Apparently, these beings are legendary (loosely based on fact) rather than mythic (entirely fictitious). Early renderings portrayed male bloodsuckers as rat-like carriers of the plague. During the Victorian era, the Dublin-based writer Bram Stoker transformed the historical figure Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania (1431-76) into a literary figure, Count Dracula. At that moment, the modern vampire was born as a figure of dangerous sexual allure.
With the publication of Dracula in 1897, the vampire emerged as a romantic figure in the most melancholy sense. After all, what could be more romantic than to die for love? Key to this is the convention that a vampire can never enter a house without an invitation. Dracula emerged as the original "bad boy," able to seduce good London girls away from boring fiancés and husbands - never mind that these women sense all along that Dracula's embrace carries the kiss of death.
Human beings tend to be both repulsed and attracted by such a relationship. If few would be willing to go that route in actuality, isn't that why popular fiction has always existed? Anyone can experience the thrill secondhand by reading Anne Rice or catching the latest vampire movie - just as Victorians thrilled to Dracula.
With vampires, however, the concept of "vicarious living" turns into vicarious dying. But what a way to go!
Vampires have been drawn into the eclectic mix of modern Halloween, which also includes witches, zombies, and grotesque figures of contemporary cinema such as Freddy Krueger - symbols of evil building on each other in a macabre pyramid.
Though Halloween draws on pagan rites from the ancient Celts, with their harvest festivals and celebrations of the dead, this questionable holiday appears to have been created by the Catholic Church around 1556. Its name derives from All Hallows' Eve, the holy night preceding All Saints' Day, which celebrated those who had done the most good in the world and encouraged believers to emulate them.
The common folk wondered if, in anticipation of their promise to follow a straight, sober, steady life, they might be allowed to blow off steam a few hours beforehand. Apparently, the church agreed that such a safety valve might be a good idea. So began the tradition of quasi-controlled mischief against one's neighbors (unless a sufficient treat was offered) that would be continued in the American colonies.
Halloween in general, and vampires more specifically, touch on an aspect of mankind of which Shakespeare appears to have been aware. Around 1605, the Bard realized that audiences were far more fascinated by his wicked characters - say, Richard III and Macbeth - than by such upstanding heroes as Henry V. That fascination continues unabated.
If mankind is essentially good, as we wish - and perhaps need - to believe, why are we held spellbound in darkness by such atavistic forces? Perhaps we will never be able to fully answer that question, but the viewing of vampire films and the continued celebration of All Hallow's Eve remind us that even the finest among us retain an ancient urge for a more controlled version of what once constituted mankind's annual walk on the wild side.
Douglas Brode teaches at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communication. He is a coauthor, with Joe Orsak, of the graphic novel "Virgin Vampires, or Once Upon a Time in Transylvania." He wrote this for the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va.