Horror in Who: Vampires

A creature that feeds on blood and has associations with death at childbirth, sexual desire, and gods who devour children: vampires are perhaps too horrific to appear in a family show. Fortunately, that’s not stopped Doctor Who.

Vampires have had a facelift over the years, from the bloated, corpse-like Nosferatu to the suave and sophisticated Dracula. Our favourite show has followed suit.

There are three main types of vampires in Doctor Who – well, four if we include that robot of Dracula in The Chase!

Not Actually A Vampire

This is one idea that Doctor Who leans on all the time: that something out of legend or myth is actually an alien.

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Despite displaying many aspects of vampires, the Saturnyne, for example, from 2010’s Vampires of Venice are fish. Nonetheless, they appear to:

  • Feed on blood;
  • Replace our blood with their own;
  • Cower from the sun;
  • Have some interesting fangs.

Though they started off as merely a horror story, vampires have been reimagined as a somehow seductive prospect – which accounts for the Saturnyne frequently being summed up as “sexy fish vampires.” This view originated in The Vampyre, published in April 1819 and written by Dr. John William Polidori, which elevated vampirism from folklore to high society; its villain, Lord Ruthven, is deadly and alluring, enticing and responsible for the deaths of several women. Notions of a link between seduction and vampirism may come from haematodipsia, a sexual thirst for blood.

Partly due to it being incorrectly credited to Lord Byron, The Vampyre quickly took the public’s imagination, also feeding into that culture’s increasing fascination with the gothic.

The popular idea of women as vampires, though, probably comes from Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, better known as the Blood Countess, who was accused of killing young women and bathing in their blood. Accounts of exactly how many she killed vary wildly, some even thinking she was a victim of conspiracy, but her infamy continues to this day. Vampires of Venice‘s Rosanna Calvierri was likely inspired by her, even though the Countess was from Hungary – Venice, meanwhile, has vampire legends of its own.

Despite popular literature, the most powerful figures of vampirism were typically female. In Greece, lamiae were blood-sucking demons capable of transforming into beautiful women in order to lure in men. They were named after Lamia, a child-devouring queen of Libya from Greek mythology, generally used as a sort of “bogey man” in order to invoke good behaviour from the young.

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Similarly, the Langsuyar of Malaysia were women who died in childbirth, only to return to live seemingly-normal lives, albeit feasting on children. In the Philippines, the tale of Mandurugo, aka The Girl With Many Loves, featured a beautiful woman whose husbands kept mysteriously dying. When her fourth partner was warned of this, he slept with a knife under his pillow which he subsequently used when he felt a prick on his neck. Mandurugo, having supposedly flown away, was found dead with a knife in her chest.

One of the earliest legendary vampires are the Mesopotamian Lamastu, a bird-like goddess who preyed on babies and sucked the blood of men, who was seemingly assimilated into the Jewish approximation of Lilith in some accounts.

The Cheetah People from 1989’s Survival also shared characteristics of vampires, but were essentially felines: notably, they could turn others into their own kind (perhaps unconsciously, though), and fed on whatever they could find. Water had healing properties, similar to the Saturnyne and Haemovores from The Curse of Fenric (1989).

Sort Of A Vampire

The Seventh Doctor monsters bring us onto a further example of vampirism in Doctor Who. Whereas the Sisters of the Water were replacing the blood of the girls they transformed, they didn’t need it to live individually (instead for carrying on their species).

If we strip back vampire mythology to its core, vampires feed on the life essence of other beings. In this way, they are parasites – and there are numerous examples of this in Doctor Who.

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Most similar to our perceptions of vampires are the aforementioned Haemovores, humans transformed into powerful monsters which feed on blood. Mid-transformation, they took on some characteristics of the Chinese ch’iang shih (corpse-hopper) or jiangshi, with their long, crooked claws (perhaps derived from flesh recession meaning corpses looked to have unusually lengthy nails). Their links to the sea have often been debated, some claiming that they drown easily while others view mermaids as vampires, stealing people’s breaths instead of their blood.

