The Most Popular Vampire Tropes: Movies Versus Myths
Photo: Dracula (1931) / Universal Pictures

The Most Popular Vampire Tropes: Movies Versus Myths

Vampire-like creatures appear in the myths and folklore of ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and other centuries-old cultures. But the idea of the type of vampire familiar to people in the 21st century likely originated in the 17th century, when the folklore and superstitions of the Balkans region were widely recorded. The first time the word "vampire" appeared in an English-language publication was reportedly in the 1730s. Although in the 21st century vampires are largely confined to folklore and fiction, some people continue to believe that real vampires exist in the world.

In folklore, vampires tend to be horrific in appearance and are purely evil predators. But in literature, films, and television, that isn't always the case. Over the past 100 years or so, vampires have been portrayed as sexually attractive, charming, vulnerable, misunderstood, and even as victims. In films like Twilight and television shows like True BloodThe Vampire Diaries, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, romances between vampires and humans are common, if not always accepted.

Some tropes about vampires come from myths or movies alone; others come from both.

  • Vampires Are Dead Or Undead

    Vampires Are Dead Or Undead
    Photo: Nosferatu / Film Arts Guild

    Both Myths And Movies/TV

    Filmmakers took the idea that vampires are basically reanimated corpses from standard myth. Some folktales, however, claim that vampires can also be living creatures.

    One explanation for why vampires became so prevalent in folklore is that the "undead" could be blamed if an area was ravaged by plague or other diseases. For example, before vaccinations were developed, rabies was common in rural areas. Among rabies's symptoms are an aversion to light and water, aggression, and biting - all traits that can also be attributed to vampirism. In medieval times, many people believed the Black Plague was spread by vampires that came in the night to infect healthy people, possibly because victims had fresh bloodstains around their mouths.

    Vampires as "undead" creatures is a common thread in movies, dating back to the German silent film Nosferatu (1922), which is widely considered to be the first "vampire film."

  • A Stake Through The Heart Will Kill A Vampire

    A Stake Through The Heart Will Kill A Vampire
    Photo: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) / Columbia Pictures

    Both Myths And Movies/TV

    According to myth and folklore, staking a vampire through the heart is one of the ways to kill them. If a vampire was thought to be present in a community, graves would be searched and people questioned. Any suspected vampire - dead or alive - would then be killed by driving a wooden stake through the heart or another body part.

    The types of wood varied depending on the region: Russia and the Baltic states tended to use ash, while Serbia used hawthorn. But as Christianity became more prevalent in Europe, aspen became the wood of choice. It was thought to be especially holy because an aspen tree was used to make the cross Jesus was crucified on.

    Although the heart is the most common area to stake a suspected vampire, it's not always the preferred target. In Russia, if someone wants to kill a vampire, they would aim for the mouth, while in Serbia, a vampire would be staked in the stomach.

    Although staking might be thought of as a long-ago tradition, corpse impaling was practiced in some areas of Bavaria as recently as the early 20th century.

    Other ways of killing a vampire include pouring boiling water on their coffin, putting a lemon in their mouth, or decapitating them.

    Among the films to show a vampire being staked are 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, in which Winona Ryder uses a knife to stake Gary Oldman through the heart; and the 2009 science-fiction horror film Daybreakers starring Ethan Hawke, which centers on a future world overrun by vampires who plot to capture and farm humans while trying to come up with a substitute for human blood.

  • A Vampire Will Die When Exposed To Sunlight

    A Vampire Will Die When Exposed To Sunlight
    Photo: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) / Magnet Releasing

    Movies/TV Only

    In Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, his titular vampire is weakened - but does not die - from being exposed to sunlight. The idea of a vampire being affected at all by sunlight appears to be something Stoker came up with himself, although some have claimed there may be a connection to the deadly power of sunlight in a myth about using seeds to distract vampires from the chase.

