Vampires & Werewolves:
The Origins of Two Horror Legends
Although the first thing that pops into your head when you think about vampires and werewolves may be Twilight nowadays, these horror legends have a long history
that goes beyond beautiful, sparkly people. They have been popular topics for writers, who have each given their own spin to them. The tales of these supernatural creatures
have horrified yet intrigued people throughout history, even to the point where people believed they were actually out there somewhere.
Let’s start with vampires, the blood-sucking creatures that have been popular in literature ever since Europe experienced a ‘vampire craze’ during the 1720s and 1730s. The idea of vampires existed in many shapes and forms, all being associated with evil spirits and demons. Tales of undead creatures that drank the blood of innocent people occurred everywhere and made people believe these creatures actually existed, culminating in the execution of people who were believed to be vampires. The legend of vampirism became a very popular topic for writers. Even though people were terrified of vampires, they were also very curious. One of the earliest works of vampire fiction that is very well-known is Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, in which we encounter a female vampire preying on a young girl. Carmilla is a remarkably beautiful vampire who sleeps in a coffin and can transform into a black cat if she wants to. This novella also incorporates an erotic side to the vampire, as Carmilla tries to get close to her victim by seducing her. Carmilla is said to have influenced what is probably the most famous vampire work ever written: Dracula by Bram Stoker. The success of this novel caused Count Dracula to become the prototype for the modern legend of the vampire. It is also the source for the characteristics we associate with vampires today: “In Dracula, we find most of the rules that modern vampires have inherited: the vampire cannot be seen in the mirror, he can transform into a bat, and he must be invited in” (Goss). Carmilla and Dracula are two famous stories of vampires that have greatly influenced the image we have of them.
Werewolf fiction unfortunately does not have such foundational works that really define the legend. Instead we encounter many smaller works that have contributed to their image. Werewolves are mostly depicted as humans who have the ability to shapeshift into a wolf during the full moon. The legend of the werewolf became such a hype that, up until the eighteenth century, people were accused of being real werewolves and were persecuted for it. It was common for attacks by real wolves, which also happened during the night, to be mistaken for being the work of werewolves. Because of these beliefs, werewolves became recurring literary characters. One of the very first mentions comes from Greek mythology in the story of king Lycaon. In Ovid’s version of this myth, Lycaon wants to test Zeus’ immortality by serving him a prisoner’s flesh and trying to murder him in his sleep. As a punishment, Zeus transforms Lycaon into a wolf who cannot control its blood thirst. The werewolf was introduced to English Literature in the twelfth century, through the Lay of the Bisclavaret by Marie de France. In this story, a knight is cursed to be a wolf forever when his wife takes away his only way to transform back into a human. The story ends with the wolf becoming so ravenous that he attacks his wife and her lover, after which he finally turns human again. We encounter a more seductive, female werewolf in the nineteenth century in Clemence Housman’s The Were-wolf. This story parallels Carmilla in the way that the werewolf, White Fell, is very beautiful and uses seduction to get close to her victims. Everyone she kisses is cursed and will die at the next moon. The twentieth century then saw an explosion in werewolf fiction. Many short stories and novels were written about these supernatural beasts, the most renowned one being The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore. The werewolf in this novel, Betrand, travels through France in an attempt to stop his excessive sadistic and sexual desires. This work is said by some to be the Dracula of werewolf fiction, as it defines a lot of the features we attribute to werewolves today.
Vampires and werewolves have clearly always people’s interest. Even hundreds of years after belief in such creatures has waned, we still write about these horror legends. The tales of the bloodthirsty creatures that are still human somehow keep to be strangely fascinating.
By Linda Boutellier
Gallon, Stephanie. “A Brief Look at Werewolf Literature.” International Gothic Association. 5 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Goss, Theodora. “Folkroots: Vampires in Folklore and Literature.” Rofmag. Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.