The History of Vampires
By Bill Knell
I. It Started With Blood
The Vampire persona has evolved from many true and untrue facts,
legends and myths. At various times vampires, real and imagined,
have been considered fiends, supernatural beings,
shape-shifters, mentally disturbed deviants, satanic servants
and fetish followers. However, it all began and still revolves
around a taste for blood!
Contrary to the popular belief that Vampire history, stories and
legends began with Vlad the Impaler, they go back much further
than that. Many ancient societies worshipped blood thirty gods.
This caused people to begin to associate blood with divinity,
leading to the development of the early vampire cults.
Regardless of the spiritual value, some people have always had a
desire to drink blood and the reasons are as varied as the
practitioners. In some societies the practice was accepted, as
in ancient Egypt. But in others, vampirism was considered
deviant behavior and condemned.
In Africa, most civilizations and tribes greatly feared
vampirism. The fear was eventually turned into legend as people
began to believe vampires were evil spirits that would come in
the night to drink blood, kill livestock and steal children.
Archeological evidence shows that fetishes, in the form of
dollhouse-sized huts, were built as a protection against them.
Some modern African tribal medicine men still hold to this
belief and continue to build the fetishes in the same way that
their ancestors did.
During the glory days of Rome, vampire cults abounded. Roman
citizens, mostly females, began to believe in the concept
delivered to them by captured peoples that drinking the blood of
fertile females would cure the infertile. Likewise, for males,
blood drinking was a way to become more potent. It wasn't long
before blood drinking cult members started to get sick and
spread their sicknesses to others. Though it's doubtful that
these people understood much of anything about the diseases
transmitted through blood, Roman physicians did see a connection
between blood drinking and the spread of sickness.
Eventually, the Roman government moved against the cults and
outlawed the practice. Some members of vampire cults refused to
stop drinking each other’s blood and continued to meet in
secret, despite the physical dangers and threats of severe
punishment. When this was discovered and sickness continued to
spread, the Roman government dispatched paid assassins to hunt
down and kill the renegade blood drinkers. Because they were
paid by the number of cult members they killed, these early
vampire hunters became legendary. Seeking to get rich from their
trade, there is no doubt that these "pay per kill" assassins
took the lives of as many innocent people as they did cult
The weapon of choice for the Roman vampire hunters was a small,
easily hidden dagger. This allowed them to infiltrate the secret
cult meetings and then attack without warning. The daggers were
highly ornate leaving the Roman public with the impression that
the assassins were on a divine mission. The handles were in the
shape of a cross and looked very much like any ornate, modern
crucifix! In an attempt to scare off the government sanctioned
assassins, cult members began to spread stories designed to
frighten their trackers. They claimed that drinking blood gave
them the ability to change into fierce animals and devour any
Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Romans and Egyptians,
as well as the traditions passed orally by the Africans, vampire
legends were well known on local and international levels by the
arrival of the Middle Ages. Had it not been for the
proliferation of plague and other pestilences during that time,
vampirism probably would have re-emerged as a popular fad. Even
so, some drawings in religious books of the period seem to
suggest that blood-drinking cults continued to exist. Devils,
demons and human servants of Satan were often portrayed as
committing unspeakable acts, including the sucking of blood from
other humans and animals. One may assume that these portrayals
were not just shadows of the past or complete figments of over
As explorers from the Old World began to visit the New World,
the vampire legend took on a new and frightening form. Spanish
explorers traveled to the Americas in search of gold and other
treasures. Although dreaded by the native peoples living there,
the Conquistadors themselves began to fall prey to an unknown
and terrifying enemy. In an attempt to escape the pervasive
heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, hostile peoples and monsoon-like
rains of the South American jungles and rain forests, the
Spaniards would take refuge in caves at night whenever these
could be found. It wasn't long before a strange disease began to
claim the sanity and lives of the conquering army. The only
thing noticed about those who became ill was that they had
strange bite marks on their bodies.
The sick moved quickly towards death and a terrible fear settled
in among the Spaniards. The source of the bite was finally
discovered when those on late night guard duty watched in horror
as bats gently attached themselves to members of the sleeping
army. With no real understanding of rabies or how it was spread,
the Spaniards just assumed that loss of blood was the cause of
death. They believed that the bats were killing the men by
feeding on the same subjects night after night until they were
drained of blood! Though staying out of caves stopped most of
the attacks, some were still bitten.
