Vampires are mythological and/or folkloric beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures, regardless of whether they are undead or a living person.
Although vampiric entities have been recorded in many cultures and in spite of speculation by literary historian Brian Frost that the "belief in vampires and bloodsucking demons is as old as man himself", and may go back to "prehistoric times", the term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe, although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania.
This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.
While even folkloric vampires of the Balkans and Eastern Europe had a wide range of appearance ranging from nearly human to bloated rotting corpses, it was the success of John Polidori's 1819 novella The Vampyre that established the archetype of charismatic and sophisticated vampire; it is arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century, inspiring such works as Varney the Vampire and eventually Dracula. However, it is Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula that is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and which provided the basis of modern vampire fiction.
Dracula drew on earlier mythologies of werewolves and similar legendary demons and "was to voice the anxieties of an age", and the "fears of late Victorian patriarchy". The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, video games, and television shows.
The vampire is such a dominant figure in the horror genre that literary historian Susan Sellers places the current vampire myth in the "comparative safety of nightmare fantasy".
Vampires are described as having pale, marble white skin, bright crimson eyes (sometimes with thick vertical slit pupils), fangs, claws (or in other variations, long fingernails), pointed ears, and are usually dressed in black and red clothes.
Outside of Europe almost every culture on Earth has regional varieties on vampires, often these vampires display wild and alien traits that are very different from what most imagine when they think of traditional vampires - for example some vampires could detach arms, legs, heads or entire torsos to pursue prey or shape-shift into mythical monsters such as were-beasts.
Other vampires may feed on life-force (souls), fear or other substances beyond the traditional blood-diet of European vampires - a great many cultures saw vampires, witches and demons as closely linked and blamed them for disease, death and general misery just as early folklore in Europe did but granted them a much more varied array of supernatural powers and forms by which to terrorize the living.
The most notable fact is that not all vampires in non-European myth are undead, some of them are seen as evil shamans/witches or fairy-like creatures instead, some are even seen as transformed humans, cursed to become such monsters.
The "modern" vampire is a very different creature from its roots in folklore and is often seen as a highly intelligent and seductive creature of the night with a much more attractive (if macabre) form and a tendency to be seen as royalty, nobility or other equally romanticized positions among the otherwise decaying masses of the undead.
Many modern vampire lore and stories focus on this seductive, gothic creature rather than the monstrous demon it was depicted as in folklore - it is generally believed that Dracula was the point in which vampires were altered in such a fashion, marking a dramatic change in how they continue to be viewed by popular culture.