Where do vampires come from?
The answer takes us on a journey to India, Romania, and Rhode Island, with a pit stop in Forks, Washington.
Vampires in Mythology
Vampires are just one evil mythological creature in a long history of creepy, blood-sucking beings around the world.
Some historians postulate that the concept of vampires stems from a common legend in central Europe/Asia that was dispersed through migrations of Indo-European tribes to different areas of the world. Many cultures have some version of a blood-sucking, humanoid creature:
- Ancient Indian scripture contains references to blood-sucking creatures called vetalas and other blood-drinking dark spirits, along with instructions on how to handle them.
- The ancient Babylonians, Assyrians, and Hebrews had legends of shapeshifting, blood-drinking demons that roamed the night in search of prey.
- Greek and Roman mythology include many vampire-like creatures, such as the Vrykolakas and the Lamia, but they were more likely to eat human flesh rather than drink blood.
- West African folklore from the Ashanti tradition tells of the obayifo, a hybrid vampire-witch that inhabits the body of a human being. They use witchcraft to call up spirits and direct them to snatch little children for the obayifo to feed on.
- Slavic mythology perhaps has the most well-recognized and well-developed vampire figures. In Russia, the wurdulac is a vampire that must consume the blood of its family members and turn them all into vampires. The Polish vjesci was destined to become a vampire from birth and never really died but rather emerged from the grave to eat their family and friends. Romanian strigoi were spirits that rose from the grave and could transform into an animal, turn invisible, and gain vitality from drinking their victims’ blood.
- In Roma folklore, the mullo is an undead vampire that is created when a person does not receive the proper funeral rites. They rise from the dead and get revenge on those who had wronged them by strangling them and sucking their blood.
- Ireland and Scotland, true to form, have legends about blood-sucking faeries.
- In Trinidad and other Caribbean islands, the soucouyant is a shapeshifting vampire that appears as an old woman by day. She strips off her skin at night and turns into a blue fireball and flies across the sky. She enters her victim’s residence through the window or another hole like a crack or keyhole, then sucks the victim’s blood while they sleep.
- Japan has a legend of a serpentine demon called Nure-onna that drinks human blood. With the head of a woman and the body of a snake, she lures her victims to her by pretending she has a small child for them to hold.
- In the Philippines, the vampire aswang belongs to a larger group of shapeshifting mythical creatures. It disguises itself as a beautiful woman to lure a man to marry her, then slowly drains out his blood.
As you can see, there are as many variations on vampires as there are stories about them. The single unifying characteristic is that they drink human blood—typically by piercing the victim’s skin with their fangs or by using a long, pointed tongue. The victim then turns into a vampire.
Many have shapeshifting abilities, the most recognizable today being transforming into bats (a tradition that originated in South and Central America). In other traditions they could be found in the guise of an ordinary or very attractive person, a snake, or another animal.
Many of these folklore traditions also contain instructions for preventing the creation of a vampire, warding off attacks from vampires, or destroying vampires. Common tactics include ensuring proper funeral and burial rites have taken place, and killing a vampire often involved brutal methods such as stabbing a stake through the vampire’s heart or burning its body.
How to Ward Off a Vampire
Several things are said to ward off vampires, often based on the idea that vampires are corrupt or evil, and religious symbols or forms of folk magic can drive out evil.
- Salt—long thought to have purifying properties
- Silver—said to ward off evil
- Holy water—also purifies the evil out of them
- Crosses and other holy symbols—good vs. evil again
- Garlic hung in the windows or around one’s neck—because folklore holds vampirism to be caused by a blood infection, garlic’s antibiotic properties antagonize vampires
- Running water—based on European legend, running water is blessed and cleaner than stagnant water and was seen as a barrier that prevented unholy beings from crossing
Another interesting deterrent comes from the suggestion that vampires count things compulsively—if you drop a bag of rice on the ground, the vampire is compelled to count every last grain, giving you time to escape.
It also works with snowflakes.
Crossing a Threshold
It is said that vampires cannot enter a person’s home without permission. The vampire might try to trick the homeowner into thinking they are someone else. The idea is that the threshold of the home acted as an energetic or spiritual barrier that withstood the power of the vampire and other external, supernatural forces. Spirits, gods, or ancestors protected the threshold of the house against the intrusion of a vampire. The owner of this metaphysical barrier had to decide that the vampire was not a threat in order to allow him or her to cross the threshold and withdraw the protection that it provided.
In some traditions, vampires operated in normal waking hours; in others, they operated from noon until midnight. In the vast majority of vampire legends, there is no mention of the idea that vampires could not withstand the sun. But Nosferatu introduced the idea that sunlight was toxic to vampires, given that the sun represented the powers of light and goodness in contrast to vampires as creatures of evil and darkness. Now, thanks to Hollywood, vampires in modern fiction are often described as nocturnal, and the sun weakens their powers or even burns them.
How to Kill a Vampire
To kill a vampire, various traditions prescribe driving a wooden stake through its heart, cutting it into pieces and burning it, or otherwise ensuring that the vampire has suffered a gruesome death.
The Vampire Craze
Works of film and literature about vampires have integrated existing vampire lore, then created their own to shape and influence the popular concept of the vampire.
