Vampires — Keep Out of Direct Sunlight


January 28 2017


Contains Vampires – Keep out of Direct Sunlight


Vampires Dissolving in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

The vampire army is attacking our heroes, who have only so many crucifixes, stakes, and holy water to go around. Fortunately, they are saved by the most serious weakness of the vampires – they break the windows, tear away the wood boarding it up, and open wide the doors, letting in the light from the rising sun. The vampires scream and throw up their arms to ward off the sun, but to no avail. The bright sunlight burns through their arms at a touch, then immolates the rest of the vampire, leaving no more than ashes.


That sort of fate awaits the vampires in the movies From Dusk Till Dawn, Van Helsing, and a great many others, not to mention in comic books and novels. It’s such an article of faith and such a well-known trope that no one even bothers to explain it anymore. It can be assumed that the audience is as aware that sunlight will dissolve vampires as that the sun will rise in the morning.

Except that this is not a piece of the original vampire mythos. Even granting that we’ve deviated very far from the basic vampire legend, in which the poor soul of a suicide or other aggrieved person known by all to be dead returned from the grave to suck the blood of family and others, or the first literary vampires, who could pass for human and this inveigle victims in, to Bram Stoker’s impressive re-imagining of the creature, with a full list of capabilities, powers, and weaknesses, at no point up through the early twentieth century did vampires perish under the touch of the sun.

You may think you know how and why this changed, but I suggest that there’s much more to the story than you know. Most of our modern monsters — vampires, werewolves, robots, constructed Frankenstein creatures, re-animated mummies, fish-men, invisible men, alien invaders, and giant city-destroying monsters – have been invented or vastly re-invented since the year 1800. Someone from the time of the American Revolution would be bewildered by our bugaboos, so completely different from their own catalog of fears. But none have been so completely re-done – so completely re-vamped – as the vampire.


Vampires, of course, are Creatures of the Night; more so than many other monsters. Even in the original legends they were said to come out at night, and retreat to their graves with the coming of morning. There was no suggestion, though, that the penalty was dissolution. When Polidori (in his story The Vampyre) gave us the Titled Vampire Lord Ruthven, he simply only appeared in public at night. This was something an upper class character could easily do. Similarly, Lord Varney of the penny dreadful Varney the Vampire appeared in public at night. (His vampiric immortality was of an odd sort – he could be killed, but he would be revived by the rays of the moon at night). Vampires throughout the 19th century, in print and on stage stayed in the night, but without a hint that it was the savage effects of daylight that kept them there.

Bram Stoker invented many of the traits of the vampire that we take for granted and often assume are part of folklore. He is the one who gave us vampires that could be held at bay by crucifixes and garlic, who had to sleep in their native earth and couldn’t be seen in mirrors. But even he did not have vampires destroyed by sunlight. Dracula even walks around London in daylight in Chapter 23 of Stoker’s novel (although in the Coppola movie, he’s wearing those newfangled sunglasses.

Actually, Stoker is rather inconsistent in his depiction of how Dracula (and the other vampires in his novel) are affected by sunlight. They all only appear active during the hours of darkness, and retreat to their coffins before daybreak. Dracula himself disguises himself as a coachman and meets Jonathan Harker at Borgo Pass – but it is only after sunset, and they return to the castle well before daybreak. Dracula’s brides only appear at night, and the vampirized Lucy Westenra only appears at night, returning to her tomb before the sun comes up.

So what happens during the day? Although he has Dracula stalking London at one point, earlier in the book Harker discovers Dracula lying in his coffin in the vaults of the castle. He is in a practically catatonic state, rigid and almost immobile. Yet his mind is apparently active, and his gaze alone is enough to prevent Harker from driving a stake into his heart. Maybe, once they get to sleep, vampires are very sound sleepers.

