What the evolution of vampire fiction tells us about modern society.
Nearly every culture has some version of the vampire—an oft-humanoid creature who survives on blood, usually by cover of night. Some kill, others convert their prey, and many enthrall their victims, using seduction as a tool to satisfy their hunger. From the chupacabra to the soucouyant, humanity deeply fears the bloodsucker.
Though the vampire is a global phenomenon, the Western canon’s depiction has come to dominate contemporary mythology and pop culture. This framing is heavily influenced by whiteness, creating a particular stereotype of these creatures of the night. But on closer examination, the vampire is more queer and racialized than white fans may realize.
Vampires play an ancient role in Western mythology; the Greeks and Romans both had their versions, and variants spread throughout Europe. In the 1700s, a vampire “epidemic” in Eastern Europe terrified communities. But these vampires were not aloof, mysterious, sexy creatures; they were bodies of real humans, bloated with blood and accused of spreading disease. Villagers responded by exhuming and staking them. Less than a century later, panicked New Englanders, terrified by a tuberculosis outbreak, were digging up their deceased neighbors too, sometimes removing their hearts in addition to mutilating some remains.
These vampires were figures of disgust, horror, and spectacle, gripping entire villages in a frenzy of fear. It wasn’t until the gothic era of the late 1800s that a different version of the vampire began to emerge. Fittingly, one of the earliest influential vampires of English-language fiction was queer. The titular and enigmatic vampire Carmilla of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella is obsessed with the teenage Laura. As a series of young women sicken and die in the villages around them, Laura experiences vivid dreams about night visitations. Carmilla is eventually exposed, and establishes many elements of vampire mythos, which often reflects the queer community’s outsider status: She is sexualized, enigmatic, slightly tragic, found in a coffin, and neutralized with the aid of staking and beheading.
The more famous Dracula was published just 25 years later, in 1897, introducing the vampire who launched a thousand bats. The story has been adapted repeatedly for film, television, and stage, in addition to inspiring numerous texts. A hundred years later, the character would resurface on Buffy the Vampire Slayer in “Buffy vs. Dracula,” an episode that drew heavily on the Dracula mythos as an enthralling, mysterious, sexual being who stood out from the pack of primarily violent, cruel vampires who met their final deaths at Buffy’s hands. Over the course of the 20th century, vampires had evolved into something sexy, as seen in Anne Rice’s novel Interview With the Vampire, published in 1976; mysterious and broody like in Angel; a little gonzo like in True Blood; and powerful—with wealth attached to that power, as was the case in Twilight and Vampire Academy.
These works include very few characters of color, if any, and most are one-dimensional; either their race is not engaged with as a meaningful part of the story or it is entirely incidental. For example, on Buffy, Black and Brown characters tend to be disposable and many are cartoonish caricatures. The evolution of vampires over the 20th century in some ways paralleled the changing mainstream perception of Black culture, and how it entered pop culture, as illustrated by Blade, introduced by Marvel in 1973 and consciously written as a Black character. Though he’s a slayer, not a vampire, he has become one of the most iconic Black characters in the canon, appearing on screen as well as the page. Black people have profoundly informed white culture, often as white-mediated objects of entertainment such as the grotesque display of Sarah Baartman, minstrel shows, and the Mandingo myth. Expressions of Black creativity and community such as Jazz Age cool, rap, or Black Twitter have also fascinated white audiences. That influence extends to vampires, even when it hasn’t been explicit. The fundamental depiction of a terrifying yet seductive inhuman being mirrors white attitudes about Blackness, a world in which “they” walk among “us” but are forever marked as “other.”
And yet, something very interesting is happening to the wider vampire canon, which is at last moving away from whiteness: Creators who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are introducing rich elements to the narrative, claiming the vampire as their own cultural birthright and one not limited to whiteness or the West. Many are drawing upon mythologies from their own communities, introducing them more widely to English-language readers.