In the mid-1700s, Serbia experienced a “vampire panic,” sparked by reports of dead bodies that refused to decompose or appeared to have fresh bloodstains around the mouth and fueled by anxieties about infectious disease and the living’s proximity to the burial grounds reserved for the dead. The vampire craze spread throughout Eastern Europe.
Literature about vampires began to surface around this time, written in German. When English writers began to write about vampire lore, vampire literature began to take a hold on the public. Robert Southey’s epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer by Robert Southe tells of the title character’s deceased wife, Oneiza, who rises from the dead as a vampire. This was the first appearance of a vampire in English literature.
Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu deserves a place of recognition. Published in 1872, the book tells the tale of the vampire Carmilla who preys upon a young woman visiting an isolated castle. This book, among many others, dealt with themes related to sexuality that often characterize the depiction of monsters in the horror genre (exposing an underlying societal fear of “deviant” sexuality, whether in the form of procreation by vampiric means or preying upon victims).
Another vampire panic emerged during this era, this time in New England. The most well-documented incident occurred in Rhode Island in 1892, when nineteen-year-old Mercy Brown died of tuberculosis—and rose from the dead. So the community thought. Family members believed she had become a vampire and given the disease to her younger brother, so her grave was exhumed to investigate. Due to freezing conditions and storage in an above-ground crypt, her body had not decomposed as expected. Superstition that her heart and liver be burned, and then the ashes mixed with water for her younger brother to drink in order to cure the disease. The Mercy Brown incident shows the powerful hold that monster lore holds over grievous situations of sickness and death.
Perhaps nothing popularized the vampire in the modern world as much as Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel Dracula, published in 1897. It is far from being the first English-language vampire novel, but it is one of the most well-known. It has heavily influenced modern vampire lore and the way vampires were portrayed in later works.
Stoker set the story in Transylvania and drew primarily on Romanian vampire mythology. It was long thought that Count Dracula was modeled after Vlad Dracul, known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad was a brutal but just ruler in the Walachia region from the years 1456–1462. He’s most famous for fighting off the Ottoman Empire and for impaling his enemies on a wooden stake. Legend has it that he also dined while his victims were dying and dipped his bread in their blood. Count Dracula has many similarities to Vlad the Impaler—both are from Transylvania, both eat the blood of their enemies, both fought against the Turks, and both reference to death by wooden stake. However, scholars now claim that Stoker would not have known about Vlad Dracul and rather came up with the name from a more generic study of cruel and cunning military generals who were given the name Dracula, which, he noted, meant “devil.”
Stoker’s Dracula set some of the “rules” that later vampire stories would follow—such as that vampires fear crucifixes, garlic, and running water, and that vampires can turn into bats. Some of these rules already existed in vampire legends, but there were many that were not included in Dracula. And some were made up.
Dracula as a monster was terrifying because so many things about him were unknown. The fear of other cultures also plays into the horror of Dracula. In the rapidly changing world of the late Industrial Revolution, readers held an underlying anxiety about the unknown future, and Dracula was a personification of this fear. Later works, like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, would portray vampires in a more sympathetic and multi-dimensional way.
Nosferatu + More
F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu also played a role in shaping the general atmosphere surrounding the concept of the vampire, portraying a dark imaginary world characterized by fear and despair. The movie was an unofficial adaptation of Dracula and thus targeted in a copyright lawsuit by the estate of Bram Stoker. (An official, legal adaptation was released the year prior, but it has been lost to history.) Most copies of Nosferatu were destroyed following the lawsuit, but a few have persisted.
Nosferatu took a few artistic liberties with the story—for example, changing the vampire’s name to Count Orlok and showing a vampire killed by sunlight (the first work to do so). It has been analyzed by many as a pre-World War II warning of the threat of aristocratic and authoritarian control, foreshadowing the death and terror that resulted from the Nazi regime.
There have been many other film and theatrical adaptations of Dracula, most notably the 1931 Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Lugosi’s iconic speech and mannerisms brought the Count to life for audiences, and his performance created the template for future portrayals of vampires. His slicked-back hair, his formal attire and raised collar cape, his intense and aristocratic bearing, and his Hungarian accent (passing as Transylvanian) are ingrained in the collective modern image of the vampire.
Other Popular Culture
The 1976 novel Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice and the film based on it revived the vampire genre. It showed the vampire as a complex villain capable of emotion and romantic longings, often suave and charismatic rather than aloof and creepy—similar to vampires in later series like The Vampire Diaries. Twilight, a vampire romance set in Forks, Washington, set off a vampire/werewolf craze in young adult fiction.
The 1990s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer took a slightly different take on the vampire. Some of their faces transform into monstrous forms, and when they are killed, they turn to dust. Buffy also took on the monster as a metaphor for real fears that were evident in the characters’ teenage lives.
The Vampire as a Metaphor
One thing that all of these stories show to us is the nature of human fears. Sometimes, it’s easier to imagine a monster in order to understand and confront the anxieties of real life. Whether we are afraid of proximity to death, authoritarian rule, sexual deviancy, or high school heartbreak, driving a stake through the shadowy figure of the vampire is one way to deal with it.
As Bram Stoker observed in Dracula, “No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”
So where do vampires come from? They are created from our own fears.
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