By the time Vlad the Impaler came along, the vampire legend had
already been well established. His contribution to the history
of vampires was largely due to Bram Stoker's fictional story of
Dracula. Already known as a rabid, bloodthirsty killer, Dracula
suddenly became a virtually unstoppable, supernatural force of
Bram Stoker's 1897 book, Dracula, was inspired by existing
vampire legends and the brutal acts of a legendary tyrant.
Stoker found the name Dracula in a book on the history of
Wallachia. The name was associated with a 15th century
Transylvanian despot known as Vlad the Impaler, also called "Vlad
Dracul," which means "the devil" in Romanian. Impaling was the
gruesome practice of forcing a long wooden spear through the
body until the victim gradually dies. Dracula favored impaling
as a form of execution and a scare tactic used to instill fear
in his enemies. Vlad hated non-Christians, making it a policy to
kill any non-practicing residents under his authority. Fearing
for their lives, his subjects placed crosses on their front
lawns and doorways to keep Dracula at bay.
Transylvanian traditions were also a source of great inspiration
for Bram Stoker. They believed in what were called "strigoi"
(the undead) who would walk the earth because they were
improperly buried or had lived an evil life. Like vampires, they
would stalk and kill humans. Stopping them meant driving a stake
through their heart. They would then be placed in a coffin where
the same stake was driven through the coffin and into the
ground. That was the only procedure known to keep the undead in
the ground where they belonged.
Although the marriage of fact, fiction and folktales that came
together in Bram Stoker’s Dracula forever changed and deluded
original traditions and beliefs about vampires, it also created
a huge amount of interest in them. More then a few people read
the novel believing it to be a true story, thus adding to the
legend. Younger readers were especially susceptible to the
suspense and fear created by the main character. Many would
place crosses all over their rooms and nail windows shut!
III. Vampires As Entertainment
Several attempts were made to turn the novel into a stage play,
but known were financially successful until Bela Lugosi entered
the picture. Though legend has it that Bela initially wanted
nothing to do with the project, Dracula became the role of his
lifetime. Each night an ambulance was parked outside the
Broadway Theater where Dracula was performed, and this wasn't
just for publicity purposes! People would faint or get trampled
as audience members tried to run out of the performance with the
appearance of Bela on the stage as Dracula.
With reactions like that to the book and Broadway Play, the
story was a natural for early filmmakers. While it is unclear
who actually tried to bring Dracula to the screen first, it's
certain that the 1922 silent film Nosferatu was one of the first
uses of a vampire as a major character in a motion picture. In
this German film, the vampire is a blood-sucking fiend with no
redeeming values. Realistic make-up and great special effects
make Nosferatu still worth watching on video.
If Nosferatu secured the vampire's reputation as a fiend with
movie audiences, it was the 1931 American film DRACULA that gave
a slightly more human face to all creatures of the night! In
Dracula, Bela Lugosi brought his stunning stage performance to
the big screen. The pace was slow allowing each moment of
suspense and terror to be fully felt and appreciated by the
audience. Rather then being just a predatory monster as in
Nosferatu, Bela played the Master Vampire as a royal, dark and
manipulative force using the few human attributes he had left to
build an army of the undead that existed to serve his needs.
The 1940s brought the movie character of Dracula into contact
with other well-known monsters like The Werewolf and
Frankenstein. During that time, a string of reasonably well made
"B" Movies forced gothic horror purists to endure watching their
favorite characters mixed with everyone from mad scientists to
Abbot and Costello. During the 1950s and 1960s, movie vampires
faced new friends and foes in the form of atomic monsters and
space aliens. If you want to see what may be the stupidest
vampire movie of all time, buy a copy of 1967’s Pardon Me, But
Your Teeth Are In My Neck by Roman Polanski on video. The 1960s
also brought an unusual soap opera to TV.
