Ever since Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula” (although he did have predecessors) the vampire has been a potent force in Western myth. The novel, itself, has decidedly Christian overtones, as that was the dominant religion in Europe at the time of its writing. As such, the vampire inherited a number of demonic-type powers from the forces of darkness and was seen as an agent of the Christian devil. Although it has been romanticized in recent times, the original vampire was seen strictly as evil.
In the original myth, Dracula could walk around during the day, although his power was greatly reduced. Later vampire tales embellished and made the exposure of sunlight lethal to him. I have seen a number of movies in which, after many struggles and battles, Dracula is destroyed by being caught outside with the rising of the sun. Oh, if it were only so easy!
Typically, Dracula and other undead of his kind, are presented as exceptionally strong and cunning, with power over some of the meaner forces of nature. They can control rats, bats, wolves and even the weather. They can also assume the form of a wolf, or a large bat, or even a creeping mist. But this is changing, at least as far as bats are concerned. I rarely read a modern novel or see a modern movie in which the vampire assumes the form of a solitary bat. This may be the result of the difference of the approximate masses involved. We no longer seem willing to suspend disbelief to the point where we can accept that something roughly the same size as a man can be crammed into something as small as a bat. Of course, this may be a result of another change that has occurred in the vampire. When Bram Stoker wrote, Dracula was seen as a quasi-spiritual being, almost like a ghost. He could slip through cracks and walk through the edge of a closed door. Today, vampires tend to be regarded as solid physical beings. And, where it might make sense that a ghostly undead could assume a smaller form, it is a little harder to imagine a physical one doing so.
Vampires also had a number of odd attributes, a potpourri of strange powers and weaknesses. They were repelled by garlic and their own reflection in a mirror. A rose, if placed on the cover of its coffin, could restrain it within as long as the rose remained in place. Nowadays, although garlic and mirrors are still associated with the vampire, it is a rare thing to see the rose employed as it was originally intended.
Another weakness was running water; it was said to have the ability to destroy the vampire if he or she was immersed within its currents. Again, this is another power or weakness that seems to be fading away in the literature. I rarely see a movie where running water is used as a weapon against the undead.
Finally, there is the matter of religion. In the beginning, Dracula was repelled by holy objects: be it a cross, holy water, a eucharist, or what have you. As the cultural influence of Christianity wanes, this aspect of the vampire is losing its appeal. I believe it was Anne Rice in her Vampire Chronicles where the impotence of the sacred was first introduced. That may or may not be a sad commentary on our society, but it is certainly a very specific change in the power of the undead.
There were other powers in the original myth, as well, such as being able to cross running water with the moon, or the tides, but I will not delve into any more.
To sum up, the original vampire had a whole slew of special powers, both strengths and weaknesses, that made it a very unique creature that was seen as a quasi-demonic force of evil. Today, we seem to be in the process of humanizing them, stripping them of their supernatural power and transforming them into merely immortal humans whose only fault is that they drink blood to survive. Personally, I don’t really like that development. I recently wrote a fantasy novel involving a vampire called Drasmyr (see the side bar if you are interested–Publications). I did embellish on the powers of the vampire a little bit, but I tried to keep to the original spirit of Dracula and the original myth at least as far as the vampire was concerned.
Here’s a site with interesting vampire facts (hat-tip to The Vampires Shadow blog for the link).