Stake Not the Undead: Vampires in the 2020s
By Karina WilsonJuly 30, 2020
Their sudden reappearance comes after a short exile. For the past two centuries, as required, vampires have faded and risen again in cultural consciousness. Most recently, they imploded at the end of the 2000s amid a cloud of twilit glitter. Somewhere between Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) (tagline: “Love never dies”) and the sweaty polyamory of HBO’s True Blood (2008–2014), once unholy fiends shapeshifted from throat-ripping reprobates into French-kissing flirts. As members of a bad boy brotherhood, they rode the decade’s mixed messaging about sexuality to the top of the romance charts. Thrilling vampire action involved less staking and beheading, more letting the right one in — through the bedroom door.
Inevitably, overexposure breeds contempt. Any bloodsucker seeking a heterosexual happily ever after has definitely lost their bite. Bored by immortal/human couples, romance readers sought more mundane objects of desire — E. L. James defanged Edward Cullen and rewrote him as bloodless billionaire Christian Grey. Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart split up. For most of the 2010s, vampires largely retreated into the privacy of the tomb. In 2018, The New Yorker even wondered: Are Vampires Cancelled?
Now, they’re back from the grave, putting the small “r” of supernatural romance behind them and returning to their brooding, big “R” Romantic roots. In January, Steven Moffat’s inventive three-part adaptation — and extension — of Dracula enthralled global TV audiences on Netflix after a splashy BBC airing (and poster campaign). Universal Studios and Blumhouse Productions announced Karyn Kusama as their pick to reinvent the Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi 1931 classic Dracula. Riverdale and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa dusted off a Dracula-adjacent 2015 pilot, The Brides, for ABC and Warner Bros. Television. Stephenie Meyer announced her first new Twilight novel in over a decade. Netflix is even rumored to be resurrecting The Vampire Diaries, cancelled in 2017.
Why this sudden flurry of bared fangs? Why does this particular monster come knocking at our collective unconscious right now? A good vampire story confronts our vulnerability to disease, habitual suspicion of the Other, and willingness to expose our necks and pump our veins when commanded to do so by a social superior. As events of 2020 have demonstrated, these failings may well destroy us. And that would really mess up the vampire food supply. So, once again, they crawl from their coffins to remind us, by shaping and articulating our existential dread, who we are and what we need to change. Even as we flee their fatal embrace, we must be mindful of where vampires come from, why they thrive, and what they can teach us about surviving these desperate times.
Although 2020 seems to be obsessed with revisiting Dracula, Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel is the bloom, not the root, of the genealogical tree. Centuries before the theater impresario conceived of his sinister Romanian count, vampire myths persisted. Our favored creatures of the night began un-life as bloated, purple-tinted revenants, familiar figures in many folklore traditions around the world. The Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index categorizes “a corpse that rises from the grave at night and sucks blood” as tale type E251. These beings were more akin to modern zombies, barely sentient, stumbling from the grave and feeding on those they’d known in life. By the end of the 17th century, revenants had moved beyond folk tales into liminal reality. They were often blamed for spreading the plague as they seemed to occur more frequently during waves of infection. Fear of encountering or becoming one ensured people observed hygienic burial practices, burying corpses deep in walled-off graveyards — and that they stayed out of such places at night. As medical understanding grew about the process of decomposition, revenants were explained away as anomalies in decay. A “normal” corpse was expected to putrefy quite rapidly after death. Any human remains that didn’t were regarded with a mix of superstition and scientific suspicion and would be dealt with as a revenant.
Then, as the Renaissance tilted into the Enlightenment, a couple of infamous cases on the border between the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires punted the reanimated corpse to the forefront of cultural discourse. According to Thomas Bohn's The Vampire: Origins of a European Myth, in Kisiljevo, Northern Bosnia, in 1725, an Austrian official, Frombald, witnessed the exhumation of a villager suspected of being a revenant. When the 10-week-old corpse displayed ruddy cheeks, teeth dripping blood, and an erection, Frombald sanctioned the traditional stake through the heart followed by ceremonial burning of all remains. His formal report was published in Austrian and Hungarian newspapers and translated into English. This is how the Serbian word used by Frombald, vampir (or oupire), made the leap into other European languages.
Another Austrian official, Regimental Field Surgeon Johannes Flückinger, investigated the village of Medvegya in late 1731: this time, there were 17 suspected revenants. After conducting thorough autopsies, he was unable to find a medical cause of death or explain the inconsistencies in the decomposition rate. Recent burials had begun to disintegrate while those six weeks dead still appeared lifelike. In his widely published report, Flückinger concluded at least 10 of the dead had been infected and “ordered the heads of all these vampires to be cut off by some wandering Bohemians, their bodies to be burned, and their ashes scattered in Moravia.” Race and class played a part in his diagnosis — the suspected vampires tended to belong to peasant or Turkish families.
