Erin Collopy and Marjean Purinton explore the origins of our favorite Halloween myths and debunk modern misconceptions about monsters.
In the summer of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin; her soon-to-be-husband, Percy Shelley; her stepsister, Claire Clairmont; Lord Byron and Byron's physician, John William Polidori, convened in Switzerland for what was supposed to be a sightseeing holiday.
However, the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora the year prior had released so much volcanic ash into the stratosphere that a sulfuric veil formed above much of the northern hemisphere, obscuring the sun and causing the “year without a summer.” The party sought refuge from the torrential rain and bitter cold in a villa near the shore of Lake Geneva, where Lord Byron suggested they compete to see who could invent the most horrifying tale.
“Two of the great Halloween myths grew out of this ill-fated holiday when our writers, who were very young, were forced indoors and resorted to sharing ghost stories and creating stories of their own,” said Marjean Purinton, a professor of British Romantic literature in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.
Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus” (1818) and John Polidori's “The Vampyre” (1819), the lesser-known precursor to Bram Stoker's “Dracula” (1897), were the myths borne of this summer misadventure, and both have spawned immortal legacies of horror.
Vampires in literature and folklore
“The metaphorical value of the vampire is very, very rich. At its most basic form, it represents our fears and anxieties,” said Erin Collopy, an associate professor of Russian and instructor of the popular course, “The Vampire in East European and Western Culture” in the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures (CMLL).
“There was a long, medieval history of vampiric and Eastern European ideas about the undead, or the revenant, that influenced Polidori's writing,” Purinton said. “Both Shelley and Polidori had been discussing reanimation of the dead, but we can see how Polidori's story is more derivative than Shelley's, because he was also relying on vampiric accounts.”
The vampires of medieval Slavic folklore served as scapegoats for natural disasters and tragic occurrences that threatened humans' survival – plagues, property damage, infertility and the like – as well as instruments of social control. As if the constant threat of falling prey to some external undead force wasn't enough, Slavs also had to contend with the possibility of becoming vampires themselves, should they commit a serious enough moral infraction or unwittingly violate their community's social contract, the terms of which could be rather arbitrary.
Suicide; excommunication from the church; having too many teeth; sporting a unibrow; being conceived on a Saturday; dying before baptism; being improperly buried; and having a cat jump over one's grave were among the myriad risk factors for developing vampirism. Widows who over-grieved risked resurrecting their late husbands –paradoxically, a highly undesirable outcome – and subjecting their families to otherworldly torment. Babies born with a caul – a temporary condition in which a portion of the amniotic sack covers the face – were destined to become vampires, as were children with curls on either side of their forehead, which indicated the presence of two souls in the body.
“Many Orthodox Christians and Catholics believed the soul wandered for 40 days after death, after which it would ascend to this other world,” Collopy said. “If, for whatever reason, the soul wasn't able to cross over, it would then become a vampire. In Bulgaria, they believed the vampire would take the form of a hide skin full of blood. Over the course of seven years, it would slowly develop bones and eventually become a person, and then travel to another community and live there as a human being.”
Though Polidori's Lord Ruthven and Stoker's Count Dracula, mercifully, bear no physical resemblance to the blood-filled skins of medieval Bulgaria, they nonetheless have much in common with their Eastern European counterparts – they are not considered to be inhuman spirits, but rather the reanimated dead; they are immortal, but must feed on others to prolong their parasitic existence; they have nocturnal tendencies and a mysterious connection to the moon; and, of course, they are the embodiment of evil.
However, the vampire as a handsome, aristocratic libertine appears to be the invention of Polidori, who may have been influenced by Lord Byron, a notorious rake whose rumored debauchery resulted in his voluntary exile from England and relocation to Switzerland in 1816, just months before “The Vampyre” was written. Stoker incorporated and expanded on these elements in “Dracula” – even promoting the lord to a count – immortalizing the gentlemanly vampire archetype and paving the way for every subsequent adaptation.
“It's always an aristocratic gentleman who is afflicted with this unusual condition, who has this compelling ability to suck others into his orbit,” Purinton said.
“You get that image of Bela Lugosi bending over, and that's very eroticized,” Collopy said. “One thing I have noticed is that when women started authoring these books – like Anne Rice's ‘Interview with the Vampire,' for example – it was more likely that the vampire was sympathetic. I think it has a lot to do with female sexuality which, much like the vampire, tends to be demonized and controlled.”
Notably, while female sexuality would become a central role in later adaptations, the crux of the original vampire novel is the undefined and subtly homoerotic relationship between Lord Ruthven and the male protagonist, Aubrey.
“The hypersexualization – and particularly the heterosexualization – of the vampire was thanks to Bram Stoker and the Victorian novel; that's not a Romantic motif at all,” Purinton said. “Polidori and Byron were very interested in exploring the same-sex allure of the vampire in their original stories. It became a representation for discussing taboo subjects in the early 19th century because same-sex relationships for men were illegal and punishable under the Bloody Code, making it a capital crime.
