The Evolution of the Vampire Genre
Whether you embrace the association or scorn it, the goth scene will inevitably always go hand in hand with the vampire genre. Elegant, beautiful and graceful whilst remaining forever dangerous, it’s not hard to see why the vampire genre has remained as eternal as its subject matter.
Though there’s far more to the alternative community than Whitby Goth Weekend, that’s not to say vampires aren’t a well-loved subject on the scene, and always have been.
Fascinating as they are, a quick look at how they’ve evolved into their modern iterations might surprise you. The first written use of the word ‘vampire’ was in 1734, but variations of blood-drinking monsters can be seen in Mesopotamian, Ancient Greek, Hebrew and Roman culture far earlier than that.
But we don’t have time to explore all of history. And we’re fairly confident in saying that it’s unlikely you’ll find a vampire-styled goth imitating Ancient Roman dress sense. So instead we’ll stick to the classics, but it doesn’t begin with Jonathan Harker’s journal, as you might have imagined…
The First Vampire
The first literature considered to be an example of vampire fiction wasn’t the famous Dracula, as you might have thought. No, that honour goes to the novella Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, printed in 1872, a full 26 years before the Count hit the scene.
The story of a female vampire who preys upon and exhibits romantic feelings toward the (also female) narrator, Carmilla is an excellent example of the sexualisation of vampires in literature. And as we’ll soon see, that’s a theme that’s carried through right to the 21st century.
Quickly progressing to the release of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, we begin to see how the tropes and conventions of vampire fantasy that we now consider familiar came to be. But the idea of the suave, gentlemanly vampire that we associate with Count Dracula was actually evident as far back 1819, when John William Polidori produced the short story, The Vampyre and the character of Lord Ruthven as part of a friendly competition with a few names you might recognise: try Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron…
Still well before Dracula’s time, the Victorian period also produced the wonderful Varney the Vampire serials, a collection of penny dreadfuls which began in 1845 and first exhibited the now infamous sharpened teeth, or ‘fangs’ of a vampire.
It’s an early example, but it’s with the introduction of Sir Francis Varney as a sympathetic character that we begin to see how the vampire genre would progress, as the concept of the vampire as a victim in addition to the villain would quickly become one of the most familiar vampire tropes.
Though the vampire fad of the 1700s ran well into the late Victorian period and produced a great many characters of note, let’s skip ahead to the more recent past and explore a few vamps that we’re more familiar with…
The first example of a vampire in cinema can be dated to The Vampire, released in 1913, but the Count himself still holds the record for the most screen time for a vampire. Dracula has been adapted literally hundreds of times.
Despite this, the genre continued to spawn various films, books and even music for decades after the first vampire film was released, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the one that’s probably most well-known for its film adaptation.
Anne Rice’s novel Interview with the Vampire was first released in 1976. Though almost entirely set in the distant past, it exhibits one of the strongest examples of the sympathetic melancholy of the vampire genre since Varney. Despite the fact that Louis de Pointe du Lac might not always be considered the good guy, he’s certainly a classic depiction of the romanticised, self-loathing vampire seeking redemption that we’ve come to know and honestly, love.
More importantly, The Vampire Chronicles that followed this debut are where we begin to see the coming together of traditional vampires and modern goth culture, both in terms of the story of Lestat’s music career in Queen of the Damned and in the progressive sexuality and sexualisation of her characters.
There are several notable vampire portrayals in novels and films following the rise of the Anne Rice vampires. The next most important in our list has to be the cult hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which continues along the brooding, mysterious vampire character vein (excuse the pun) and evolves it further into the tortured, love interest.
Arguably one of the most well-loved vampire shows to grace our screens, the characters of Angel and Spike, though not gothic or gentlemanly in the way that Louis or Lord Ruthven were, still exhibited similar characteristics that made them both fascinating and at times, sympathetic. At different points in the story arc, both characters were troubled (often to the point of insanity) about their past deeds and future roles.
Despite neither character being a protagonist, their direct involvement with the title character is a nice segway into the vampire lead we’ve come to expect in the modern genre.
The Sympathetic Protagonist
Though it has to be said that there are still plenty of vampires in popular culture that are portrayed solely as the villains, and as less-than-complex murderers, there are definitely less of them these days than you’d expect, given that at the end of the day, a vampire is a monster and a killer by nature… Just look to classics like Salem’s Lot from 1975, the brilliant David from 1987’s The Lost Boys or From Dusk Till Dawn (1996).
But it’s hard to miss the shift, particularly when that shift came so soon after the rise of goth culture in the UK and the US. These days, you’re far more likely to find a vampire protagonist than a villain (though often modern vampires fight their own kind, but that’s an entirely different article…).
1998 bestowed the Blade film upon us, in 2003 we were treated to the delights of Selene as a protagonist in the Underworld film. This began to spread to television, and we soon found ourselves entranced by Aidan Turner’s Mitchell in the 2008 show Being Human.
And that's before the vampire genre really got kicked up a notch by the Marmite-esque, love it or hate it Twilight.
I’m not sure anyone would argue Edward Cullen is a groundbreaking character. Especially not anyone who’s into vampire fiction in literally any other way. Still, it has to be said that the film adaptation of Twilight in 2008 created a boom in the popularity of vampires in culture that sent them into the stratosphere, and from which they’ve yet to really come back down.
Following on from Stephenie Meyer’s teen paranormal romance, we began to see the genre grow in the form of TV adaptations. True Blood’s Bill and Eric, and The Vampire Diaries’ Stefan and Damon, continued to fit the bill of the melancholic, attractive stereotype that Anne Rice paved the way for. Yet it was around this point that things began to diverge.
Anyone who’s ever watched an HBO TV adaptation will tell you that the sexualisation of the plot borders on erotica. In books, too, the trend for vampires began to split. We kept the dark and moody classic vampire element that’s so well-loved in the goth community, but we also began to see more than just the romantic side of the genre, as it developed to span history and comedy as well.
Vampires of the New Age
Most people in literary professions will talk about a ‘vampire fatigue’ that’s spread since the rise of Twilight. More and more writers are writing about vampires, and while many get published, far more don’t. As such, when something new comes out, fans of the genre seize upon it for any remnants of the old classics we know and love.
But when it’s something entirely different, or with a new twist, then it forms the start of a whole new fandom.
Deborah Harkness’ 2011 novel A Discovery of Witches did just that. Covering witchcraft as well as vampires, she touches upon the self-pitying vampire gentleman trope with her character Matthew Clairmont, then builds upon this by giving him a diverse and unique history that’s both fantastical and grounded in reality.
And yet, while the book and subsequent sequels were popular enough to have been adapted for television by Sky, much of the visual vampire elements are missing. Nowhere in sight is the man adorned in black, the red silks and rich velvets we’ve come to associate with historical vampires. No, though a fascination with the vampires of the past remains, the genre has moved on.
This is further shown in Jim Marmusch’s vampire comedy-drama Only Lovers Left Alive, in which two ancient vampires of varying ages reminisce about the past, but most importantly look to the future and the way that the world is changing. A love story about completely contrasting characters, Adam’s Byron-esque melancholy is met by Eve’s unstoppable optimism and lust for life. Though a few of the classic tropes make it into the film, all in all, it’s a new take on an old favourite.
The comedic value of the vampire that refuses to move on from the old ways was continued in 2014 with Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, more recently expanded upon as a TV series in 2019 - funnily enough, with a cameo from Tilda Swinton’s Eve.
Then, in 2020, the BBC re-make of Dracula brought vampires to the forefront again, this time with a further hint of dark comedy and allure.
It’s fair to say the vampire genre’s transformation has been more dramatic than bursting into a cloud of bats. But though the silk cravats, swooshing capes, pointy teeth and bad accents win out when it comes to Halloween, these days the cultured and suave vampire prevails.
Personally, we think there’s a place for gothic castles and velvet corsets in a book, television or film vampire’s bag of tropes. But we can at least take comfort in the fact that this particular sanguine obsession isn’t about to end any time soon.