Finally, there is the matter of Dracula’s peculiar death. It has been stated throughout the novel that a stake must be driven into Dracula’s heart. That is how Lucy is released from her fate as a vampire. In the Hamilton Deane play, and in John Balderston’s rewrite of it, Dracula is killed onstage by being staked in his coffin. That’s how he meets his fate in the Universal Tod Browning/Bela Lugosi film, as well, although there it occurs discreetly off-stage. (Universal referred to this death by staking of Dracula in other films, including Dracula’s Daughter and House of Frankenstein). But that’s not how Dracula meets his end in the novel. Instead, as daylight approaches, the troupe of vampire hunters (Van Helsing, Jonathan Harker, and the mortally-wounded Quincey Morris) cuts off his head with a Bowie knife while holding him down, and his body dissolves. You could argue that this is the first appearance of vampire death by sunlight, although the beheading would appear to be a more important element.

In fact, though, since Dracula disappears from the story by a means so explicitly NOT the stated  requirement for his demise that many have suggested that perhaps Dracula was not killed at all. One of the abilities that Stoker gave his super-vampire was the ability to turn into smoke and fog (again, this was not among the vampire’s traditional powers), so perhaps Dracula simply escaped his would-be destroyers by this means. Certainly Leonard Wolf suggested this in The Annotated Dracula (and its successor, The Essential Dracula). Leslie Klinger followed this suggestion in The New Annotated Dracula. Fred Saberhagen also assumed this to be the case for his novel The Dracula Tapes, which retells the entire story from the point of view of the Count, who in this manner survived the attack so that he could give us his side of the story.

Killing vampires off by staking them, or by using fire or other direct means of dissolution, remained the preferred method until 1922, when Fritz Murnau and PranaFilm released Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror”), starring the evocatively-named Max Shrek as “Count Orlok”. Murnau and Pranafilm pretty famously ripped off the story of “Dracula” without getting the rights to the story, so the outline of the story is basically the same, with the names changed. In fact, though, the story is in many ways very different from the way Dracula has usually been depicted and interpreted.

There is not a hint of attractiveness about the Count, and he has no sexual magnetism at all. With a bulbous head, pointed ears, talon-like fingers, and two prominent incisors, Orlok presents a grotesque and repulsive figure, more like a human rat than a suave, sophisticated nobleman. His arrival in Bremen is is interpreted by the townspeople not as an invasion by vampires or some nocturnal criminal, but as a plague. In fact, the story plays out more like the devastation of a town by disease, with Orlok the symbol of the plague in human form. Hutter’s (Harker’s) wife Ellen (Harker’s finacee Mina in Stoker’s novel) offers herself as “bait” for the vampire, luring her to her room, where he feasts on her blood until he is startled by the break of day, symbolized by an almost biblical cock crowing. Realizing that he is undone, Orlok rises and rushes from the room, only to be caught by the rays of the sun, at the touch of which he turns, as in pain, staggers back, and disappears in a puff of smoke.

nosferatu-dissolvin-in-sunlight  nosferatu-dissolvin-in-sunlight-03


Orlok’s means of demise results from the artistic re-interpretation that Murnau put on the story, rather than from Stoker’s novel. The vampire is almost literally a pestilence, and it is exorcised both by the sacrifice of a willing victim and by the force of light. There’s also an element of sunlight and air defeating the forces of pestilence, which loves darkness and stagnant air. In essence, the vampire is defeated by mysticism and a good German “airing out”. But the mysticism is different from Stoker’s magic spell-like formula of the Stake and holy wafer or holy water. Nosferatu’s dissolution springs from different roots than Stokers, but is just as much a modern creation of the filmmakers, despite its resemblance to folklore. Perhaps because of that, it was readily accepted by viewers.

Most examinations of the Vampire in Pop Culture leave it at that – Nosferatu introduced the idea of vampires dissolving in sunlight, so that’s where that trope came from, and it’s been with us ever since. On to the next point.

Only it’s not as simple as that. As mentioned, other works introduced notions of the vampire, and most of them didn’t stick. Lon Caney Sr. gave us the image of the vampire as a top-hatted, wide-eyed creature with a broad smile of needle-pointed teeth, which no one has repeated.


People guard against vampires with garlic, but not with the wolfbane that appears in Stoker’s novel, as well as in the stage play and the 1931 film. Why should only this element of a silent film – the dissolution by daylight —  have achieved such wide acceptance and a place in the Hall of Unquestioned Attributes?