Dark Shadows, the parent of all other vampire TV Shows, was a
daytime soap opera that began in the 1960s and ran through part
of the 1970s. Although set in modern times, the show drifted
across the centuries to tell the story of the ill-fated Collins
Family and the vampire curse that hounded them. This was modern
gothic horror at its best! The show's primary character, a
vampire named Barnabus Collins (played by the scary Jonathan
Frid), became wildly popular and made the soap a massive
success. Dark Shadows gave birth to fans clubs, books,
magazines, several major films and a short-lived revival series
which lacked the punch the original had. Thanks to the Sci-Fi
Channel, the original Dark Shadows can now be seen on cable.
Most 1970’s theatrical releases with a vampire theme were merely
color remakes of earlier films or ideas. Many were cheap
exploitation pieces made to fill time at a buck fifty a carload
Drive-Ins. There were a few exceptions. Andy Warhol's 1974 film,
Andy Warhol's DRACULA, was well received and became a good
companion to his highly acclaimed Andy Warhol's FRANKENSTEIN.
1979's Dracula featuring Frank Langella and Sir Lawrence Olivier
gave the master vampire a more sophisticated sexual identity
that went over well with even the most devoted gothic horror
fans. Vampires on TV faired better then those on the big screen
in the 1970s.
1972 brought us a made for TV horror film called The Night
Stalker. The vampire was a centuries old killer discovered and
tracked by an annoying and slightly washed up reporter named
Carl Kolchak, played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin.
The Night Stalker spawned another film and a Television Series
that still airs in reruns today. The 1979 made for television
mini-series, Salem’s Lot, was based on a Stephen King story and
featured David Soul (of Starsky and Hutch) and master actor
James Mason in one of his last performances. It is a classic and
can still be seen in a shortened or full-length version on cable
television. It’s also been released on DVD.
The only other big screen vampire movies of the 60s and 70s that
gothic horror fans enjoyed were those starring Christopher Lee.
His portrayal of the Dracula character was sincere and
compelling. Though most of his vampire films were exploitation
pieces designed for matinee audiences, Lee's performances in
those movies gave them class amid weak story lines. While most
laugh at it, another 1970’s exploitation film, Blackula is oddly
addicting and joins the ranks of Love At First Bite, with George
Hamilton and Arte Johnson, and the cult classic Rocky Horror
Picture Show as films many vamp fans like to revisit. Each of
these movies contain elements of horror, suspense and comedy
that mix well and do no real harm to the vampire legend.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the vampire theme had been
covered so much on film that little was offered apart from
comedies and cheap exploitation flicks. One notable exception
was Joel Schumacher's 1987 film The Lost Boys. This movie
offered us an updated version of the vampire look as seen by
comic books of the time. As scary as it was interesting, The
Lost Boys has become a gothic horror and vamp fan favorite.
Almost invisible in theaters, the1985 comedy Once Bitten
starring Lauren Hutton and Jim Carrey became a cable television
standard after Carrey hit the big time in the 90’s. The 1988
teen comedy flick, My Best Friend Is A Vampire, also made it
bigger on video and cable then on the big screen.
The 1990s brought us some quality vampire flicks. Francis Ford
Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA told us more about the
traditional Transylvanian character then previous films and
remained faithful to the original novel. The 1992 film based on
the comic book character, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, has become a
cult favorite. The comic book character also turned into a
successful television series with the same title a few years
later. The 1994 box office hit, Interview With The Vampire, was
based on the Anne Rice book. The film brought Anne’s popular
characters to a much larger audience and featured a young cast
that hit a home run with most vamp fans.
Eddie Murphy’s 1995, A Vampire In Brooklyn, was both funny and
frightening and should not be missed. 1998’s Blade starring
Wesley Snipes hit a home run as a an action film with a total
update of vampires and those who hunt them. Another 1998 film,
John Carpenter’s Vampires hit a home run with a lot of vamp
fans, but didn’t make much of a mark at the box office. Some
felt that the western setting and motif hurt the film, but I
thought it was original and fun.1999 brought us the start of
Angel, a dramatic television series with a touch of humor based
on the vampire character introduced in the Buffy The Vampire
Slayer TV show.
Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 was a very scary treat and a great way
to usher in the Millennium, from a supernatural perspective. In
2001 John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe starred in Shadow of the
Vampire, a movie which presented the fictional idea that a real
vampire was used for the filming of Nosferatu. Although it’s
kind of an arts film, the slow pace is equaled out by some very
frightening moments. 2002’s Queen of the Damned was a less
successful adaptation of an Anne Rice story that lacked the star
power and humor that Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas,
Christian Slater and a very young Kirsten Dunst brought to
Interview With the Vampire.
A non-stop selection of cable documentaries about Dracula, his
castle and vampires seems to indicate that people have yet to
get their fill of these creatures of the night. More films are
planned and, unless they cancel Halloween, we are likely to be
informed and entertained by vampire stories on the large and
small screens, as well as online, for years to come.
IV. Motivated By A Thirst For Blood
Most people labeled as Vampires after being accused or convicted
of a terrible crime may have had an unusual thirst or need for
blood. Hungarian Countess Erzebet Bathory, who lived in Vienna
in the early 1600s, beat and tortured her servants and may have
bathed in their blood believing it would restore her youth.
Another Hungarian, Bela Kiss, murdered his wife, neighbor and up
to twenty young girls in Budapest before he died while at war in
1914. The bodies were later discovered stored in metal drums,
with bite marks on their necks and completely drained of blood.
In 1996 a sixteen-year-old boy named Roderick Ferrell organized
a group of Kentucky Teens into a Vampire Cult. They were all
fans of the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. The
group went to Florida and murdered the parents of a former
girlfriend. Ferrell was later arrested, convicted and sentenced
Not all vampire incidents are as easy to explain as the crimes
committed by wannabe vampires who end up dead or arrested. One
of the most puzzling of all factual vampire-related crimes and
incidents is the case of the High Gate Cemetery Vampire of
England. Oddly enough, it was the western section of that
British Cemetery that inspired Bram Stoker in his depiction of
some settings for the tale of Dracula.
During the late 1960s, several British children found a shortcut
to their school through the western section of High Gate
Cemetery in London. As they started using the shortcut on a
daily basis in the early morning, some strange things happened.
Several of the children became sick and were diagnosed as having
experienced a significant loss of blood, along with unusual bite
marks on their necks. At the same time, residents of the area
began reporting their dogs missing.
Dog carcasses began to turn up inside and near the cemetery.
Most died of blood loss and also had strange bite marks on their
bodies. A number of credible witnesses reported seeing hooded
figures hunched over the dogs as they were dying. An occult
group dedicated to the eradication of vampires started
patrolling the area, adding to the confusion and weirdness. They
actually went around digging up bodies and sticking them with
stakes! Needless to say, the group quickly wore out their
welcome and had problems with local law enforcement. By the
early 1970s, things quieted down as children stopped taking the
shortcut through the cemetery and most people kept their pets
indoors at night. Although the case remains unsolved, one event
put a cap on the whole thing.
A British Policeman on patrol just outside High Gate Cemetery
one evening noticed a hooded figure bent over the body of a dog.
The animal seemed to be in great distress. As the Officer
approached the hooded figure, it turned to look at him. The
Officer could clearly see that the hooded figure had no face! It
then turned and vanished before his eyes. The dog died of a loss
of blood and this is the how the Officer reported the incident.
Like so many unexplained events, the case was quietly filed
V. The Gothic Lifestyle
For years people have dressed up as Vampires for Halloween and
other special occasions. But some never stopped! Over the past
forty years more then a few people have spent a good part their
lives living like vampires. For most, just dressing the part is
enough. Others feel a need to actually drink or suck blood.
Although dangerous in a day when blood born diseases pose such a
threat to humanity, most involved in the blood drinking or
sucking only participate in the fetish with one person or an
exclusive group of people.
Today, people who dress like vampires as politely referred to as
participating in the Gothic Lifestyle. It’s an umbrella term
that covers everyone including those with a blood drinking or
sucking fetish. The mere fact that people are still emulating
what was laid down as vampire characteristics, dress and
behavior in the Dracula novel and films after so many years,
indicates the strong appeal and enduring quality of the legend.
Since it’s publication in 1897, Dracula has never been out of
Author: Bill Knell Author's Email: