The Vampyre stirs: 200 years of vampire entertainment

As a new adaptation of Dracula airs on BBC One and Netflix, Richard Sugg takes us back 200 years to the unholy birth of ‘vampotainment’ – in a horror story contest on the shores of Lake Geneva, featuring the greatest poets of the age...

Edvard Munch's painting 'Love and Pain'

A dark and stormy night in Greece. Our hero, the English gentleman Aubrey, is attacked by an unknown being of irresistible strength. Villagers with torches burst in to save him just in time. But they are too late to save his love. The pure and beautiful young Greek girl, Ianthe, is found dead a few moments later:

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“There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:—upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:—to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, “A Vampyre! a Vampyre!”

The genteel readers who clutched this story in trembling fingers 200 years ago were witnessing the birth of the vampire in fiction – but had no idea about the lurid culture of ‘vampotainment’ to which he would give rise.

The vampiric revenant of popular belief is probably as old as fear itself. In 2008, archaeologists in the Czech Republic found a 4,000-year-old body that had been weighted down with stones in its grave, in order to stop it escaping and terrorising the living. The staking and burning of Cretan vampires was described in 1531. In the early 18th century, central European rumours of people returning from the dead were documented by Austrian soldiers, causing folk vampirism to reach educated readers beyond vampire territory. These episodes gave rise to The Vampire, a 1748 poem by the German writer Heinrich August Ossenfelder, which already offers hints of the dark eroticism later exploited by Bram Stoker and his successors.

Horrified villagers discovering the body of Ianthe
The title-page image from an 1884 edition of ‘The Vampyre’, showing the horrified villagers discovering the body of Ianthe. (Image by Bridgeman)

A gothic mainstay is born

But the now-forgotten Ossenfelder could not begin to compete with the media sensation sparked when ‘The Vampyre’ appeared in the New Monthly Magazine on 1 April 1819. At first it was being sold as the work of Lord Byron, and at this time, any new work by Byron was a major event. He was now the biggest-selling author in the country, having outstripped the novelist Sir Walter Scott. But ‘The Vampyre’ offered the twist of being a rare work in prose by Britain’s most dashing, controversial and popular poet.

So claimed the publicity surrounding the appropriate April Fools’ Day publication. And many Byronic ingredients were there. The vampire, Lord Ruthven (pronounced ‘riven’), was clearly inspired by Byron himself. Ruthven is fatally mysterious, seemingly immune to human emotion. The more he disdains women, the more desperate they are to know and understand him.

Aloof, controlling, powerful and often aristocratic, the vampire has stalked from page to stage to screen for 200 years

In some ways, ‘The Vampyre’ only became all the more Byronic once its real origins were known. In 1816, the inhabitants of the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, trapped indoors by foul weather, had held a supernatural storytelling competition. The most notable participants were Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Godwin (shortly to become Mary Shelley), Lord Byron, and Byron’s personal physician, Dr John William Polidori. The most famous result was the gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, which Mary Shelley would publish anonymously in 1818. Byron, who had featured vampirism in his 1813 poem The Giaour, began a vampire story, tired of it, and cast it aside. From this fragment, ‘The Vampyre’ was worked up by Polidori. So it was that this great pioneering vampire tale was created as a piece of fan fiction.

The author, ‘poor Polidori’, was a Byron-worshipper with delusions of grandeur. When he once presumed to ask the poet, “Pray, tell me, what is there, apart from scribbling verses, that I cannot do better than you?”, Byron responded: “I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of yonder door I can swim across that river to yonder point; and I can give you a damned good thrashing.” Mired in debt by 1821, Polidori died – evidently by suicide – aged just 25.

John Polidori, personal physician to Lord Byron
John Polidori was personal physician to Lord Byron, and in the poet’s thrall. Byron served as a model for Polidori’s curl, brooding ‘vampire’, Lord Ruthven. (Image by Alamy)

His life might have been very different if he had managed to patent the figure of Lord Ruthven. By summer 1820, the story had sparked a successful French play, and would later give rise to an opera, Der Vampyr, by Heinrich Marschner. But in Britain the most famous spin-off from the tale was a hit stage play, The Vampire: or, The Bride of the Isles, adapted by James Robinson Planché.

Any writer who has ever seen their work crassly mangled into theatre or film by opportunistic producers may take comfort from the Regency-goes-to-Hollywood remake of Polidori’s ‘Vampyre’ – a theatrical romp so bad it would have driven many an author to distraction. Firstly, taking the lead of the earlier French adaptation, the action is moved from the isles of Greece to those of Scotland – a location certainly bedevilled by witches, but remarkably free of vampires. Secondly, it is turned into a musical. Every time Ruthven is about to get his teeth into a nice juicy virgin, he is horribly thwarted by a rousing burst of authentic and blithely irrelevant Scotch folk song.

