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From Gross to Gorgeous: The Evolution of the Vampire in Popular Culture

Let’s be clear about something. Vampires are supposed to be terrifying. If you go back to Medieval portrayals of the vampire in folklore, depictions typically vary only from horrific to horrendous. They were the stuff of nightmares, not just in their ghoulish appearance but in their very concept; immortal beings that morph into bats and fly in through your bedroom window at night to feast on your blood. But though the legend of the vampire has its origins in demons, disease and death, that’s not quite the picture that we have of them today.

So at what point did vampires cease to be revolting and start to be romantic? We’ll take a look at the unusual and morbid history of vampires in Western pop culture in an attempt to decipher at what point they decisively went from scary to sexy. I’m going to warn you in advance; the answer is more nuanced than you might expect. There is, as you’re about to discover, no definite turning point as to when vampires became hot. Rather, the process has been gradual, but all the more fascinating for it. What’s more, you’ll see that the eventual adaptational attractiveness of vampires was perhaps inevitable.

The Blood Drinking Night Demon of Babylonia

 You might be surprised to learn that vampires date back a lot further than the 18th-20th century Gothic fiction with which we associate them. In fact, tales of blood-drinking demons have existed in countless cultures across the world since Ancient times. The Babylonians, notably, had Lilitu (who would become Lilith of Hebrew mythology). This demon lady was said to steal babies in the dark of night to drink their blood. Interestingly, she is thought of as seductively beautiful – and therefore all the more dangerous. Jewish folklore tells us that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, but she was far too disobedient, and abandoned Adam before being replaced with the more subservient Eve. According to some accounts, Lilitu had wings and could fly like a bat.

Ambrogio Falls in Love: The Vampire of Ancient Greece

But vampires do more than drink blood and fly (and if that was all they did, then a number of real life blood-drinking jetsetters could quite righteously call themselves genuine vampires). What we consider a true vampire encompasses many more distinctive, dark traits. Arguably, the true modern day vampire can first be seen in  Greek mythology.

In the ancient Greek story, a man named Ambrogio falls in love with the beautiful Selena, unaware that Apollo the Sun God is every bit as enamoured with Selena himself. In a fit of jealousy, Apollo curses Ambrogio so that he can never go out in the sun without burning his skin.

But Ambrogio is still pretty keen to win over Selena. Hades, God of the Underworld, tells Ambrogio that he will make him immortal if Ambrogio can steal the silver bow and arrow from Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt. Ambrogio succeeds and is granted immortality, except his theft has made Artemis very angry, and she also places a curse on him; now not only the sun, but silver, will burn his skin. Eventually Artemis takes pity on Ambrogio and, to make amends, she gives him super-strength and fangs with which to hunt. Ambrogio used this sharp fangs to kill beasts and write Selena love letters with their blood.

So now we have an immortal romantic who’s repulsed by the sun, allergic to silver, and with a fine set of fangs with which to suck animals’ blood. Sounds familiar? When Selena escapes Apollo to live with Ambrogio, Ambrogio tells her that he can make her immortal, just like him – but he has to drink her blood. He drinks her blood, and she dies in body but lives on in spirit. But the burning question at the center of the article remains. Was Ambrogio hot?

Whilst Ambrogio wasn’t described as strikingly handsome (such as other figures in Greek mythology) we’ve no reason to believe Ambrogio was particularly unattractive. However, he was probably stricken by horrendous sunburn. When it comes down to it, Hades was most likely the hotter of the two. Selena made a bad choice.

The Diseased Demons of the Middle Ages

 Here’s where vampires start to get really ugly. Throughout the Middle Ages their appearance became more revoluting, while their behaviour  increasingly gross and their intentions increasingly cruel. Until this point vampires weren’t especially hideous, but by literally demonizing the myth of vampires by making them the Godless, disease-spreading stuff of nightmares, The vampire of the Middle Ages were strictly terrifying without the trace of romance or sensuality we see in the stories of Lilitu and Ambrogio. Why were Medieval vampires so terrible?

The reason could potentially be found in how superstitious people were in relation to disease and death at this time. Just like unfortunate women could be accused of being witches, so too could those with bleeding and lesions around the mouth be accused of vampirism. More often than not, it was women accused here too. The widespread and devastating plague that swept across Europe was often attributed to the intentional spread of disease by the ‘living dead’, and there’s evidence that those suspected of being vampires were at times even buried with rocks in their mouth so as to prevent them from feasting on the dead, should they escape their grave. So strong was the superstition, that buried corpses were sometimes dug up to check for ‘vampire bites’. It was also commonly thought that these vampires could cast curses from the afterlife, meaning unusual or unexpected deaths were also attributed to their evil ways.

During the Middle Ages, vampires tended to be grouped together with what we today recognise as ‘ghosts’ and ‘zombies’. All those who would rise from the dead and harm the living were considered ‘revenants’. Like all Medieval depictions of revenants, vampires were ugly skeletal-like beings that, despite the very pronounced cheekbones, show no trace of the good looks we’re used to seeing in modern day vampires. Like a lot of things in the Middle Ages, vampires were pretty gross.

Vlad the Impaler and other famous ‘real life’ vampires

 Before we discuss the famous and disturbing story of Vlad the Impaler, let’s take a look at the context of 15th-century Transylvania. Folklore about vampires was particularly strong in Slavic cultures, and a lot of the myths we have about vampires today come from Eastern Europe. Indeed, the word itself ‘vampir’ comes from the Serbian language. It was believed amongst the Slavic that the best way to kill a vampire was to put a stick through its heart, and that one could ward them off by hanging garlic wreaths around the home. Another interesting common belief was that vampires could take the shape of other animals – from dogs to butterflies. This might well be why modern depictions of vampires show them turning into bats. When a corpse did not decompose at the expected speed, it was often assumed the deceased was a vampire. Bodies decompose at different paces depending on a number of factors, but during this largely unscientific era, vampirism was the explanation of choice as to why a dead body might look unusually healthy.

Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul, was ruler of Transylvania from 1431-1476. Contrary to popular belief, the notorious leader was not associated with vampirism until Stoker used his name and his cruelty for inspiration behind the character of Count Dracula (who of course also hailed from Transylvania.) Vlad the Impaler was famous for his psychopathic, murderous and sadistic tendencies. Most famously – as his name suggests – he impaled thousands of enemies on stakes. Others he would boil alive in giant pots, and it is reported that he would order for some victims’ skin to be removed while they were alive. If this makes you sick to your stomach, then keep in mind that a lot of these historic reports were (hopefully) exaggerated for the purpose of propaganda.

Vlad the Impaler also had a menacing look, with dark black hair, black eyes and pointy features. In the most famous painting of him, he is also depicted as wearing robes of blood red, with decadent jewels for decoration. But in light of all historical characters associated with vampirism, Vlad isn’t really that typically vampirical. Take a look at Elizabeth Bathory instead. This Hungarian noblewoman, born 1560, is perhaps the most notorious female serial killer of all time. She is said to have killed as many as 650 girls in total, torturing them in various ways and – according to some records – bathing in their blood. There is also good reason to believe that Bathory engaged in cannibalism, eating the flesh of her victims. These girls were typically of a young age, born to peasant farmers and arriving at Bathory’s castle by their own will in the hope of getting well-paid work as a maid. Instead, they were subject to extreme cruelty in what was known as the ‘torture chamber’. A number of sources tell us that Bathory suffered from epilepsy during her childhood. Interestingly, the cure for epileptic fits at that time involved smearing blood from a healthy person over the lips of the sufferer. Could this have influenced her savagery?

From what we know of Bathory, and from the paintings that exist of her, there’s no reason to believe she did anything to contribute towards the vampires’ reputation as beautiful romantics. That being said – her legacy of torture might arguably be taking us a step closer toward the fetization of vampires by modern-day BDSM culture. Take Lady Gaga’s portrayal of the sensual but murderous vampire in American Horror Story. Her sadomasochism is intended to complement her appeal. It’s no coincidence the character is also called ‘Elizabeth’. Ryan Murphy, creator of the show, confirmed Gaga’s character was based on the gore-loving Countess Bathory from 16th century Hungary.

Vampires survive the Age of Enlightenment

 One might assume that beliefs in vampires would have declined during the 17th and 18th century, but not so. During this time, a vampire hysteria spread across Europe, whereby sightings were reported in respected journals and gazettes across Poland, Russia and even England. These vampires were said rise from their graves and suck the blood of their victims. Respected scientists and doctors in 1730s London would even discuss the vampirical behaviours, and wrote popular papers about the ‘vampire’s nature’. Physicians, meanwhile, made note of what they thought to be the symptoms of a vampire attack, which ranged from nightmares to nausea to spasms and shivering. Corposes suspected of hosting vampires were often dug up and cremated, while full-time demonologists were dedicated to researching the blood-sucking creatures.