The official reports legitimized the stories with headline-grabbing details that could still set today’s news cycle on fire: beautiful dead girls, a mysterious contagion of foreign origin, gory autopsies, and wandering Roma using an arcane skill set to save good Christian souls. The so-called vampire epidemics triggered debate across Europe, in universities, palaces, and salons, inspiring scholarly papers and clerical treatises. Given the documentary evidence, could vampires be real? This was a thorny question in the 1730s and ’40s. Religious doctrine was shifting away from medieval concepts of the Devil. Rather than a corporeal entity able to affect reality through supernatural forces or witchcraft, the Church wished to frame Satan as a psychological influence whose powers were limited to temptation or provocation. However, if actual vampires were feeding on Serbian villagers, that meant a physical Devil might be out there too.
Vampires vexed the Vatican for other reasons: the Holy See’s stance had long been that incorruptibility in the grave was a miracle and indicated sainthood, and of course drinking blood and the resurrection of the dead were major planks of Catholic theology. Western clerics had to tread carefully when dismissing lifelike corpses as the result of soil conditions, liquor imbibed before death, or other natural causes. Their Eastern Orthodox counterparts were a step ahead. The Orthodox bishops were more familiar with local geological anomalies interfering with normal decomposition and had already banned priests from disturbing graves or violating corpses — on pain of excommunication.
Vampires were a thorn — or spear — in the Church’s side until the archbishop of Trani, Italy, Giuseppe Davanzati, published his extensive research in 1744, Dissertazione sopra I Vampiri. He determined once and for all that vampires existed only in dreams. The baton was passed to another authority. Secular rulers like the proactive Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa made vampire extermination a government matter. Filling out paperwork in triplicate is never as much fun as a graveside exorcism or postmortem beheading, so villagers gradually stopped submitting complaints. If revenants only rose up in nightmares, there was no longer any need for scythes and stakes.
Undeterred by this loss of faith, vampires made the leap from philosophy to poetry. If they couldn’t be literal, they would be figurative. Resurrected within the Romantic imagination, vampires were the key to exploring life after death — without religion or biology intruding. Rather than proceeding directly to Heaven or Hell, the tortured Romantic vampire evaded judgment to return from the grave. Death was not the End but an intensification of emotional feeling, freeing the individual from moral imperatives, allowing them to commit their whole soul to earthly passions. These vampires drank blood to sustain their physical form, but their primary thirst was for true love. They were usually beautiful, desirable women.
Goethe’s The Bride of Corinth (1797) tells of the beautiful maid who seduces a fiancé six months after being buried, while Robert Southey’s epic poem, Thalaba The Destroyer (1801) discusses a bride who dies and revives on her wedding day (“But in her eyes there dwelt / Brightness more terrible / Than all the loathsomeness of death”). In prose, Johann Ludwig Tieck depicts another vampire bride in Wake Not the Dead (published around 1800). Beautiful but deceased, Brunhilda proves too much of a temptation for her widower, Walter, who sacrifices everything to dance once again with a resurrected corpse. And the man who did more than any other — albeit unwittingly — to define the modern vampire, Lord Byron, used “the graves of those who cannot die” as a metaphor to describe Greek oppression within the Ottoman Empire in his epic fragment, “The Giaour” (1813), celebrating the “loveliness in death, / That parts not quite with parting breath.”
The first English vampire novel creaked into existence on the same storm-tossed night as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster were conceived. It was 1816, the Year Without Summer — a fitting time for such a debut. The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the previous year forced “12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock” into the atmosphere, causing the greatest loss of human life of any volcano in recorded history — 90,000 dead — and precipitating a global drop in temperatures of around three degrees Celsius. The effects lasted for months, with the cold causing famine as far away as New England. Climate change compounded the general unrest following Napoleon’s final defeat in June 1815. Twenty years of war in Europe shut down commerce, antagonized colonies, and destroyed social structures as men were press-ganged into military service. People feared the unusually cold, long nights and wondered what creatures of darkness cursed their crops and stole away their sons. But they needed a face to fit their fears.
Enter Lord Byron. After years of public adulation as “the most brilliant star in the dazzling world of Regency London,” he was having an annus horribilis. His ex-wife, determined to win their custody battle, accused him of rape, homosexual and heterosexual affairs, and incestuous relations with his half-sister. He was also, despite his baronial holdings and successful publications, deeply in debt. So he set sail on another tour of Europe in April 1816, accompanied by John Polidori, a 20-year-old hired as his personal physician and companion.
