The vampire is a common character archetype in myth and pop culture. It is also a common topic of discussion for scholars and horror fans alike. Where did it come from? Who is the best? Who is the worst? These are all questions that have been asked at some point ad nauseam. Looking at it from another angle, the best questions to ask are, what does it mean? Why is the vampire character so widely liked? Why do we seek them out and glorify the horror?
The truth is, nobody actually knows where or when the origin of the vampire first appeared, and this is still a hot debate among scholars and purveyors of pop culture. The most popular understanding is that vampires originated in Eastern Europe, specifically Transylvania. However, many cultures feature a “blood sucking” or “life draining” humanoid creature in their myths.
One of the oldest known oral myths is from Hungary. The tale speaks of a grief-stricken widow who is visited nightly by a mysterious man in black. The wise woman of the village tells her that the man is a “Strigoi” and to save herself, she must steal his boots. The widow takes the boots and hides them, preventing him from leaving her cottage until sunrise. When the rooster crows, he explodes into dust on her floor. The term “Strigoi” is often associated with what we know today as being a vampire.
Our modern versions of the vampire can be directly traced to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and it forged our modern conception of this villain type. The romanticized monster isn’t far from the source. The creature still retains the essence of the metaphorical meanings behind the creature’s creation and motivations.
Grief and Loss
The vampire archetype represents a human’s change caused by extreme grief due to a lost significant relationship. The extreme grief over the loss of this belonging transforms the individual. It is the corruption of love that the person felt in that relationship. Hence, the twisted passion that consumes a person to become a creature of the night.
Extreme grief has a wide range of effects on behavior. First, insomnia is extremely common in grieving individuals. While insomnia may appear to be a minor influence on grief, the long-term effects stack up over time. Lack of appetite causes anemia which causes the brain and body to shut down. As a result, the individual may have binge episodes. The lack of vitamin D also has a huge impact on the body and mind with light sensitivity and reports of extreme lethargy or an inability to function.
The Immortal Night
People with grief and insomnia may experience what is known as “the immortal night.” Time seems to slow down and hours feel like years. People become angry, irritable, bitter, and lash out at friends and family. They become introverted, anti-social, and lose interest in their job and hobbies. Some may even seek chemical relief in the form of alcohol or drugs, or fall into other forms of addiction. As the process continues, the addictions can become extreme to the point of deviance, or they may display immoral and destructive behavior. The person’s personality may change significantly as time progresses. They lose their sense of belonging, purpose, identity, and value, losing hope and faith leading to feeling vulnerable and helpless in their situation. And finally, they succumb to their own inner demons.
Cherchez la Femme
When it comes to vampire characters, “Cherchez la femme.” This is an old French axiom that means, “look for the woman.” Usually, the term is found in detective novels in reference to crimes of passion. The predominant theme for romanticized vampire characters is the loss of a significant and intimate relationship. In most cases, that relationship involves a woman. This is seen across all forms of pop culture, in movies and TV shows, comics and novels, and many video games.
Lestat de Lioncourt – The Vampire Chronicles
Lestat felt he had disappointed his mother when he lost his horse and dogs defending the village from the wolf pack. She had sold what was left of the family fortune and gave him the money. She was his only close relationship in the family. This is why he went into a deep depression after the incident.
Louis de Pointe du Lac – Interview With a Vampire
Louis had lost his wife and children at the beginning of Interview With a Vampire. His grief is clear from the beginning and continues as the story progresses.
Gabriel Belmont – Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
In the video game Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, the death of Gabriel Belmont‘s wife sets him off on a quest in hopes of resurrecting his beloved. His journey through grief eventually leads him to become Dracula.
Vlad the Impaler
Most famously, Vlad becomes a widower in a terribly tragic way. In Vlad’s extreme grief, he lashes out at God, who punishes him. He is the inspiration behind the most famous vampire of all time, Dracula.
Barnabus Collins – Dark Shadows
Barnabus Collins continues to grieve for Josette throughout the entire Dark Shadows series. Compounded by his guilt over having an affair with Angelique, he feels that the whole situation is his fault. He also feels remorse and regret over killing his uncle in a duel over Josette. If he had not, Josette would not have thrown herself over the cliff at Widow’s Hill. Barnabus bears a heavy load of guilt, throwing himself into extreme, neverending grief.
Eric Brooks/Blade – Blade
Blade lost his mother at birth and continues to grieve for her despite never knowing her.
Spike and Angel – Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel
Edward Cullen – The Twilight Saga
Edward Cullen‘s transformation comes at the behest of his mother to a doctor who happens to be a vampire. The pain of her grief compels the doctor to agree to her request.
The villainy of a vampire comes from the “life drain.” This vampire no longer has “life” within them and so lacks compassion, empathy, and virtually anything that could be regarded as being “human.” Vampires set themselves apart from the human condition. To sustain themselves, they must draw out the life of others. In myth, this is represented by blood. A common superstition holds that one’s life energy is the same thing as blood. Physically, there is no reason to dismiss this notion. Blood does give life.
This is where necromancy comes in. An evil vampire will kill another to extend his life beyond what is natural. They will kill to empower themselves. An evil vampire will commit homicide, and worse, it will be nightly. This villain has no regard for the balance of nature. For an immortal, the stack of bodies adds up fast.
Misery loves company, and so do vampires. As immortal nights pass, the vampire’s loneliness overcomes them. They desire to belong to something, anything. Thus, they begin to turn others into vampires. In vampire lore, these creatures have no regard for balance, and a vampire infestation soon consumes entire towns. When there is a saturation of vampires, some iterations of the lore in myth and pop culture shows that they become cannibals and feed upon other vampires to survive. This is the extreme side of the spectrum of this villain type.
End of the Immortal Night
We are drawn to vampire stories because we want to know how they conquer extreme grief. Each vampire has a story about how they ended their experience with the immortal night and survived hell. We want to know what they did to become human after such terrible trauma, and we want them to succeed. That is why we seek them out and glorify the horror.
It is the human condition to experience loss and grief. So, if a character can reach the depths of hellish darkness and return, then we can too. Through this lens, the vampire could be seen as a symbol of hope and faith. If a person, so horrible, can regain their humanity, then we are not hopeless cases either. It is in this way that the monstrous vampire can reflect the best and worst of humanity and, ultimately, the human condition.
Read more in our Myth in Pop Culture series here.