The widespread ‘vampire epidemic’ or the 17th and 18th century is a subject of specialization for Dr Nick Groom, professor at Exeter University, who explains that during this time “vampirism was a serious subject of research: on the one hand it was a terrifying medical disorder, on the other a mass delusion fostered by wretched social conditions.” The critical thinker Voltaire was at least immune to the panic, and in 1764 wrote satirically of recorded accounts of vampires in his Philosophical Dictionary. The French writer concluded that the only vampires to be found in England were that of bankers, politicians and brokers. At no point in any of these accounts, serious or satirical, were vampires noted for their good looks or charm.

Before we move on to the next period of vampire evolution, it might be interesting to explore why and how ‘vampire panic’ eventually settled down during the Age of Enlightenment. In 1755, Duchess Maria Theresa asked her highly famous physician, Gerard Van Swieten, to investigate whether or not there was any truth to the reports of vampire sightings and affliction that came from rural Serbia and Bosnia. Van Swieten found scientific explanations to all supposed signs and symptoms of vampirism, concluding that there was no reason at all to believe that vampires existed. His findings prompted Maria Theresa to declare that, officially by law, vampires were not real, and that defences against vampires (such as staking, beheading and burning) were subsequently to be outlawed.

The first fictional vampire is born

 So now that vampires legally don’t exist and don’t pose an actual terrifying threat, we can start to sexualize them, right? That was probably the thinking of British John Polidori, who in 1819 wrote ‘The Vampyre’, and in doing so created the first ever fictional vampire; Lord Ruthven. This seductive vampire was unlike the skeletal, possessed and gory corpses we’d grown accustomed to since the Middle Ages. Ruthven was something of a Byronic hero; an attractive and elusive aristocrat who dressed smartly and spoke with sophistication. Is Ruthven the first truly hot vampire? Arguably so. However, he alone did not transform the modern vampire.

Ruthven was, however, indisputably evil, thereby making this a tale of forbidden love. Indeed, Polidori can be accredited with defining many characteristics of the modern vampire literary genre. His short story featured mystery, murder, betrayal and tragedy in dramatic, cultural and romantic settings; proving a huge hit at a time when Gothic literature was devoured by readers who loved to be shocked by horror and taboo. Despite being an iconic work of fiction, ‘The Vampyre’ is somewhat overshadowed by a later and far more culturally significant novel.

Carmilla makes it personal

Shockingly ahead of its time, ‘Carmilla’ was penned by Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872 and predates Dracula by decades. What makes this Gothic novel so outstanding is the lesbian relationship between the narrator, who describes her love for a woman called Carmilla – later revealed to be a vampire with evil intentions. Like any piece of good Gothic literature, this novel explored taboos, notably through its homosexual subtext and occult themes. Carmilla the vampire is also special in that she earns the narrator’s trust before striking, and becoming the subject of her romantic infatuation. Like many vampires in modern day fiction, Carmilla did not just prey on her victim in a traditional, impersonal and blood-sucking way – she also preyed on her victim emotionally. As such, she can also be accredited with giving the modern-day vampire a sensual, attractive side. Indeed, Carmilla herself is stunning enough to sweep our narrator of her feet.

Dracula is born

In a feat which would come to be known as a quintessential work of Gothic literature and a timeless classic, Bram Stoker sat down in 1896 to write the novel ‘Dracula’. Just like Frankenstein’s monster become immortalized as an archetype of the modern monster, so too did Dracula come to represent the modern vampire. The character has been revisited countless times in film, TV and literature precisely because his story encompasses all the essential themes we associate with vampires. Isolation, heartbreak and madness is masterfully combined amidst eerie settings, from creepy castles to dark dungeons. Dracula has typically been depicted in film and TV as handsome, portrayed in recent times by actors like Gary Numan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Luke Evans and Gerard Butler. But did Stoker intend for Dracula to be a hunk?

Let’s take a look at the original description in the novel. Stoker writes that Dracula’s face was “strong…with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin…” Though the image that this description brings to mind will of course be subjective, it seems that Stoker wanted to paint a picture of a rather cruel and unusual looking man. There’s not much to support the suggestion that Dracula is meant to be handsome.