The question is particularly relevant because of the subsequent history of the film. As mentioned, Murnau and PranaFilm made the obviously derivative movie without obtaining the rights to Dracula, and paid no royalties. This didn’t sit well with Florence Stoker, Bram Stoker’s widow (Bram Stoker himself had died in 1912). She was not exactly wealthy, and a large part of her income was in the form of royalties from Dracula, the only one of her husband’s writings that had any resonance with the public. She would be damned before letting anyone steal that from her, and she went after the copyright thieves with single-minded vindictiveness.

Through her lawyers, Florence Stoker tried to have all copies of Nosferatu destroyed. But some copies remained in private hands. In the United States, a loophole in the copyright law allowed the film to be shown, much to her dismay. Even worse, they were advertising the film as a version of “Dracula”. Prints circulating in the United States at that time evidently differed from the copies now generally available, and may have made the resemblance even closer.

In addition, by the time the film was being exhibited in the United States, the play Dracula, which was authorized by Florence Stoker was playing on Broadway, and the film Nosferatu was benefiting from the publicity.

Ultimately the film was pulled from circulation, but that was when Universal effectively bought the rights to the film so that it could keep it out of the public eye when they released their own adaptation, based upon the play. For years the film was kept under wraps. Some scenes from it surfaced in the theatrical short Boo (1932), which poked fun at horror films using clips from Universal’s Frankenstein, but used Nosferatu instead of their own Dracula.

With the disappearance of Nosferatu, the main sources for information on vampires were the popular play by Hamilton Deane and John Balderston, the Universal film (with script by Balderston), and the Spanish adaptation made by Universal. In all of these Dracula dies by a stake driven into his heart, which is said to be the sole method of dispatching a vampire.

Other depictions of vampires pretty much followed suit. Universal’s odd sequel, Dracula’s Daughter begins with a retelling of the end of the 1931 film, with Edward van Sloan reprising his role as Van Helsing and recounting how he had driven a stake into Dracula. Later, the countess Marya Zaleska, his daughter, dies the same way in the 1936 film Dracula’s Daughter. Carl Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr lies outside the Hollywood tradition, and is worth watching for its very different interpretation of the vampire legend. But the film still features the titular vampire being destroyed by having a stake (a metal stake, however) driven into its heart. But the stake was long a feature of vampire lore. A mob drives a stake through a corpse they (wrongly) imagine to be a vampire in Varney the Vampire (1847). Carmilla the vampire is killed in her coffin in Sheridan le Fanu’s 1871-2 story of the same name (and which in part inspired Dreyer’s film). Interestingly, the female vampire in Vampyr appears to be staked in broad daylight, with no ill effects from that (but see below).

In literary fiction, too, vampires were killed by stake and other direct methods. H. P. Lovecraft usually avoided common horror tropes, but he did write one vampire story – The Shunned House (1937) — in which the vampire is dissolved in sulfuric acid.


What changed all this, and re-introduced the notion of sunlight destroying vampires was, I suggest, World War II.

It wasn’t the Motion Picture Production Code (The Hays Code, as it was better known). That had been proposed as early as 1927, although not strictly enforced for another seven years. It already stated that special care should be taken with “brutality and possible gruesomeness”. As noted above, the filmed versions of Dracula already shied away from depicting the actual driving of a stake through Dracula’s heart. The English-language version doesn’t even speak about putting a stake into Lucy Westenra, and the Spanish version has it occurring “offstage” Universal was probably more concerned about losing its mainstream audience if it showed  such gruesomeness, regardless of what the Hays code said.

No, it was something more pervasive and less authoritarian that caused the studios to moderate their horrors – the fact that the second World War was taking place outside the United States, and the knowledge that many of those moviegoers had friends or relatives directly involved in it. Vampires, mummies, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters were fantasy horrors that could be easily controlled, forgotten once the film ended. What the audience did not need was any sort of reminder about what their loved ones might be facing. No injuries or deaths due to bullets, wounds, or physical injuries. Nothing that spilled blood. (War films were a different matter – there was a precipitous increase in films dealing with the war after the US entered it. But these films treated the subject seriously and positively. They told heroic stories and had uplifting messages, and exalted the soldier. Images of the dead were limited, and images of the wounded were sanitized. There were no hopeless missions. There were no inescapable horrors.)

