Why Do We Fear Vampires?

by JoHarrington

The legends go back even further than you may think. They are one of the most enduring monsters in our world. So what makes us so afraid of vampires?

They render us powerless in the face of death. They strip away our veneer of civility and make us prey to temptation. They destroy society one bite at a time.

Vampires reject the Almighty and engage in illicit sex. They could hold us in thrall and deny forever the chance of salvation.

They are probably also left-wing, alternative types. Leeching the life-blood from the economy and giving nothing back. If they were human, they'd be on welfare and still sound superior about it!

The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead

Vampires as the Destruction of the Species

They ate babies, you know? They were women! They were supposed to be mothers, but they took the children.

The first vampires were female. This may come as a bit of a shock to those of us immersed in the 21st century legends.

For us, Dracula changed the rules. Our default vampire is a male nobleman, with any vampiress generally relegated to a cameo role.  Women are the victims, not the monster.

It wasn't like that in antiquity.  Then the likes of Lilitu, Lamia, Lilith and the Empusae reigned supreme.  The Goddess Kali surpassed them all.  She was no mere nightmare in the shadows, but an actual deity.

They all had one thing in common. They fed off the living. They stole into homes and took the children. They snacked on babies.

It was all a terrible inversion of the tradition roles of women, as nurturers and carers. Real world women gave birth to babies. They provided the hope for the future of the species.  But those preternatural vampire women hated them for it. They would destroy all of humankind, starting with the youngest and weakest.

In part, these vampires were all about fear of the end of our kind. But mostly they triggered a much more personal fear.  Infant mortality was always high in the ancient world.  New parents could provide all they could to ensure the well-being of their young, but babies and young children still died.

Nor did these terrible creatures stop at children. They could feast upon anyone in the household, if no easy pickings were to hand. Life was their antithesis. They would destroy it wherever they found it. There was nothing sexy about this. It was heart-break and powerlessness in the face of death.  It was horror in its purest form.

Tales of Vampires in Ancient Times

Buy these books to discover more about how female vampires ruled the classical and antiquity worlds.
In Ancient Sumer and Babylon, this dark goddess was known as Dimme. Memory of her terrible legend formed the basis for all vampire tales to come.
The first vampires were all female. They were monstrous demigoddesses, who could not be killed, and they were firmly linked to infant mortality.
Before Eve, there was Lilith, or so some tellings of the story state. She fought with Adam and flew from Eden. Then entered folklore as a vampire or a demon.

Vampires as Pestilence and Death

Sometimes Heaven and Hell just don't want to know. Then our undead loved ones are doomed to feast off us.

Forget all that you know about seductive, sparkling vampires. Those depictions were all developed by writers over the past couple of centuries.

Before then, your average vampire was a much more terrible prospect. It rose from graves in all stages of decomposition; it returned home to its family and killed them.

The classic tale, during the vampire hysteria of the 17th and 18th centuries, involved a household receiving a knock on the door. The visitor would be known to all.  It would be their deceased mother, father, sibling or child. It either wouldn't speak at all, or would demand sustenance.

The horrified family would provide bread or broth.  But that wasn't what the animated corpse was after.

Soon members of the family would be discovered drained of all blood and quite dead.  Or else they would fade slowly, awaking each morning appearing more pale and wan than before.  Eventually they too would die and be buried.  Then the family would await their return, knowing that it was practically inevitable.

These stories tended to escalate during times of plague or outbreaks of tuberculosis. It's easy to see it as a metaphor for the epidemics themselves, which often took out whole families one by one. But there was much more to it than that.

Fearing actual vampires, bodies would be exhumed. With little knowledge of the stages of decay, the vampire hunters would be confronted with bloated corpses, or some which seemed remarkably well preserved. They would have nails and hair, which appeared to have grown in the grave. Red fluid dripped from various orifices.

All of these things are quite natural. But for those viewing it first hand, there was no way of knowing that.  All they saw was evidence that this corpse was in momentary slumber, after having risen in the night to gorge on its own surviving family.

