The first time the word Vampire appears in the English language was in 1734, according to the OED, and occurred in the following passage, taken from some travelogue:
“These Vampyres are supposed to be the Bodies of deceased Persons, animated by evil Spirits, which come out of the Graves, in the Night-time, suck the Blood of many of the Living, and thereby destroy them.”
It would have helped for the travelers to detail where they may have heard about these Vampyres. Now they’ve got me all curious.
So, even though vampires have existed in Anglo-culture for about 300 years, the medieval transylvanian sexiness of vampires has lately been exploited to the max. For the pre-teen set, you’ve got the Twilight series and it’s movie counterpart. And for adult melodrama junkies, you’ve got the Alan Ball series True Blood.
For no particularly good reason, I have seen the Twilight film and the entire series of True Blood. I am currently working my way through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show I cherished unironically in my youth, and now feel compelled to give a second look.
What these three series have in common, and in common with other vampire tales like Dracula, is that vampires possess an ungodly sexiness. Their sex is so profane and subversive that mere mortals can’t resist. It’s as though vampires draw out all the taboo, all the supressed, all the Freudian perversities that lurk in the human imagination: when they come around, it signals a death of civilization, or at least a deterioration of Victorian socio-sexual norms in favor of crude physical wants (they drink blood and do each other, essentially).
These films and shows aren’t just about vampires, they’re about the effect vampires have on humanity, and, like most monster movies, really have a lot more to say about humanity than they do about vampire lore.
But why are they so sexy?
Dracula is allegedly based on the Wallachian (NOT EVEN TRANSYLVANIAN, PEEPS! That is a different region of Romania entirely!) despot Vlad the Impaler, from way-back-when. A few summers ago I attended a SWEESL lecture on Eastern Slavic Vampire myths (I swear, I make no concerted effort to learn about vampire lore, the lore just seems to find me), and the lecturer, a Russian man who had just spent several months living in very rural parts of Bulgaria, Serbia, and elsewhere, told us in no uncertain terms that when one is out in the sticks with people who truly believe in ghosts and spirits and vampires, one starts to believe in them too.
But what fascinated me was that not all Bulgarian vampires suck blood. Their vampires aren’t sexy and share none of the Anglo-lore. One particular incarnation of what could roughly be called a “vampire” was actually a rolling blood sack, something not at all humanoid, but who ran the risk of profaning your dead if you left your dead unattended. According to the lecturer, most folk beliefs that involve vampires see them as evil entities who want your soul, not your flesh. They wait for the dead to be left alone for just a moment, then they’ll take them away and… they’ll turn you into a rolling blood sack. When attempting to give an anthropological reason for why the myth of the dead-profaning vampire exists, our lecturer had troubles. In the end I at least thought it was rather nice, the idea of sitting with the dead, watching over them for at least the first few days after they have passed, warding off the unknown of the abyss…etc.
According to wikipedia but also my hunch, the word ‘vampire’ has Slavic etymological roots. (It definitely sounds old-school slavic to my almost-trained ears.) Then add Vlad the Impaler to the mix and we’ve got the folk roots of vampires in Eastern Europe, which is all they need to solidify their world reputation as Western Europe’s culturally backwards and superstitious little brother.
So what we have on our hands is a strange cultural phenomenon; our vampire culture is our own and has nothing to do with the myths of the lands in which it was created, except that vampires look vaguely Slavic, frequently refer to the good times they had in Prague in the 19th century (i guess it was the place to be for gothic decandence?), and carry an exotic Eastern aura with them wherever they go. They may be blood sacks in Bulgaria, but when they come here, the vampires are just sexy.
Now I have to go watch more Buffy.