Vampires are mythological/folkloric beings who must feed on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures, regardless of whether or not the vampire is undead or a living person/being. The notion of vampiric entities has been recorded in numerous cultures and extends through centuries of time, but the term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century after an influx of vampire legends into Western Europe.
The folkloric vampires varied in appearance ranging from nearly human to bloated rotting corpses, but the Christian Church interpretation and the success of vampire literature are responsible for the archetypal charismatic and sophisticated vampire. Other descriptions of vampires described then as bloated in appearance, and purplish or dark in color due to recent blood intake. They were also said to have blood streaming from their mouth and nose when seen in its shroud or coffin and the left eye would be open. Though the teeth, hair and nails may have grown somewhat, gangs were generally not a feature originally.
Another widely varied, in original folklore, attribute of the vampire is the method of their creation. Slavic and Chinese traditions feared any corpse that was jumped over by an animal of becoming an undead. A body wound that had not been treated with boiling water also created the risk of vampirism. Russian folklore stated that vampires were once witches or people who had rebelled against the Russian Orthodox Church while they were alive. To respond to these, cultural practices were formed that were intended to prevent the corpse from becoming an undead revenant. Burying the corpse upside down or placing earthly objects likes scythes or sickles near the grave to satisfy any demons entering the body or to appease the death were common. In Greek folklore about vrykolakas (their term for vampires) a wax cross and a piece of pottery with the inscription “Jesus Christ conquers” were placed on the corpse to prevent the body from becoming a vampire. It became common practice to severe the tendons at the knees or placing poppy seeds, millet, or sand on the ground at the grave site of a presumed vampire; this was said to occupy the vampire all night by counting the fallen grains, suggesting that vampires held arithmomania. The Chinese equivalent of this was that a vampire-like being would have to count every grain of rice; which is also encountered in myths from India and South America. The more modern method of spreading vampirism through biting came later.
Methods of identifying vary as well and some cultures developed very elaborate methods of identification. One method involved leading a virgin boy through a graveyard or church grounds on a virgin stallion, which would baulk at the grave in question. Though the horse was generally supposed to be black, white was the color of choice in Albania. If holes appeared in the earth above the grave, it was taken as a sign of vampirism. Another test involved looking at the corpse as vampires were said to be healthier in appearance than expected, plump, and showing little or no signs of decomposition. In some cases villagers described the corpses as having fresh blood from a victim all over its face when a suspected grave was opened. Vampires were charged with the death of livestock, relatives, or neighbors when the death happened unexpected, so an increase in these types of deaths was a sign of their presence. In folklore, vampires could also make their presence felt at will by engaging in minor poltergeist-like activity, such as hurling stones or moving objects, and pressing on people in their sleep.
In traditional folklore there are a number of apotropaic items, or items able to ward off revenants. Garlic is one well-known and common example, but also a branch of wild rose and hawthorn plant is said to harm vampires. European folklore lists sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of a house as a method of keeping them away. Sacred items, such as a crucifix, rosary, or holy water, were also said to be apotropaic. It was also said that vampires were unable to walk on consecrated ground, such as those of churches or temples, or able to cross running water. While not apotropaic, mirrors were listed as a method of warding off vampires when they were placed on a door facing outwards. Vampires do not have a reflection and are often said not to cast a shadow, perhaps as a manifestation of the vampire’s lack of a soul, in some cultures. This attribute, though not a universal trait, was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula and has remained popular in modern writing. Some traditions hold that a vampire cannot enter a house unless invited by the owner, although they are free to enter as they please after the first invitation. The vulnerability to sunlight is a more modern inclusion. Folkloric vampires were believed to be more active at night, but they weren’t generally vulnerable to sunlight.
Though the most commonly cited method of destroying vampires, other methods varied amongst cultures. Even staking had its share of variety with ash, hawthorn, and oak being the preferred woods in different cultures. Potential vampires were most often staked through the heart, but the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany, while the stomach was the target in north-eastern Serbia. Piercing the skin of the chest was a method of “deflating” the bloated vampire; which is the thought process behind burying sharp objects in with the corpse in order to penetrate the skin if the body bloats sufficiently while becoming a revenant. Decapitation was a preferred method in German and some Slavic areas and the head would be buried either behind the buttocks, between the legs, or completely away from the body. The act of decapitation was seen as a way of hastening the departure of the soul, which in some cultures, was said to linger in the corpse. Gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse’s heart and placed bits of steel in the mouth, over the eyes, ears and between the fingers at the time of burial. A hawthorn stake was driven through the legs or hawthorn filled the socks of the corpse. Many other methods and rituals were done to corpses across the various cultures of the world.