Polidori had literary as well as scientific ambitions and accepted payment from Murray, Byron’s publisher, to keep a diary about his travels with the Great Man. But from the outset Byron regarded Polidori as merely the help and scorned what he later described to Murray as “the eternal nonsense and tracasseries and emptiness and ill-humour and vanity of that young person.” They bickered, with the master openly mocking his servant’s writing. When Byron received a copy of Lady Caroline Lamb’s roman à clef, Glenarvon, a thinly veiled account of their affair, he read it aloud to the squirming Polidori. When they attended parties, Polidori noted in his diary “L[ord] B[yron]’s name was alone mentioned; mine, like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.” By June, when Byron rented the Villa Diodati on the banks of Lake Geneva, the young doctor’s resentment must have been palpable. Luckily, the neighbors offered a welcome distraction. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont were staying a short walk away.
Much has been imagined about the meeting of these fabled minds at the Villa Diodati. The night of June 17 has been recreated onscreen many times, from The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to Gothic (1986) to the Doctor Who episode “The Haunting of the Villa Diodati” that aired in February of this year. One frequent topic of discussion seems to have been the nature of life, what sparks it, and what happens to the human body after it is extinguished — the quintessential vampire debate of the Enlightenment. Polidori was pleased his medical expertise was sought on such matters. He was also happy to be included in the creative fun and games, especially on June 17, which he recorded in his diary:
Began my ghost-story after tea. Twelve o'clock, really began to talk ghostly. L[ord] B[yron] repeated some verses of Coleridge's Christabel, of the witch's breast; when silence ensued, and Shelley, suddenly shrieking and putting his hands to his head, ran out of the room with a candle. Threw water in his face, and after gave him ether. He was looking at Mrs. S[helley], and suddenly thought of a woman he had heard of who had eyes instead of nipples, which, taking hold of his mind, horrified him …
Mary Shelley’s “ghost story” was, of course, Frankenstein. Polidori played with an idea about “a skull-headed lady.” And Byron began, but discarded, a story about a vampire. Months later, after he had left Byron’s employment, Polidori remembered this fragment and started working it through to a conclusion. It’s not a stretch to suggest he took more than a couple of narrative beats from his former boss: The Vampyre (as it became) is structured around a naïve young man who finds himself far from home and at the mercy of his traveling companion, a sadistic nobleman named, as in Glenarvon, Lord Ruthven.
Within the pages of The Vampyre, Polidori could finally write about Byron in more than clipped, self-conscious diary entries, as well as establishing the main tropes of the vampire genre that still dominate today. Eschewing the anemic brides preferred by his Romantic cohort, Polidori presents a male vampire, “a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank” fixing his “dead grey eye” on the highest echelons of London society. The terminally bored aristocracy, “pleased at having something in their presence capable of engaging their attention,” invite Ruthven to all their best parties, unaware he is violating and silencing their women. As first-time writers often do, Polidori fashions his protagonist, Aubrey, as a Mary Sue; “handsome, frank, and rich,” he is a more socially adept version of the gauche young doctor, but with too much faith in the “high romantic feeling of honour and candour, which daily ruins so many milliners’ apprentices.” Like Polidori, Aubrey is doomed by his Romantic ideals. He thinks he can associate with the morally decayed Ruthven without corrupting the purity of his own thought. Once Aubrey learns Ruthven, whose “affairs were embarrassed” is planning to travel, he inveigles an invitation, thinking he can learn from a safe distance about vice and virtue while on a Grand Tour.
Their sojourn through the antique wilds of Europe pulses with what we now regard as the clichés of vampire fiction. Aubrey observes, with increasing horror, the pleasure Ruthven takes in the suffering of others. At first, the predation is financial. Ruthven gives charity only to the supplicants he knows will be ruined by it, “the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family.” When they reach Rome, Ruthven turns his ruinous attentions to women and Aubrey, after intervening, formally separates from his traveling companion. In thinking he can flee, he has misunderstood his enemy’s supernatural essence. The naïf cannot escape. Geographical distance doesn’t cure the fascination — which, as in all good vampire tales, throbs with homoeroticism. Aubrey plays mouse to Ruthven’s cat, zigzagging through Greece and back to London. Not satisfied with torturing the young man, Ruthven destroys the women he loves (the maiden Ianthe and, later, his sister). Not even death, at the tip of a bandit’s dagger, stops the ruthless aristocrat, and his resurrection tips poor Aubrey into impotent insanity. As vicious as syphilis, Ruthven is all his era’s ills rolled into one: poverty, plague, class oppression.
