On believed them to be descendants of Vlad III (1431-1476), Prince of Wallachia to whom his enemies lent the sinister habit of impaling his enemies and, above all, of drinking their blood… The vampires are, in reality, not of Romanian origin ! In a fascinating essay* devoted to the figure of these monsters, the sociologist Arnaud Esquerre draws us a completely different family tree for these hematophagous characters that the Englishman Bram Stoker (1847-1912) popularized with his unforgettable Dracula.
READ ALSOArnaud Esquerre: how “alternative truths” are forged The term “vampire” appeared in the French language in 1746 under the pen of Augustin Calmet, a Lorraine abbot. This ecclesiastic in charge of the abbey of Senones, in the Vosges, wrote, that year, a “dissertation on the ghosts and vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia”.
He takes up a dozen stories, reported by the press of the time. Stories to make your hair stand on end. It reads that the deceased, “generally men of peasant origin, are indeed suspected of murdering their surviving relatives: widows, children, servants, neighbors”, writes Arnaud Esquerre.
A news item, which occurred in 1725 in the city of Kisolova, in Serbia, and widely publicized in the rest of Europe, definitively establishes the legend of these nightmare creatures. “An investigation carried out on the initiative of the military administration reports that following the death of nine inhabitants in eight days, a certain Peter Plogojovic, buried shortly before, was accused of having killed them while they slept, and his tomb has been opened,” says the sociologist. In 1731, in Medwegya, still in Serbia, another remains, of a certain Arnont Paule, was similarly exhumed and burned, because three doctors claimed that he came out of his tomb at nightfall to massacre the inhabitants.
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Similar stories emerge in several Central European countries at the same time; to the point that the French ambassador in Vienna, François de Bussy, devoted a dispatch to it in 1732. biblical stories or in Greek mythology. It prevents.
The rumor continues to swell. Vampires aren’t just accused of killing the living after dark. Above all, they are attributed a particularly sinister way of doing things: they bite, in fact, the jugular of their victims to drain them of their blood.
Assassins and Bats
This modus operandi also pushed the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) to baptize a species of bat that had just been discovered in South America “vampire”. Does the animal feed on the blood of mammals? This name fits him like a glove. This element will soon give the initial legend an exotic aspect. The vampire will gain his black cape which allows him to fly and enter people’s homes through the window or the chimney.
The idea that the dead, temporarily brought back to life, can kill the living by bleeding them, in the first sense of the term, seduces, one suspects, lovers of Gothic literature. Among them is a young doctor: John William Polidori (1795-1821). This friend of Lord Byron and Mary Shelley is the first to devote a fiction to a vampire.
In July 1816, he invented the character of Lord Ruthven, a cold-looking aristocrat who seduced and murdered young women by biting them in the carotid artery. This short story appeared in 1819 under the title The Vampire.
A fashionable monster
The success of this first text is emulated. Several fictions repeat the stereotype. The vampire will achieve worldwide fame in 1897 with the success of Dracula, imagined by Bram Stoker. This novel has for protagonist a count of Transylvania, whose name means “the son of the dragon”, who sets out to conquer the United Kingdom. It is however not the only fantastic book to exploit the theme of a monster of this type, that year.
Florence Marryat (1833-1899) published, a few months later, The Blood of the Vampire, the story of Harriet Brandt, an attractive mixed-race West Indian exhausting her lovers during embraces where she seems to suck their vitality. This novel inspired the artist Philip Burne-Jones to paint the subject of a scandalous painting in the same year, 1897, in London, because it was thought to be a prominent actress with whom the painter had had an affair.
Rudyard Kipling, cousin of Burne-Jones, was so struck by this work that he composed a poem (The Vampire). Which gives Porter Emerson Browne the idea of a play describing the misadventures of a diplomat falling under the thumb of a femme fatale.
This show, created in 1909 under the title A Fool There Was, will be adapted for the cinema on the eve of the First World War. And this melodrama will give birth to a type of Hollywood female character destined for a great future: that of the ” vamp “.