“But what happens as you move into the later part of the 19th century is that the bloodsucking vampire then becomes a sexual predator of women, as opposed to the rather ambiguous and conflicted relationship in the original tale. The sexual connections are really oblique and tangential in Polidori's version. Bram Stoker picked up on that heterosexual relationship and infused it with Victorian sensibilities and made it into a much more compelling story, plus he brought in a lot of the Eastern European elements that were absent in the original.”
Vampires in history
Vlad the Impaler, who reigned over the Romanian region of Walachia during the 15th century, is a divisive figure in Eastern European history. A violent but beloved warlord who famously impaled his political opponents, Vlad is commonly – but somewhat erroneously – believed to be the historical inspiration for “Dracula.”
“Historically speaking, Vlad the Impaler had nothing to do with vampirism,” Collopy said. “There are no accounts anywhere that he was a vampire; he was just a brutal but effective leader who was skilled at fighting off the Ottoman Empire. His father and brother were murdered, so he got revenge against the people who were responsible.
“He was an excellent strategist – he was very smart, but also very strict and dictatorial. He was known for rewarding skill over birth and was loved by the common people. A lot of the things we know about him actually are from his enemies – but don't get me wrong, he did awful things.”
Vlad's father was known as Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon, because of his membership in the Order of the Dragon, a coalition of noblemen sworn to defend Christianity against the Ottoman Empire. To honor his father, Vlad the Impaler adopted the name Vlad Dracula, meaning “son of the dragon.”
“Bram Stoker heard the name ‘Dracula' and learned that one of the interpretations of Dracula's name is ‘son of the devil,' and he really liked that,” Collopy said.
Another controversial figure to whom vampirism has been ascribed many times throughout history, Elizabeth Báthory was a Hungarian countess accused of torturing and killing more than 600 young women at the turn of the 17th century – a feat which, if true, would make her the most prolific serial killer ever to exist. After her death, rumors surfaced that Báthory had bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth, inevitably leading to speculation that she was a vampire.
“I would take Elizabeth Báthory's reputation with a grain of salt,” Collopy said. “Her family wanted her estate, so accusations of her murdering all those women were likely fabricated. She probably was a terrible person, but not terrible like that.”
The birth of Frankenstein's monster
Early 19th-century scientific experimentation, which involved the reanimation of frogs and the questionable procurement of bodies for dissection, raised unprecedented ethical concerns within the scientific community and beyond. Shelley's reading journals indicate a preoccupation with these ethical questions, a fascination with emerging research and a keen awareness of current events – many of which were gruesome.
“She was reading supernatural ghost stories at the same time that she was reading the latest accounts of scientific experimentations, and she brought those two together in her novel,” Purinton said. “She had some concerns about reanimating life. Anatomy recently had become a hands-on pedagogy, so the anatomical schools needed bodies for demonstration, but the only bodies they could legally acquire were from hanged criminals.”
Because the demand for cadavers exceeded what the prisons could supply, a cottage industry of body snatchers emerged to relieve the graveyards of surplus inventory in exchange for payment from the medical schools. Though Scottish serial killers William Burke and William Hare were not the first to seize upon this economic opportunity, they were perhaps the most enterprising, circumventing the graveyard altogether and nudging would-be cadavers through death's door via suffocation.
“It's important to remember that by the time Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein' she had lost two children of her own, so for her death was not just an abstraction,” Purinton said. “And of course, she was acutely aware that it was her birth which caused the death of her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. Not to read ‘Frankenstein' as biography by any means, but these kinds of lived experiences inform writers. Shelley's own experiences, her reading and her nightly discussions with her male counterparts all get folded into this wonderful creature she attributes to Victor Frankenstein, who is grappling with many of the same questions that were vexing the anatomists and scientists of her day.
“What Shelley created was a representation so malleable, as a monster, as the abject other, that it could be recast in different cultural settings. Both the vampire and Frankenstein's monster were aberrant bodies upon which cultural narratives that satisfied the particular times could be written.”
Ninety years after its release, the best-known adaptation of “Frankenstein” remains the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff as a stiff-jointed, monosyllabic behemoth with protruding neck bolts and an inexplicably flat head.
“Most people who think they know the story have probably seen James Whale's 1931 movie, which, like the theater adaptations before it, reduced the creature to grunts – there were absolutely no linguistic capabilities there,” Purinton said. “Through the modern adaptations and even the 19th-century theatrical adaptations, the creature has been sorely misunderstood.”
Purinton said her students often are shocked by the creature's intelligence and moved by the beautiful language he uses in the novel, in which he sheds the monstrosity we associate with his visual representation and becomes someone with whom we can connect and empathize.
“He embodies, in some ways, some of the best virtues of humankind,” Purinton said. “It's only when he's mistreated, when he's driven by hatred and rejection, that he turns violent. The narrative of the creature puts us in a position to be more critical of the scientist that created this being and begs the question, ‘Who is the more monstrous of the two – the creature or its creator?'
“There are so many threads of human experience that run through the novel, that touch us regardless of our place in time and geography. ‘Frankenstein' resonates with the legitimacy of the past, even as it points to the uncertainty of the future.”
Published anonymously in 1818, “Frankenstein” was reissued in 1822 under Mary Shelley's name and has never since been out of print.