09/19/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Some Thoughts on Vampires

It used to be that vampire books and films needed laboriously to explain what a vampire was and the rules by which the bloodsucking creatures operated. Usually, this means that the clueless loved ones of people who are suffering from pernicious anemia and have bite-marks on their necks call in a stuffy savant who is loaded with arcane wisdom (eg: Dr Van Helsing) to spell it out for them. After a half-century of proliferating vampires in popular culture, this became vaguely ridiculous, to the point when Stephen King, in "Salem's Lot", gives the lore-explaining role to a 12-year-old kid who happens to be a monster movie fan and subscriber to "Famous Monsters of Filmland." Since then, there's been a tendency to one-up those old Van Helsings by having hipper, sexier vampire hunters tell people to forget all that they've learned in the movies and be prepared to meet real vampires - who obey whichever rules the writer has found convenient. Some vampire rules go back to folklore, but a surprising number were made up by writers relatively recently and have stuck. Here are some instances:

twilight movie scene

Crumbling in Daylight

Vampires (like bats) are nocturnal creatures - they feed after dark, and rest in coffins during the day. But Bram Stoker has Dracula wander about London in the daytime without any ill effect. The business about sunlight being fatal to vampires comes from F.W. Murnau's 1922 film "Nosferatu," where the Dracula figure fades away when the heroine offers him enough of her blood to keep him up past cock-crow. This proved such a pleasing effect that later films elaborate on it - Hammer's 1958 "Dracula" has Christopher Lee crumble spectacularly to dust, inaugurating many similar scenes - or do jokes about vampires wearing sunglasses and skin cream (as in "Blade") to get by. The "Twilight" vampires stay out of sunlight because it makes them sparkle - a much-ridiculed device which was at least fresh. In 1972, "Blacula" was the first vampire to commit suicide by walking into the sun...but he has been much imitated (eg: "30 Days of Night"). Just crumbling quietly isn't enough these days, so the sun-struck vampires in "Let the Right One In" and its US remake explode into flames like suicide bombers, taking innocent people with them.

Not Reflecting in Mirrors

This is raised in "Dracula," where the Count doesn't show up in Jonathan Harker's shaving mirror, and features in some, but not all, early vampire movies. In "Nosferatu," Max Schreck is plainly seen in a mirror, though he's one of the most phantasmal screen vampires, but the 1931 "Dracula" has Bela Lugosi's Count lacking a reflection. By extension, this has led to vampires who don't show up in photographs ("The Satanic Rites of Dracula") or any mechanical means of recording or transmission (the vampires of the TV show "Ultra Violet" can't even use the telephone). There are problems with this device - if a vampire lacks a reflection, shouldn't he or she appear in a mirror as an empty suit of clothes (like the Invisible Man) rather than an absence? If vampires lack reflections, why do they have shadows - there are too many cool images of bat-shaped cloak shadows or clutching talons for that to catch on. Writers who want their vampires to pass among humanity or have science fictional rationales quietly drop the mirror thing, though there are still a few great mirror gags in vampire cinema ... Udo Kier making himself up in front of an empty looking glass in "Blood for Dracula," two vampire showgirls applying each other's make-up in "Vamp."

vampire scared cross

Shunning the Cross

This is a staple of Dracula movies - the all-powerful Lord of the Undead shrinking in terror from an itty-bitty crucifix! In 1967, the cliché was dealt a shattering blow by Roman Polanski's "Dance of the Vampires" when a Transylvanian maiden brandishes a cross at the very Jewish Alfie Bass who cackles "Oy, have you got the wrong vempire!" A few later films ("Dracula Has Risen From the Grave," "Fright Night") insist that the crucifix works, but only if the wielder actually believes in God. Anne Rice's Louis admits that he quite likes looking at crucifixes.

vampire fangs


These come and go. In silent cinema, Max Schreck had rat-fangs and Lon Chaney sported shark-teeth in "London After Midnight," but - of course - they didn't have to speak dialogue with the false teeth in. Bela Lugosi did without, and fangs wouldn't really be part of the vampire look until Hammer had Christopher Lee (and several female minions) flash the choppers in 1958. Fanged vampires had appeared in pulp illustrations and comics for years, though - and the first fanged Dracula in the movies was in the 1952 Turkish effort "Dracula in Istanbul." Hammer's "Vampire Circus" (1972) seems to have been the first movie to feature retractable fangs. Some later vampires ("Martin," "The Hunger") have had regular teeth but made do with cutting implements when bleeding victims. "Vamp U" features a vampire who suffers a version of erectile dysfunction and can't extrude his fangs.

vampires buffy the vampire slayer

Klingon Forehead Syndrome

This is a comparatively recent addition to vampire lore, but there were instances as far back as "The Vampire" (1957) and "Blood of Dracula" (1958). Lugosi-Lee-type vampires look a lot like regular people and actors less charismatic and unearthly than, say, Lugosi or Lee, find it hard to be threatening with just a scowl and a breed of vampires showed up with a semi-werewolf tendency to get ridged foreheads, snouty noses, bony chin and cheek protruberances and glowing contact lenses, as well as retractable fangs and claws. "Blacula" (1972) even sprouted scary sideburns and eyebrows, though the trend really caught on in the 80s with the likes of "Fright Night" and "The Lost Boys" and became a thing when it was deployed weekly on Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Francis Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula" even made the Count a KFS poster boy.

the count sesame street

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

This goes back to authentic (which is to say loopy) folklore: Romanian peasants thought you could distract a vampire by throwing a handful of sesame seeds in their path, whereupon they would stop chasing you and feel compelled to count each individual seed. The fairly forgettable "Dracula II Ascension" has a terrific use of this tactic, where a confident lore expert discovers that vampires can tell at a glance how many seeds there are on the floor. The most blatant use of this in fiction is in the character of one of the least threatening vampires around - the Count from "Sesame Street."

A Stake Through the Heart

As one recent vampire remarked when asked if a stake through the heart would kill him: "Yes, but that would kill anyone." Even this ubiquitous bit of business is debatable - older versions of the legend say the stake's job is to pin a vampire in its grave and chopping its head off is what will kill it, while others have it that the stake should go through the eye. In "Dracula," Stoker makes great play of the stake - and poor dear dead Lucy gets skewered, along with the Count's brides - but opts for a knife-fight at dawn to get rid of the Count. It may be that a finale in which the heroes hammer wood through a helpless villain risks making the good guys look like bullies (cf: the gang-staking of Barbara Shelley in "Dracula - Prince of Darkness"), but it's also true that most movies demand a more even battle at the end with the monster at least going down fighting. That said, a surprising number of careless vampires ("Daughters of Darkness," "Return of Dracula," "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave") happen accidentally to fall or be thrown onto stakes.

Kim Newman is the author of Johnny Alucard (Titan Books), which was released on September 17th.