Burned into the collective memory of our age, it is an image of great power. The vampire looms menacingly, but then the hero reaches up and pulls away the curtains. SUNLIGHT! Like laser beams, the purifying rays of the sun sear the undead creature's flesh. The foul thing dissolves into the dust it should already have been. Because we all know vampires are destroyed by sunlight, right?
Legends and myths of the blood drinking dead go back millennia, but search in vain for any hint that sunlight will do them any harm at all. Not the lamia, the lilitu, the weng chiang, upir, vyrvolokas or langsuir--not one vampire in folklore suffers from this weakness. Many only go out at night, or become active then. Yet of all the ways to destroy the vampire, including burning or beheading or driving a nail/stake through the forehead/heart of the creature, look for any recommendation that sunlight will do the trick. You won't find it anywhere.
As far as literature goes, you won't find it there either, at least not for a long time. Four English-language vampire classics saw print in the nineteenth century. First, John Polidori used his employer as a model for Lord Ruthven, the (literally) Byronic antagonist of "The Vampyre." But Ruthven walks around in sunlight all the time, seemingly without a qualm. Nor was this some obscure work. Ruthven ended up in nearly as many adaptations, versions, ripoffs as the infamous Count in his day--mostly in a variety of plays (one by Alexandre Dumas of "Three Musketeers" fame) and operas. A tiny echo did pop up in a charming idea Polidori had--namely, that a vampire killed in a seemingly normal fashion could be revived with the rays of a full moon. One must wonder if such was the ultimate source of linking werewolves with the full moon (in folklore they have no such connection). The next major vampire work used an identical literary deceit. "Varney The Vampyre, of the Feast of Blood" proved one of the most successful 'penny dreadfuls' ever, with a sprawling two hundred plus chapters! Does Sir Francis Varney burst into flames in the sun? Not at all. As far as we can tell, he doesn't even wear a hat. Consider next Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla," arguably the genesis of all future lesbian vampire tales. The vampire in that tale must sleep in her grave--evidently from the sources Le Fanu used, from midnight until noon. She also regularly takes strolls during the day with the narrator. Not so much as a sunburn.
What about "Dracula"? Sure the fictional King of Vampires burns in sun? He certainly did when portrayed by Sir Christopher Lee! True enough, but in the novel he went about during the day many times. The two most faithful adaptations of the novel--"Bram Stoker's Dracula" in 1992 and the BBC "Count Dracula" in 1979--correctly portrayed his as unharmed by sunlight. To be sure, he didn't seem to like it much, preferring the evening hours. But not one vampire anywhere in the book (there are four) suffers any harm at all from the sun.
Just thinking about it, that makes sense. Look up at the sky after dusk. See all those stars? Each one of them is a sun. For that matter, the moon itself isn't naturally luminous. All its light is reflected sunlight. Were such really so deadly, vampires should be in a terrible pickle. How to escape sunlight, after all?
So why do we think vampires view the sun the way Superman views kryptonite? Historically this goes back to the German silent film "Nosferatu." That movie captured an iconic image that struck a chord in audience's imaginations. Orlock, the ratlike vampire, allows himself to be distracted by the charms of a self-sacrificing young woman. His befanged mouth remains at her throat when a cock crows. Dawn has come! Too late, realizes his peril and tries to flee--only to be caught by morning rays and so vanish. Good stuff! Dramatic, visually exciting, and made a kind of emotional sense. Creature of darkness poisoned by light. With the day, the nightmares that walk are banished. Light as a holy weapon. Little wonder so many filmmakers and storytellers began using the idea so lavishly! As special effects got better, so too did the spectacular nature of a vampire's end. Orlock merely crossfaded into nothingness. The infected victims of the child vampire in "Let Me In" and "Let The Right One In" became pillars of fire. King Russell on "True Blood" simmered into a man-shaped piece of charcoal with eyes and teeth. More poignantly, little Claudia and her new mother figure became ashen statues, capturing last moments of agony until touched--then falling into the finest dust as ashes do.
It also serves dramatic purposes. When first introduced on the t.v. show "Dark Shadows" Barnabas Collins had a friendly chat with his cousin David. Then the child mentioned sunrise. Jonathan Frid's face suddenly fell. "Sunrise?" he said, as if reminded of unbearable loss. More than one vampire in cinema committed suicide by simply watching the dawn, often asking some one special to share those final moments with them.
Still, the vampires of Hammer's "Karnstein Trilogy" remained true to their origins and feared no daylight. Neither did the vampires of "Kindred: The Embraced" nor the eerie creatures of "Lets Scare Jessica to Death" as well as both heroine and antagonist in "Razor Blade Smile." Some might regard the rings that let so many undead in "The Vampire Diaries" work on their tans to be cheating, but the fact remains a lot of those vampires don't have to worry about daylight. Plus of course the vampires of "Twilight." Many indeed insist that these last cannot be counted as vampires because they don't burn up when sunlight hits them. But as methinks I've shown, this latter isn't really a valid criticism. By those standards, Dracula isn't a vampire.