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The evolution of the vampire

They come in all forms and shapes.

Whether as a bat, a rat or a wolf, vampires have often taken the form of creatures to convey their contemptible nature.

Vampire characters in books, movies and television have enjoyed numerous transformations over time, spanning societies and generations, but they eventually took on a human form.

“I always call it vampire mayonnaise: It can be put on anything, and it’s been used in all cultures,” said Stephanie Moss, a USF professor who teaches Literature and the Occult, a class that examines the evolution of vampires, among other topics about the supernatural.

The notion of vampires has been a part of legal and societal references since prehistoric times and was used to explain the spread of uncontrollable disease when there was no logical explanation at hand, Moss said.

“It’s been connected to epidemic,” she said.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that vampires emerged in their contemporary form: blood-sucking creatures that appear to be human but are immortal.

Moss said the first literary vampire appeared in John Polidori’s “Vampyre,” which was published in 1819.

The vampire character then exploded on the scene in pamphlets published in 1845 titled “Penny Dreadful.” These included Sweeney Todd and one of the first fanged characters, Varney in “Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood.”

Varney had characteristics of Polidori’s “Vampyre,” but introduced fangs, hypnosis and strength to the vampire persona. Unlike the contemporary image, however, Varney survived in daylight and could stand the sight of garlic.

The romantic and seductive image of vampires existed in Varney’s time. He could cast a spell over victims by staring into their eyes and sought to break his curse through marriage.

In 1872, the vampire took on a female persona. “Carmilla,” written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu follows a young, lonesome girl who is seduced by a female vampire.

Though there were several literary examples of vampires, the character that made arguably the greatest impact was Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” published in 1897. Dracula, a sinister vampire, uses force to get his way while delighting in young women.

Dracula has his own historical influence. He received his name from the Romanian leader who was commonly called “Vlad the Impaler.” His father was a member of the Order of the Dragon knighthood and was called Vlad III Dracul. “Dracula” literally means “son of dragon (dracul).”

After Dracula, vampires went through various incarnations but found their most identifiable physical image when Bela Lugosi donned the opera cape and slick jet-black hair in the original film adaptation of Stoker’s novel.

“It made a lot of changes (from the book), and conflated most of the main characters,” Moss said.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the 1992 film “Dracula” gave the vampire character a face-lift. Dracula, played by Gary Oldman, is pale and old in some scenes, but he is also charming and young in others and wins over Mina, a main character with whom he’s infatuated.

In the ’90s, the movie and TV show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” followed a human girl opposite the vampire race. The show was one of the first examples of vampires blending in with humans in everyday life.

Now, the vampire image is being reshaped again. The modern take on the creature can be seen in the “True Blood” series on HBO and the “Twilight” book and movie series.

“Twilight” portrays vampires as characters dealing with moral dilemmas. They also sparkle – rather than die – in the sunlight.

“These vampires tend to be moral and less sexually driven,” Moss said.

Most modern vampires live among humans. While they’re not completely accepted, they lead partially normal lives and attempt to assimilate with societal norms.

In “True Blood,” the vampires don’t feast on necks. They have a controlled blood supply to stave them off. In “Twilight,” vampires attend high school and date attractive women.

And the vampire theme in entertainment is continuing with latest movie “Cirque du Freak: the Vampire’s Assistant” in theaters Friday.

Through all the changes of the vampire image, the character continues to be a mainstay in the entertainment industry, Moss said.

“It’s not crazy … they always come back,” she said.