Saturday, April 27, 2013

Volcanoes, Vampires, and Mad Science: The Birth of Seductive Vampires and Scientists Playing God

by J.A. Beard

In 1815, a series of lesser volcanic eruptions was followed by the eruption of Mount Tambora (one of the largest eruptions in over 1000 years). This occurred in combination with cyclical lows in solar activity. While modern scientists aren't completely sure, they believe this particular convergence is responsible for the phenomena that occurred in 1816 that we now know as the Year Without A Summer.

Overall temperatures around the globe, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, were temporarily reduced. This, in turn, caused summer frosts, increased rain, and various other climate effects that resulted in the summer season resembling more an extended autumn. These climate impacts had numerous negative effects, including reduced crop yields from early frosts and excessive rainfall (leading to flooding) in many areas. This led to subsequent downstream economic effects. All in all, the experience wasn't pleasant for much of the world.

During the normal "summer" months of that year, a small group of intellectuals were staying near Lake Geneva for a summer holiday. The unrelenting rain forced them inside for most of the summer. Absent the modern conveniences of the internet, television, radio, or even not-so-modern conveniences such as a large, expansive library, these sad vacationers, being of the literary bent, decided to see have a contests of sort to see who could create the most frightening tale. The dark, grim summer along with various other ghost stories served as inspiration (for a few of them, perhaps with the aid of a little alcohol or laudanum for some of them as well, according to a few sources).

Now, these weren't just any random collection of people. The primary host of this vacation gone awry was none other than Lord Bryon, the often morally questionable bad boy Romantic poet.

In addition to Lord Bryon, the poet and radical Percy Shelley was also in attendance, along with his new young wife, Mary. They only added to the scandal factor of the gathering. The main reason the Shelleys were abroad had to do with the fact that Percy left his first wife, who was pregnant at the time, and child to run off with the then 16-year old Mary in 1814.

Percy and Mary didn't marry until Percy's first wife committed suicide in 1816. Many people in their social circles were suitably scandalized, so they fled England to tour Europe. Rounding out the party was Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont and John William Polidori, a writer and physician.

Of the stories produced during the contest, two were later expanded and have had a lasting impact on literature.

Mary Shelley penned a story she later expanded into none other than Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, which she published in 1818. Though Hollywood has often rendered Frankenstein's Monster into a pathetic easily spoofed parody, the original story relates the creation of an intelligent and philosophical artificial being.

Whatever one thinks of the literary merits of the book (it was not well received upon release), it is rather notable that the creation of the monster was specifically inspired by what was then cutting-edge science rather than some type of supernatural cause. This, arguably, makes it an early example of science fiction, in addition to horror. Various stories about a scientist going "too far" with experiments and receiving a suitable, if predictable, karmic reward for trying to "play God" arguably have some descent from Frankenstein.

Notably, there had been some discussion shortly before Mary wrote the initial version of the story of the experiments of the Italian scientist, Giovanni Aldini. Giovanni was intensely interested in experimenting with stimulating muscles with electricity. He performed a particularly high profile experiment in 1803 where he applied electrical current to a condemned criminal. Some witnesses, upon the seeing limb movements and facial expression changes due to the artificial stimulation, thought Giovanni was actually bringing the man back to life.

These experiments, along with some similar experiments performed by other scientists on animals, were well-known among the intellectual set, including Mary Shelley. It's easy to see how such experiments at a time where even the educated had only a mild handle on biochemistry and physics could lead an intelligent young author to pen a story where forbidden science is used to animate an artificial human.

The other major story to come out of that summer in 1816 was The Vampyre by John William Polidori. Like Shelley, Polidori would rework and expand his story over a few years. He published the final novella 1819.

In the story, an Englishman, Aubrey, meets and travels with a mysterious aristocrat, Ruthven. After an incident in which Ruthven is apparently killed and an earlier incident where a vampire kills a mutual acquaintance  Aubrey is surprised to see the man quite alive. Ruthven then begins to seduce Aubrey's sister. Aubrey is powerless, because of an earlier oath, to tell his sister that he saw the man already die. Eventually, on her wedding night she is found dead, drained of blood.

This tale was wildly successful both because of the existing interest in Gothic horror at the time and the fact that for many years people attributed the story to Lord Byron rather than Mr. Polidori. It would go onto to inspire countless vampire tales during the Regency and Victorian era. Eventually, it would even inspire the now more famous Dracula by Bram Stoker. The transformation of the vampire from some pseudo-ghoul corpse walker symbol of plague that was far more prevalent in folklore to a manipulative, aristocratic creature of canny planning and frightening patience was Mr. Polidori's innovation. The influence of Mr. Polidori's story still reverberates to this day.

That's something to keep in mind. Whenever one complains about vampires being seductive creatures rather than just ghoulish monsters, they should remember the seductive-vampire motif goes all the way back to 1819 and Mr. Polidori.


J.A. Beard is a scientific editor and the author of A Woman of Proper Accomplishments, which features a Regency England where seductive, though admittedly non-vampiric, men exist with the ability to bring all sorts of objects to life  through questionable quasi-scientific means.


  1. Fascinating to think if the weather hadn't gone crazy we would never have had Frankenstein and possibly not Dracula. :) Polidori was the first, I think, to create a sexy vampire and there was certainly speculation that Ruthven was meant to BE Byron. Interesting, also, that it was the two amateurs who wrote the immortal fiction.

  2. I'm sure Caroline Lamb would wholeheartedly agree with that interpretation of Byron. :)

  3. Ah, "mad, bad and dangerous to knw". Yes, indeed! ;-)

  4. Ooooooooo, goose bumps upon goosebumps upon goosebumps. Love it. Thanks for Sharing....

  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I knew a little about Mary Shelley but I didn't know about Polidari's original take on the vampire - utterly fascinating!


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