A variation on this theme occurred in the 1980s, when the spread of AIDS. sparked a parallel outbreak of vampire novels. Those all concentrated upon the blood aspects, though the creatures themselves were now steeped in the glamor of the post-Dracula genre.

Throughout the 1700s, a vampire epidemic overtook Europe. Clerics, monarchs and even the cynical philosopher Voltaire had their say, before the panic finally abated.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, New England suffered a vampire epidemic. At least some thought so, and Connecticut was a hotbed for this belief.
In Exeter, Rhode Island, the villagers gathered to exhume the body of a suspected vampire. It happened right on the eve of the 20th century.
David Bowie, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve fight for top billing, in this art house, New Romantic vampire movie.

Vampires as Imperial and Religious War Brought Home

It's no accident that so many classic vampires have an Eastern European accent. They're all vaguely from the Balkans.

During the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, the Balkans were viewed as the 'powder keg' of Europe.

It was the region where Christendom and Islam clashed, as the Ottoman Empire ran up against the imperial concerns of Britain, Russia, Austria and Germany. 

It was also the place where the great schism between Catholicism and the Eastern Orthodox Church could be found. It ran as a fault-line between Croatia and Serbia for a start.

It was here that the First World War erupted with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. As the imperial superpowers rushed into the void, the Balkans also formed the friction lines between Capitalism and Communism.

Queen Victoria bemoaned the fact that the Balkans was causing her endless trouble.  A century later, the world watched as Yugoslavia was systematically destroyed.

But on the bright side, at least it was all happening over there. At least it was right up until people like Bram Stoker brought the Balkan menace right into the heart of dear ol' Blighty. Dracula came from Transylvania (part of modern day Romania) and now he was in England.

Those Victorian readers would have grasped the link immediately. If the novel was written today, then Dracula would have hailed from Iran or Afghanistan. Perhaps Syria, because it sounds that little more exotic and mysterious, and has a touch of sibilance.

Dracula was horrific, because its central character represented a war that was no longer happening out of sight, but right here. Right in the middle of civilization. That would never do.  Keep war over in the east where we can't see it and the victims don't matter as much as our own people do.

When considered like that, it reveals a horror even more terrible than any Eastern Europe vampire could elicit. It's the dark underbelly of the Western consciousness exposed. Unsettling on so many different levels.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

No-one can understand vampires until they've read this gothic novel. The Irish author changed everything.
There was undoubtedly a vampiric theme developing in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1797 poem 'Christabel'. But more significant was the vampirism inflicted on it!
Forget Dracula. The most influential vampire story of all time was written by Dr John Polidori, but he was inspired by Lord Byron himself.
The stereotypical vampire should have been a woman. Her prototype would not have been Dracula, but Carmilla. So what on Earth happened to derail her?

Vampires as the Old World Elite Still Feeding

From the mid 19th century, the vampire undertook a metamorphosis. The old school nobility were back, ready to leech the life from free democracies everywhere.

The horror of the Balkans wars invading only really worked in Western Europe. For those in the New World (particularly in the USA), there was an even more terrible aspect to the likes of Dracula.

Let's run with his full title here.  He is Dracula, Count of the Székelys, descended from Attila the Hun, and absolute ruler of his province of Transylvania. 

Count Dracula represented a return to that medieval world of nobles and serfs.  He wasn't elected. He didn't lobby the Houses for blood tithe. He just took it. He would enslave them all and consider it his blood-right to do so.

Bela Lugosi had a Hungarian accent, because Dracula was Romanian. (Who in Hollywood could point to these places on a map anyway?  It's all Europe!)  It was also for all the same reasons that US movie baddies tend to have British and German accents today. It's the Old World pursuing those who dared to flee into the American Dream.

The United States of America is filled with the descendants of those who survived the likes of Count Dracula. They fought a War of Independence to ensure that European tyrants could no longer leech the life-blood from the Land of the Brave.

Then one of them appears in their midst. He's quite literally sucking their blood. He must be staked into oblivion.

