Vampires are mythological or folkloric beings that subsist on human and/or animal lifeforce. In most cases, they are reanimated corpses who feed by draining and consuming the blood of living beings. In folklore, the term usually refers to the blood-drinking humans of Eastern European legends, but the term is often applied to similar legendary creatures from other regions and cultures. The characteristics of vampires vary widely among these different traditions. Some cultures also have stories of non-human vampires, including real animals such as bats, dogs, spiders, and mythical creatures such as the chupacabra.
Vampires are a frequent subject of fictional books and films, although fictional vampires are often attributed traits distinct from those of folkloric vampires. Vampirism is the practice of drinking blood from a person or animal. In folklore and popular culture, the term refers to a belief that one can gain supernatural powers by drinking human blood. The historical practice of vampirism can generally be considered a more specific and less commonly occurring form of cannibalism. The consumption of another’s blood (or flesh) has been used as a tactic of psychological warfare intended to terrorize the enemy, and can be used to reflect various spiritual beliefs. In zoology and botany, the term vampirism is used in reference to leeches, mosquitos, mistletoe, vampire bats, and other organisms that subsist on the bodily fluids of others.
The English word ‘vampire’ was derived (perhaps via French vampyre) from the German Vampir, in turn thought to be derived in the early 18th century from Serbian вампир/vampir, or Hungarian vámpír. The Serbian and Hungarian forms have parallels in virtually all Slavic languages: Bulgarian вампир (vampir), Czech and Slovak upír, Polish wąpierz and (perhaps East Slavic-influenced) upiór, Russian упырь (upyr’ ), Belarussian упыр (upyr), Ukrainian упирь (upir’ ), from Old Russian упирь (upir’ ). (Note that many of these languages have also borrowed forms such as “vampir/wampir” secondarily from the West). The etymology is uncertain. Among the proposed proto-Slavic forms are *ǫpyrь and *ǫpirь.The Slavic word might, like its possible Russian cognate netopyr’ (“bat”), come from the Proto-Indo-European root for “to fly”.
The first recorded use of the Old Russian form Упирь (Upir’ ) is commonly believed to be in a document dated 6555 (1047 AD). It is a colophon in a manuscript of the Book of Psalms written by a priest who transcribed the book from Glagolitic into Cyrillic for the Novgorodian Prince Vladimir Yaroslavovich. The priest writes that his name is “Upir’ Likhyi ” (Упирь Лихый), which would mean something like “Wicked Vampire” or “Foul Vampire.” This apparently strange name has been cited as an example of surviving paganism and/or of the use of nicknames as personal names. However, in 1982, Swedish Slavicist Anders Sjöberg suggested that “Upir’ likhyi” was in fact an Old Russian transcription and/or translation of the name of Öpir Ofeigr, a well-known Swedish rune carver. Sjöberg argued that Öpir could possibly have lived in Novgorod before moving to Sweden, considering the connection between Eastern Scandinavia and Russia at the time. This theory is still controversial, although at least one Swedish historian, Henrik Janson, has expressed support for it. Another early use of the Old Russian word is in the anti-pagan treatise “Word of Saint Grigoriy,” dated variously to the 11th-13th centuries, where pagan worship of upyri is reported.
The first well-documented use of the word Vampire in the West was from Austrian-controlled Serbia in reports prepared by Austrian police officials between 1725 and 1732 investigating reports of vampires arising from the dead to attack villagers.
Vampire Analogies in Ancient Cultures
Tales of the dead craving blood are found in nearly every culture around the world, including some of the most ancient ones. Vampire-like spirits called the Lilu are mentioned in early Babylonian demonology, and the even more ancient bloodsucking Akhkharu in Sumerian mythology. These female demons were said to roam during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of the demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted to Jewish demonology as Lilith.
In India, tales of vetalas, ghoul-like beings that inhabit corpses, are found in old Sanskrit folklore. A prominent story tells of King Vikramāditya and his nightly quests to capture an elusive vetala. The vetala legends have been compiled in the book Baital Pachisi. The vetala is an undead creature, who like the bat associated with modern day vampirism, hangs upside down on trees found in cremation grounds and cemeteries.
The hopping corpse is an equivalent of the vampire in Chinese tradition; however, it consumes the victim’s life essence (qì) rather than blood. The Ancient Egyptian goddess Sekhmet in one myth became full of bloodlust after slaughtering humans and was only sated after drinking alcohol colored as blood.
The strix, a nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood is mentioned in Roman tales. The Romanian word for vampires, strigoi, is derived from the word, as is the name of the Albanian Shtriga, but the myths about those creatures show primarily Slavic influence.
