I have been hooked on vampire fiction for a long time, book bees. Long enough that I’ve come to recognize certain aspects of it as standing literary traditions shaped by the beginnings of the vampire genre. And yes, I do 100% believe that vampire tales fall into their own genre. The genre has been shaped by the dark creatures of the night we know and love: Dracula, Carmilla, Lestat, Edward Cullen. While we choose to make fun of some of these names, and some of the newer additions to the genre have clearly not made the biggest of splashes, there’s a lot out there having to do with literary vampires.
There are two seminal works for the vampire fiction genre: Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu and Dracula by Bram Stoker.
This novella is told in the form of recounting the strange events in a young noble woman’s life. She discusses her lonely existence with her father, a nobleman, and how things begin to go south when her only real friend dies unexpectedly from an apparently awful disease. The arrival of a young lady named Carmilla, whose injury in a carriage accident leads to her staying with the family, sets off a series of strange and paranormal events. Carmilla is strangely obsessed with her hostess and at the same time has a myriad of unusual behaviors, from rising incredibly late in the day to a strange appetite. And of course, her resemblance to the mysterious ancestor of a nearby sloss.
Carmilla really sets up some of the major parts of vampire fiction, being the first true vampire story (predating Dracula by about 20 years). It’s actually a very interesting beginning to what becomes a huge part of vampire fiction, namely the expression of feminine sexuality. Carmilla reads as an attempted warning against lesbian behavior, painting the vampiress as an evil seductress of innocent young women and their deaths due to succumbing as the result of falling in love with another woman. But it also reads as a tragic story of a young gay woman whose sexuality leads to her own tortured misery.
Easily the most recognizable title in vampire fiction, Dracula is told in the form of journal entries and telegrams discussing the situation as a handful of characters encounter Count Dracula, a vampire hunting down their friends and family. A lot of the traditional vampire legends were incorporated into Stoker’s Dracula, and come out with a powerful and ancient vampire with certain aversions such as sunlight, garlic, and running water. Dracula requires soil from his homeland, a coffin to sleep in, and minions to do his bidding during the day resulting in Renfield, an asylum patient with an obsession for accumulating physical power through the consumption of insects and small animals.
Dracula does portray elements of horror, such as the slow descent into illness of Lucy Westenra and the stalking of Jonathan Harker and Mina. Dracula also introduces Van Helsing as a major future element of vampire fiction, a smart and cunning vampire hunter aware of the tactics of the most powerful vampires and ready to protect any innocents he can. Dracula has been retold in dozens of ways, from movies that stick to the horrific tale of the book to reimaginings that make things much more steamy and romantic. There is a certain fascination with the creation of the first vampire, whether he be Vlad Tepes or someone from further back in history.
Vampiric Legend Origins
Creatures with vampiric traits have existed in dozens of ancient cultures in one form or another, usually referred to as demons or spirits. The actual shape of a vampire developed in southeastern European folklore. Vampires developed out of a fear of blood drinking demons, rebellious corpses, and deadly diseases. Some “vampire” sightings can be attributed to misunderstood outbreaks of tuberculosis, others to grief. Accumulation of various legends of vampires can be found across a myriad of cultures, though the name “vampire” is not always applied. Blood drinking demons are the most common form seen across all cultures.
Romantic Vampires and Forbidden Sexuality
Paranormal fantasy has often been used to explore forbidden sexualities. This means a lot of paranormal fantasy addresses homosexual relationships, such as Carmilla did in Le Fanu’s attempt to discourage lesbian relationships. Other books, such as Anne Rice’s famed The Vampire Chronicles play on the homoeroticism of the genre without fully intending to (she famously did not like fans shipping Louis and Lestat, despite the clear homoeroticism between them).
Another aspect of forbidden sexuality is the long standing tradition of monsters being used to allow women to have desires. Traditionally, women have not been allowed to have sexual desires, wants, and needs. So, instead, women have written and read books, and later consumed movies and TV, that portray relationships women want as overbearing, possessive, and unhealthy. This is not to encourage women to have those relationships, but instead to allow women to fantasize about a relationship they want under circumstances that they remain blameless during. A vampire forcing himself of a poor young woman is sexy because the woman doesn’t have a choice and still wants him; she is blameless if she falls to his charms, and she can enjoy those charms while they last.
Vampires have been portrayed as horrific but charismatic monsters in most literary worlds. Part of their charm and allure is that they are seductive, beautiful, and impossible to resist. Their victims aren’t at fault for being enchanted, because that’s part of the predatory nature of a vampire. Some of the most interesting vampire novels deal with protagonists who either resist the vampiric world’s charms and refuse to give up their mortality for it, or conversely protagonists who desire nothing but the allure of the vampiric lifestyle and will abandon anything for their desires.
