The Evolution of Vampires in Pop Culture

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Vampires have long been discussed and portrayed in books and movies. Originally, vampire folklore depicted vampires as savage, parasitic and, of course, bloodthirsty monsters. However, over time the way vampires have been portrayed has markedly changed.

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We now see handsome/beautiful creatures that have a more sensitive soul, more intelligent, and of course let’s not forget the romance. Tales of vampires are told in many cultures around the world. Throughout history these undead beings have evoked fear and intrigue from us. The image of the vampire has evolved over the last few decades. The earlier vampire possessed few traits that would endear them to people, but they still served a purpose of personifying the darker side that all humans. Society has contributed to the evolution of vampires in popular culture from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Twilight.

To see how vampires have evolved we must take a look at how they came to be in the first place. Many myths surrounding vampires originated during the medieval period. Vampire folklore originated in Eastern Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries. These tales formed the basis of the vampire legend where they were subsequently embellished and popularized. Ancient vampires of lore were anything but as pleasant as the ones encountered in popular culture today. Their origins are rooted at the beginning of time and almost all of them are founded on superstition. Nearly every culture has its own version of the vampire, each with different attributes, but all are regarded as undeniably evil. The circumstances leading to vampirism include factors such as cannibalism, sacrifice, ancestor worship, plague, and premature burial. Central to the vampire myth is of course the consumption of human blood followed by the possession of sharp teeth or fangs to facilitate this task (Eldridge). Many people lacked the knowledge of what a human body went through when it decomposed. This lack of knowledge added to the creation of vampires. Digging up the bodies of suspected vampires was practiced throughout Europe, and it was thought that the natural characteristics of decomposition such as receding gums and the appearance of growing hair and fingernails reinforced the belief that corpses were in fact continuing some manner of life after death (Eldridge). In some cultures the dead were buried face down to prevent them from finding their way out of their graves (Eldridge).

During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. There are many documented cases of families disinterring loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family. The deadly disease tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known at the time, was believed to be caused by nightly visitations on the part of the dead family member who had died of consumption themselves (Sledzik). The Belief in vampires stems from superstition, and the mistaken assumptions about postmortem decay. Graves were unearthed, and surprised villagers often mistook ordinary decomposition for a supernatural phenomenon. For example, the average person didn’t understand how a body decomposes. If the coffin is well sealed and buried in the winter, putrefaction might be delayed by weeks or months; intestinal decomposition creates bloating which can force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood (Radford). These processes are well understood by modern doctors and morticians, but in medieval Europe were taken as unmistakable signs vampires were real and existed among them (Radford).

The modern day vampire originated in literature, long before movies and television shows. Dracula is arguably the most important work of vampire fiction (Eldridge). The tale of the Transylvanian count who uses supernatural abilities, including mind control and shape-shifting, to prey upon innocent victims inspired countless works thereafter. Many popular vampire characteristics such as methods of survival and destruction, vampires as aristocracy were solidified in this popular novel (Eldridge). The novel itself is thought to have been inspired in part by the cruel acts of the 15th century prince Vlad III Dracula of Transylvania, also known as the impaler, and Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was believed to have murdered dozens of young women during the 16th and 17th centuries to bathe in or possibly drink their blood so as to preserve her own vitality (Eldridge).

Following the evolution of vampires in literature we can see how time has influenced the vampire. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series is proof of that. Her series has become a phenomenon. Meyer’s has captivated teens and adults alike. Twilight is a story that is out of the box when it comes to what we typically expect from a vampire story. Meyer’s sets up her modern take on vampires with her character Bella Swan. Bella moves to a dreary small town in Washington State called Forks. This is where she meets Edward Cullen who is a handsome mysterious boy. He is hiding a secret, but he is drawn to Bella as much as she is drawn to him. He poses as a 17 year old student, but he is actually a hundred year old vampire. Meyer’s hooks us into this beautiful love story. Meyer’s shows us another side to the vampire. They want to be like us. Meyer’s taps into our love of love. We have this wonderfully handsome vampire who’s been alive for a century searching for something. When he meets Bella he realizes she is what he’s been looking for. He’s torn between what he wants and what he believes is right, and he believes he needs to protect Bella from himself. It’s Romeo and Juliet without the sad ending. Meyer’s brings in some new characteristics. Edward doesn’t have an aversion to the sun, but he would be noticed right away as something supernatural. Meyer’s vampires sparkle in the sun. They do still possess speed, strength and the desire for human blood. They also possess morals and the love of humanity. They feed off of animals and try their best to protect humans from their inner monster.

