US TV series The Strain features an epidemic of the supernatural beings that have captivated audiences since Dracula. But vampires long predate Bram Stoker, writes Roger Luckhurst.

The first season of the US TV series The Strain ended with The Master, source of New York’s vampire infection and one of the oldest vampires in existence, escaping our human heroes again. And he did so by scampering across roof-tops in full daylight – something vampire lore says most bloodsuckers can never do. We were all left wondering: what fresh hells, what weird mutations of the vampire rules will season 2 bring?

The series is based on the collaborative novels of screenwriter Chuck Hogan and major horror and science-fiction film director Guillermo del Toro. The Strain does a neat update and twist on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Instead of Count Dracula’s entry via a spectral boat, we get a plane-load of (un)dead plague victims in New York. Instead of Dracula’s lair in Piccadilly, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, The Master nests in the old tunnels under New York’s Freedom Tower. Instead of Stoker’s vampire hunter Van Helsing, we have the cantankerous Abraham Setrakian, who first encountered The Master in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. And instead of Stoker’s Christian band of brothers who come together to expel the evil from the British Empire, we have a mixed group of antsy New York immigrants – Ukrainians, Jews and Hispanics, men and women.

The Strain is just the latest mutation of the vampire formula established by Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which appeared in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year of 1897. The first major adaptation was FW Murnau’s expressionist masterpiece, Nosferatu(1922) – Stoker’s widow sued the studio behind the film for breaching copyright. But Dracula isn’t the only source of the vampire myths. The Strain owes much of its power to an even older tradition of vampire stories in the West that stretches back another 150 years.

The word ‘vampyre’ first appeared in English in the London Journalin March 1732. This awkward word had been transported directly from confused reports about a bizarre incident on the far-flung edges of the Hapsburg empire. In Medreyga, a village in rural Hungary, peasants had created a disturbance by demanding the body of their recently deceased neighbour, Arnold Paul, be dug up. It had been a month since his death and burial. They claimed to the local authorities that his unquiet corpse was menacing them and causing local livestock to waste away in the fields at night. The word they used for this ambivalent creature, stuck between life and death, was ‘vampyre’.

On opening the grave, it was alleged that the body of Arnold Paul was witnessed by reliable Hapsburg agents to appear perfectly fresh and undecayed, and also bloated with fresh blood that frothed from the mouth. The peasants pinned the body in the grave with a stake through the heart and then burnt the remains, just to be sure.

A few years later, a Benedictine monk, Augustin Calmet, gathered a lot of similar accounts together in a large tome subtitled Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. It is from these marginal territories that vampires emerge. Dracula’s castle in Transylvania on the very edge of Europe, was where the light of Christendom flickered feebly against the dark unknown of the Ottoman Empire beyond.

Care for a bite?

Stories of vampires in the 18th Century functioned largely to mock the superstitions of stupid peasants. This reassured a sophisticated metropolitan culture, who circulated these narratives in their new-fangled newspapers and magazines, that London, Paris or Vienna had overcome the tyranny of Medieval beliefs. The cities were full of rational, enlightened citizens who no longer believed such things.

Voltaire thought the silly fashion for these uncanny stories was over. How wrong he was

In Paris, the rational philosopher Voltaire began his entry on vampires in his 1762 Philosophical Dictionary: “What? Is it in our 18th Century that vampires still exist?” He confidently predicted that although Western Europe “had been infected with vampires for five or six years” in these sensational accounts, “there are now no more.” The silly fashion for entertaining with these uncanny stories was over. How wrong he was.

The peasant vampire of Eastern European folklore was a ponderous corpse that disturbed the peace but was relatively easy to destroy. The seductive, corrupting aristocratic vampire arrived in 1819 with a short story by William Polidori published with much sensation in the London press. Lord Ruthven is the title character of The Vampyre, a bloated, lustful beast who preys on young women, particularly terrifying because he does so in the most exclusive salons of society. The vampire has moved from the folkloric margins of the peasantry to fuse with the melodramatic image of the aristocratic libertine.

The added spice was that William Polidori had been briefly appointed as personal doctor to the most notorious aristocrat in England, Lord Byron. The legendary poet had been hounded out of England for his scandalous sex life. During that exile, Polidori had been present at the famous evening at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva in 1816 when Byron and his guests Percy and Mary Shelley told ghost stories to each other. The literary vampire was born alongside Baron Frankenstein’s monster. Soon after this occasion, Byron summarily fired his doctor.

The vampire as a louche devil who corrupts through sex and money as much as through his bite

There is more than a dash of Byron in Lord Ruthven. Some gossip-mongers even assumed that The Vampyre, which appeared anonymously at first, was either a portrait of Byron or an actual confession by the debauched lord. If Polidori had wanted revenge on his boss, this rather backfired. The story only increased Byron’s notoriety and sales. The Vampyre was reprinted and dramatized widely across Europe, but often without Polidori being credited. The doctor died soon afterwards, a failed writer.

Sweetly seductive

The vampire as a louche devil who corrupts through sex and money as much as through his bite has never quite gone away. It was this vision that inspired a long-running 1840s serial, Varney the Vampire, or The Feast of Blood, in which the genre was twisted around to include debauched aristocratic women who bathed in the blood of virgin girls to keep an eternal youth. The most famous literary version of this was Sheridan Le Fanu’s feverish short story Carmilla from 1872, the narrative that launched a thousand scurrilous lesbian vampire fantasies. Le Fanu was also a newspaper editor who gave Bram Stoker his first writing job. The first version of Draculawas set in Styria in Austria, where Le Fanu’s Carmilla had taken place.

The Strain shows that the vampire haunts the world’s centres of power. A hundred years ago it was imperial London: now it is the financial and political powerhouse, New York, where The Master’s invasion is aided by the Stoneheart Corporation, run by Wall Street execs seeking eternal life. Almost as soon as the vampyre was named in print in English, it was put into service as an allegory for the ‘blood-suckers’ of bankers and usurers in the City of London. The Strain again borrows from tradition.

The show is also clearly related to the ‘zombie apocalypse’ genre, the first season showing the slow beginnings of a disease outbreak that is a scientific, viral rendering of the old supernatural infection. In the first season, we watched New York decline steadily into chaos and riot, the undead massing in the sewers and killing openly on the streets. In a country that currently simmers with racial tension and fears the consequences of growing economic inequality, it is clear the makers of The Strain trade on this apocalyptic anxiety. If there is a worry that the series sometimes uses imagery of invading vermin that comes from a tradition of demonising the immigrant poor, the story is also working to assemble a multicultural band of heroes who will restore a vision of America as a melting pot. This vision, of a group of disparate individuals banding together to take down an implacable foe and succeeding, is also embedded in two hundred years of vampire stories. Perhaps that’s why vampire tales endure – in the eerie shadows where bloodsuckers creep there is a vision of doom, but also of hope as well.

Roger Luckhurst is a professor at Birkbeck College in London. He has edited the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Dracula and his new book, Zombies: A Cultural History, is out in August 2015.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.