The Significance of Nosferatu  

Before we move on to how a movie adaptation of Stoker’s novel transformed the image of Dracula, and therefore vampires overall, there’s an important piece of cinema between the novel and that film. In 1922, a silent and experimental horror known as ‘Nosferatu’ was released in Germany. This film was an unauthorized adaptation of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, which led the author’s family to sue the production and demand that copies of the film be destroyed. They conceded, however a few survived, which is fortunate – because the film is considered an iconic horror film today. Indeed, for a film released almost 100 years ago, Nosferatu impressively still manages to send chills down the spine of viewers.

Was Nosferatu good-looking? We’re going to give that a definite ‘no’. Part of the film’s fear factor is the disturbing appearance of the creeping vampire at the centre of the tale, with his hollow face, unnaturally tall posture, claw-like fingers and animalistic teeth. Though Nosferatu might not have had an influence on how Dracula would come to be portrayed in popular culture, the character is significant to the overall history and evolution of the vampire’s appearance. Later fiction, which also sought to make vampires more terrifying than attractive, drew from the harrowing appearance and creepy movements of Nosferatu in the disturbing 1922 film.

Bela Lugosi makes Dracula dreamy 

No actor has left their mark on Count Dracula as much as the Hungarian-American actor Bela Lugosi. As mentioned above, his performance in the 1931 Hollywood rendition of Dracula has become the most firmly entrenched and instantly recognizable image of the vampire that we have today. With his slick black hair, piercing eyes, long cloak and collar; Lugosi’s dark and sensual interpretation of Dracula would become the basis for countless parodies for decades to come. Why was this film, and in particular Lugosi’s performance, so memorable? Firsty, it was a pre-code Hollywood film, meaning the producers didn’t have to hold back on the screams and frights for fear of censorship. Secondly, Lugosi’s powerful screen presence, from his looming stature to his dramatic and slow speech, put a spell on audiences. Lugosi’s interpretation of the world’s most famous vampire lives on, thereby ensuring ‘the handsome vampire’ was every bit as strong of a fictional trope as the ‘ugly vampire’.

Stephen King’s second published novel 

You might think it’s all just handsome, suave vampires from thereon, but that’s not strictly true. The terrific appeal of truly hideous vampires like Nosferatu is, to this day, not lost on real horror fans. In the 70s, both ugly and attractive vampires prevailed, and a then emerging author known as Stephen King (maybe you’ve heard of him?) certainly had no time for the increasingly common trend of portraying vampires as beautiful, charismatic beings. King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, was published in 1975. Salem’s Lot became a best-seller and was made into a movie three years later. Both the book and its cinema adaptation feature revolting vampires that are more akin to Medieval imaginings than to Legosis’ beguiling type.

Anne Rice interviews a vampire  

Before there was ‘Twilight’, there was ‘Interview with the Vampire’; the first of twelve popular novels that are known as the ‘Vampire Chronicles’. The first of these books, released in 1976, centers on the attractive aristocrat vampires, Louis and Lestat – their lives told from the perspective of 200-year old Louis. Anne Rice did a lot to personify the vampire in popular culture as a sensual, hedonistic, romantic and fashionable being. Her dark and Gothic tale of vampires was made into a movie featuring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in 1994, who aren’t exactly actors known for being ugly. Rice wrote the first book in five weeks. She would research vampires during the day and write during the night. The book received mixed reviews, and out of the negative ones, a common criticism focused on the overly erotic undertones of the book. Did Anne Rice and her iconic Vampire Chronicles contribute toward the sexualization of vampires? Almost definitely.

Super cyber gothic vampires (in latex suits) 

Yes, we’re looking at you, Kate Beckinsale. The late 90s and early 00s saw gothic subcultures become increasingly mainstream. Fashion-wise, choker necklaces, eyeliner and piercings were all the rage. This was an era that revived Edgar Allen Poe and churned out Gothic rock bands like of H.I.M. and Nightwish. This particular era of vampire-loving goth teens also coincided with increasingly sophisticated video games which, during the 90s, were rife with over-sexualized female characters. It was an overlap that lead to quite a number of raunchy vampire games, like the popular Vampire: The Masquerade series (for which the Bloodlines installation will soon see a sequel).

This cyber goth brand of vampire sexualization was already hinted at in the 80s, when Susan Sarandon, David Bowie and Katherine Deneuve portrayed modern, trendy bloodsuckers, complete with leather jackets and a love for rave clubs. The vampires in The Hunger fall somewhere between Anne Rice’s hedonistic aristocrats and the futuristic vampires of the Underworld series. This flick is considered an underrated gem of vampire cinema, and is even said to have influenced Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’.

