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Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus stand in front of a TV playing a vampire movie in The Matrix Reloaded Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

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The best surprise vampires

Sometimes a story isn’t supposed to have vampires, and one shows up anyway. We love when that happens.

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

We're spending a week diving deep into the stories behind your favorite vampires. Who says we only get to celebrate vampires at Halloween?

You know what’s cooler than a vampire story? A story that’s not a vampire story, but surprise — it has vampires.

The surprise vampire is a rich tradition, unfolding across many different media intended for all kinds of audiences. Sometimes it is a prominent part of a story that’s made richer for the unexpected presence of a bloodsucker.

Sometimes it is subtle, an easily missable detail that rewards only the most observant. In the best version, the vampires are always there, in the background, waiting for you to discover them — just like in real life.

Here are some of our favorite examples.

Baldur’s Gate 3: Astarion

Astarion from Baldur’s Gate 3 Image: Larian Studios via Polygon

If Baldur’s Gate 3 was your introduction to the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons & Dragons, you might be shocked to find out about a lot of stuff that’s tucked away in the world’s most famous tabletop role-playing game. The great thing about Baldur’s Gate 3 is how it centers all that weird stuff — like Astarion, a haughty elf that you can either play as or recruit to your party very early on, and guess what? He’s a vampire! And dealing with his vampirism is a huge part of the game, should that be something you want to do.

The Matrix Reloaded: The Merovingian’s Henchmen

Like a lot of ideas in the Matrix movies, a seemingly throwaway line leads to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene with wild implications for everything you’re looking at. In The Matrix, The Oracle tells Neo that things that go bump in the night are in fact real, the result of a program misbehaving, an error in the virtual world of The Matrix. In The Matrix Reloaded, we meet some of those misbehaving programs in the form of the Merovingian’s henchmen. The Merovingian’s wife, Persephone, notes that they are very hard to kill — before she kills one of them with silver bullets. While the twin ghosts get significantly more screen time in Reloaded, the world of the films gets much more interesting when you realize that they are just two members of a whole assortment of ghoulies, and a superhuman kung fu god isn’t the only cool thing a character can be in these movies.

The Elder Scrolls: Everywhere

A vampire in the midst of a swarm of bats in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Image: Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

The fantasy of the Elder Scrolls games often presents as very straightforward. With the exception of Morrowind, each of the games starts out as a pretty up-the-middle fantasy setting, with nary a twist of any kind. But a big reason Elder Scrolls games have an enduring fan base is down to the fact that beneath the surface, there is always weird shit to find. Like vampires! And in keeping with the open-ended role-playing philosophy the series espouses, you can also become a vampire — it kicks ass.

Preacher: Cassidy

Cassidy in a denim vest and flannel knocks back a bottle of whiskey, or maybe blood, in a scene from AMC’s Preacher Image: AMC

Preacher, the comic book by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon — and its subsequent TV adaptation from Sam Catlin, Evan Goldberg, and Seth Rogen — starts with the basic assumption that God is real, and has walked out on the job. A lot of things are fair game at that point, namely angels, demons, and the like, but it’s still a shock when you meet Cassidy. A brawling, hard-drinking Irishman that’s already a load of fun when you meet him, Cassidy shoots up the power rankings when he sinks his teeth into a poor sap, because he’s a vampire.

Spider-Man: The Animated Series: Morbius

Hands down the ballsiest Spidey villain to adapt in a cartoon for children that censors wouldn’t even let use the words “sinister” or “kill,” Morbius — the Living Vampire — frankly had no business being in a Saturday morning lineup. The clever folks behind Spider-Man got around the strict content standards of their network with a loophole that might be even creepier than how vampires normally feed: by giving him little suckers on the palms of his hands that drain victims of “plasma.”

Hilariously, a creative application of vampirism would be how the show would later adapt another villain normally too violent for kids TV: Carnage, a serial killing symbiote who now “drained” his victims’ “life force” instead of cutting them to bits.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: Miguel O’Hara

Spider-Man 2099 walks toward the camera with a brightly colored wormhole of reds, pinks, yellows, and blues swirls behind him in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Image: Sony Pictures

Miguel O’Hara, the Spider-Man of 2099, is one of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s big enigmas. Comics readers will know plenty about his whole deal, but the movie doesn’t really explain much — except for a brief scene where he’s shown to have fangs, and an offhand reference that he is kind of a vampire? Sure, he’s a jerk, but he’s still kind of cool. It’s kind of hard not to be cool when you’re a vampire. That’s kind of the whole quandary with vampires as a metaphor.

Adventure Time: Marceline the Vampire Queen

An image of Marceline the Vampire Queen sitting on a red sofa and playing guitar. She has her black hair cut short and she has pale skin. Image: Cartoon Network

For 11 episodes, Adventure Time was a show with lots of weird shit, but no vampires. Then “Evicted!” introduced Marceline the Vampire Queen, and the show changed forever. Marceline was key to what the show would go on to do so well: use its goofy sensibilities to tackle existentially dark and frightening things quite seriously without losing its edge, and play with familiar tropes to create a fantasy like no other. Now with vampires!

Sesame Street: The Count

The Count raises a finger as he prepares to count on an episode of Sesame Street Photo: PBS/Everett Collection

I don’t really know why there’s a vampire on Sesame Street. I love him, though.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Vamp

The Metal Gear Solid games are kings of the nonchalant narrative curveball. It’s a series that takes great care to ground itself in near-future militaristic realism and hard sci-fi, only to suddenly introduce a man made of bees and a cyborg ninja. Vamp is one of those curveballs, the member of a rogue special forces unit with a superhuman resistance to injury, the ability to run on water, and a taste for blood — with an eerie origin story for that hunger, to boot.

The Bone Clocks: The Anchorites

The cover of The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell Image: Penguin Random House

David Mitchell loves to write books that start as one thing then end up as another. But he writes them knowing that people know he’s famous for this, so he often turns these books into other things still. It’s a real trip. The Bone Clocks, then, is a book about a psychic girl who gets into a bit of a pickle, only to learn about vampiric ghosts called Anchorites, who achieve immortality by murdering others. Don’t worry, I didn’t spoil the book for you. I just thought you should know about the vampires.