No creature of the night looms larger in the collective imagination than the vampire. Immortal, vicious, and literally bloodthirsty, the vampire is also human in a charismatically sinister way. Unlike other monsters, the vampire possesses unholy powers not only physical, but psychological as well.
Stories of vampires and other ghostly apparitions seem to be as old as civilization itself. Unsurprisingly, the understanding of vampires has evolved over the centuries as the creatures are reinterpreted, re-imagined, and, um, revived to terrorize, seduce, and reflect humanity in new ways.
Vampires are everywhere. They fill novels, films, stage plays, TV shows, role playing games, video games, essays, and a host of other media, and each storyteller introduces a different set of rules to govern the creatures and their (after)lives.
Nearly all iterations seem to agree on a few things: the vampire is a reanimated corpse that stalks the night, seeking sustenance from the blood of the living. If well-supplied with blood, the creature will live forever unless killed by one of several pre-ordained methods. These may include : a wooden, steel, or iron stake driven through the heart, head, or belly; decapitation; or exposure to bright sunlight. Along with immortality, the creature may possess other unholy powers, such as superhuman strength or mind control.
Other rules appear with less regularity. The vampire may not cross running water or enter a house uninvited. The creature may fear religious symbols and holy water. It may not cast a shadow or show a reflection, due to its soullessness.
Though stories of walking corpses and blood-sucking demons are found in nearly every culture, tales of the creature we call the vampire originate in Eastern Europe. Pre-Christian Slavic societies developed many traditions to explain the behavior of the soul after death. It was believed that an improperly buried body could become host to an evil spirit, which would prey on the living, requiring fresh blood to animate its lifeless corpse. These vampires were bloated, with a ruddy appearance due to recent feeding, unlike the pale, thin, handsome creatures we now imagine.
Where do these tales come from? Major theories include misinterpretations of decomposition and disease, and instances of premature burial.
Pre-industrial cultures had a limited understanding of the process of decomposition. As the human body decomposes, gasses are released, causing the body to swell, sometimes forcing blood to trickle out the nose and mouth. If the person was thin or pale in life, they may appear surprisingly ruddy during decomposition. Such corpses may have been assumed to be vampires, bloated from feeding and still showing traces of blood around their mouths. Staking a suspected vampire might have forced accumulated gasses to pass the vocal cords, emitting an eerie moan, apparently signifying victory over the evil forces. In addition, the gums may recede during decomposition, giving the appearance of pronounced fang-like teeth.
Vampirism is often depicted as a kind of contagion passed from person to person. Candidate real-world conditions include tuberculosis and rabies. The sexual undertones in Bram Stoker’s Dracula also echoed among a Victorian audience concerned over syphilis outbreaks.
Tuberculosis leads to the breakdown of lung tissue, causing blood to appear around the nose and mouth. Rabies victims, meanwhile, match many more of the criteria. The disease causes hypersensitivity which could lead to fear of light or pungent odors like garlic. Symptoms also include disrupted sleep patterns, bloody frothing at the mouth, and hypersexuality. Rabies is even carried by animals associated with the vampire, such as bats and wolves.
No discussion of vampires would be complete without mention of Count Dracula. Bram Stoker’s title character captured the Victorian imagination and replaced the folkloric tradition as the definitive vampire. Dracula is a dignified, aristocratic, eminently colorful character who has starred in more films than any other besides Sherlock Holmes.
Stoker drew from folkloric sources and borrowed the name of the real-life ruler of Walachia, Vlad III the Impaler. Because Vlad’s father was known as Vlad II Dracul, or Vlad the Dragon, the Impaler was also called Dracula, or son of the dragon. Dracul later came to mean ‘devil,’ which Stoker found to be a fitting name for his satanic antagonist.
Though Stoker may not have been aware at the time, tales of Vlad III’s cruelty certainly create an image of a man with an unquenchable thirst for blood. In his efforts to maintain power and fend off the noble class, the Impaler had his victims slowly lowered onto upright wooden stakes to maximize pain and visibility to other potential enemies. He even reportedly took his meals in the presence of an array of dying victims.
Arising originally from superstition and myth, the vampire has taken on many roles through reinterpretation. Early vampires embodied fears of the world beyond the grave. Victorian vampires symbolized freedom from repression in an age of decorum. Most recently, the Twilight series focuses on a sympathetic ‘vegetarian’ vampire, whose condition is an affliction he rises above through discipline and self-restraint.
Whether released or restrained, charming or creepy, the vampire will continue to lurk beneath the veneer of civilized humanity, inhabiting and revealing the dark corners of the imagination.
Check hometownstation.com all week for the full series of Creature Features. On Tuesday, October 27 all five creatures will square off for a hypothetical battle royal. Tune in to Something to Talk About at 10:00 a.m. to hear our pitches and find out who our special guest judges believe is the most fearsome monster.
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