Myths and Legends about vampires are found almost everywhere in the world. Their appearance in folklore is roughly as old as the societies they spring from. The vampire archetype varies from place to place and across time reflecting the mindset of different cultures. Considering the legends sprang up independently in a myriad of places, the similarities between them are more striking than the differences. Here in the West the stereotypical image of a vampire has changed a great deal in the last century.
Much of our vampire lore had its origins in the Balkans or Greece, regions particularly rich in vampire tales to this day. In these cultures vampires were seen as anything but elegant. They were revenants, basically re-animated corpses who seek the blood of the living to prolong their unhallowed existence. Themes of depraved sexuality can be found in many of the old myths. Vampires were cast as repulsive yet were also associated with lust. For the most part vampires of earlier folklore were believed to attack their victims on the chest or extremities rather than by biting necks. They were invariably evil according to Mother Church and in the eyes of the populace. These ideas were reflected in the vampire beliefs of Western Europe though concern about vampires was never so prevalent there as it was in Eastern Europe.
Leone Allacci of Cologne gave us one of the first if not the earliest attempt to deal with the subject of vampires in depth in a scholarly way. In his 1645 treatise De Graecorum Hodie Quorundam Opinationibus, he discusses a number of now familiar traditions. "The vrykolakas(vampire) is the body of a man of wicked and debauched life, very often of one who has been excommunicated by his bishop. Such bodies do not like other corpses suffer decomposition after burial nor fall to dust, but having, so it seems, a skin of extreme toughness becomes swollen and distended all over, so that the joints can scarcely be bent; the skin becomes stretched like the parchment of a drum, and when struck gives out the same sound." Allacci was also the first scholar to officially declare vampires to be creatures of the devil.
"Throughout the whole vast shadowy world of ghosts and demons there is no figure so terrible, so dreaded and abhorred, yet endowed with such fearful fascination as the vampire; who is himself neither ghost nor demon but who partakes of the dark natures, and possesses the mysterious and terrible qualities of both. Around the vampire have clustered the most sombre superstitions, for he is a thing which belongs to no world at all. A pariah even among demons, foul are his ravages; gruesome and seemingly barbaric are the ancient and approved methods by which folk must rid themselves of this hideous pest. Even in this twentieth century in certain quarters of the world, in the remoter districts of Europe itself, in Transylvania, Slavonia, the isles and mountains of Greece, the peasant will take the law into his own hands and utterly destroy the carrion who - as is yet firmly believed - will issue at night from his unhallowed grave to spread the infection of vampirism throughout the countryside". -Montague Summers The Origin of the Vampire
It wasn't until the mid to late 18th century that vampires in literature began to slowly undergo a transformation. A few authors were presenting them in a less ghoulish light with faces that were almost human. In 1748 Heinrich Ossenfelder published Der Vampir, a groundbreaking poem about a male vampire who is a seducer of women. Other early works that contributed to humanizing the literary vampire were Goethe's The Bride of Corinth 1797, Coleridge's Christabel 1816, Lord Byron's The Giaour 1819 and Keat's La Belle Dame Sans Merci 1820. It was John Poldari who gave us the first literary version of the seductive, aristocratic vampire in 1819, fashioning the protagonist in his Vampyre after the infamous English Romantic poet, Lord Byron. Sheridan Le Fenau's Carmilla 1872 was the first significant novel whose protagonist was a female vampire; she was cast in an appealing light or at least one that portrayed her as having both good and evil within her.
The stage was set for Bram Stoker to write Dracula in 1897 and cast the mold for a vampire stereotype that prevails to this day. His enormously influential work highlighted the multiple nature of vampires, artfully blending elements of the fiendish and the alluring. Stoker gathered together a set of folklore beliefs about the traits of vampires that have since come to be taken for granted: extended canine teeth, an aversion to garlic, mirrors and the icons of Christianity, destruction by sunlight and being forced to sleep through the day in coffins, the powers of mesmerism and immortality among others. Sexuality in the late Victorian era was repressed and sublimated; in its dark way the Dracula novel would have struck a few chords in that area which can only have added to its appeal.
A good case could be made for Anne Rice being the next great presenter of the vampire mythos. Interview With the Vampire, first published in 1976, as well as her many succeeding books and movies have had a greater effect on how vampires are currently perceived than any other single influence. Her work further refines the archetype, emphasizing the romantic. Most Ricean vampires are presented ambiguously, embodying traits both appealing and perverse.
The Vampire: His Kith and Kin
by Montague Summers
In The Blood: A serious look at vampire-myth origins
by Steve Bernheisel