By Light Unseen

The Vampire Becomes a Metaphor

English speaking cultures--like almost everyone else outside of Eastern Orthodox Christian lands--had no true vampire belief, although they certainly had ghosts and revenants. The word "vampire" was used in reports and skeptical analyses of the Eastern European panics, and it seems to have gotten into English from such reports, around 1650. It first appears in writing in 1734. But this was well into the Enlightenment, so the idea of the walking dead was seen as highly superstitious. By the 1740's, the word "vampire" was already being used as a metaphor. In English, it was applied to something that was evil, grasping, greedy, and that "fed" on the lives and blood of other people--such as a lawyer or a landlord. (This alone proves how common and familiar the definition of a "vampire" had become in England. Concepts have to reach a certain critical mass before they can be used as metaphors.)

This is where the story gets very complicated, because once "vampire" was a pure metaphor, with no literal belief to ground it, it was free game for anyone to play with. Poets and writers got hold of it, and began to imbue the concept of "vampire" with all kinds of allegorical subtexts, frequently related to sex and sexuality. The whole dynamic of having power over another, of using another's vital resources and energy, of dominating and submitting sexually, of extending one's own existence at the expense of others...all of this began to be woven into the literary concept of a "vampire."

Folklore vampires were never really considered "immortal" so much as "unnatural." But the literary vampire acquired immortality more or less by default. After all, if you can die and return to earth, neither alive nor dead, and remain undecayed indefinitely, then obviously you're beyond the process of aging and illness that afflict living mortals.

The connection of vampires with blood was emphasized and refined by popular fiction. The powerful mystique of blood in Western Christian traditions was tied to the idea of a magic elixir that was the source of life and could keep the dead alive. Catholics and Anglican Protestants alike celebrated Mass in which worshippers believed they were literally drinking the blood of Jesus Christ to attain eternal life. The old vampires, the hungry dead who devoured anything they could get, evolved into fastidious immortals who consumed only blood and never, as Dracula says, drank wine.

By 1897 when Stoker published Dracula, the literary vampire was something those terrified Eastern Europeans a hundred and fifty years earlier would never have recognized. Stoker, from his dramatic Irish imagination (he was a theatre agent, after all) and Roman Catholicism, actually invented many of the vampire characteristics that immediately became "vampire rules" in English literature. These include vampires not having a reflection, a vampire's having to be invited into a house before it could enter, the vampire's great strength, vampire mind-control powers, vampires changing into bats, and the vampire needing special soil or earth to sleep in--all pure inventions by Stoker.

Along with the literary vampire, the Vampire Metaphor had also been borrowed by nineteenth century occultists to describe a different idea. Occultists began to write about something called a "psychic vampire," an entity that stole pure "life force" from its victims. At first, "psychic vampires" were believed to be low-level "astral entities" with no relationship to human beings. Over time, this changed, and humans were thought to sometimes act as "psychic vampires." Some occultists theorized that a human being might became a "psychic vampire" when one of those pesky astral entities attached itself to him. In the early twentieth century, psychologists and occultists recognized that some human beings acted like "psychic vampires" without any supernatural help, and there were even a few short stories exploring this notion. (For example, see the 1902 story, "Luella Miller" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.)

However, until the turn of the century, "psychic vampire" was an obscure concept mostly known in occult circles. To the average person, the word "vampire" had a very specific meaning: a human being, who had died, who was now supernaturally animated and couldn't be "killed" except by certain methods, and who consumed only blood as nourishment.

Then the folklorists got into the act.