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula

What if some Americans secretly wished for an autocratic ruler? None of that faffing around having to gain votes. Horror lay in the old ways.

Watch Dracula Movies on DVD

The film-making may be updated according to the age, but America's morbid fascination with the old Count trying to drag them back goes on.
Francis Ford Coppola directed this star-studded cast through the most faithful movie adaptation of 'Dracula' thus far. Gary Oldman stole every scene.

Vampires as Left-Leaning Welfare Parasites

Comparing politics with what's popular in books and at the theater may reveal an interesting fact about our innermost fears.

An article in Cracked high-lighted a strange and faintly amusing pattern in American horror pop culture.

It seemed that whenever a Republican president was in power, then the inevitable result was an explosion of zombie literature and movies. Romero's classic Living Dead series reached its zenith under Nixon. The internet worried about the Zombie Apocalypse under George W Bush.

But before the Democrats start smirking too much, it should also be pointed out that their presidents inspire an infestation of vampires. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles had their heyday while Clinton was in the White House. The Twilight franchise ran and ran during Obama's first term.

Of course, the link isn't very precise. Zombies don't shuffle away for Democrat presidents, nor do vampires retire to their coffins for the Republicans. But the general trend's there.

Cracked interpreted the fears of the right as being three-fold, at least as represented by the vampire.  

The first is that vampires are lawless and prone to licentious sexual behavior. They don't get married, have 2.4 children and keep pets. At least not in any acceptable form. They deny religion too. Worst of all, they could tempt one's children into following suit. They make non-conformity and chaos look attractive!

The second is that vampires are parasites. They target fine, upstanding human beings and drink their blood. They don't contribute anything to society. They don't have jobs! Just like people on welfare really.

The third is that vampires are foreign invaders. They're minority immigrants. They come here, with their alien accents and leech off good, right-thinking Americans. They should all be sent home with a stake through their hearts, as a warning to other foreigners not to come here.

In 1993, Bill Clinton became president.  A year later, Interview with the Vampire hit the silver screen. It made the Vampire Chronicles one of the most famous series in the genre.

He was still president in 1997, when the long-running, highly successful show Buffy the Vampire Slayer first hit our television screens.

Barack Obama was elected President of the United States in 2008.  Seventeen days later, the first Twilight movie hit the silver screen.

True Blood also premiered in 2008, right at the end of George W Bush's Republican tenure. But kept on extending into more and more seasons throughout Obama's presidency.

Do You Agree that Zombies = Republicans and Vampires = Democrats?

The writers at Cracked claim that there's a distinct correlation between what's popular in horror during each presidency.

No, it doesn't fit at all
Kate on 03/21/2013

I think if you want to spot a correlation in anything you will find it. It's like that whole watching the wizard of oz whilst listening to dark side of moon by pink floyd urban myth in my opinion

It's one of the classic vampire movies of all time. The dramatization of the first in Anne Rice's 'The Vampire Chronicles' series set the standard.
Robert Pattison and Kristen Stewart swoon over each other in this human meets vampire High School romance. It's one of the most successful vampire movies of all time.
A spoiler-free review of the first season of True Blood. Explore a world where vampires have integrated with society in 21st century USA.

Vampires as the Loss of All Morals

This monster has no soul left to lose. It not only side-stepped Heaven and Hell, but it can take you or any member of your family with it.

It's already been touched upon, but by the 21st century this was probably the greatest lure of the vampires. It deserves its own section.

Vampires can do anything. They are powerful and they live outside the law.  The usual rules and mores of society mean nothing to them. They make their own rules and enjoy it immensely.

You can see it in what legends and attributes cleave to the vampire. For example, no modern creature can see its reflection in a mirror. That came from Bram Stoker's imagination. Previously one of the folkloric methods of trapping a vampire was to give it a mirror. It was so narcissistic, it would get distracted staring at itself. Then the hunter could get close enough to kill it.

Bram Stoker took the reflection away as a metaphor for the loss of soul.  It's there for the same reason that medieval priests swore that crosses and holy water could destroy the monster. Nothing to do with God at all. The Almighty may be omnipotent, but this is something Other. But never fear, God will help you kill it!  And all that.