Nor is this all. For The Bride is obviously very anxious to strike a fine balance between genuine Byronic thrills and proper middle-class decorum. The stage vampire must be tamed. The Bride’s producers found various ways of doing this. One was to minimise the amount of implied sexuality in Ruthven’s seduction of his female victim. Delightfully, this involves a magical trick, in which any woman falls helplessly in love with Ruthven the moment he touches her. Heavens! how strange a thrill runs through my frame!” Lady Margaret exclaims at this Midas moment, with Ruthven gloating, sotto voce, Then she’s mine!” Secondly, rather than simply seducing and devouring his female foodstuffs, this Regency-era vampire is obliged to marry them first. And thirdly, the stage Ruthven, forced by raw nature to feed on virgin blood, also develops qualms of conscience about his disgusting banquet”. True to the class politics of the day, he initially attempts to devour a humble servant girl, Effie, rather than the worthy Lady Margaret.

Beauty, sex and horror

This was, of course, a very different time from those that produced the screen Draculas of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman. For one thing, Byron himself – for some years a byword for scandal to many in Britain – had by this point strayed still further into taboo, traumatising even devoted admirers with the highly sexualised Don Juan. For another, existing reviews of The Bride suggest that, to audiences of the 1820s, the play genuinely succeeded in fusing beauty, sex and horror. Scenery, lighting and special effects were all state of the art. The noted critic William Hazlitt, for example, was ravished by the fairy glory” of the moonlight scene in which Ruthven appears to die.

And the play’s climax, finally, manages to interweave horror with a Hollywood-style happy ending. In Polidori’s original, Ruthven preyed unchecked throughout, ultimately devouring Aubrey’s own sister at the close. In the play, Ruthven has until sundown on a set date to munch his bride, after which he will die. Thwarted by the good Scots and robbed of his supper, he is yanked through a trapdoor in the midst of a wild midnight storm. This, of course, had been done for a long time on English stages, with Dr Faustus being the most famous victim of the hell-mouth device over the previous 200 years. But the speed and cunning of the new ‘vampire trap’ was such that it left audiences breathless in 1820. So great was its success that it was reused in numerous other plays for years after – to the point where jaded critics began to deride melodramas that were merely “all smoke and mirrors and vampire traps”.

There was also one other secret magic ingredient in this original vampire romp – for the actor who played Ruthven in early stagings was none other than TP Cooke. Cooke was a star of his day, a kind of Regency Harrison Ford who excelled at playing action heroes – and who, neatly enough, would also go on to play Frankenstein’s monster on stage three years later. By the time Cooke donned the vampire’s kilt, he was already so famous that some marketing wizard was selling him to the public in the form of pottery figurines.

Was Cooke a celebrity? For some time now, the modern celebrity has seemed as indispensable to our world as the modern vampire. But many would argue that it too is around 200 years old – partly because celebrity as we know it depends on innovations in transport and communication, allowing the latest news of the stars to move fast and wide. Many would also claim that Byron was himself the first modern celebrity.

From this heady mix of ingredients, the modern vampire seducer was born. Aloof, controlling, mysterious, rich, powerful and (often) aristocratic, he has stalked from page to stage to screen for two centuries. In the 19th century, he all owed the Victorians to enjoy sexual thrills that could not have been permitted in realistic literature. After Polidori, a fine novella by Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla, was a prime example, while 1897’s Dracula positively drips with Freudian implications (see box below).

In the bizarrely Victorian Twilight, decades of feminism seem to have passed its characters by

For much of the 20th century, film was the most prominent vehicle for our darkly alluring assailant, reaching new extremes of daring in Coppola’s 1992 version, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which Lucy has an enjoyable encounter with a hungry vampire-wolf.

Then, in 2005, came Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels. Edward Cullen is dark, dangerous, accomplished, hyper-masculine, rawly animalistic and alluringly inaccessible. Bella is clumsy, naive, adoring, and frequently in need of protection and rescue. In this bizarrely Victorian love story, decades of feminism seem to have entirely passed its characters by. But – fear not. Things were about to get much worse. Bracketing our two centuries of vampotainment, one more Byronic lover was born from this latest flourish of vampire fiction. This figure was Christian Grey – the brooding antihero of EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which started life, like ‘The Vampyre’, as a piece of fan fiction: this time as a Twilight spin-off.

Grey is an aristocrat of wealth rather than of tradition, and in place of blood-drinking, we have bondage, dominance and contractual sado-masochism. Otherwise, little has changed between the world of Regency Britain and dot.com America. Our antihero is distant, cruel, handsome and controlling, while his female foil is willing, implausibly virginal, wide-eyed and passive. Needless to say, the critical derision these books have attracted only makes their record-breaking popularity all the more intriguing. After Fifty Shades of Grey, we can never read ‘The Vampyre’ as people did in the age of Austen. Looking back now, how many women, after all, would choose Aubrey over Lord Ruthven as their fantasy lover? And who, from our perspective, is its real hero?

Richard Sugg is the author of 11 books, including The Real Vampires (Amberley, 2019)

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine