A Public Service Announcement About Silent Era Vampires

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: It has come to our attention that many in the classic film community–of which the silent film community is a small yet passionate subset–have been somewhat misinformed about a particular character trope of the early 20th century.

Namely, that upon viewing certain 1920s films with the promise of having “vampires” in their plots, the said movie watching experiences don’t appear to reveal any bloodsucking, cape-wearing, pasty-faced monsters from the grave.

Image result for musidora les vampires
Well, okay, the actors were pasty-faced.

This prompts various IMDb reviews to say: “So there’s definitely no vampires in this movie…” or, “The gal in this film was a piece of work, but definitely not a vampire.”

It is due to this woeful misinterpretation of the silent screen “vampire” that we are sending out this PSA across the cinephile community. In short: Silent era vampires were commonly femme fatales with an almost supernatural power over men, having uncanny abilities to seduce them away from sweethearts or faithful wives to their certain doom. Aside from their villainous qualities, a vampire can also be identified by her tendency to have dark hair, heavy eye makeup, and a slinky, slightly scandalous wardrobe (loud patterns and some skin showing can be a giveaway). She had a tendency to seduce, use, and then discard said men, showing no remorse for causing their suffering. The more common term was the nickname that’s familiar even today: the “vamp.”

File:Nita Naldi, silent film actress (SAYRE 7723).jpg - Wikimedia Commons
E.g., Nita Naldi and Nita’s inexplicable hairpiece.

For those with further questions: “Vamp” and “vampire” were used used interchangeably, although “vampire” seemed to be more popular in the 1910s, “vamp” largely taking over by the 1920s. There were male versions of the vamp, although the term stuck far more with femme fatales. The vampire of folklore and the famed Bram Stoker novel was familiar to audiences at the time, and in fact it was the comparison between “blood sucking” and “life force draining” that made the term “vampire” catch on (possibly starting with the 1897 painting The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones, and the Rudyard Kipling poem A Fool There Was).

Theda Bara | Jewish Women's Archive
And then Theda Bara really popularized it.

While it is true that the common early 20th century use of “vampire” for these femme fatales can be a cause of disorientation today, this is not difficult to overcome once this historical context is realized. We are confident this PSA will prove helpful, especially during the season when awareness of Bela Lugosi- and Twilight-style vampires is at its annual peak.


On behalf of the Silent Film Community

For more details on the ubiquitous silent era vamp, feel free to read my article Vamps: Your Great-Grandfather’s Femme Fatales.

14 thoughts on “A Public Service Announcement About Silent Era Vampires

  1. Thanks for setting confused movie-goers across the globe straight. 😉 Coincidentally, I’ve just recently seen the dreaded Nita and Theda in action (Shiver!), with Lya De Putti thrown in for good measure (in “Varieté”—what a *masterpiece* that film is!)

    Concerning the term, I remember seeing the title character in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” talking about wanting to be a “society vampire.” I wondered if that’s how it was sometimes originally termed and then later shortened. But that was published in 1920, so I guess it was already in use without the “society.”

    • Yeah, that was probably a specified type of vamp by that point. Oh my gosh, Variete– one of the greatest theater experiences of my life was seeing it at a film festival with a live score by the Berklee Student Orchestra (I think that was their name). They were absolutely magnificent.

      • Oh, my, you got to witness this live?? I just bought the dvd with their score, and it is superb! Wow. That must have been something. That music with that performance of Emil Jannings on the big screen, with an audience…I can’t imagine it… I’m so glad you got to be there!

        • I was shaking a little and tearing up by the end, it was that incredible and dramatic! And yes, there was a standing ovation.

  2. Just thought of a complication. How about Les Vampires? Now it really gets confusing because you have a movie with a group of “vampires,” not one of which is a vampire vampire; and then you have one of non-vampire vampires who is a vamp—at times. 😀

  3. In one of his 20’s silent cartoons, Felix the Cat is actually a pet cat, whose owner wants to move to Hollywood and break into movies–so she reads a book called “How to be a Vamp”. How-to books were popular in the 20’s! (But I don’t think this is the kind of thing you learn from a book).

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