular media holds a striking resemblance to the Count Dracula of Abraham Stoker’s, ‘Dracula’: it is the other that threatens social normality. Indeed, by the time the mid-70s were in full swing, Dracula had appeared on stage and on the big screen numerous times. As an antagonist, a vampire, like the Count Dracula, drives the plot — it is the monster that is hunted. The vampire in ‘Salem’s Lot,’ for example, a popular novel by Stephen Edwin King, is an imposing figure creating blood-crazed offspring with his bite. Anne Rice’s novel, ‘Interview with the Vampire’ (1995), however, changed the landscape of the Gothic genre, particularly with consideration to vampire fiction. Anne Rice approaches the myth from a different side of the story. Instead of placing the vampire in a secondary or antagonistic role to the living characters, the vampires in ‘The Vampire Chronicles’ (1976-2016) are the protagonists in the story.

Like the Count Dracula, despite his general unattractiveness, Anne Rice’s vampires, on the surface, are civilized; however, their supernatural magnificence is compared to that of angels. They are so oddly beautiful that if they are not careful the vampires risk exposure. In New Orleans, where cultures and religions are so heavily mixed, and the hustle and bustle is round the clock, Anne Rice’s vampires blend into the shadows of streets. They move through society with seeming ease, concealing their supernatural powers, and charming their prey. They are sociopaths, stalking and killing their victims in plain view of New Orleans’ high society; however, they prefer the blood of the evil-doer.

The depth and creativity of Anne Rice’s stories, like Abraham Stoker’s tale, has been an inspiration to many contemporary writers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s best selling authors across all genres found audiences enthralled with the vampire’s dark embrace. Moreover, the vampire was no longer regulated to a bookstore’s horror section. Romance novelists began to choose the vampire as their Byronic hero, weaving the vampire’s bite into the steamy scenes that frequent the genre.

The vampire theme shows popularity in the new millennium as well. Numerous major motion pictures featuring a vampire in a leading role have been release: ‘Dracula 2000,’ ‘Dracula 3000,’ ‘Blade II,’ ‘Queen of the Damned’ (based on an Anne Rice novel by the same title), ‘Underworld,’ ‘Scooby Doo and the Legend of the Vampire,’ ‘Van Helsing,’ ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,’ and ‘Blade Trinity,’ to name a few. Plus, more novelists have included the vampire in their catalogue. Take, for example, Heather Graham Pozzessere, a romance novelist, who successfully crossed genres by writing a series of historical-thrillers featuring vampires as both protagonists and antagonists. Another example, ‘The Historian,’ by Elizabeth Johnson Kostova, released earlier this year and featuring Vlad Dracula as the evil protagonist is described by reviewers as a “runaway bestseller.”

From this platform of popularity, the vampire has become the icon of a subculture whose members range from film fanatics to role players who dress in long capes and have their teeth permanently altered into fangs. There are even those who claim to be real vampires; some only need the energy of others, while some need to drink blood. How is it that something that was once deemed evil and feared is now an iconic image in Western culture? What is it about the vampire that enthusiasts admire? An explanation appears in psychological burdens that arise from an era’s cultural expectations.

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