Vampires are nearly as old as Western literature. Grendel, one of the beasts of Beowulf, is stated to be manlike and is described as drinking blood, and that’s discounting the centuries of stories predating the English language. Every now and then, vampires will take a backseat in literature, but never so much as to disappear entirely. They simply lie in wait before re-emerging.
Recent trends seem to indicate that vampires are re-emerging into the public consciousness after roughly a decade of lying in the shadows. The true mystery here is why vampires keep coming back. There is something attractive about the way that the undead creatures work, and their history does a great deal to inform just why the creatures of the night won’t stay in their graves.
The Emergence of Vampires in Pop Culture
The best place to begin is sometimes the middle, and that is where vampires come to play in spades. Roughly half a century after Bram Stoker’s Dracula terrified readers using the relatively new “novel” format, the silver screen version of the bound-letter episodic tale was graced by a scenery-chewing Bela Lugosi front and center to terrify viewers the world over. In the post-World War I recovery en masse, the world flocked not to the slice-of-life fiction that held their attention in the form of Westerns and romances (though those weren’t gone by any stretch of the imagination) but to fantasy and special effects so far-fetched that the horrors of mustard gas and submachine guns seemed tame by comparison. It’s a rather intriguing dichotomy: where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle saw the world in need of a kinder, gentler Sherlock Holmes, Hollywood saw the world needing a shilling shocker and a bloodsucker.
Nonetheless, the film adaptation of Dracula did two major things. First, it established the horror genre in American cinema and secured Universal Studios’ direction for the next few decades. What’s more impressive about the premiere of Dracula, however, is its influence on a young Richard Matheson. After watching the film and dreading the influence of an undead presence, Matheson began to think of what would take place if the world was inhabited not by one or a few vampires but populated almost entirely by the bloodsuckers. This thought led to his writing I Am Legend, a novel that not only led to several adaptations starring Hollywood greats like Charleton Heston and Will Smith but essentially invented the American zombie genre. This means that not only did Dracula essentially create popular horror, but it is directly responsible for the invention of zombies and all undead genre films related thereto
Of course, vampires went into the shadows for a time. Little emerges outside of the occasional adaptation of or sequel to Dracula for most of the remainder of the 20th century. Were it not for resuscitations from the likes of The Lost Boys and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dracula would have been the end of it all. However, as fans of the various and sundry scream queens bled dry can attest, and as confirmed by some of the biggest vampire movies of the century, one of the biggest draws to the vampire genre isn’t the Vlad The Impaler wannabe lurking around Transylvania. Rather, it’s the fact that absolutely anyone can be a vampire.
The Origins of Vampires Predate Writing in Europe
Indeed, anyone can be a vampire, with one generally agreed-upon stipulation: that person has to be dead. Or, rather undead, which indeed likely served as the inspiration for vampires in the first place. To set the stage: people in a small village begin dying with no known cause after the patriarch of the house died similarly days earlier. A person or two claims to have seen the patriarch walking about, and then, lol and behold, opening the still-fresh grave’s contents reveals an individual with a full stomach and long hair. Now, this is known to be a mere coincidence of decomposition coupled with germ theory. However, at the time, an explanation needed to be bigger, and from this, the ideas of Nightwalkers of sorts began in Europe, with a special focus on the Eastern countries (from where, by no coincidence, Dracula hails).
Naturally, if one cannot identify that, yes, this fellow rose from the dead, then he must have transformed in some way so as to be invisible. Indeed, Dracula in Stoker’s novel isn’t limited to the form of a bat but is able to change into a wolfman, bats and even motes of dust, a quality carefully restored in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. However, this is getting a bit ahead of the story, as there is one vampire who served to give Dracula one of the essential aspects of a vampire: sexiness.
Long after the competition between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and company that produced the first volume on vampires, The Vampyre, came a lesser-known text simply entitled Carmilla. Older than Dracula by roughly two decades, Carmilla featured the titular vampiress in a flirtatious relationship with the protagonist, who happened to be a woman. At the time, non-heteronormative sexuality was generally believed to be the result of an insatiable sexual appetite, and Dracula seemed to pick this up in certain readings of the text. Though Dracula is implied to be monogamous and heterosexual, the three female vampires sharing his castle identified as his daughters in the text, share no such qualms, and this likely led to the sexuality that is so closely associated with vampires even in the modern-day.
Enter DC’s Vampires, Twilight and Parody
That sexuality was played off of in 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows, the somewhat raunchy joke fest a stark contrast to the vampires who had dominated the big screen for the previous half-decade, and those emerging from the imagination of Stephenie Meyer in Twilight. Both twists on the vampire genre, Twilight was a straightforward romance with an uncomplex writing style that grated on fans of classic vampires while simultaneously acting as a culmination of decades separating vampires from their classic undead roots.
What We Do in the Shadows, on the other hand, returned to form for vampires, leaning hard into the classic tales of hypnosis and gore without taking the genre seriously in the least. As The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in 2012 served as a sort of final chapter of the 2000s vampire craze that started in the late ’90, What We Do in the Shadows was something of an epilogue. It took what vampires had been for the past two centuries and put the myth to a hilarious rest, relegating the bloodsucking undead to a back seat once more. Google Ngrams depicts a rather significant drop following 2012, though the data stops in 2019.
That is, of course, until 2021. Not quite a decade after the curtain fell on Breaking Dawn – Part 2, vampires were suddenly all over the airwaves. As a result of the pandemic, Stephenie Meyer completed and published Midnight Sun, leading to the Twilight Revival movement and renewed fan interest in the saga. As happenstance would have it, Moon Knight began to revolve around his fragile alliance with vampires, and comics like Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula, Blood Stained Teeth and Little Monsters all happened to be newsworthy at the same time, as Lugosi’s biography grabbed headlines for its Eisner nomination shortly after the star of the silver screen was placed into a graphic novel adaptation of Dracula in 2020.
Suddenly, vampires are all the rage again. Even secondary characters, such as Dracula’s very own Renfield, are having the limelight (though not the sunlight) shining on them. Mobius is a vampire-based character, and the DC universe is currently at war with vampires led by Nightwing. Though there isn’t a sure-fire reason as to why vampires are back again in full force, there are a few theories. For one, the creatures of the night represent a great fear of humanity. Coming out of the personal freedom vs. collective health debates of the pandemic, that portion of vampire life seems to be prescient at least, if not the exact reason why.
In fact, a more accurate reason likely lies in the reason that Universal’s Dracula took off so much in the first place: people needed an escape with complexity and dimensions, which vampires easily give. From silly to romantic to complex to simple, vampires have lived alongside people’s need to escape, thriving more on escapism than lifeblood. It’s unsurprising, then, that in a world with creeping nationalism and crackdowns on literature, vampires would once again find their way into the public consciousness. Perhaps, then, even as vampires suck the life out of people in fiction, they serve to create a truth wherein people can find comfort and inspiration to move forward.