Mar 12 2009 10:20am

Vampires: Not So Sexy Beasts

Thanks in part to bestselling books and blockbuster television shows and movies from the likes of Stephenie Meyers and Charlaine Harris, vampires are hotter than ever. And by “hot” I do mean hot. Never at any point in popular history have these otherwise gruesome creatures been more imbued with sexual allure, sometimes even made all the more conspicuous by its absence—Twilight’s abstinent bloodsuckers, anyone?

However, that doesn’t mean that they’ve always been that way. The vampire myths that most of us are familiar with—those of Eastern Europe—have always depicted these creatures as somewhat less desirable. Rather than seduce you, the Vampir or Vrolok or Strigoi of Eastern Europe was more likely to consume you. As a matter of fact, the vampires of Europe’s past had far more in common with what we now think of as zombies rather than the sexual creatures we thrill to on page and screen.

Ancient vampires were often depicted as shambling, bloodsucking corpses that preyed upon family members and former loved ones with no sign of remorse or awareness of their former lives. Their skin was described as ruddy or even purple from stolen blood and their bodies swollen, corpulent even. As if this wasn’t bad enough, they smelled terrible, too.

Most of the time, people didn’t actually see their vampire predators. Rather, their presence was ascertained through implication. In the days before we knew anything about germs, when a family member grew weak and died and then others in the same family followed, the village priest and other authorities might begin to suspect the work of a vampire. This was particularly likely when tuberculosis was the actual culprit. The disease weakens its victims and can cause a slow, lingering death. The pallor of the ill, along with the common symptom of coughing up blood, could have been enough to push even the most reasonable Dark Age minds to consider vampirism.

There was only one thing that a concerned village could do if a vampire was suspected to be in their midst: dig up the body. Unfortunately, people then were as ignorant of the processes of decomposition as they were germs, and the typical condition of a recently interred body only reinforced their suspicions. Imagine the terror a poor village elder might feel upon opening a casket only to discover what seemed to be a well-preserved corpse swollen with ill-gotten blood! Upon pounding a stake into the creature’s heart, gases built up within the body might even escape the mouth making what might sound to panicked ears like a moan. Of course, a village’s troubles might not end once the suspected vampire was identified and destroyed. If so, there were always more bodies to exhume.

As the light of science began to push away the darkness of superstition, the terrifying zombie-like monster that was thought to plague Eastern Europe began to disappear, slowly replaced by the elegant, erotic undead depicted by authors Polidori, Le Fanu and Stoker. However, this more monstrous depiction of the vampire never truly went away.

As recently as the late 1900s there were documented incidents of suspected vampirism, one of which happened in Rhode Island. In 1892 the body of 19-year-old Mercy Brown, a suspected vampire, was exhumed, her heart removed with a knife and burned to ash. This ash was mixed with water and fed to her ailing brother Edwin, who died despite their best efforts.

Although real-world events like these are thankfully unheard of these days, some authors of vampire fiction continue to take their inspiration from the creature’s darker past. David Wellington, author of 13 Bullets, 99 Coffins and Vampire Zero, is one of them. His vampires are hideous, remorseless beasts that live for blood and are about as sexually appealing as smallpox. Wellington told me some time back that he wrote these books in reaction to the creature’s depiction in paranormal romance:

It came out of reading so many “vampire-shaggers”; books where the main character was a plucky and attractive young woman fighting monsters… and sleeping with vampires every night. I shook my head in disbelief when I saw this happening. Vampires are monsters! They’re supposed to be scary! Nobody wants to sleep with Frankenstein’s monster (well, I’m sure there are a few, but… stay away from me). I wrote Thirteen Bullets as a reaction to those stories. My vampires don’t drink wine. They don’t read poetry by moonlight, or wear white silk shirts. They definitely don’t nibble daintily on a young woman’s neck. Instead they tear her head off and drink out of the severed stump of her neck. They’re big, they’re very, very deadly, and they consider human beings the same way your or I might consider a cow standing in a field. As hamburgers waiting to happen.

Whether you like your vampires sexy or sinister, these creatures of the night aren’t going away any time soon. Folklorists, writers and fans agree: vampires are immortal, at least as long as there are plenty of open wallets and eagerly bared necks awaiting their nightly visitations.