A prime example of a vampiric race in the Third Doctor era is the Axons from 1971’s The Claws of Axos. As a creature with strict nutrition cycles, Axos came to Earth to drain the planet of all its energy. One of the serial’s working titles was even The Vampire From Space, but was changed because the BBC wanted to avoid associations with such occult imagery.

The Ogri, from The Stones of Blood (1978), obviously share a key aspect of vampirism: they feed off globulin of the blood, and in 2014’s Mummy on the Orient Express, the technology inside the Foretold leached energy from the living, prompting Perkins to say, “it’s not just a mummy; it’s a vampire. Metaphorically speaking.”

But there are other aliens that feed off unusual energies. The Family of Blood, for instance, need regenerative energy to survive – but then, so do the Time Lords. The latter aren’t vampiric, though, as the Doctor’s race aren’t sacrificing or converting others for their own needs.

Psychevores are creatures that feed off psychic energy, just like the Malus in The Awakening (1984); the titular alien from Image of the Fendahl (1977) similarly lives off the souls of others, and the Mara (Kinda; Snakedance) sits in our imaginations.

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Vampires as beings draining energy off others have numerous origins in various cultures: the Egyptians believed that Sekhmet feasted on the souls of the dead, and if their ka wasn’t fulfilling, the warrior goddess would leave the tomb to drink civilian’s blood. In myths dating around 4000BC, a spirit called the ekimmu was the result of improper burial, rising to feed on the life of locals.

Following The Vampyre, the next notable novel to feature vampires is, of course, Dracula by Bram Stoker, the author being alluded to in 2007’s Smith and Jones… although in that Tenth Doctor story, Mr. Stoker is victim to a would-be vampire.

Miss Finnegan certainly isn’t Dracula: she hides intellect and thirst behind an innocent frailty – and favoured a straw. She was actually a Plasmavore, but in the book, Creatures and Demons, her race is supposed to have evolved from the final type of vampire in the Whoniverse…

Actual Vampires

There’s no such thing as ghosts. There’s no such thing as zombies. But there are vampires.

Whovians discovered this in 1980 when the Fourth Doctor happened across the Three Who Rule in E-Space. We learn that they were one of the Time Lords’ biggest foes, but that they were destroyed. All save one: the King Vampire. Naturally.

The Great Vampires borrowed from Nesferatu, as humanoid, grey, and decaying, but furthermore had a bat-like visage. The grey-pallored image crops up in most folklore, probably originating in the fact that vampires are supposed to either be dead or ‘undead,’ depending on the myth. Their bloated look was said to be after a feast on blood, in contrast to their victims, who French philosopher and historian, Voltaire, wrote “waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption”.

State of Decay Three Who Rule

There are even some accounts of corpses sitting up in their coffins (which some credit to the release of gases in the body).

Further common traits of vampires are their long fangs and, certainly in the case of State of Decay‘s Camilla, sharp, lengthy nails. Paul Barber, in his 1988 Yale University book, Vampires, Burial, and Death, attributed this to unenlightened theories around decomposition: receding gums and skin give the effect that some parts of the body continued growing after death.

Other beliefs in vampirism stem from grave-robbers disturbing a tomb – making the body look as if it had moved – and disease. Sufferers of Tuberculosis were often viewed suspiciously, and the bubonic plague could cause the damage of lung tissue and blood on the lips.

The Great Vampires in Doctor Who adhere to early popular beliefs, and thus, the Doctor kills the King with a ‘stake’ through the heart.

Sunrise

They remain scarce in the Whoniverse, but vampires are so ingrained in our culture, it would be naive to think that Doctor Who shouldn’t tackle the subject.

The creatures have a gruesome history, and even though we consider ourselves as generally enlightened, they remain a familiar horror trope. Perhaps this is because, however much we know of the universe, we admit to knowing little about the afterlife. This would account for myths about vampires, zombies, and ghosts. Death remains the great unknown. But that’s a story for another day…

(Adapted from an article originally published on Kasterborous in October 2014.)