For a couple of modern examples of female sexuality explored in vampire fiction, let’s look at Bella Swan from the Twilight Saga and Sookie Stackhouse from The Southern Vampire Mysteries. Bella Swan is instantly enchanted by an unusual young man at her high school and when she learns he’s a vampire, but that he refuses to harm others, she eagerly embraces him and his lifestyle. She goes so far as to continually insist he turn her into a vampire, despite the resistance of himself and his family. Edward Cullen isn’t a monster and doesn’t wholly scare Bella, instead really only scaring himself. Other vampires are a threat to her, but she sees safety in being at Edward’s side and most importantly loves and desires him. So she forces his hand and becomes a vampire through her own agency and desire.
Sookie represents the other side of this coin. At first she is fascinated by vampires and their world, and she slowly draws herself into it through her relationship with Bill Compton. Her sexuality is awakened by creatures of the night, and her agency is often stripped from her by vampires, allowing her to fulfill desires she wouldn’t necessarily admit to. However, as the world of vampires exposes her to more and more monsters, Sookie resists. She refuses to be turned, and she soon starts refusing to work for or with vampires, even ending friendships and relationships due to the monstrous nature of the creatures she has aligned herself with. She rejects the removal of her agency by vampires, despite having enjoyed it at first.
In both characters, sexuality and agency are closely tied with their relationships to vampires. Sookie seeks connection and intimacy, and finds it easily with vampires. Bella seeks only Edward, and pursues him relentlessly. In terms of repressed female sexuality, both of them receive plausible deniability by the vampiric nature of their lovers. This is a major theme, repeated in a lot of vampire fiction throughout history.
Vampires as Mainstream Media
Vampires have been popular among certain crowds for a long time. A lot of goth fashion is inspired by vampiric characters, and novels about vampires and other dark creatures of the night have often appealed to gothic readers. With Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles, vampire books began to gain traction in fandoms, most infamously the fanfiction community that was built up and then torn down by Rice’s own legal actions. And then, with the release of the film Interview with the Vampire, vampires were considered popular and sexy. There were other vampire films released near this movie’s production, but with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt what could compete?
Interview really kicked off a stream of television, books, and movies that appealed to crowds outside of the normal vampire consumers (largely outcast groups, such as queer people and women, and alternative groups such as goths). Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular TV series that reached a wide audience, and films like Dracula 2000 have quite the cult following. Thus we sped towards the mid-2000’s injection of vampires into the literary world, with Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, The House of Night series, the Vampire Academy series, and many many more. Twilight‘s popularity brought vampires into mainstream media like nothing else did, encouraging a wide audience from teenagers to older women to read, adore, and watch the movies. The movies left a serious mark on popular culture, as well, even if just for the jokes and memes still made.
There’s also the Southern Vampire Mysteries, better known as the books the True Blood tv series is based off. Sookie’s world was filled with even more mythical creatures than just vampires and werewolves, but the choice between her two vampire lovers focused fans of steamy vampire romance. The Vampire Diaries were also adapted to the screen, and Vampire Academy had a semi decent movie made out of it. Strange series such as Hemlock Grove, NBC’s adaptation of Dracula (taken from us too soon), and the funky film What We Do In the Shadows (as well as its subsequent TV adaptation) have turned vampires into different directions. Hemlock Grove goes a dark and twisted route with its creatures, and NBC’s Dracula adapts really only the names and most basic of motivations of the characters in order to play with the romantic themes of vampires. Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows is iconic for its comedic take on vampires.
No matter where you look these days, there’s a new and interesting take on vampires to be presented. Dark and gritty films are regularly put out for horror fans, and vampires even make an appearance in video games such as The Witcher (I don’t know enough about video games to tell you the name of the version my husband plays that has vampires sorry). It’s easy to see that we’ve long been captivated by the gothic horror that is vampires and we’re unlikely to let go of these creatures of the night anytime soon!
Ultimately, the inclusion of a vampire in a story doesn’t necessary elevate it to a whole new genre. But in my opinion, stories about vampires are their own genres. They are required to present a certain amount of vampire lore to explain how their vampires operate, and to build the world around how vampires have existed all this time. In some universes vampires are known, such as The House of Night where vampires have never hidden and The Southern Vampire Mysteries where vampires have just recently “come out of the coffin.” Vampire stories take place within a certain amount of horror, considering the blood that has to be consumed and figuring out how exactly that’ll work for the vampires involved. And of course there are the eternal struggles of vampires and humans trying to coexist, and usually in a romantic way.
If you’re a fan of vampires, do you agree? Is this its own genre of fiction? If you don’t agree, feel free to let me know in the comments!