December 8, 2010 · updated February 15, 2022

From Bram Stocker's Dracula to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, vampires have captured the imagination of millions of people. Fans find their drama exciting and their themes alluring.

Stories of vampires can induce reactions of fear, as some vampires are malicious antagonists, or love, as other vampires are romantic protagonists. Vampire stories often reflect upon death in various aspects, as the creatures exist as non-living, yet conscious beings. Vampire narratives also struggle with the pain of isolation, as characters struggle with their fate and often seek a relationship with another who will share their tribulation.

Modern fascination with books and movies about vampires can be traced back to John Polidori’s 1819 story, The Vampyre. In the story, the undead main character is intelligent and becoming, which contrasted with how vampires were often depicted - ghoulish, unrefined, and zombie-like. Polidori's book is said to have inspired Bram Stocker’s 1897 story, Dracula, which many consider the cardinal tale about vampires. While Polidori’s novella created a new character, Stocker’s created a new genre, which was the forerunner to recent vampire novels of note like Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire and Meyer's Twilight.

The Vampire's Origins

Webster’s Dictionary defines "vampire" this way,

“a bloodsucking ghost or reanimated body of a dead person believed to come from the grave and wander about by night sucking the blood of persons asleep and causing their death.”

While this definition provides the reader with a starting point, it can be shown that the nature and behavior of vampires yield to the imagination of their creators, whether they are authors, movie directors, video game developers, or board game makers. There are a variety of ways a person can become a vampire, exist as a vampire, and cease to exist as a vampire, depending on the vision of the story's producer.

While today vampires are mostly found in works of fiction, in the past their stories were told and believed as if they were true. Many cultures in antiquity had stories of creatures that shared characteristics with modern-day vampires. They weren’t the “undead” entities of today's fiction; rather, they were sinister spirits like demons that preyed upon innocent life, often killing through the extraction of blood.

In the West, folklore from 18th century Southeastern Europe contains tales that more closely reflect the modern-day vampire. It was commonly held that certain people, such as those who committed suicide or practiced occult spiritualities, would leave behind an evil spirit when they died, which could be encased inside a corpse. Unlike today’s slender and pale vampire, those of European folklore were bloated and their skin had a purple hue, which was attributed to sucking blood.

The Vampire's Appearance

Many historians believe the traditional appearance of vampires originates is the process that a body undergoes at death. For example, a body that decomposes slowly (decomposition rates vary depending on a variety of factors such as temperature) may have been misread in some cultures as continued existence. Bleeding from the mouth, produced by internal gases, is not uncommon, and this may be the origin of the belief that vampire's suck blood. Retracting skin and gums by means of dehydration and other aspects of decomposition, may have produced another physical feature of vampires - prominent teeth.

Some have speculated that people who were buried alive due to inferior medical knowledge contributed to vampire mythology. When a body was exhumed and scratches from the person's fingernails were seen in the coffin, some interpreted that as the deceased person coming back to life, as opposed to being buried alive.

Others have speculated that the vampire's look can be attributed to an ill person's appearance, especially if they had a disease like tuberculosis or rabies. Tuberculosis could cause blood to appear in the mouth and on the lips due to internal tissue deterioration. However, rabies may provide a better explanation for vampire traits because it can cause sensitivity to garlic and light, create sleeping problems making one nocturnal, and produce hypersexuality. Bats, which are associated with vampires, are also carriers of rabies. The disease can also prompt the carrier to bite others.

The Vampire's Defeat

Some cultures attempted to deter vampire activity by severing the tendons of a corpse’s knees, so the body couldn’t be hijacked by an evil spirit. In some Chinese stories it was taught that if an undead being found a sack of rice, it would have to count the grains; thus, in some places in China and Europe, rice was sprinkled around graves.