Vampires live on today as one of the most popular legends of entertainment. They have spawned dozens of books, movies and video games. A full subculture has developed around vampires and many of the emo teens who would otherwise have gone on to follow the Goth counterculture are now following a faux vampire trend. They dress in typical vampire attire, often including face paint and false pointed teeth. They will take this idea to the point of reading trendy vampire lore and drinking red colored drinks pretending that it is blood. Recently, the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers has catapulted vampire lore into the mainstream.
However, much of the history of vampires comes from the real concerns of otherwise normal people who are trying to explain happenings in the world around them. In the middle ages, people were less knowledgeable about the scienctific causes behind strange occurrences and other unexplained phenomenon. Modern sciences were fledgling disciplines and were not widely accepted. Due to this, if a child was missing or livestock killed people often looked to the supernatural to explain why. There are many well documented vampire hunts to have occurred throughout history, where an alleged vampire hunter, often a priest, will explain this otherwise unexplainable goings on as the work of vampires. The corpse of the suspected vampire would be dug up from the grave, have its head cut off and a stake driven though its heart. The vampire hunter would then point out things such as the blood left in the heart or the long fingernails as the proof that the vampire was real. Many people never knew that these things were all normal parts of the decomposition process for a dead body.
While Bram Stoker certainly didn't invent the legend of vampires, much of the vampire lore we now know today was due to his work. He popularized the legend that had once been mostly the tales of gypsies and small villages, making vampire lore one of the most popular legends in history. He published the novel Dracula in 1897. We all know the story or at least its main character, Count Dracula. Considering how popular Dracula is today, it is hard to believe that the book was not at first a big seller.
The Real Dracula
Stoker had spent 7 years studying the vampire folklore and stories of Eastern Europe. For most of the time he was writing the book, Stoker planned on naming the book "the undead". Later, he came across a book about the royalty of Moldavia where he read of Vlad III of Wallachia. From this research, Stoker took the name of Dracula from Vlad III for his main character. Vlad III had taken the name of Dracul after being taken into the order of the dragon. In Romanian, Dracul can be assigned the translation of either the dragon, or the devil. By some accounts, Vlad III was also known as Vlad the Impaler. He was a member of the crusades that fought the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Vlad III was known to his enemies as the Impaler prince becuase he impaled the bodies of his enemies, often still alive, on long poles partially buried in the ground. In some cases, these were said to look like a macabre forest of bare trees with bodies at the top. He was a very successful soldier and leader with a famous nighttime raid that killed over 4000 of his enemy. Eventually he was betrayed by his former allies in Hungary.
The Book "Dracula"
The story of Dracula borrows almost nothing from the real man Vlad III, short of his name. Stoker was in London at the same time that stories of various invasions were being written by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells. Stoker put an unusual twist on the invasion story, which was all the rage in London at the time, by making the invader a single yet supernaturally powerful foe. In the book, Count Dracula, the Arch Vampire from Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains was buying up properties in London. His intent was to be among the people of the city, feeding on them as he pleased, Later, Dracula travels to London and begins terrorizing some of its denizens. Eventually, the famed vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing is called in to help defeat Dracula. With Van Helsing's help, Dracula is eventually forced to flee London and return to his castle where he is then confronted and destroyed.
Modern Vampire Legends
While Dracula started much of the modern interest in Vampires, there have been many variations on the legend. Some of these modern vampire legends are outlined in the excellent 1976 novel by Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire, and part of her Vampire Chronicles. In this story a 200 year old vampire chooses to tell his tale to a modern journalist. He tells of the trials of being a vampire in the shadows of the modern world. It is a more approachable story and much more relevant to the modern age than the work of Stoker. In her stories there is not one all powerful vampire, but a nation of them, living in the shadows and keeping their existence a secret from the public at large.