As an example of the prominence of similar legends in later times, it can be noted that 12th century English historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded accounts of revenants that arguably bear some resemblance to East European vampires.
Folk Beliefs in Vampires
The vampire myth as we know it is most strongly rooted in East European (particularly Slavic) folklore. Here, vampires are usually revenants of suicide victims, criminals or evil sorcerers, though in some cases a vampire could pass his vampirism onto his innocent victims. It was also thought that a victim of a cruel, untimely or violent death was susceptible to becoming a vampire. Vampires were accused of killing people, often by drinking blood, but also by throttling, or sitting on them to prevent breathing. In this folklore, a vampire could be destroyed by cutting off its head, by driving a wooden stake into its heart, or by burning the corpse.
In Slavic lore, causes of vampirism include being born with a caul, teeth or tail, being conceived on certain days, “unnatural” death, excommunication, and improper burial rituals. Many Serbians believed that having red hair was a vampiric trait. Preventive measures included placing a crucifix in the coffin, placing blocks under the chin to prevent the body from eating the shroud, nailing clothes to coffin walls for the same reason, putting sawdust in the coffin (so that the vampire awakens in the evening and compelled to count every grain of sawdust, which occupies the entire evening, so he will die when at dawn) or piercing the body with thorns or stakes. In the case of stakes, the general idea was to pierce through the vampire and into the ground below, pinning the body down. Certain people would bury those believed to be potential vampires with scythes above their necks, so the dead would decapitate themselves as they rose.
Evidence that a vampire was active in a given locality included death of cattle, sheep, relatives or neighbours; an exhumed body being in a lifelike state with new growth of the fingernails or hair; a body swelled up like a drum; or blood on the mouth coupled with a ruddy complexion.
Vampires, like other Slavic legendary monsters, were afraid of garlic and were compelled to count particles of grain, sawdust, and the like. Vampires could be destroyed by staking, decapitation (the Kashubs placed the head between the feet), burning, repeating the funeral service, sprinkling holy water on the body, or exorcism.
The most famous Serbian vampire was Sava Savanovic, famous from a folklore-inspired novel by Milovan Glišić.
As mentioned above, the Old Russian anti-pagan work Word of Saint Grigoriy (written in the 11th or 12th century) claims that polytheistic Russians made sacrifices to vampires.
Tales of vampiric entities were found among the ancient Romans and the Romanized inhabitants of eastern Europe, Romanians (known as Vlachs in historical context). Romania is surrounded by Slavic countries, so it is not surprising that Romanian and Slavic vampires are similar. Romanian vampires are called Strigoi, based on the ancient Greek term strix for screech owl, which also came to mean demon or witch.
There are different types of Strigoi. Live Strigoi are live witches who will become vampires after death. They have the ability to send out their souls at night to meet with other witches or with Strigoi, which are reanimated bodies that return to suck the blood of family, livestock, and neighbours. Other types of vampires in Romanian folklore include Moroi and Pricolici.
Romanian tradition described a myriad of ways of bringing about a vampire. A person born with a caul, an extra nipple, a tail, or extra hair was doomed to become a vampire. The same fate applied to someone born too early, someone whose mother encountered a black cat crossing her path, and someone who was born out of wedlock. Others who became vampires were those who died an unnatural death or before baptism, the seventh child in any family (presuming all of his or her previous siblings were of the same sex), the child of a pregnant woman who avoided eating salt, and a person who was looked upon by a vampire or a witch. Moreover, being bitten by a vampire meant certain condemnation to a vampiric existence after death.
The Vârcolac, which is sometimes mentioned in Romanian folklore, was more closely related to a mythological wolf that could devour the sun and moon (similar to Skoll and Hati in Norse mythology), and hence later became connected with werewolves rather than vampires. (A person afflicted with lycanthropy could turn into a dog, pig, or wolf.)