Joanna Curtis
1. overtheseatoskye
There's something to be said for the ugly, desperate vampires who can't seem to seduce anyone. I'm thinking of Klaus Kinski's Nosferatu, longing to be loved and so hungry. I'll take this pathetically failed seduction scene over the "hotness" of the vampires in Twilight any day.
2. clovis
Yay! Down with sensitive brooding handsome vampires and bring on the ugly evil vampires. Horray for Professor Van Helsing and Captain Kronos!

Anyone who's interested in the theory that vampire folkore derives from misunderstood decomposition of corpses will find it fully expanded and explained complete with experiments with dead chickens in Paul Barber's excellent 'Vampires, Burial & Death'.
Paul Eisenberg
3. HelmHammerhand
Tim Powers predated the sexy vampire trend by more than a decade in his excellent "The Stress of Her Regard." But while the vampires lured victims in part with their sensuality, once they got an "in," they were revealed for the horrid creatures they actually were.
Jason Henninger
4. jasonhenninger
I read a book a while back on the Slavic origins of the vampire myth. I wish I could remember the title. Anyhow, it talks about vampires and werewolves as an outgrowth of the mixture of shamanism, mithraism and christianity. Very interesting stuff.

By the way, there are far more recent claims of vampirism than Mercy Brown. Milosevic was staked through the heart posthumously, and that was just a few years ago.
Richard Fife
5. R.Fife
I have always prefered the more monstorous vampires too. Heck, one of my favorite "vampire stories" is the Legacy of Kain video games. For the most part, the vampires in that game were pretty viscious.

Now, I have to wonder, where will the next mutation of vampirism go? We went from hideous zombie-like monsters to dark seducers, what next?
6. JustinHowe
Nice article, by a weird coincidence just yesterday I read this article about a "vampire" found in a mass grave in Venice. Creepy picture.
james loyd
7. gaijin
I definitely agree with Clovis about Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber. It's one of the best scholarly works on vampire folklore available. For (ahem) Historians, I might also recommend In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu. And there's always The Vampire Book by J. Gordon Melton which is a thorough (but now probably dated) encyclopedia of vampirism from ancient Greece to RPGs.
Joanna Curtis
8. overtheseatoskye
JustinHowe, thanks for the link! Someone needs to write the brick-in-the-mouth thing into the mythos.
Dot Lin
9. fangirl
Let the Right One In-- the "other Twilight" movie this year and by far the better of the two!
Paul Howard
10. DrakBibliophile
Ilona Andrews' (_Magic Bites_ and _Magic Burns_) vampires are a combination of zombies and remote controlled robots. Oh IIRC, the vampire is an unthinking attack 'dog' if the controller loses control.

Theresa M. Moore
11. TheresaMMoore
So what did everyone think of "30 Days of Night"? I found it a little hard to watch, even for a hardened vampire fan like me.
Theresa M. Moore
12. TheresaMMoore
@ R. Fife: my vampires are also aliens. Does that count? And they move about anytime. I constructed an origin story around the mythos. And then I saw "Stargate: Atlantis" and almost chucked the lot in the trash. But there are enough differences there that I decided to keep writing.
Ashley Keating
13. ashvegas
I liked 30 days of night and thought it was about time Vampires were made truly monstrous again although I do like True Blood and have watched and read Twilight
14. Tristen Blackwell
I read your article with interest and practically agree with most of what you have written except for the opening lines. Vampires have been hot centuries before Ms. Meyer's prudish blunders. Seriously hot, in fact, way sexier and more beautiful, impossibly so. Their terrifying nature is what made them vampires in the first place, their evil ways increased their allure.

Writers like Bram Stoker added a more stylish, erotic dimension to the zombie-like creatures in East European folklore but he was not the only one, think of Coleridge, Wilde, Poe, Gautier, Polidori and LeFanu to name but a few. If they did not spawn HOT, subversive vampires that were ahead of their time then I am dashed.

In more recent decades authors like Anne Rice, among many others, have created sensual, good-looking characters so Meyer's creatures are not really innovating anything. I mean, even the sparkles have been featured in Dracula before.

Personally, I find Nosferatu more attractive than Edward Cullen for the simple reason that he is a more iconic, complex, artistic and intellectually stimulating character. Twilight's commercially viable, shallow, trendy vampires are painfully ugly to me. Truly monstruous indeed and the fact that they may be regarded as the quintessence of vampirism fills me with dread.
15. Samael
I remember a vampire that is in every way and shape and from a monster, though not many of you may know him, nor acknowledge his existance...
Alucard from Hellsing (Animated Japanese Film, hust warning y'all)
You may like it...

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