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A Brief History of Vampires in Pop Culture

When you think of vampires, what thoughts come to mind? Do you think of Dracula or Count von Count from Sesame Street? Or perhaps you think of more recent books, television series, and movies such as Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Blade? Once known as terrifying beings that would suck the lifeblood from people, these creatures somehow made the shift to become romantic and appealing. So what’s up with our collective fascination with vampires, and why do vampires keep appearing in pop culture?

Vampire Origins

Castle in Transylvania
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Long before Brad Pitt made vampires look sexy, tales of the creatures had been around for centuries, but they were feared. Vampires have popped up in mythology as far back as the ancient Egyptians. But most historians agree that the vampire as we know it today got its start in Europe sometime during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to scholars, Bram Stoker's Dracula novel was crafted after the real Romanian Prince Vlad Tepes, who lived during the 15th century in Transylvania.

While Romania generally looks fondly on his legacy, he was known to be very cruel to those he conquered, earning himself the nickname “Vlad the Impaler.” Some stories go so far as to say that he even dined with his dying victims, dipping his bread in their blood. Tales of vampire-like creatures also come from Asia; in Chinese mythology they’re known as “jiangshi” (pronounced chong-shee, and meaning “stiff corpse”).

Vampires in Literature

Stack of books
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One of the best-known works about vampires — and the one that is credited with propelling vampires into the realm of popular culture — is the 1897 book Dracula. Stoker’s version of of vampirism — a blood-sucking ghoul who preys on the innocent in order to prolong its own immortal life — was burned into the collective psyche. Notably, it also kept with the then-common belief that vampires were dangerous and unholy, although there’s a case to be made that the Victorian-era novel is full of innuendo and is, in fact, a heavily sexual piece.

But through this novel, we get several characters who continually pop up in future works by other authors and television and movie directors. You might be familiar with names like Van Helsing, the vampire slayer who is the central character portrayed by Hugh Jackman in a 2004 action movie, or Mina Murray, a love interest who features prominently in Dracula romance novel spin-offs.

Vampires get a makeover

Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire
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It wasn’t until 1931 that the vampire transitioned from being a vicious-looking monster into a handsome rogue who just so happened to also suck people’s blood. You can thank the film Dracula that was released that year, and actor Bela Lugosi for playing the titular role in a suave manner. For the next few decades, vampires stayed attractive yet fearsome — until Sesame Street’s fourth season in 1972.

Best known as the Count von Count who likes to count, the friendly Muppet manages to straddle popular vampire tropes such as wearing a cape, living in a decrepit castle, and laughing dramatically with a Transylvanian accent, while also delighting small children and teaching them how to count their numbers. He’s probably the only friendly vampire that most people can name, though the Disney Channel’s more recent series Vampirina also proves that Transylvania’s most famous cultural export can be for kids.

But vampires didn’t take a decidedly sexy turn until the 1970s when Anne Rice began writing her Vampire Chronicles novel series that centered around the handsome French vampire Lestat. The most famous book in the series was Interview With the Vampire, which in 1993 was turned into movie starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. It’s safe to say that after this movie was released, the interest in vampires in pop culture experienced a rebirth, and there were plenty of people who were open to the idea of literally being bitten by love.

In the Art House

Max Schreck as Count Orlok in Nosferatu
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Arguably the most influential vampire movie ever made is 1922's Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's silent fantasia belonging to the German Expressionist movement. Max Schreck stars as Count Orlock in the loose (and unofficial) adaptation of Stoker's novel, with a number of names and other details being changed for legal reasons. Its legacy is massive, so much so that none other than Werner Herzog remade it as Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979. The filmmaker's frequent collaborator Klaus Kinski starred in that version, which is even stranger than its source material and just as worthwhile — not least because of Isabelle Adjani's performance.

Both films are part of a proud tradition of avant garde vampire movies that continue today. French auteur Claire Denis threw her proverbial hat in the ring with 2001’s Trouble Every Day, in which American newlyweds find themselves among many tantalizing necks in Paris; Jim Jarmusch did likewise with Only Lovers Left Alive, a romantic drama starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as a bloodsucking couple whose centuries-long affair has made them as prone to waxing philosophical as they are to seeking their next meal. Similarly artful films are made all over the world, from Let the Right One In (Sweden) and The Transfiguration (United States) to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Iran) and Thirst (South Korea), all demonstrating how many different approaches there are to depicting these creatures of the night.

Vampires Go Mainstream

The two main characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
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Although Interview With the Vampire was both a racy novel and movie, a more family-friendly version of vampire relations also hit the big screen a year earlier with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The 1992 movie centered on a cheerleader who discovers that she’s a vampire hunter and was successful enough to be adapted into a beloved television series five years later. The “Buffyverse” is one of the most dedicated fan-bases around, and seven seasons of Buffy proved both that bloodsuckers can draw ratings and that a strong female lead could be accepted by a diverse audience. It also paved the way for the likes of more vamps in prime-time, like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, both of which spawned devoted followings of their own and suggest that, like the creatures themselves, this genre refuses to die.

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