So you think you would know a vampire if you saw one; you think you would know how to avoid that seductive look; you think you would know how to protect yourself from those sharp teeth; and, if it came to it, you think you would know how to destroy it before it destroyed you?
Well, dear reader, I’m afraid it isn’t that simple.
Let’s start with what you think they look like. The suave, sophisticated, charming, alluring, sexy vampire we see on screen today is a modern phenomenon, stemming from the late nineteenth century and, in the most part, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Prior to this time, maybe even back as far as prehistoric times, vampires were wrapped in much less attractive packaging, shall we say. They were reported to look anywhere from almost human to a bloated rotting corpse.
The folkloric vampire of old was described as bloated; ruddy, purplish or dark in colour; blood seeping from its nose and mouth; clad in the linen shroud it was buried in; with elongated teeth, hair and nails. Hardly the Edward Cullen, Damon Salvatore or Bill Compton of the modern vampire. I am quite sure that if a vampire of old was to crawl in through your bedroom window, you wouldn’t be welcoming it with open arms, would you?
Fangs, dear reader, were not a feature of the folkloric vampire. These, together with sensitivity to sunlight and immortality, didn’t appear until the nineteenth century and were popularised by Bram Stoker. It was the success of Dracula that, reputedly, spawned the vampire genre we know and love today.
It is interesting to note, though, that despite ‘modernising’ the traditional view of the vampire, Bram Stoker seemed to keep a link to the folkloric aspects. For, when Dracula first makes an appearance to Jonathan Harker, it is as a desiccated, corpse like creature. He only becomes young and alluring once he starts feeding on the crew of the Demeter.
So, where does this folkloric physical representation of the vampire stem from?
There are various explanations, all of which you can understand given the complete lack of medical knowledge and understanding of the human body, way back when.
In his book ‘Vampires, Burial and Death’, Paul Barber says that people were accused of being vampires in an attempt to explain the inexplicable process of decomposition. When vampire hunters (and, yes, they did exist – lots of them) dug up a body, it didn’t look how they expected it to.
When a body decomposes it swells, which leads to blood oozing from the nose and mouth – vampire hunters mistook this as a recent sign of feeding; the skin darkens – taken as a sign of recent blood consumption; when staked (and yes, this did happen), the body groaned as the gases were expelled – taken as a sign that the body was ‘undead’; and, finally, after death, the skin and gums lose fluid and contract, exposing the teeth, nails and roots of the hair – taken as growth due to the person being a vampire.
Many years ago, also due to the lack of medical knowledge, premature burial was quite common (this is where the term ‘saved by the bell comes from’ – story for another blog). Many reports came in of sounds from coffins and when they were subsequently dug up, fingernail marks were found gouged into the lids. Some poor buggers had even resorted to smashing their heads and faces against the coffin lid in an effort to escape, resulting in their faces being covered in blood. As such, when the coffins were exhumed, the inhabitants were believed to have just fed.
A more rational explanation for such noises is the sound of escaping gases from the decomposing bodies. An alternate explanation for the many disordered graves is grave robbers – a prevalent and lucrative occupation at this time.
As well as premature burial, some diseases were also mistaken as signs of vampirism.
In 1985, David Dolphin proposed a link between porphyria (a rare blood disease) and vampire folklore. The disease is treated by intravenous haem and the implication was that sufferers craved the haem in human blood and that the consumption of the blood eased their symptoms. This was rebuffed by the medical profession as completely inaccurate, as sufferers neither craved human blood, nor were their symptoms soothed by consuming it. This disease also causes sensitivity to sunlight, which fuelled the vampire link, despite folkloric vampires not being affected by the sun.
The symptoms of rabies – susceptibility to garlic and sunlight; and disturbed sleep patterns causing someone to become nocturnal and hypersexual – have all been mistaken as signs of vampires and are still used in books and films today. Legend had it that a man wasn’t rabid if he could look at himself in the mirror and a mirror is often seen in films and books, the absence of a reflection proving a person is a vampire (Bonds, Chapter 49). Wolves and bats, known carriers of rabies, are also widely associated with vampire tradition and legend.
So, what of the folklore and ancient beliefs? Well, they are far too diverse to cover in one blog and so I have opted to concentrate on the more European aspects.
Vampire legends were rife in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and it is these legends and superstitions that flooded Western Europe in the eighteenth century. This caused mass hysteria and led to corpses being exhumed and staked and people being accused of vampirism.
It was believed vampires were revenants (animated corpses believed to return from the grave to haunt the living) of evil beings, suicide victims and witches; that they could be created by malevolent spirits possessing corpses or by being bitten by a vampire. This belief was so pervasive that it contributed extensively to the hysteria mentioned above. People were even executed because they were believed to be vampires!
