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Today, vampires are commonly portrayed as nocturnal creatures with a great aversion to sunlight. But such was not always the case. In the folklore of many cultures, the vampire was able to infiltrate society and return to some semblance of normal life. In nineteenth-century literature, vampires moved about freely during the day. For example, in “Christabel”, the early vampiric poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Geraldine the vampire was discovered outside the castle by Christabel late at night. She invited Geraldine to her room where the two passed the rest of the night in bed. Geraldine awakened the next morning, refreshed and ready to meet Christabel’s father. In like measure, Lord Ruthven, Varney the Vampyre, and Carmilla maneuvered easily through the day, though they preferred the night.
Concerning Dracula, Abraham Van Helsing noted:
His power ceases, as does that of all things, at the coming of day.
Only at certain times can he have limited freedom. If he be not at the place whither he is bound, he can only change himself at noon or at exact sunrise and sunset. These things are we told, and in this record of ours we have proof by inference.
As the men prepared to destroy Dracula’s earth-filled boxes, Van Helsing warned that Dracula might appear in his Piccadilly residence, but given his diminished powers, they might be able to cope with him as a group. As predicted, Dracula appeared late one afternoon. Jonathan Harker attacked him with a knife and Van Helsing with a crucifix. The weakened Dracula escaped by jumping out of the window onto the ground and crossing the yard to the stable and into the city.
The contemporary understanding of the nocturnal nature of the vampire seems to have derived from the 1922 silent movie Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens. This early unauthorized attempt to bring Dracula to the screen made numerous changes in the story in the hope of disguising it.
The characters’ names were changed and the location moved to Germany. In addition, Graf Orlock (the vampire) was transformed into a totally nocturnal creature, and a new method of killing him was introduced. Director Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau introduced a mythical volume, The Book of the Vampires, as a source of new wisdom concerning the creatures. The heroine, Ellen Hutter (Mina Murray in the novel), read that if a pure woman spent the night with the vampire, holding him at her side until dawn, the vampire would perish in the light. She decided to sacrifice herself for the good of all. Graf Orlock, who had moved next door, already had his eye on Ellen so he soon found his way to her bedroom. He sunk his teeth into her throat and there remained until sunrise. He noticed that he had lingered too long only after his fate was sealed. In one of the more memorable moments, he realized his imminent death just prior to his dissolving into a puff of smoke.
The transition in emphasis made by Nosferatu had been prepared by the opening chapters of Dracula in which Jonathan Harker, perceiving the nocturnal activities of the Count, noted in his diary, “I have not yet seen the Count in the daylight. Can it be that he sleeps when others wake that he may be awake whilst they sleep!” While Nosferatu emerged as an important film, it was for all practical purposes not available until the 1960s, and thus may have had less effect on the development of the vampire’s image than many suspect. On the contrary, Bela Lugosi‘s 1943 The Return of the Vampire was widely circulated. Here the sunlight was the instrument of the vampire Armand Tesla’s death—it melted Tesla’s face.
Having been introduced as a potent and deadly force, sunlight arose as a preferred instrument of death in two of the most important screen adaptations of the Dracula legend. In The Horror of Dracula (1958), Abraham Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) was nearly beaten by Dracula (Christopher Lee) as the pair fought in the castle. However, Dracula paused to savor the moment just long enough for Van Helsing to spring free and rip the drapes from the window. The direct sunlight, like acid, caught Dracula’s foot, which quickly dissolved. Recovering his advantage, Van Helsing used his crucifix to force Dracula fully into the sunlight where he disintegrated into a heap of ash.
In Dracula (1979), Frank Langella (as Dracula) fled to the ship that would take him and Lucy Seward (Lucy Westenra in the novel) away from England. Van Helsing and John Seward thwarted his plans when they reached the ship. In the final fight scene, Dracula impaled Van Helsing and was about to win when he was suddenly caught on a hook and heaved into the sunlight high above the ship.
While sunlight can be an instrument of death and the preferred agent on those rare occasions in which a vampire commits suicide), it has been used primarily to define the realm of activity and set the boundary of action for vampire characters in movies and novels. The rising and setting sun prescribed the period of the vampire’s activity, and an approaching dawn created a moment of tension as the vampire rushed back to its resting place. It is of some trivial interest that in the television show, Dracula—The Series, the vampire wore a special skin lotion that blocked the sun and, thus, he was able to go out in the daylight. This idea has also been used in several previous pieces of vampire fiction. As vampire characters have multiplied, the aversion to the sun has a been among the most common traits that novelists and screenwriters have retained. There are some popular exceptions, including the vampires of Stephenie Meyer‘s “Twilight” series of books and the movies made from them, and the British television series Being Human.
In several comic book series, the search to find a formula to overcome the inability to “walk” in the daylight has become an element in plots. Blade the Vampire Slayer, introduced into Marvel Comics in the early seventies, was a half-vampire who could walk (and therefore hunt) in the daytime. In the third movie about the slayer, Blade Trinity (2005), the vampires resurrect Dracula to oppose Blade and produced a set of new vampires who can walk in the daylight. The first Baron Blood, another Marvel character, used a special cosmetic treatment that allowed him to withstand sunlight and hence remain active during the day. The third Baron Blood, Kenneth Crichton, has to oppose the Baroness Blood, who used him to obtain the Holy Grail, from which she derived an immunity to sunlight. At one point, DC’s vampire character Andrew Bennett (who was featured in the series “I … Vampire,” faced opposition from his old nemisis (and girlfriend) Mary Seward. Along the way he took what was known as the Russian formula, which briefly gave him the ability to walk in the sunlight. It also led to his death, although not before Mary was destroyed.
Movie director Donald Glut produced a film trilogy built around the story of Elizabeth Bathory. In the third movie, Blood Scarab (2008), Bathory steals a mummy as part of a scheme to make a deal with an Egyptian goddess so that she will have the ability to move about in daylight.