The belief in vampires goes back thousand of years, with references to creatures with recognisable characteristics in cultures such as the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, and Mesopotamians. The blood sucking creature of the night that we are familiar with today, however, began to take shape in the eighteenth century.
Although Bram Stoker's Dracula is the most infamous vampire, he was definitely not the first. The first was a short story by the physician, John William Polidori, in 1819, and was simply titled Vampyre. It proved very popular, although this was in part to a misprint in the magazine, crediting it to Lord Byron.
The next vampire story was by James Malcolm Rymer, whose serialised gothic horror tale was published between 1845-1847 in penny dreadfuls. Although the name Varney the Vampire feels more comedic than horrific, it did set some of the tropes we expect of vampires today, such as fangs and sucking blood.
This was followed by a novel called Carmilla by the Irish writer, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu in 1871. The story was quite risqué, particularly for the period, because Carmilla was a lesbian vampire.
Stoker's Dracula was not published until 1897, and it all began with a rather bizarre dream about a vampire king rising from the dead that Stoker had after he ate too much crab meat with mayonnaise. Fortunately Dracula was a little more refined than this.
Stoker did a lot of research before writing the novel, his greatest influence being an essay by Emily Gerard, who had studied and written a lot about Transylvanian folklore.
When people think of vampires today, the first character they think of is Dracula. He is the archetype that all other vampires have been based on. Few modern interpretations of vampires create the same level of unease. What is it about Dracula that makes him so terrifying? I think it is his aristocratic and polite manner. He is a monster in disguise: charming, beguiling, he easily fools people into believing he is a respectable gentleman in society. When Jonathan Harker visits the Count's castle, he is taken with Dracula's graciousness. Only when it is too late does he realise that Dracula is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Quite literally. While Dracula did set the style of vampires, there are a few differences, one being that Dracula does not turn into a bat, but rather it is implied that he shape shifts into a wolf that attacks Lucy.
I find it quite remarkable how chilling Dracula can be, particularly considering the style in which it is written. Bram Stoker wrote the novel as a series of journals and letters, meaning that none of the events are in real time. Everything is written after it happened. One might expect this lack of immediacy to take away take away some of the anxiety, but no, the build up of tension is still present.
If you have only ever seen visual adaptations of Dracula, I would recommend reading the book, as it is interesting to contrast with the original.