Forget the wooden stake. Don't bother with the crucifix or worry with the holy water. As for the garlic, it's just going to make people turn up their noses at you.
Face it -- there's no protection from vampires this year. The immortal bloodsuckers have turned into popular-culture leeches. No need to travel to Transylvania. They're hanging out at the movies, on television, at the bookstores, in role-playing games and comic books. And as Halloween approaches, along with the premiere next month of the film adaptation of Anne Rice's "Interview With the Vampire," fang fever is at a peak.
"More people are being entertained by vampires now than at any other point in history," said horror historian David Skal, author of "The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror" (Penguin, $13.95, paperback, 432 pages) and a consultant for Universal Studios Florida. "Vampires have always had a kind of special place in our hearts, but they're especially popular right now."
Although stories of vampires have been around for more than 2,000 years, the creatures' current appeal was born almost a century ago when Bram Stoker published his novel "Dracula" in 1897. The same elements that drew the Victorians to Stoker's vampire tale -- sex, death and violence -- still nourish a strong fascination.
"There are two things that hook you about vampires," said J. Gordon Melton, a California scholar and the author of a monumental new reference work, "The Vampire Book: The Encyclopedia of the Undead" (Visible Ink, $16.95, paperback, 852 pages). "First, in a secular society, vampires are a way of living on. Second, there's the sexuality. Vampires have become increasingly erotic figures. Think of Frank Langella's portrayal of Dracula and last year's Coppola film, 'Bram Stoker's Dracula.' "
The perceived eroticism of vampires, he said, makes them especially attractive to women, who outnumber men two to one when it comes to reading vampire books and joining vampire fan clubs. And the vampire's traditional role as an outsider serves as a magnet to teens and young adults who are still seeking a sense of identity.
Mr. Skal concurs, but he also sees blood as a major factor drawing people to vampires.
"It's a powerful, powerful symbol," he said. "Over time, blood has stood for death, birth, passion, sexuality. It's our link to our families, to the past and to the future."
But he also notes that vampires are archetypal figures who represent secret desires.
"They're pure wish fulfillment," he said. "You get to be a handsome aristocrat, forever youthful, have a fabulous wardrobe, unlimited wealth and a castle in Europe. It's what we secretly want, right?
"More seriously, though, vampires and other monsters symbolically address universal issues. They're resurrection figures -- they die and they don't die."
Vampires' immortality is especially important in our era, said Candy Cosner, publisher of the Gainesville, Fla., fanzine Vampire Junction, which prints vampire fiction, poetry and art.
"In the age of AIDS, people are drawn to vampires," she said. "It's interesting, because the last time there was such an upswing in interest was during the late 1950s and early 1960s and the beginning of the atomic age. People were scared then, and they're scared now."
But they aren't scared of vampires, unlike people hundreds of years ago who truly believed that the dead returned by night to feed off the blood of the living. Accounts of such creatures, called "vampir" or "vampyre" in Serbia, were widespread in Eastern Europe from the 16th through the 18th centuries, and the concept of vampires became part of the folklore of the Slavic regions.
"In the late 1600s, Catholic Austria was spreading into Central and Eastern Europe," Mr. Melton said. "The Catholics saw belief in vampires as superstition, and they viewed it with alarm. They certainly didn't like the way people dealt with suspected vampires, which was to go out and dig up bodies and start staking them -- mutilating bodies of the Christian dead."
Outbreaks of vampire hysteria in the Austrian empire continued into the next century, culminating in the official investigation into the case of a Serbian villager named Arnold Paul, who claimed he had been attacked by a vampire. Soon after he died in an accident and was buried, villagers reported seeing him and thought he had returned as a vampire. To quell the ensuing panic, community leaders disinterred Paul's body, which seemed unnaturally well-preserved. The body was staked, and a military field surgeon in attendance reported seeing fresh blood spurt from the corpse.
The surgeon's report was published in 1732 and widely circulated in Western Europe, setting off a debate among scholars as to the existence of vampires. Most eventually concluded that a host of natural phenomena, including premature burial and rabies, could account for reports of vampires. Meanwhile, the Vatican denounced the existence of vampires and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria instituted laws to prevent the unearthing of suspected vampires.
John Polidori, a friend of the English poet Lord Byron, gets credit for authoring the first full work of fiction about a vampire written in English. His short story, "The Vampyre," was published in 1819 and inspired a number of other 19th-century works, including the first vampire novel in English, "Varney the Vampyre," written by James Malcolm Rymer and published in installments in 1840s England. A female vampire first made an appearance in Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 tale "Carmilla."
Bram Stoker no doubt read "Carmilla," for he incorporated elements of Polidori and Le Fanu's vampires in "Dracula," but 20th-century research also has illustrated that Stoker based the character of Dracula on a 15th-century Romanian warlord, Vlad Tepes, the son of Vlad Dracul.
Although Stoker's "Dracula" never has been out of print, the character gained its greatest visibility through film, especially the landmark 1931 movie of that name starring Bela Lugosi, who donned tuxedo and opera cape for the role.
"Lugosi's image of Dracula became the public image," said Mr. Skal, who wrote a 1990 book on the subject, "Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula From Novel to Stage to Screen."
The 1931 film is still Mr. Skal's favorite of the more than 100 Dracula movies made over the years, including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 adaptation.
"Vampire movies and books don't work well on an extremely literal level," he said. "Just think how much more effective a single drop of blood on a character's finger is than rivers of red. You need to leave room for the imagination. It's the unconscious associations that we bring to the printed page that allow for terror."
Other influential 20th-century vampires include the fanged Dracula portrayed by British actor Christopher Lee for Hammer Studios in the late 1950s and 1960s, and Barnabas Collins, played by actor Jonathan Frid, whose presence transfused the daytime soap opera "Dark Shadows" from 1967 through 1971.
Both Mr. Skal and Mr. Melton consider novelist Anne Rice to be the driving force behind the most recent resurgence of interest in vampires, even though her romantic, humanized vampires are hardly in the same vein as Stoker's.
Ms. Rice began her Vampire Chronicles with 1976's "Interview With the Vampire," in which a vampire named Louis related his search for redemption. The novel has sold more than 5 million copies and was followed in 1985 by "The Vampire Lestat," which further developed the history of the title character, introduced in the first book. Other books in the series include "The Queen of the Damned" (1988) and "The Tale of the Body Thief" (1992). A new installment is promised for next year.
The film version of "Interview With the Vampire," which stars Tom Cruise as Lestat and Brad Pitt as Louis, is expected to focus even more attention on Ms. Rice's works.
"We keep saying the vampire myth is exhausted, but it's obviously not," Mr. Melton said. "There are 40 to 50 vampire novels published every year, there's the new Gothic movement in rock music, there are the comic books, the movies on cable. What you have to realize is that we've got a whole generation out there that has been raised on vampires, from the Count on Sesame Street to Bunnicula."