So instead of the vampire being destroyed by messy, blood-letting stakes through the heart, some more moderate and clean method was needed. The destruction of the vampire by sunlight, although neither canonical nor sanctified by Bram Stoker, fit the bill. It was introduced almost simultaneously by two different writers. Significantly, both had come over from Germany, and had likely seen Nosferatu back there.

One was a man who deserves to be much better known than he is. In addition to re-popularizing the demise of vampires in sunlight, he also made up many of the elements of the Hollywood “Werewolf” mythos, including the poem “Even a man who goes to church by day/ And says his prayers by night/ May become a Wolf when the wolfbane is in bloom/ and the Moon is Full and Bright”. He went on to give us the monster vs. monster fight film, and to popularize the trope of the brain floating in the aquarium. His name was Kurt (later Curt) Siodmak, and he started out writing stories, novels, and screenplays in Germany, including the science fiction films FP1 Doesn’t Answer and The Transatlantic Tunnel.  Fleeing the Nazis, he came to America by way of Britain and began working in Hollywood, writing screenplays and screen treatments, often of fantastic stories. His big success was writing the screenplay for The Wolf Man in 1940, which became the start of a very successful cycle of films starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Later he wrote the screen stories for Son of Dracula (also starring Chaney as “Count Alucard” – “Dracula” spelled backwards) and for the multi-monster extravaganza House of Frankenstein , which brought back Dracula, now played by John Carradine.

son-of-dracula   house-of-frankenstein

For both films he proposed a new means of destroying the vampire – daylight. It is explained that the vampire cannot stand the daytime sun, and when Alucard’s coffin is burned, he has no other retreat, and is destroyed by the sun. (Another vampire in the film is destroyed by burning directly, a method of dispatching vampires that is occasionally used in literature). In House of Frankenstein Dracula is restored from his skeletal remains when the stake is removed from where his heart had been. This was a new wrinkle in vampires – previously  staking a vampire destroyed it for all time (but see Return of the Vampire below).


The restored Dracula does not have long to live, however. He soon succumbs to daylight, which cleanly destroys him, reducing him to a skeleton again. (But death is not forever in the movies. Carradine was inexplicably back the next year as Dracula again in House of Dracula, and he is once again destroyed by sunlight (although this time Siodmak was not directly involved in the film).



At just the same time, however, another German writer introduced the same ideas. Return of the Vampire was not from Universal Studios, but from Columbia. It was completed before Son of Dracula, but its release was delayed until just six days after that of Son.



Return of the Vampire is ostensibly about the vampire Arman Tesla, who was killed during World War I by being staked, but who is revived during the second World War by having that stake removed, as in House of Frankenstein. A German bomb falls in the London cemetery where Tesla was buried, and the men cleaning up the damage think that the bomb drove the stake into the body, and remove it.

As in House of Frankenstein, removing the stake brings the vampire back to life. He goes on a rampage, until he is killed at the end by being pulled into the sunlight, where he decomposes.



Return of the Vampire was notable, among other things, for starring Bela Lugosi as the vampire Armand Tesla. Despite the name, most people see this as a sort of sequel to Dracula, both because of Lugosi’s playing the vampire and the London setting. (Lugosi would play many other vampires in films before his death. He played Dracula countless times onstage, but the only other time he played him onscreen in a full-length movie was in the 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein)

The screen story was the work of Kurt Neumann, Born in Nuremburg, he came over to the United States in the 1920s and started directing German-language versions of Hollywood films, before going on to become a director of English-language films. He was considered for the director of Bride of Frankenstein before James Whale agreed to do the sequel. He had written a screen treatment for Dracula’s Daughter, and so was in a good position to write a Dracula sequel. (He later went on to direct science fiction films in the 1950s, including Kronos and The Fly).

