Viva La Horror is a bi-monthly column discussing horror films and iconic moments that have revolutionized the horror genre, Sadie Clark looks at how moments in horror history have radically evolved the established order of horror cinema.
"The ship of death had a new captain." – Nosferatu (1922)
The evolution of the vampire is a fascinating yet frightening one. In the late 19th, the vampire was thought of as a creature that lived in the shadows, preying on human blood, with a fondness for the jugular vein. These night creatures came from mysterious lands with tall, abandoned castles that no mortal would dare attempt to explore. With their long fangs, supernatural abilities, and insatiable thirst for blood, their nature has always been associated with death, darkness, and images of Hell. Some of the first accounts of vampires in literature, including John William Polidori’s short story, The Vampyre (1819), tell the stories of mysterious people in the dark who rip throats open and prey on the innocent.
While the narrative is still prominent today, the general attitude toward vampires has shifted drastically. The vampire is a symbol of lust, romance, and sensuality. Sex sells and popular culture has created a new world of intrigue surrounding the once feared vampire—even when horror paints them at their worst. Instead of running away or cowering in terror, we run toward vampires. They’ve become territorial defenders of those they love, and we admire them. Beginning with Nosferatu and leading up to the cult-following of films, books, and television series such as Twilight (2008) and The Vampire Diaries (2009), the legend of the vampire is one that will never die.
"Does this word not sound like the call of the death bird at midnight? You dare not say it since the pictures of life will fade into dark shadows; ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and feed on your blood."
What are the traditional characteristics of a vampire? These traits might seem like common knowledge, but their nature has evolved drastically in the 100 years following the release of Nosferatu. Count Orlok, a mysterious creature, was said to live in a faraway land that many people refused to travel to after dark. The film begins with the staggering lines, “Does this word not sound like the call of the death bird at midnight? You dare not say it since the pictures of life will fade into dark shadows; ghostly dreams will rise from your heart and feed on your blood." This dialogue should stand as a warning that one is not safe when they speak the name of Nosferatu or Count Orlok (Max Schrek).
He lurks in the night, with long fingers like talons and piercing eyes sure to send a chill down your spine. He harbors supernatural powers, such as disappearing into thin air or climbing into high-up spaces. These metaphysical characteristics seem to change with vampires from different demographics, but these magical abilities and their mysterious essence still fascinate us and have carried on.
Nosferatu is a startling representation of the fear of the undead in the early 20th century. Arising from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), those who had no idea of what could exist beyond humanity were struck with the terror of the unknown and the other. The dark is scary, and nobody is quite sure of the evil lurking in the night. At the outset of the film industry, fantasy and the supernatural were viewed as concepts to be feared. Vampires permeated the dreams of those daring to learn more about them, turning those dreams into nightmares.
Over time, the ideas surrounding vampires and the supernatural became lighthearted. In the 1960s, television sitcoms like The Munsters (1964) depicted a different, more humanistic side to these undead creatures. One of the most iconic vampires of this time on television was Grandpa Sam Dracula (Al Lewis). Despite his sarcastic and attention-seeking nature, he is depicted as wise, witty, and caring. Even his widow’s peak, fangs, and blue skin do not deter from his appeal. Grandpa Dracula is best known for his iconic smile, which makes him instantly recognizable and sweeter than his predecessors. The Munsters was a turning point in the evolution of the vampire in popular culture, and the vampire continued to adapt from charming and comedic to sexually attractive and alluring.
The vampire’s alluring nature is particularly emphasized in Interview with the Vampire (1994), adapted from the novel by Anne Rice published in 1976. The film follows Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), who recounts the story of his life to a journalist (Christian Slater). He speaks of his previous life as a grieving drunkard until he is confronted and turned by the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise). The film is a spectacular depiction of the vampire, illustrating the duality of the creature’s varied nature by highlighting the differences between Louis and Lestat as they navigate “raising a daughter.” Lestat turned the young girl, Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), into a vampire to be a comfort to Louis, who regards her as a daughter and cares for her. However, Lestat views her as a progeny to indoctrinate and mold into a vicious killer.
Louis has a sweet, soft, and thoughtful nature, and his humanity remains intact as a vampire. These amiable traits would continue to evolve with the vampire through the 21st century, disregarding but not forgetting old stereotypes. While vampires like Lestat are still prevalent, evil creatures are typically defeated in the modern-day, giving a sort of moral code to an already gray area of morality. The characters of Louis and Lestat were portrayed by two of the most notably attractive male leads in the 1990s, further driving the sexual appeal of the vampire before reaching an all-time high in the following two decades.
The 21st century brought an era of ambiguity to the vampire's nature. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (2005) ignited a spark that The Twilight Saga (2008-2012) films would further fan the flames of, pushing the desire for the vampire into the mainstream. The franchise shifted the perception of the creatures from terrifying and offputting to sexually appealing and dangerous—like having a thing for “bad boys.” Casting conventionally attractive actors like Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen and Ian Somerhalder as Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries (2009), created by teen scream writer Kevin Williamson with Julie Plec and adapted from the book series by L.J. Smith, marketed vampires as objects of youthful lust and dangerous forbidden fruit. While the creatures are hundreds of years old, these vampires' youthful appearances, around the ages of seventeen to twenty, drew a younger audience that quickly fell for the supernatural creatures. You didn’t need to be a horror enthusiast to become entangled in the PG-13 world of vampires.
In the brave new world, vampires still keep to the metaphorical shadows but engage with humans differently. Edward Cullen develops a relationship with the human teenager Isabella Swan, and they fall in love. Their angsty love story is one of the most iconic modern-day accounts of a human-vampire relationship and demonstrates just how far the evolution of the vampire has come. Similarly, Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) falls in love with vampire brothers Damon and Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley) in The Vampire Diaries. The brother's care for her demonstrates that they, despite appearances, have some kind of moral compass and human emotion in addition to their occasional bloodlust and anger.
Vampires have evolved. They can be horrifying beasts and sexually marketable, supernatural creatures that consistently draw varied demographics. Unlike Count Orlok, the creatures have developed and maintained human emotions, souls, and true feelings for their food—humans. The ability to capture young and old audiences' attention makes the vampire truly immortal. Their fangs, superhuman powers, and alluring nature will continue to evolve, making the legend of vampires timeless.
Sadie Clark is an English major at the University of Central Arkansas and contributing writer for Dead Talk News in addition to her bi-monthly column for Slay Away. In her spare time, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, and spending time with her guinea pigs, Ginger and Spike.