Origins of Vampire Lore

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If you’re a teenager, you might think that the idea of bloodsucking immortal ghouls originated with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels (or maybe, if you have a really short attention span and/or the tedium of reading words on paper seems like an epic fail, the blockbuster flick The Twilight Saga: New Moon). Your parents, in contrast, might harken back to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt’s brooding, vaguely homoerotic relationship in the 1994 film Interview with a Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, based on the work of neo-Gothic novelist Anne Rice, or maybe 1979’s Dracula, starring Frank Langella. You’d probably have to visit Leisure World to find somebody whose idea of a vampire is Bela Lugosi, the star of the 1931 B&W version of Dracula, even though he held the singular qualification of actually having been born in Transylvania, a good 15 years before the publication of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel made that unfortunate region of Europe the fictional capital of jugular-nibbling degenerates. Of course, though, if we want to get really prickly about it, even Stoker actually borrowed liberally from the 1819 story The Vampyre by John Polidori, who himself got the idea from an unfinished work by his pal Lord Byron.

There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: — upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein: — to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

Fade to black. But the question remains: So where did all this serial creepiness actually start? You could get hopelessly lost poking around on websites about blood-drinking Sumerian goddesses and such, but fortunately, the question has been investigated by scholars who knew how to do more than just Google. Raymond T. McNally’s and Radu Florescu’s book In Search of Dracula: The History of Dracula and Vampires traces back the origins of our modern conception of vampires back to a 15th Century Transylvanian-born nobleman, Vlad III Dracula, who is reputed to have killed as many as 100,000 people—ranging from political rivals to Ottoman Muslims—by impaling them on sharp poles.

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In the University of Heidelberg library in Germany, McNally and Florescu discovered a manuscript entitled “The Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman called Dracula of Wallachia,” written by Michel Beheim in 1463, which details Vlad-Dracula’s grisly appetite for dipping his bread in the blood of his slain prisoners (remember, it would be many centuries before Pizza Hut began to offer those little plastic containers of pizza sauce). The name Dracula, incidentally, means that Vlad was the son of Vlad II Dracul. Bram Stoker apparently was familiar with central European history, and borrowed Vlad III as the inspiration for his undead ghoul.

But what about all the other chilling characteristic and affectations of vampires? Is it all woo-woo put-the-flashlight-under-your-chin stuff, or have there actually been ghouls with a craving for drinking human blood? And do they really shun daylight and avoid mirrors?

We’ll get into that in my next post.


  1. shabbychic
    February 24, 2010, 3:18 pm

    I admit I do have a renewed interest in vampires since the Twilight novels were released–and I’m not a teenager!

  2. Isabelle Jenkins
    February 24, 2010, 3:22 pm

    Frank Langella is a great Nixon–I need to see him as Dracula!