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.