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Are vampires real? Everything to know about the undead according to experts

The truth and history behind the movies, books and TV shows.

Get your turtlenecks ready, it's time to talk vampires.

If you're fascinated by creatures of the night, the kind that prey on human blood, you aren't alone. From dressing up in vampire costumes on Halloween to watching them in scary horror movies, it seems like everyone's obsessed with the bloodsuckers.

“The idea of vampires is worldwide,” says Jonathan Weiss, folklorist, historian and founder of Jonathan Weiss Tours in New Orleans tells TODAY.com. “It’s estimated that well over 98 percent of all the cultures that exist — or ever have existed — have vampire legends in them.”

But why? Are vampires real? Depending on your definition, they just might be.

“If you strip down folklore and just come up with a standard set of facts, vampires very well could be real,” Weiss says.

Before sprinting to the store to stock up on wooden stakes, take a deep breath (and maybe mix up a vampire elixir cocktail). The sort of vampires you're likely thinking of, the ones with supernatural powers and eternal life only exist in books, TV shows and serial killer movies.

That said, there certainly are people who consider themselves vampires. And, yes, they drink blood. There are energy vampires as well, like Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), the emotionally-draining bore from "What We Do in the Shadows."

To better understand, you’ll need a few facts, including the history behind these compelling creatures. You might also be interested in where to find vampires (spoiler: it isn't in Transylvania) along with learning about some of the most recognizable vampires in movies, TV shows and books.

So, grab some garlic and let's begin.

The history of vampires

The idea of vampire-like creatures feasting on human blood has been around for thousands of years and first gained foothold in Eastern Europe, according to Joseph Laycock, professor of religious studies at Texas State University.

And while vampire folklore isn't really new, the word “vampire” is, according to Laycock.

"The first instance that we have of the word 'vampire' in English is actually from the 1700s and it's describing merchants engaged in price-gouging," Laycock tells TODAY.com.

In 1819, vampires became more mainstream when John William Polidori wrote “The Vampyre,” a fictional story taken from the story of Lord Byron. It's the first of its kind to make vampires seem aristocratic and seductive, not unlike Byron himself.

Nearly 80 years later, Bram Stoker published the now iconic book "Dracula." Based on Vlad the Impaler, the real-life Romanian prince with a thirst for bloody warfare, Stoker's Count Dracula is a far cry from Byron's sexy, womanizing vampire. “He has hairy palms; he has bad breath and he’s more like a corpse," Laycock says.

The modern-day vampire that most of us relate to comes from the 1931 film “Dracula” starring Bela Lugosi. While Bram Stoker gets a writing credit, the film is actually based on a 1920s stage play adapted from the Bram Stoker novel and not the book itself.

Are Vampires Real
Francois Duhamel / Sygma / Getty Images

Famous vampires in pop culture

Bela Lugosi’s “Dracula” essentially set the bar for all other vampire movies. The black-and-white movie established Dracula as a wealthy, debonair vampire whose immortal kiss is desirable instead of deadly. For the most part, it’s how many people perceive vampires today.

Since then, however, there have been plenty of vampires in books, movies and TV shows to feed our appetite. Bram Stoker’s "Count Dracula" remains the most enduring and in 1992, the book was made into a film starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves.

“The Lost Boys” is another cult classic. Both terrifying and campy, the 1987 film is about a gang of murderous vampires that take over a fictional California beach town.

Anne Rice’s novel “Interview with the Vampire” was turned into a big screen feature in 1994 and caused quite the stir after Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were cast as beloved vampire characters, Louis and Lestat.

Along with the serious and scary vampire portrayals, we've also seen a lot of funny takes on these bloodsucking creatures. There's “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the 1992 film about a teenage vampire hunter, as well as the 2014 mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” which chronicles the lives of vampire roommates and their mundane battles over whose turn it is to take out the garbage. In 2019, the movie was turned into a TV series with the same name.

You didn’t think we forgot about “Twilight,” did you? The bestselling Stephanie Meyer book series about a high schooler who falls in love with a vampire went on to sell hundreds of millions of copies. In 2008, the first of five blockbuster movies based on the book series was released, leading to a whole new generation of vampire (or, well, Edward Cullen) fans.

Are Vampires Real
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So, are vampires real?

If you consider people who drink the blood of others for pleasure, then the answer is yes.

A 2015 survey conducted by the Atlanta Vampire Alliance have found that there are at least 5,000 people in the United States who identify as real vampires. 

Known as “sanguines,” they are people who have blood fetishes and participate in various blood-related activities. Others simply identify themselves as vampires and, like the fictional creatures, avoid sunlight and drink human blood from donors. There are also psychic vampires that feed in a completely different way.

"They steal the energy off the living," Weiss says. “Some people just don’t create energy that people normally make for themselves." As a result, they they take it from other people to feel complete.

You probably come in contact with plenty of psychic or energy vampires (many of which don't even know that they are one), but for our purposes, think Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) from "What We Do in the Shadows," the TV character that tirelessly bores everyone to death then "feeds" off their misery at having to engage with him.

Are Vampires Real
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Where — and how — can you find vampires?

Blood-drinking vampires can be found on six of the seven continents, according to Weiss. "It seems to be a worldwide thing and there are different forms, different cultures, different countries."

While it's hard to know exactly where vampires live, nearly everyone agrees that New Orleans is as good a place to start. "The idea of vampires in New Orleans is a very, very old concept," Weiss explains. Believed to have been built on cursed ground, New Orleans has long been known as a city steeped in mysticism, voodoo and the occult.

New Orleans is also the backdrop of author Anne Rice’s bestselling book “Interview with the Vampire,” a novel Laycock says had a huge influence on vampire subculture after its release in 1976.

But does that make New Orleans a vampire haven? Do the undead walk the streets at night hunting victims in the Big Easy?

“Something a lot of people don’t realize is exactly how many strange disappearances that New Orleans has in just the past few decades,” Weiss says. And does he attribute them to the occult?

“Oh God, yes,” he says. “There’s always been a huge occult influence in New Orleans. It’s always just been accepted.”

Whether those disappearances have anything to do with vampires is up for debate. But according to Weiss, strange things — things we don’t really want to know about — happen all the time.

“I always say New Orleans smiles at you but never shows its teeth, because if you saw its teeth you’d probably never come back again.”