The “clean” bloodless death by sunlight of vampires recalls the popularity in the 1940s of Ray Guns, in particular Disintegrator Guns. Although hand-held ray guns had been popularized by the Buck Rogers comic strip, radio show, and serial in the 1930s (and the Disintegrator goes back even further, to Garret P. Serviss’ book Edison’s Conquest of Mars in 1898), they continued in popularity into the 1940s. These, too, provided a demise free of blood and violence. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction put it, the disintegrator “left a minimum of bloody pieces to be swept up”.

Long afterwards, in 1957, Hammer films was redefining the horror genre with newer films made in color and with revamped story lines. Their version of Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in the US, to keep further away from copyright infringement) ended with Christopher Lee as the count being destroyed not by the stake, but by being exposed to sunlight, which quickly reduces him to ashes.  With another film company buying into the trope, this long after Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and the off-company Return of the Vampire (which nonetheless starred Universal’s own Dracula), the trope of the sunlight-dissolving vampire became firmly cemented in the public mind. After this, it was pretty much a given that vampires could not constitutionally endure daylight, and must be hidden away in their coffins at sunrise.



Some films in which vampires are destroyed by sunlight:

Blacula (1972)

Nosferatu (1979)

Dracula (1979)

Fright Night (1985)

Vamp (1986)

Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

Near Dark (1987)

Fright Night 2  (1988)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

Dracula: Dead and Loving it (1995)

From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)

Bordello of Blood (1996)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Van Helsing (2004)

The Dresden Files (2007)

True Blood (2008-2014)

Fright Night (2011)

Fright Night 2  (2013)


Certainly when I was growing up in the 1960s it was taken as a given that vampires were destroyed by sunlight. It appeared in the pre-1960 movies mentioned above, in Famous Monsters of Filmland (issue #30 had a feature, “Powers of Dracula” that listed it), in fiction, and in comic books, especially the Warren Magazine/comics like Creepy, Eerrie, and Vampirella.

Eventually a quirk regarding the sunlight started to appear. For years people have been trying to somehow justify vampire behavior, using science to explain them (although it’s really impossible to “explain” the absence of reflection in mirrors, or turning into a wolf or a bat). Hollywood tried doing it in House of Dracula, science fiction writer like William Tenn (Phillip Klass) and Richard Matheson (in I Am Legend) sought to give some sort of realistic grounding to the myth. Someone must have noticed that vampires have no problem walking around in well-lit rooms at night – so why should sunlight be any different? One conspicuous way it differs is in having a much greater content of ultraviolet light (which the light from candles and incandescent bulbs is deficient in, and which glass tends to filter out), and wavelengths that extend farther into the ultraviolet (UV). Perhaps, then, it’s the ultraviolet light that harms vampires.

And so we have vampires being done in by artificial ultraviolet sources in the movie Van Helsing, in Christopher Moore’s comedic vampire trilogy, Blood-Sucking Fiends, You Suck, and Bite Me, where vampires can be killed with the light from  ultraviolet LEDs. A broad-band lamp is used in the graphic novel and the movie Thirty Days of Night to kill a vampire in the extremely long night in Alaska. In the HBO movie Bordello of Blood the vampires can protect themselves from ultraviolet (and go out in daylight) with high SPF sunblock.  The vampires in the Underworld series of films are hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. In fact, their enemies, the Lycans (werewolves) use guns that shoot “ultraviolet bullets” that give off ultraviolet light to kill the vampires. In the Blade trilogy of films (based on the Marvel comic series), the vampire fighters use ultraviolet lamps, grenades, and weapons equipped with UV beams.



Underworld’s ultraviolet bullets


Of course, there’s always variety to tropes. Despite the widespread acceptance of the sunlight vulnerability of vampires, some are unaffected. The most recent examples are the vampires in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which sparkle in sunlight (a feature frequently lampooned by more traditional vampire fans), but Vampirella herself from the Warren magazines was immune to sunlight. The vampires in Anne Rice’s immense Vampire Chronicles series become more resistant to sunlight as they age, and can eventually walk in daylight. The Daywalker Half-Vampires in the Blade series are immune to daylight. There are a great many others in modern pop culture ( see )