Why do vampires still thrill?
by Joan Acocella
In those days, vampires were grotesque creatures. Often, they were pictured as bloated and purple-faced (from drinking blood); they had long talons and smelled terrible—a description probably based on the appearance of corpses whose tombs had been opened by worried villagers. These early undead did not necessarily draw blood. Often, they just did regular mischief—stole firewood, scared horses. (Sometimes, they helped with the housework.) Their origins, too, were often quaint. Matthew Beresford, in his recent book "From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth" (University of Chicago; $24.95), records a Serbian Gypsy belief that pumpkins, if kept for more than ten days, may cross over: "The gathered pumpkins stir all by themselves and make a sound like 'brrl, brrl, brrl!' and begin to shake themselves." Then they become vampires. This was not yet the suave, opera-cloaked fellow of our modern mythology. That figure emerged in the early nineteenth century, a child of the Romantic movement.
In the summer of 1816, Lord Byron, fleeing marital difficulties, was holed up in a villa on Lake Geneva. With him was his personal physician, John Polidori, and nearby, in another house, his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley; Shelley's mistress, Mary Godwin; and Mary's stepsister Claire Clairmont, who was angling for Byron's attention (with reason: she was pregnant by him). The weather that summer was cold and rainy. The friends spent hours in Byron's drawing room, talking. One night, they read one another ghost stories, which were very popular at the time, and Byron suggested that they all write ghost stories of their own. Shelley and Clairmont produced nothing. Byron began a story and then laid it aside. But the remaining members of the summer party went to their desks and created the two most enduring figures of the modern horror genre. Mary Godwin, eighteen years old, began her novel "Frankenstein" (1818), and John Polidori, apparently following a sketch that Byron had written for his abandoned story, wrote "The Vampyre: A Tale" (1819). In Polidori's narrative, the undead villain is a proud, handsome aristocrat, fatal to women. (Some say that Polidori based the character on Byron.) He's interested only in virgins; he sucks their necks; they die; he lives. The modern vampire was born.
The public adored him. In England and France, Polidori's tale spawned popular plays, operas, and operettas. Vampire novels appeared, the most widely read being James Malcolm Rymer's "Varney the Vampire," serialized between 1845 and 1847. "Varney" was a penny dreadful, and faithful to the genre. ("Shriek followed shriek. . . . Her beautifully rounded limbs quivered with the agony of her soul. . . . He drags her head to the bed's edge.") After "Varney" came "Carmilla" (1872), by Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish ghost-story writer. "Carmilla" was the mother of vampire bodice rippers. It also gave birth to the lesbian vampire story—in time, a plentiful subgenre. "Her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses," the female narrator writes, "and she would whisper, almost in sobs, 'You are mine, you shall be mine.' " "Varney" and "Carmilla" were low-end hits, but vampires penetrated high literature as well. Baudelaire wrote a poem, and Théophile Gautier a prose poem, on the subject.
Then came Bram (Abraham) Stoker. Stoker was a civil servant who fell in love with theatre in his native Dublin. In 1878, he moved to London to become the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, owned by his idol, the actor Henry Irving. On the side, Stoker wrote thrillers, one about a curse-wielding mummy, one about a giant homicidal worm, and so on. Several of these books are in print, but they probably wouldn't be if it were not for the fame—and the afterlife—of Stoker's fourth novel, "Dracula" (1897). The first English Dracula play, by Hamilton Deane, opened in 1924 and was a sensation. The American production (1927), with a script revised by John L. Balderston and with Bela Lugosi in the title role, was even more popular. Ladies were carried, fainting, from the theatre. Meanwhile, the films had begun appearing: notably, F. W. Murnau's silent "Nosferatu" (1922), which many critics still consider the greatest of Dracula movies, and then Tod Browning's "Dracula" (1931), the first vampire talkie, with Lugosi navigating among the spiderwebs and intoning the famous words "I do not drink . . . wine." (That line was not in the book. It was written for Browning's movie.) Lugosi stamped the image of Dracula forever, and it stamped him. Thereafter, this ambitious Hungarian actor had a hard time getting non-monstrous roles. He spent many years as a drug addict. He was buried in his Dracula cloak.