The Plague Behind Zombies and Vampires

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Rabies is the plague behind zombies, of course, but it’s also the plague behind vampires — or modern vampires:

Tales of vampire-like creatures, formerly dead humans who return to suck the blood of the living, date to at least the Greeks, before rumors of their profusion in Eastern Europe drifted westward to capture the popular imagination during the 1700s.

In its original imagining, though, the premodern vampire differed from today’s in one crucial respect: His condition wasn’t contagious. Vampires were the dead, returned to life; they could kill and did so with abandon. But their nocturnal depredations seldom served to create more of themselves.

All that changed in mid-19th century England — at the very moment when contagion was first becoming understood and when public alarm about rabies was at its historical apex. Despite the fact that Britons were far more likely to die from murder (let alone cholera) than from rabies, tales of fatal cases filled the newspapers during the 1830s. This, too, was when the lurid sexual dimension of rabies infection came to the fore, as medical reports began to stress the hypersexual behavior of some end-stage rabies patients. Dubious veterinary thinkers spread a theory that dogs could acquire rabies spontaneously as a result of forced celibacy.

Thus did rabies embody the two dark themes — fatal disease and carnal abandon — that underlay the burgeoning tradition of English horror tales. Britain’s first popular vampire story was published in 1819 by John Polidori, formerly Lord Byron’s personal physician. The sensation it caused was due largely to the fact that its vampire, a self-involved, aristocratic Lothario, distinctly resembled the author’s erstwhile employer.

But Polidori’s Byronic ghoul only seduced and killed. It took until 1845, with the appearance of James Malcolm Rymer’s serialized horror story “Varney the Vampire,” for the vampire’s bite to become a properly rabid act of infection. For the first time readers were invited to linger on the vampire’s teeth, which protrude “like those of some wild animal, hideously, glaringly white, and fang-like.” And at the long tale’s end, Varney’s final victim (a girl named Clara) is herself transformed into a vampire and has to be destroyed in her grave with a stake.

Both these innovations carried over into the most important vampire tale of all, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” In Stoker’s hands, the vampire becomes a contagious, animalistic creature, and his condition is properly rabid. It is a lunge too far to claim (as one Spanish doctor has done in a published medical paper) that the vampire myth derived literally from rabies patients, misunderstood to be the walking dead. But it is clear that this central act of undead fiction — the bite, the infection, the transferred urge to bite again — has rabies knit into its DNA.

Over time, the vampire’s contagion infected his undead cousin, too. The original zombie myth, as it derived from Haitian lore, also involved the dead brought back to kill, but again without contagion — an absence that carried over to Hollywood’s earliest zombie flicks. In this and many other regards, the most influential zombie tale of the 20th century was nominally a vampire tale: Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend,” whose marauding hordes of contagious “vampires,” victims of an apocalyptic infection, set the whole template for what we now think of as the standard zombie onslaught.

Since then, as Hollywood has felt the need to conjure ever more frightening cinematic menaces, the zombie has if anything grown increasingly rabid.

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