There is something deeply sexual about the modern vampire.  Early vampires always had fangs.  The 20th and 21st century vampires have canines which only extend when they see someone that they fancy.  It doesn't take a genius to join the dots between that and other parts of the male anatomy.

The original vampires were in filthy, rotting shrouds.  Their counterparts today dress in sexy, revealing, glamorous attire. They are style personified. They wear the kind of things which the rest of us wish we could get away with.

Moreover, they aren't picky about who they seduce. Forget about all moralistic ravings about the evils of homosexuality.  Just about every vampire in the last four decades has been bisexual. Bestiality and necrophilia have been implied since Dracula.  You can even get away with hints of pedophilia, if the child in question is actually a centuries old vampire.  In short, if a vampire chooses an age appropriate member of the opposite sex, then it's usually just one liaison in many.

It's enough to make middle-class fathers everywhere reach for the nearest stake.

Nor is this a modern reaction.  That's precisely what Bram Stoker was telling those Victorian fathers too. Gone were their daughter's corsets and floor length skirts.  In were sexually aware vampire maidens running around in their underwear and nighties; and they got away with it!

No wonder it caught on.

Ensnared by a Prince of Darkness or a Queen of the Night? Alert humanity by donning stunning jewelry for victims of the vampire.
Cosplaying a vampire at a party? Or do you desire vampire chic to complete your look? Glamorous jewelry to get your teeth into!

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Updated: 06/14/2013, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


JoHarrington on 03/30/2013

Oh! Thank you for reminding me about that. I've loved Neil Gaiman since I first discovered 'Sandman' in the 1990s. I own (and have read) the book that he wrote with Al Sarrantonio. There were some amazing tales in there, but I'd forgotten that one of them was vampiric.

As for your nightmares, oh dear! I hope I wasn't responsible for that!

Mira on 03/30/2013

I read this article because your take is like reading a cultural studies article. I also dreamed about vampires last night! I have to say I can't watch the movies or the photos. I can't even read something that resembles horror (Neil Gaiman has bits of that in American Gods). But I do like all you say in your article(s). Speaking of Neil Gaiman, he has edited (with Al Sarrantonio) a great fantasy anthology, called Stories, where I really enjoyed one vampire story :).

JoHarrington on 03/23/2013

I'm familiar with the genre. :)

Guest on 03/23/2013

I'll give it a try. I started to make some notes and then got distracted by something else. Typical.

JoHarrington on 03/23/2013

Oh! Yes, please do. Sam recommend Scrivener, and Achim used it for his book too. I've been writing on Sigil, as that's where I began, but I know that Scrivener has more tools.

You've just described my mind perfectly, so yes, we are similar here!

Guest on 03/23/2013

It seems our minds are very similar. I constantly careen between hyperfocus and "Ooh, shiny." I have hundreds of references on my computer on a variety of subjects, but it's very hard to settle down and pull together what I need for one article. Now that I have Wizzley, I'm trying very hard to focus a bit more. [Fingers crossed] I'm thinking about writing an article on how I use Scrivener to help me do that. "Scrivener for Scattered Writers"

JoHarrington on 03/23/2013

It's not just me. Wisefool has posted an article here and now Mira has one in the pipeline. It's a downright Wizzley buzz in the making!

I do this though. I get interested in something, research the proverbial out of it, then get interested in another topic next week. I see it as a generally good thing, as it keeps a inquiring mind off the streets. But it's not so good for building niches!

Guest on 03/23/2013

I do the same thing -- get totally buried in a subject. Nothing wrong with it, especially in this context. You're building a niche.

JoHarrington on 03/23/2013

You spotted that? LOL Yes, I really am. I know I should mix and match more, but this one really has my imagination at the moment.

Guest on 03/22/2013

You go ahead. I'm not keen on writing reviews. I do it once in a while, but I have to be in the right mood. Besides, you're really on a vampire kick and you might as well go with it.

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