Vampires in television and movies have followed right along with literary trends. Some of the most popular vampire novels have been turned into hit shows and movies. A well-known movie, but more prominently a T.V. show, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer created by Joss Whedon. The movie, produced in 1992, is a parody about a cheerleader destined to kill vampires, but the T.V. show takes a darker and more serious approach. It follows Buffy through high school troubles and battles with evil vampires bent on unleashing hell upon her hometown of Sunnydale. Ironically, Buffy falls for Angel, a vampire with a soul (Whedon). Vampires have enjoyed popularity as an unlikely action hero in the film Blade. Blade is about a man who is half-human, half-vampire, and fights his urge to drink blood by injecting himself with a chemical substance. Ironically, he swears vengeance against his own race and becomes a vampire hunter, eventually dealing with an inter-vampire feud about those of pure blood and those who were merely created(Blade: Trinity). The associated press said this:

The dead used to be a world away, far beyond the realm of mortal existence. If they walked the Earth at all, they inhabited the night. But coffins and long black capes are gone. The destructive haunting is over. And forget about menacing the living, these days the dead are just like us. Hollywood’s dead, circa 2008, wear jeans, type obsessively on their blackberries and fret over relationship woes. They solve crimes, they give advice.

The film version of Twilight has made the romantic vampire even more accessible to audiences, which has helped renew interest in vampires and reshaped our conceptions on the subject. Catherine Hardwicke, Director of the film Twilight points out:

What Twilight does offer is epic star crossed romance, peril, and attractive young cast and an action packed finale. But mostly, it has arguably the most passionate fan base of any literary adaptation since Harry Potter. It’s like a little bizarre, little perfect storm phenomenon.

Society has contributed to the changes in the makeup of the vampire in popular culture in the last few decades. Some of these elements include gender and sexuality, isolation, scientific and psychological theories, and our fascination with immortality. Each of these factors has provided the genre with smaller, more specific elements of lore, it is their combined impact that has created a new sense of the vampire archetype in the modern era. As the American culture continues to grow and change, the vampire will continue to mirror the development of the human species (Auerbach). Vampires have become more human. They display thoughts, feelings, fears, hope, dreams and infinite sadness. These vampires have allowed people to feel the alienation that these creatures have experienced for centuries. Through the scientific and psychological theories vampires have become more multifaceted. They are no longer simply an evil, supernatural force they display biological and psychological motivations for their actions. Vampires also have exhibited signs of human emotions. Sexuality has become an important facet of the vampire in the last few decades. As America’s cultural relationship and comfort with sexuality and alternate forms of sexuality have altered, the vampire’s relationship with sexuality has changed as well. Female exploration of same-sex pairings has become a dominant element of vampire media. Because of this female artists will continue to explore the many aspects of sexuality in the coming years. It has been more difficult for male artist’s to explore more of human sexuality. Many scholars of the genre hold strong stereotypes about male-generated homosexuals in vampire media (Auerbach). As society becomes more comfortable with the idea of homosexual vampires we will see a growth in this type of vampire story line. As we work to abolish these stereotypes in relation to exploring other areas of sexuality opinions will begin to change. As America’s perception of gender roles has broadened so has female roles in vampire popular culture. Women have become more powerful and influential in the genre then they had ever been before. As many women continue or begin to use vampire media as a way to express their conceptualization of gender roles, their ideas of gender parity and gender fluidity will continues to diversify the genre. As humans, our quest for immortality has been a long persistent allure. To be young forever, endlessly repeating the pleasures of youthful irresponsibility has long been a desire of ours. We see this in modern media. In everyday advertising and selling youth or how to become more youthful. It is something as a society we are obsessed with. Vampires possess immortality and we are drawn to that like a moth to a light. In the last three decades, we as a society have helped vampires to transform themselves from solitary, disorganized killers to the highly organized, complex predators that dominate current vampire popular culture. As vampires have developed, they have continued to represent humanity’s constantly changing attitudes, behaviors and fears. Though we have come to understand and appreciate the impact society has had on these creatures, there remains one question begging to be answered. What does the future hold for the vampire genre?

In conclusion, vampires have evolved alongside their creators, humans. Vampires are no longer seen as negative, but as more positive, more human. They embody everything that we desire. As long as immortality and the supernatural enchant us vampires will be a staple in popular culture. As vampires make their way into the future, they will continue to grow and change in many interesting and dynamic ways. It is hard to predict the definite future of the genre. However, it is safe to assume the vampire will continue to be a vital and exciting archetype for years to come.

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