The vampire was usually first noticed when it attacked family and livestock, or threw things around in the house. Vampires were believed to be most active on the eve of two religious holidays, the Feast of St. George (Julian calendar, May 4-5 Gregorian calendar April 22-23) and the Feast of St. Andrew . (Julian calendar, November 23-24. Gregorian calendar, November 29-30) The explanation of two calendar dates are given because Romanians used the old Julian calendar, while as displayed in Stoker’s novel, the modern Gregorian calendar was used. The difference in time between the two calendars was 12 days. Also, it should be noted that the lag time between the old Julian calendar and the modern Gregorian calendar increases one day every century. The Feast of St. George was a very important festival in honor of St. George. Also known as the “Great Martyr,”George was a beloved Saint. Not only was he acknowledge as the patron of England, but many other countries as well. He was also the patron of horses, cattle, wolves, and all enemies of witches and vampires. It was on St. George’s eve that vampires all the forces of evil were most exquisite. People would remain in their homes with continuous light throughout the night. They placed thorns across thresholds, painted crosses on their doors with tar, put thistles on windows, lit bonfires, and spread garlic everywhere they could. Through out the night, prayers would be recited repeatedly and naked blades placed beneath their pillows. If the night went well without any occurrences , the saint’s feast was celebrated with much exuberance that day. The thorns and garlic were then replaced by Roses and other flowers. Bram Stoker, having done his research on vampire lore for his 1897 novel Dracula, included the fear of the villagers on St. George’s Eve to warn Jonathan Harker that at midnight “all the evil things in the world will have full sway.”
The Feast of St. Andrew, accompanied with the Feast of St. George and Easter was acknowledged as one of the most feared times of the year in Romania. The Feast of St. Andrew was in honor of St. Andrew who was the patron of wolves and donor of garlic. It was on St. Andrew’s Eve, in certain parts of Romania, that the vampire was believed to be the most active and dangerous, the vampires was also believed to continue their activity through out the winter and rest at epiphany (January). During these perilous times, it was considered wise to rub garlic on the doors and windows to protect families within the residence from any vampire attacks. Livestock was also at risk of an attack, so precautions were taken with them as well by rubbing them down with garlic.
A vampire in the grave could be discerned by holes in the earth, an undecomposed corpse with a red face, or with one foot in the corner of the coffin. Living vampires were identified by distributing garlic in church and observing who would refuse to eat it.
Graves were often opened three years after the death of a child, five years after the death of a young person, or seven years after the death of an adult to check for vampirism. Measures to prevent a person from becoming a vampire included removing the caul from a newborn and destroying it before the baby could eat it, careful preparation of dead bodies, including preventing animals from passing over the corpse, placing a thorny branch of wild rose in the grave, and placing garlic on windows and rubbing it on cattle, especially on St George’s and St Andrew’s day.
To destroy a vampire, a stake was driven through the body, followed by decapitation and placing garlic in the mouth. By the 19th century, one would also shoot a bullet through the coffin. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and administered to family members as a cure.
Belief in vampires was common in nineteenth century Greece. Greek customs may have propagated this belief, notably a ritual that entailed exhuming the deceased after three years of death, and observing the extent of decay. If the body was fully decayed, the remaining bones were put in a box by relatives and wine poured over them, a priest would then read from scriptures. However, if the body had not sufficiently decayed, the corpse would be labelled a vampire.
According to Greek beliefs, vampirism could occur through various means: excommunication or desecrating a religious day, committing a great crime, or dying alone. Other more superstitious causes include having a cat jump across the grave, eating meat from a sheep killed by a wolf or having been cursed. It was also believed in more remote regions of Greece that unbaptized people would be doomed to vampirism in the afterlife.
The appearance of vampires varied throughout Greece and were usually thought to be indistinguishable from living people, giving rise to many folk tales with this theme. However, this was not the case everywhere: on Mount Pelion vampires glowed in the dark, while on the Saronic islands vampires were thought to be hunchbacks with long nails; on the island of Lesbos vampires were thought to have long canine teeth much like wolves.
Vampires could be harmless, sometimes returning to support their widows by their work. However, they were usually thought to be ravenous predators, killing their victims who would be condemned to become vampires. Vampires were so feared for their potential for great harm, that a village or an island would occasionally be stricken by a mass panic if a vampire invasion were believed imminent. Nicholas Dragoumis records such a panic on Naxos in the 1930s, following a cholera epidemic.
Varieties of wards were employed for protection in different places, including blessed bread (antidoron) from the church, crosses and black-handled knives. To prevent vampires from rising from the dead, their hearts were pierced with iron nails whilst resting in their graves, or their bodies burned and the ashes scattered. Because the Church opposed burning people who had received the myron of chrismation in the baptism ritual, cremation was considered a last resort.
Roma and Indian Vampire Beliefs
Even today, Roma frequently feature in vampire fiction and film, no doubt influenced by the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which the Szgany Roma served Dracula, carrying his boxes of earth and guarding him. Traditional Romani beliefs claim that the dead soul enters a world similar to ours except that there is no death. The soul lingers next to the body and sometimes wants to return to life. The Roma legends of the living dead have indeed enriched the vampire legends of Hungary, Romania and the Slavic world.
