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From Dracula to Edward: The changing face of vampires

By Doug Gross, CNN
  • Movie vampires have made decades-long leap from ghastly to alluring
  • "Twilight," "True Blood" present pre-Dracula sympathetic vampire, expert says
  • Writer: It doesn't hurt that today's vampires are devastatingly beautiful
  • Scholar sees a return to the "threatening vampire" soon

(CNN) -- It's a long night's journey from the bald, clawed bloodsucker of "Nosferatu" to the stylish coif and sculpted abs of Edward Cullen.

From their origins in Victorian literature, there's always been a tragic -- and sometimes even sympathetic -- side to vampires.

But in the decades since the 1922 cult classic, and most famously Bela Lugosi's 1931 turn as Bram Stoker's iconic "Dracula," our movie vampires have transformed themselves from creepy creatures of the night to ... well ... sexy, creepy creatures of the night.

"We've been making them more believable and more real," said Meredith Woerner, author of "Vampire Taxonomy," a fang-in-cheek guide on how to happily co-exist with the vampire in your life. "I think that's why the trend has kind of skyrocketed a little bit. They straddle the fantastical and the realistic, and they're doing it even moreso now."

In "Twilight: New Moon," which opens this weekend, lead vamp Edward Cullen represents what observers say might be as far as the trend can go: a fangless romantic more interested in true love than true blood.

From its earliest origins, the vampire story has been a tragic one with at least a steady undercurrent of sympathy for the undead predators. In the British "penny dreadful" novel "Varney the Vampire" -- which predated Stoker's 1897 "Dracula" by more than 50 years -- the lead character is a monster, but one who feels sorrow over what he has become.

But the early makers of vampire movies took their cues more from Dracula than Varney, said vampire historian Curt W. Herr.

"Stoker is the one that made the vampire novel about an evil force that has to be destroyed," said Herr, an associate professor of literature at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania who teaches gothic and Victorian fiction. "In 'Varney the Vampire,' we all identify with him and really feel bad for the guy."

For decades after the Lugosi film, vampires on the big screen were mostly nasty things, with seemingly every other vampire movie including the word "Dracula" in its title. Share your "New Moon" reviews

Hollywood's relaxed standards of the late '60s and early '70s saw more elements of sensuality creep into vampire stories. By the '80s, and through the '90s, many vamps had morphed into equal parts rock star and monster, most directly in the case of 1983's "The Hunger," which starred David Bowie.

In movies like "Near Dark" and "Forsaken," vamps were defanged, literally. In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" they walked, talked and dressed like the rest of us.

"And it doesn't hurt that all these characters just so happen to be devastatingly handsome men and women," Woerner said. "They're beautiful and mysterious."

She contrasted early movie vampires with Eric Northman, the tall, Nordic bad-boy vampire from HBO's "True Blood."

"You want to be scared by ['Nosferatu's'] Count Orlock, and then you want him to go away," she said. "Eric, you want to spend all night with."

So, will vampires keep getting more and more cuddly until, as Woerner jokes, all we'll have left is "Bunnicula," a children's book about a bunny who sucks juice out of carrots?

Herr doesn't think so.

"I do see a sense of the threatening vampire coming back," he said. "I think people are tired of the 'castrated' vampire, but that tends to be the adults 18 and up rather than the students who are reading 'Twilight' in high school and consider it the apex of romantic fiction."