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A very common trope in vampire fiction is that vampires can't walk in the sun, and will die if they try to. See, for example, Suicide by Sunlight on TVTropes.

Why is that? What is the origin of the myth?

Wikipedia's Vampire folklore by region article doesn't offer an answer, and neither does the source of much vampiric lore, Bram Stocker's Dracula. Sunlight limits the Count's powers, but it doesn't kill the creature.

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    Probably a cross-site dup with scifi.stackexchange.com/a/17394/4918 "Which piece of fiction first showed vampires destroyed by sunlight?" – b_jonas Oct 9 '17 at 13:39
  • None of the early Gothic novels are implying fear of sun. In Polidori's The Vampyre, Ruthven is walking in Rome. In LeFanu's Carmilla, Carmilla is happily jogging in plain day. And Dracula is seen in plain day in London. BUT Dracula's version of Murnau Nosferatu clearly depicts the death of Orlok by sun. Technically... This is the sing of the cock which is implied killing him. And because Murnau is so influential on vampire. That the source. Count when you saw the heroes of light and Mina assaulting Dracula. 1992.. (and let's not even discuss Mina here) – Gibet Apr 25 '18 at 12:22
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We should perhaps first note that vampires are hardly the only creatures that can not stand sunlight; it is a common attribute among mystical creatures that they only appear at night, and that some of them die in sunlight (we can take as examples Grendel of Beowulf, and the Chinese jiangshi, a creature that originally was a reanimated corpse that died when exposed to sunlight, but has acquired more attributes of Western vampires in modern lore).

This general association with the night seems to have been a feature of the early folklore vampires, one of the few aspects that survives into the modern vampire (in folklore, the vampire is a dirty, wild, bloated thing, governed by primal urges; they seem more akin to zombies than Count Dracula). It also featured in the vampire works that saw a huge boom in the early 19th century, such as Byron's The Giaour, in which the titular creature is doomed to walk the earth at night and drain the blood of everyone in his family.

This also illustrated why, even if the step from "only appears at night" to "dies if exposed to sun" is not a long one, it took a while to take it: early vampires tended to be cursed to walk the earth in tragic isolation. For someone cursed like that, having such an easy way to kill themselves was obviously not a useful trait. In stories where vampires were antagonists (more or less monstrous), having them be killed off by something as ordinary as sunlight would easily be seen as anti-climatic; far better to have a showdown with fire or wooden poles.

Sources

I have checked two books in Swedish about vampires:

  • Katarina Harrison Lindbergh's Vampyrernas historia, an accessible general history. She does not spend much time on the sun motif, but notes that it is indeed present in the folklore.
  • Anna Höglund's Vampyrer, based on her doctoral thesis. Much more scholarly, but sadly lacking a useful index. It does give many interesting perspectives on how the vampire mythos developed in the Western world. I could, however, not find any discussion about this particular aspect, perhaps because it does not seem to carry the same amount of significance as other aspects.
  • I had to research Jiangshi and although the early ones are relatively weak, they grow in power the longer they exist and more Qi (lifeforce) they consume. At about the third iteration in power (hopping Jiangshi) or fourth (flying jiangshi) they stop being afraid of sunlight. When they become Ba (level 5), they are almost unstoppable demonic beings. – EvilJinious1 Apr 17 at 19:05
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If you're looking for a Doylist answer, as it were, vampirism is linked to the actual disease porphyria. Someone with chronic porphyria develops blisters after being out in the sun for a short amount of time. A number of the symptoms of chronic porphyria can be linked to the classic appearance of vampires.

I don't have any suggestions for a folklore-based answer, however.

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    I think this might be circular reasoning: The link of vampires to porphyria is partly based on vampires' mythical sun-sensitivity. – Spencer Apr 21 '18 at 9:35
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As other users have said, the characteristic of being hostile to the sunlight is not unique to vampires, it is common in many creatures in folklore from around the world. In the case of the Christianized vampire of Western European literature and mythos, I assume it’s probably a metaphor as God and his angels are seen as the light of the heavens and vampires are evil creatures of the night. Therefore vampires being exposed to light, a holy symbol, harms them.

protected by Community Aug 18 at 7:29

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