Unaware of anything but his own personal catharsis, Polidori rolled up his finished manuscript and forgot about it, leaving it with his hostess, the Countess of Breuss. Like so many others, she remembered nothing but the word “Byron” from conversations with her houseguest, so she forwarded it to a friend as the latest creation of Lord George. The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron was published in the New Monthly Magazine in April 1819. Polidori was crushed by the misattribution. His connection with Byron seemed cursed. Who was the bloodsucking parasite, and who was the host? The question, over the next few years, would send Polidori — like Aubrey — over the edge. Buoyed by the Byronic association, The Vampyre was a sensation, reprinted and translated around the world and adapted as a stage play. But by the time Polidori managed to claim his intellectual property, he was too broken to enjoy the fulfillment of his ambition. He died by suicide, aged just 26, after drinking prussic acid. In the final, shining irony, Byron died three years later in the grip of a mysterious fever. A modern doctor, A. R. Mills, attributes the poet’s probable cause of death to “the massive bleedings” performed by his personal physician. Art manifests destiny.
Like many a pestilence before it, The Vampyre spread rapidly across the Atlantic and sank its teeth into the New World. A satire set in Haiti credited to the pseudonymous Uriah Derick D’Arcy, The Black Vampyre, was published in New York in June 1819. The Black Vampyre honors its bloodline, quoting the same section of Byron’s “The Giaour” that opens its English counterpart (dubbed The White Vampyre in the introduction), and building to the same final phrase (“the thirst of a vampyre!”). In between, however, D’Arcy subverts the original’s dynamics. The Black vampire is an African prince stolen by slavers and taken to the French colony of St. Domingo. Unlike Lord Ruthven, a monster who hides behind high society’s hypocrisy and prejudice in order to commit bloodsucking crimes, the Prince is an antihero who utilizes his supernatural powers to challenge the institutions of slavery. His bite confers freedom, not bondage. He’s bloodthirsty yet sympathetic, the godfather to similarly disruptive Black movie vampires, Blacula (1972), Ganja and Hess (1973), Blade (1998), and even the vampire-adjacent Candyman (1992 and due for resurrection this year, courtesy of producer Jordan Peele).
The Black Vampyre is a difficult text for the modern reader. Although abolitionist, it’s written from a white colonial perspective, with consequently coded language. The tone shifts abruptly, from burlesque to horror, sometimes within the space of a paragraph. Yet the prince himself is a compelling figure. As a small boy tossed overboard from a trader ship, he refuses to drown, bouncing right back out of the water to barbecue the slaveowner, Mr. Personne. Years later, he returns to seduce the Widow Personne, Euphemia. The prince consummates their union with grave-robbing and infernal resurrection, turning his new bride and her long-dead child and first husband into vampires. Vengeance complete, he summons an army of Haitian undead and leads them to revolution against their colonial oppressors. As it’s 1819, the prince cannot win, but the tale ends with a hint that his “Vampyrish” son (with Euphemia) lived out his days in New Jersey, and — like the prince’s ghoul army — will rise from the dead to fight for the abolitionist cause.
The Black Vampyre did not have the abiding appeal of The Vampyre, but it proved the durability and flexibility of Polidori’s paradigm and helped cement the vampire’s role as both monster and metaphor. The “Moral” of Black Vampyre, added to the second edition, expands on the ways we are vampires and they are us. The Moral lists several types all too familiar today: the “accomplished dandy” blowing his hard-earned inheritance on horses and tailors, the “fraudulent trafficker in stock and merchandize” who bounces back from bad business deals and “stalks forth, triumphant with bloated villainy, more elated in his shameless resurrection to renew his career of iniquity and of disgrace,” and the “corrupted and senseless Clerk, who being placed near the vitals of a moneyed institution, himself exhausted to feed the appetite of sharpers, drains, in his turn, the coffers he was appointed to guard.” The vampiric imagery resonated with contemporary readers reeling from a brutal recession, the Panic of 1819. Then, as now, these financial bloodsuckers were just as voracious, destructive, and evil as any ghoul that crawled from a Serbian grave.
Thus unleashed, vampires stalked the following decades. The parallels with our own time draw themselves: pandemics raged (cholera in the streets and syphilis between the sheets) against a backdrop of social inequality, thanks to the waves of automation making old trades and workers obsolete. Nationalist unrest and populist leaders in Europe led to violent waves of revolution. In plays, poems, novellas, and magazine serials, vampires captivated the collective imagination and proved the perfect fictional threat for popular entertainment.
As the 2020s unfold, we should pay close attention to what they’re doing in the shadows. The undead have long memories. They’ve endured plagues and panics before and can help us through this latest contagion. Like Perseus’ shield, they reflect the real monsters — infection, intolerance, and inequity — into a fictional realm, where we may more easily slay them. Perhaps it’s time to drop the torches and pitchforks and surrender to the vampires’ kiss, so we may relish their eternal wisdom. Brace yourself, mortals. Unless we submit to a little fantasy bloodletting, the 2020s are going to suck.
Karina Wilson is a writer and story consultant, specializing in the horror genre.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Rob Latham reviews the latest novel in Kim Newman’s “Anno Dracula” series.
The werewolf was an apt figure for 1981, a moment when prominent commentators worried that many Americans had become too self-focused.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!