This madness only stopped when Empress Marie Theresa of Austria passed laws banning the opening of graves and the desecration of corpses; following an investigation by her personal physician which concluded that vampires didn’t exist.
So, how were such vampires identified?
There were many elaborate rituals, one of which involved walking a virgin boy through a cemetery or church ground on a virgin black stallion (white in Albania). When the horse balked at a grave; that would be where a vampire resided. Holes seen appearing in the earth over a grave were taken as signs of a vampire, rather than the subsidence it probably was. Mainly, though, it was the ‘appearance’ of a corpse (as discussed earlier) which gave them away. More, rather amusing, evidence of vampire activity was when dead cattle, sheep, neighbours or relatives started to appear. Now, in today’s society, a psycho would be assumed to be responsible for such atrocity, not a vampire, but times were much different then.
Once discovered and identified, the method of destruction largely depended on where you came from. Staking was (and still is) the most common method, especially in Slavic culture. Ash was the preferred wood in Russia and the Baltics; hawthorn in Serbia; and oak in Silesia. Normally, vampires would be staked through the heart, but in Russia and Northern Germany, it was through the mouth and in North East Serbia, the stomach.
Decapitation was the second most common and was favoured in Germany and Western Slavic areas. The head would either be buried between the feet, behind the buttocks or away from the body, under the belief that it would hasten the departure of the soul.
Other methods of destruction included, piercing the skin of the chest to deflate a bloated vampire; pouring boiling water over the grave; completely incinerating the body; placing garlic in the mouth and shooting a bullet through the coffin; dismembering the body, burning the pieces, mixing the ashes in water and feeding them to family members as a cure…… I could go on, but I won’t.
So, we know what they looked like; we know how to identify them; and we know how to destroy them. Surely there must be a way of protecting ourselves from these loathsome creatures? Indeed there was and still is, as most of the protections quoted still feature in vampire tales, to some extent, today.
Protection involved garlic; a branch or wild rose or hawthorn; sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of the house; crucifix, rosary, holy water; consecrated ground – which they couldn’t walk on; running water – which they couldn’t cross; mirrors – when placed facing outward on a door; and not extending them an invitation to enter your house.
My favourite, though, has to be placing poppy seeds, millet or sand on the ground at the gravesite. Apparently, vampires suffer from arithmomania and cannot walk passed such things without stopping and counting every grain!! Who knew vampires suffered from OCD?
The modern vampire – suave, charismatic, and seductive – is a far cry from these bloated decaying monsters. Modern vampires can walk in the sun; couldn’t care less if you put a crucifix in their face; are able to show empathy for and love towards humans; often choose not to feed on humans; and, in essence, can walk amongst us, largely un-noticed. But, without certain books, would this modern vampire even exist?
The first and, arguably, most influential of these vampires was Lord Ruthven, John Polidori’s vampire in his book The Vampyre. He was the archetype of the charismatic and sophisticated vampire and was the inspiration for Dracula. The Vampyre itself was based on Lord Byron’s unfinished story, Fragment of a Novel, published in 1819.
It was Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula, though that defined the most influential vampire in popular fiction.
He took a ruthless and bloodthirsty historic persona – Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler) – and incorporated him into a character and a novel whose themes of demonic possession combined with undertones of sex, blood and death, struck a chord with the Victorians, in an age where the deadly diseases of TB and syphilis were rife.
Count Dracula was a man so devastated and distraught by the slaying of his wife, that he gave his soul to transcend time to find her again; in another life; in another woman; in Mina Harker. The emotions evoked by this – love, guilt and hate – all have ties back to the folkloric vampires and revenants, who were believed to return and visit with spouses first, before moving on to others.
In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola’s film, Dracula (the only film I believe that has ever followed the original story) became the highest grossing vampire movie of all time – highlighting the enduring nature of this creature and of this character.
It is the vampire traits in Dracula that have merged with and dominated the folkloric view, evolving into the modern fictional vampire of the twenty first century.
So, why is the vampire so engaging and enduring? One of the reasons is our perennial dread of mortality. To believe in vampires; to believe in immortality, is to overcome your fear of death. Yet, if you are immortal; if you can live forever, what is it you actually live for? For, all those you have ever known and loved will perish, but you will live on. Is this something any of us would truly want?
I think the over-riding reason for their popularity, whether you want to admit it or not, is their representation of innate sexuality and sexual freedom, thus cementing my view of vampires as the most erotic and romantic creatures ever created – the post nineteenth century variety, obviously!
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.