Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the first horror stories to become a classic and has defined the genre for centuries. She came up with the idea during a night of telling scary tales when her party was stuck inside while vacationing at Lake Geneva in 1816. As it turns out modern-day vampires were born at the same time from another participant of this historic ghost-story gathering.

Lake Geneva after a storm
Lake Geneva after a storm. Via: Rulexip/Wiki Commons

In 1815 a volcanic eruption caused the next year’s summer to be almost absent. The skies darkened, the temperature dropped, and crops around the globe failed as volcanic ash spread through the skies in a protracted event that changed the world.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), along with her lover, Percy Shelley, was attending a vacation party at the lodgings of Lord Bryon, the Villa Diodati. The poor weather and frequent storms that summer meant that they were stuck inside and it was this gloom (as well as some laudanum) that prompted the contest to see who could tell the scariest story.

Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva
The Villa Diodati. Via: Robert Grassi/Wiki Commons

Lord Byron’s eccentric physician, John Polidori, was also in attendance at the villa. The doctor was known for his love of books, but was also regarded as a bit strange and emotionally unstable. He was rumored to have fallen in love with Mary Shelley, which combined with the scandal that followed Lord Bryon, made for wild rumors about what went on at the villa.

For his contribution of spooky Lord Byron came up with the idea of the vampire, which Polidori later developed into a full-fledged story complete with romantic themes that still echo in today’s vampire stories. In 1819 the doctor went on to pen an expanded version called “The Vampyre”, a short story which focused on the bloodlust of an unstoppable lord who was also a vampire. The first versions weren’t published under Polidori’s name since there was some confusion over who wrote it.

John William Polidori
Portrait of John Pilodori by F.G. Gainsford. Via: Wiki Commons

While many people view Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula as the epitome of the genre, it was Polidori who first changed the vampire from a folkloric and animalistic myth into the high-society wolf in sheep’s clothing that many vampire stories are still premised on nowadays.

The legend of the vampire had been around for centuries and was particularly strong in Eastern Europe, but in many areas was often the tale of a peasant who becomes deranged and attacks animals and humans alike. But, Polidori’s creature, having been based on Lord Bryon’s salacious and predatory mannerisms, is a member of the upper class who uses his status to lure, entrap, and manipulate those around him.

engraving of a group of vampires from 1869
Via: The British Library/Flickr

The Geneva excursion was part of a trip across the continent after Lord Bryon was advised to flee England due to scandal and debt. His hired doctor and traveling companion of Polidori grew to view his employer with a mixture of disgust and fascination. The two fought bitterly as resentments grew and is one reason why his vampire was so like Lord Byron.

Less than a decade after the Lake Geneva ghost stories, Percy Shelley had died in a boating accident and Lord Byron grew ill on the battlefield in Greece and died after a bloodletting.

painting of the funeral pyre of Percy Shelley
A depiction of the beach cremation of Percy Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier. Via: Wiki Commons

Polidori’s life spiraled out of control after “The Vampyre” caused him to lose admission to a seminary school and to be embroiled in the controversy of perceived plagiarism. He took his own life by drinking cyanide. That fateful summer trip derailed Polidori’s life, but gave us the shrewd, romantic-interest vampire that we still flock to today.