This is a marked departure from watered-down white efforts at “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the current catchphrase in the diversity industrial complex. These creators are actively seizing control of the narrative for themselves, flipping expectations by drawing upon or referencing the Eurocentric canon, but not treating it as a holy arbiter of all things vampire.
Creators of color have always contributed to the vampire canon, of course; Alexandre Dumas’ The Pale Lady, published in 1849, was a foundational work, and vampires even appeared in Blaxploitation films such as 1972’s Blacula and 1973’s Ganja & Hess. In 1991, Jewelle Gomez published The Gilda Stories, a work rooted deeply in her identity as a Black Indigenous lesbian; she is also a noted activist, elder, and voice in Afrofuturism. The story revolves around an enslaved woman seeking freedom who is taken in by a pair of vampires in 1850, and moves through history and into the future. It is a novel about found family and building community, friendship and mentorship, and Black cultural experiences. It doesn’t include the things that are required in the white canon, such as exclusivity, money, and power.
One Goodreads reviewer complained that she didn’t feel “in” on the “code” of the book, expressing a common frustration of white readers when engaging with texts that are not written with them in mind. She also complained that “this *isn’t* a vampire story,” reflecting an offended sensibility: Gomez’s contribution to vampire lore is not, evidently, sufficiently vampiric.
BIPOC creators are used to similar complaints, and in recent years, many have begun to actively defy them. Malaysian author Zen Cho’s 2011 short story “The House of Aunts” revolves around the life of Ah Lee, a teenage vampire who lives with her all-female family. She is a pontianak, a Southeast Asian vampire who eats intestines, not blood. The lively, funny, sweet love story unapologetically integrates politics, culture, and language. It is set in the real world, albeit one where your aunties eat your love interests instead of chasing them off.
“In books and movies it seemed quite romantic to be a vampire, but Ah Lee and her aunts were clearly the wrong sort of people for the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket style of vampirism,” Cho writes in “The House of Aunts,” directly confronting Western expectations for vampire stories. In “Santos de Sampaguitas,” American author Alyssa Wong, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent, similarly draws on mythos and folklore in a 2014 story featuring a manananggal, a creature that feeds on pregnant women and those in love. Wong’s short story, which seamlessly uses English and Tagalog, is about family and connections as much as it is about monsters.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia similarly referenced regional folklore in 2016’s Certain Dark Things. In her book, vampires live in public, but are being driven out of many European nations, with many landing in Central America thanks to immigration pressures. As different vampire communities gather, tensions follow, and they evolve into a series of gangs heavily influenced by colonial pressures as the Indigenous vampire community struggles to survive. The Mexico City of Certain Dark Things may not be one that white readers know, understand, and expect. In a 2016 NPR interview, Moreno-Garcia noted that the book drew on the real world, a way to explore scary things in the news through fiction. Rather than being escapist, it is rooted in reality.
Polynesian filmmaker Taika Waititi also directly confronted white expectations for vampire stories with his 2014 feature film (followed by a 2019 FX series) with Jemaine Clement. What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary-style comedy featuring a classic setup: Four guys in a flat and their wacky doings, except the guys are vampires. It’s a direct send-up of vampire lore that also explores outsider culture and the alienation of being on the wrong side of society. The 2008–2013 series Being Human similarly explored the supernatural share house genre, albeit with a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost.
These works don’t just push against what a vampire story is “supposed” to be. They create a new kind of story, in which the subtext becomes text, and the characters’ experience of race, gender, and sexuality is a vital, vibrant feature. Instead of being a hollow echo via a white creator’s interpretation, their experience is a rich and complete element of the story, ultimately making it more dynamic.
Rather than relying on a canon rooted in some ugly things—what were all those white vampires doing in the mid-1800s to save up so much money?—these works envision a world where vampires walk among us and are shaped by the myths and folklore of the communities they live in, as well as their contemporary societies. And, rather than steal from other cultures, they reflect creators claiming space. Instead of being an object of consumption, the vampire and creator are instead aligned with readers.