    The idea of vampires dying from sunlight is a filmmaker's invention. One of the earliest movies to incorporate this idea is F.R. Murnau's classic German silent film Nosferatu, released in 1922. At the end of the film, the vampire Count Orlok is turned into a puff of smoke when he is exposed to the sun. A more recent example is the 2008 Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), in which a woman who has been turned into a vampire takes her own life by asking a hospital orderly to open the blinds, causing her to burst into flames when the sunlight hits her.

    On the other hand, when the vampires in the popular Twilight novels and films are exposed to sunlight, they don't burst into flame or disappear in a puff of smoke - they simply sparkle.

  • A New Vampire Is Created By The Bite Of Another Vampire

    A New Vampire Is Created By The Bite Of Another Vampire
    Photo: Interview with the Vampire / Warner Bros.

    Movies/TV Only

    The idea that a person can be turned into a vampire if they are bitten by another vampire might have been dreamed up by a screenwriter or filmmaker. According to the actual myth, someone can be turned into a vampire in various ways, including the following:

    1. A dog or cat jumps over the person's corpse.

    2. A person sustains a wound that is not treated with boiling water.

    3. A corpse is not properly guarded and/or given proper funeral rites before burial. A widely held belief in vampire folklore is that once a person's spirit leaves the dead body, a new host can enter the body. If the corpse hasn't been protected well or given proper funeral rites, this new host would be an evil spirit that would reanimate as a vampire. 

    4. The person had lived an evil life and/or was suspected of practicing witchcraft.

    5. The person had a history of opposing or rebelling against established religion(s). This last idea was especially prevalent in Russia, where if someone rebelled against the Russian Orthodox Church, it was believed they would become an undead monster. 

    The film 30 Days of Night (2007) puts a twist on how a bite from a vampire turns a person. In the movie, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett) discovers that although a person turns into a vampire once they are bitten, they don't become evil right away. This gives him the opportunity to self-inject with vampire blood to fight off the other creatures and save his wife before he dies (from exposure to sunlight).

  • Vampires Have A Seductive Sexual Presence

    Vampires Have A Seductive Sexual Presence
    Photo: Twilight / Summit Entertainment

    Movies/TV Only

    In folklore, vampires not only do not have a sexual presence, but are in fact horrifying in appearance. Some might be bloated with purplish skin, others might be pale and emaciated. But they are almost always monstrous.

    Filmmakers who make vampires sexually attractive may have picked up the idea from late 19th-century novelists such as Bram Stoker, who made his Count Dracula into a romantic, seductive creature, or Sheridan Le Fanu, whose titular character in his novel Carmilla (1872) is a female vampire with a sexual interest in a teenage girl. Or perhaps the filmmakers took inspiration from an even earlier work of literature, such as John Polidori's 1819 novella The Vampyre, whose title character is a suave and charming creature rather than the bloated and horrifying-looking monster of myth.

    But no matter what sources they pulled their ideas about vampires from, early 20th-century filmmakers found themselves hampered by censorship. Hollywood introduced the Hays Code, which set up standards for motion pictures, in 1930, one year before the original Dracula film was released. To deal with censors, the studio filmed two versions of Dracula - a more chaste English-language version for the American audience, and a more sexualized Spanish-language version to be distributed in Mexico.

    Not until the 1950s, when the Hammer horror films were released, did the idea of sexually attractive vampires in films and TV really started to take off. It gained more steam after the Hays Code was abolished in the 1960s.

  • Vampires Can Shapeshift Into Animals Or Mist

    Vampires Can Shapeshift Into Animals Or Mist
    Photo: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) / Columbia Pictures

    Both Myths And Movies/TV

    According to folklore, vampires have the ability to change into any number of forms, from animals like horses, rats, or cats, to insects such as spiders, to mist. If vampires can shape-shift, they can more easily escape from places such as a burial chamber.

    Several movies have shown vampires turning into bats. In the 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula, Gary Oldman's titular character at one point is shown transforming into green mist.