The Nosferatu Revelation
7e art will no longer drop vampire characters! In 1922, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1888-1931) offered to adapt Stoker’s novel. But unable to buy the rights, he asks his screenwriter, Henrik Galeen, to create a character resembling him in every way.
The latter is not a novice in the field of horror films since in 1915, he delivered the script for the Golem to Paul Wegener. For Murnau, he invented the character of Count Orlok, better known by his nickname of Nosferatu.
The story is well known. We are in 1838, in the fictional city of Wisborg, in Transylvania. A disturbing aristocrat pursues the beautiful Ellen with his diligence. He stalks her from village to village, spreading the plague virus in her wake…
Played by Max Schreck, the character is all the more disturbing as the actor spreads the rumor that he can only play at night. He also systematically removes the crucifixes from the hotel rooms where he stays.
The German director Werner Herzog will direct a remake of this classic of expressionist cinema in 1979, with Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani in the leading roles. And Kinski will have fun, like Shreck, terrifying the technical team by implying that he is driven by cannibalistic impulses.
But let us return to the time of the pioneers. After Murnau, it was Tod Browning (1880-1962) who produced, in 1927, London After Midnightwith Lon Chaney, who played, two years earlier, The Phantom of the Opera. We follow the tribulations of a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the suspicious death of a squire named Roger Balfour in whose house an enigmatic guest soon appears, wearing a grotesque top hat, dressed in a large cape and sporting a toothy smile. Of course: a vampire!
Bela Lugosi, superstar
The same year, producer Horace Liveright had the happy idea of bringing Bram Stoker’s novel to the stage of a Broadway theater. Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston sign the adaptation of the book. They suggest that the role be given to a Hungarian refugee whose pronounced accent seems to them particularly suited to the character. Her name ? Bela Lugosi.
The play will tour across the country. Including in California, in 1929. There, Fox immediately foresees the success of a filmed version of this “big puppet” show. And it is Tod Browning, him again, who is entrusted with the realization. Bela Lugosi takes over the role of Count Dracula. The success of the feature film will lead him to slip into the costume of the count fourteen times in fifty years of career. He will never be able to get rid of this vampire image.
The character will make the heyday of the B series, which multiply between the two wars. But before the image of this monster was tarnished, the great Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), crowned by the success of The Passion of Joan of Arc, released in 1928, also devotes his first talking film to this figure of evil.
In Vampyr or the strange adventure of David Graywhich the Danish filmmaker shot in France in 1932, he mixes the plots of two novels by Sheridan Le Fanu, a now forgotten Irish author, who has published dozens of books about haunted castles.
The advent of Christopher Lee
When Lugosi died in 1956, when Hammer Films Production, which specializes in horror films, began a new series dedicated to Dracula, it was Christopher Lee who was “cast” to take on the costume. His tall stature (1.97 m) and his aristocratic look will allow him to embody this dark character eleven times; his name being, as much as that of Bela Lugosi, definitely associated with the monster.
The prestige of the vampire will however be tarnished as the versions of the myth multiply. Roman Polanski will deliver a comic version in 1967 with The Vampire Ballwhere two monster hunters – Professor Abronsius and his faithful assistant Alfred – meet at Count Von Krolock’s castle where a memorable party is being prepared…
In May 1968, Jean Rollin offers a surrealist version with The Rape of the Vampire. Then erotic, even pornographic variations. Soon copied by the Spaniard Jess Franco, who, sometimes engaging Christopher Lee, will deliver often olé olé variations of vampire stories.
It will be necessary to wait until 1994 so that Neil Jordan restores its titles of nobility to the genre with Interview with a Vampire, where Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt make this yet sadistic figure glamorous again. The success of this film will lead to a new flowering of productions around the subject. Like the series buffy the vampire slayers, which will have 144 episodes between 1997 and 2003.
Or Twilight which, after being a bookstore success, under the signature of Stephenie Meyer in the early 2000s, will reveal the talents of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson on the big screen between 2008 and 2012.
*Thus do vampires move. Essay on the variation of meaningby Arnaud Esquerre, Fayard editions, 202 pages, €19.