Buffy starts slaying 

Around the same time that ‘dark fantasy’ storytelling starts captivating a growing number of audiences, Joss Whedon was producing the cult classic ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. The hit TV series combined that distinctive Whedon cocktail of attempted feminism, prevailing friendships, humorous dialogue and fantasy. With the beautiful Sarah Michelle Gellar as our hero, vampires are naturally the enemy in this supernatural show. However, it’s not all black and white. Though Buffy’s destiny lays in fighting forces of evils and demons in all their forms, her love interest, Angel, is himself a vampire.

Unlike other vampires, Angel feels remorse and empathy, having been cursed with a human soul after angering a Romani clan. Prior to that, he had gained a reputation as one of the most sadistic vampires in European history. The duality of the vampire, which only serves to make him or her more attractive, was well-established in Buffy. The half-good, half-bad or half-vampire, half-mortal split can be seen in many classic vampires (think Blade). It also goes without saying that Angel looks somewhat better than Nosferatu – and his character was of course intended to appeal to younger audiences just as he appealed to Buffy. In fact, Angel was such a likeable character that a spin-off series centered entirely on the vampire followed in 1999.

Twilight mania spread across the world 

If pop cultural interest in vampires died down with 90s goth, Stephenie Meyer revived it like a revenant rising from its grave. With the global phenomena that was ‘Twilight’, vampires – or more specifically, Robert Pattinson, would capture the hearts of millions of young adults in his portrayal of the mysterious and angsty vampire, Edward Cullen. Twilight prompted a wave of fan fiction, unauthorized merchandise, non-canonical spin-offs, and unofficially branded products from Team Jacob underwear to the Immortal Romance slot game. Twilight ruled the popular fiction world with its story of forbidden romance which spawned two sequels.

Though adored by many,Twilight also proved contentious in its particular brand of vampire. Meyer was accused of rewriting the book on vampires by ignoring important tropes, and riots ensued when the movie portrayed vampire Edward Cullen quite literally ‘sparkling’ in the sunlight. Fans of the undead argued vampires were ‘too cool’ for sparkling, but even amidst the more petty criticism came some seriously scathing remarks from horror writers such as Stephen Kind and Anne Rice (previously featured on this list for the contribution to vampire fiction.) It seems that, in making vampires too pretty, fans of horror were left unimpressed by Meyer’s fiction.

True Blood and Vampire Diaries take a stab 

Not a stake-through-the-heart kind of stab, mind you, but a stab nonetheless. TV series like True Blood and Vampire Diaries came a few years after Twilight, and though it might not be fair to say they’re entirely inspired by Meyer’s book, there’s no denying that the vampire hype which followed the fictional series surely played a part in making these TV series successful.

While these series were not groundbreaking, they did serve to firmly establish the new era of vampires as one where the undead are irresistibly mysterious, morally conflicted and definitely attractive. Gone is the scrawny, visibly fanged vampire with a sickly complexion and unruly hair. Enter, gym-going hunks and supermodels who, if it weren’t for their paleness and occasional fang-revealing sneer, would l give no clue as to their vampirism.

Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a genuinely terrifying vampire in mainstream Western mediA. If your answer is ‘ten years ago when Josh Hartnett took on the screeching night demons of 30 Days of Night’, then that should say a lot about how recent adaptational attractiveness of vampires have rendered them less frightening of late.

The reign of the hot vampire 

I go for a look which I call ‘dead, but delicious.” So says the flamboyant vampire played by Jemaine Clement in Taika Waititi’s cult classic ‘What We Do in the Shadows’. With that line, Clement’s character summarizes the general consensus on what vampires are expected to look like in modern day media. Of course, Vampire folklore developed differently across the world and ideas about how a vampire looks still differs in different cultures – but the seductive, clever type of vampire to which we’re accustomed in the West has its hold elsewhere in the world. So where did it all start? Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’? Lugosi’s Dracula? Or was Twilight the book that truly changed it all?

By Sophie Jackson

One comment

  1. Oh no! What the heck?!?!? You forgot Radu Vladislas from subspecies in the ugly vampires! By far my favorite vampire next to nosferatu, and carmilla. Sometimes I am aware in these novels, and films, that there is an attraction to death, and therefore maybe death should be attractive. But it’s so much more frightening when it is not. Or to think that it is, and it is not. Loved the article, thank you for your time and information!!!

     

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