Long before the term vampire existed supernatural beings that consumed flesh or blood of the living were found in nearly every culture around the world. As the term vampire didn’t exist, this activity was most often attributed to demons or spirits, with some cultures considering the Devil synonymous with the vampire. Nearly every nation has attributed blood drinking with some kind of revenant or demon, and in some cases a deity. But as Christianity spread vampires began to take on decidedly Christian characteristics. Vampires became viewed as dead people who retained a semblance of life and could leave their grave, similarly to the way that Jesus had. The Middle Ages led to an alternate Christian definition that pronounced vampires minions of Satan, which also led to an allegory to communicate their doctrine: vampires take a sinner’s very spirit into itself by drinking their blood, but so too can the righteous take on the blood of Christ to bring his divine spirit into their body. The Christian Church would have a lasting effect on the lore of vampires, e.g. the ability of the cross to hurt and ward off vampires is distinctly due to Christian association.
Modern day fiction depicts vampires as a suave, charismatic villain. Though they are generally regarded strictly as fictional creatures, there have been recent reports of vampire sightings. There are even a few vampire hunter societies that still exist, though they are largely social groups. Recent incidents include allegations of a vampire attack that swept through the African country Malawi in 2002 and early 2003, which lead to the stoning death of one person and attacks on at least four others, including the Governor, Eric Chiwaya, based on allegations that the government was working with vampires. Another report in Birmingham, England in the year 2005 circulated rumours that an attacker had bitten a number of people, but local police revealed that it was an unsubstantiated claim. The following year a physics professor at the University of Central Florida devoted a paper to arguing that vampires were a mathematical impossibility. The paper stated that if the first vampire had appeared on 1 January 1600 and it had fed once a month (much less than what is depicted in both film and folklore), a simple geometric progression showed that the entire human population would have become vampires within two and a half years. However, he made no attempt to provide a credible reasoning for assuming that every victim became a vampire themselves.
There are a few other vampire reports that occur in various countries across the world, however there is another trend in vampirism. Vampire lifestyles are taken up by many occultists. They use the mythos of the vampire, its magical qualities, allure, and predatory archetype as strong symbolism to be used in rituals, energy work, magic, and even a spiritual system. Vampirism has become a subculture, largely mixing with the Goth subculture, and some members even consume the blood of others as a pastime. Others prefer “psychic vampirism” which feeds off the mental life energy (pranic energy) of others rather than the sanguine vampirism (drinking blood).
There have been numerous modern attempts to explain the reasoning behind the persistence of the vampire myth in so many cultures. One explanation involves the misunderstanding of decomposition of the body. Many of the suspected vampires were corpses who appeared not to decompose. The error in this was that the process of decomposition is affected by numerous circumstances, such as soil composition and temperature. Misunderstandings led some to believe that those who didn’t look like “normal” cadavers were vampires, and some processes of decomposition were ironically seen as signs of life. Darkening skin, bloated bodies, and even blood from the nose and mouth are all a part of the decomposition process. The body swells with gases as it decomposes and the increased pressure would force blood from the mouth. Gases were also responsible for the groan noise that was heard when the corpse was staked, though at the time this was taken as a sign of slaying a vampire. The appearance of enlarged teeth and longer hair is explained by decomposition as well due to the fact that the lips and skin dry out and contract during decomposition, exposing more of the teeth and hairline than had previously been visible.
Folkloric vampires were associated with clusters of deaths from unidentifiable causes, usually within the same families or communities. This leads to the explanation that assumed vampirism may have been the result of a contagion or sickness. It was specifically associated with tuberculosis in New England and it was also associated with the bubonic plague. In 1985 a biochemist, David Dolphin, linked a rare blood disorder, porphyria, to tales of vampirism. The disorder is treated with intravenous haem and he suggested that large intake of blood would result in the haem being transported across the stomach into the bloodstream to alleviate their symptoms. However, his theory was dismissed by experts because the consumption of blood to ease the symptoms is a misunderstanding of the disease in itself and also because Dolphin confused modern fictional vampires with those of folklore, who often were not said to drink blood. Rabies is another sickness that has been linked to vampirism due to the susceptibility to garlic and light being possibly attributed to hypersensitivity, a symptom of rabies. Rabies can also affect portions of the brain leading to disturbance of sleep patterns and hypersexuality. Legend even said that a man was not rabid if he could look at his own reflection, an allusion to the legend of vampires having no reflection. Wolves and bats, usually associated with vampires, can be carriers of the disease.
Today, vampires are a significant figure in popular culture the world over. They are an extremely successful subject of literature, film making and video games. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is often cited as the most influential and definitive work of vampire fiction. Published in 1897, it portrayed vampirism as a disease of contagious demonic possession, with undertones of sex, blood and death. These themes found fertile ground in Victorian Europe where tuberculosis and syphilis were common. His vampiric traits merged with and dominated folkloric tradition to become the modern fictional vampire. More modern works like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (1976-2003) have taken the vampire character from being the embodiment of evil and given them the persona of poetic tragic heroes. More works are surfacing that stem away from the folkloric traditions to create new vampire stories, but most of the traits persist. Vampires have also been highly used in video games and films and will continue to have a presence in popular culture.