The ancient home of the Roma, India, describes many vampire entities. The Bhut or Prét is the soul of a man who died an untimely death. It wanders around animating dead bodies at night, attacking the living much like a ghoul. In northern India, there is the BrahmarākŞhasa, a vampire-like creature with a head encircled by intestines and a skull from which it drank blood. Vetala and pishacha are other creatures who resemble vampires to an extent. Since Hinduism believes in reincarnation of the soul, it is supposed that leading an unholy or immoral life, sin or suicide, will lead the soul to reincarnate into such evil spirits. This kind of reincarnation does not arise out of birth from a womb, but is achieved directly, and such evil spirits’ fate is predetermined as to how they shall achieve liberation from that yoni, and re-enter the world of mortal flesh in the next incarnation.
The most famous Indian deity associated with drinking blood is Kali, who has fangs, wears a garland of corpses or skulls and has four arms. Her temples are located near cremation grounds. She and the goddess Durga battled the demon Raktabija who could reproduce himself from each drop of blood spilled. Kali drank all his blood so none was spilled, thereby winning the battle and killing him.
Sara, or the Black Goddess, is the form in which Kali survived among Roma. Some Roma believe that the three Marys from the New Testament went to France and baptised a Gypsy called Sara. They still hold a ceremony every May 24 in the French village where this is supposed to have occurred. Some refer to their Black Goddess as “Black Cally” or “Black Kali”.
One form of vampire in Romani folklore is called a mullo (one who is dead). This vampire is believed to return and do malicious things and/or suck the blood of a person (usually a relative who had caused their death, or did not properly observe the burial ceremonies, or who kept the deceased’s possessions instead of destroying them as was proper). Female vampires could return, lead a normal life and even marry but would eventually exhaust the husband. Anyone who had a horrible appearance, was missing a finger, or had appendages similar to those of an animal, was believed to be a vampire. If a person died unseen, he would become a vampire, likewise if a corpse swelled before burial. Dogs, cats, plants or even agricultural tools could become vampires. Pumpkins or melons kept in the house too long would start to move, make noises or show blood.
To get rid of a vampire, one could hire a Dhampir (the son of a vampire and his widow) or a Moroi to detect the vampire. To ward off vampires, 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. They also placed hawthorn in the corpse’s sock or drove a hawthorn stake through the legs. Further measures included driving stakes into the grave, pouring boiling water over it, as well as decapitating or burning the corpse.
According to the late Serbian ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović, Roma people in Kosovo believed that vampires were invisible to most people, but could be seen “by a twin brother and sister born on a Saturday who wear their drawers and shirts inside out.” Likewise, a settlement could be protected from a vampire “by finding a twin brother and sister born on a Saturday and making them wear their shirts and drawers inside out…This pair could see the vampire out of doors at night, but immediately after it saw them it would have to flee, head over heels.” Also, some believe that vampires may have the attributes of aliens thus some think they are not of Earth at all. They would rather be considered demons as the 13th century folklore may have suggested.
Some Common Traits of Vampires in Folklore
It is difficult to make a single description of the folkloric vampire, because its properties vary widely between different cultures.
Eighteenth Century Vampire Controversy
During the 18th century, there was a major vampire scare in Eastern Europe. Even government officials frequently got dragged into the hunting and staking of vampires. The panic began with an outbreak of alleged “vampire” attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. Two famous vampire cases (which were the first to be officially recorded) involved Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole from Serbia. As the story goes, Plogojowitz died at the age of 62, but came back a couple of times after his death asking his son for food. When the son refused, he was found dead the next day. Plogojowitz soon returned and attacked some neighbours who died from loss of blood. In the other famous case, Arnold Paole, an ex-soldier turned farmer who allegedly was attacked by a vampire years before, died while haying. After his death, people began to die, and it was widely believed that Paole had returned to prey on the neighbours.
These two incidents were extremely well documented. Government officials examined (and wrote reports of) the cases and the bodies, and books were published afterwards of the Paole case and distributed around Europe. The controversy raged for a generation. The problem was exacerbated by rural epidemics of so-claimed vampire attacks, with locals digging up bodies. Many scholars said vampires did not exist, and attributed reports to premature burial, or rabies. Nonetheless, Dom Augustine Calmet, a well-respected French theologian and scholar, put together a carefully thought out treatise in 1746, which was at least ambiguous concerning the existence of vampires, if not admitting it explicitly. He amassed reports of vampire incidents and numerous readers, including both a critical Voltaire and supportive demonologists, interpreted the treatise as claiming that vampires exist. In his Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote on the vampires:
These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.
According to some recent research, and judging from the second edition of the work in 1751, Calmet was actually somewhat sceptical towards the vampire concept as a whole. He did acknowledge that parts of the reports, such as the preservation of corpses, might be true. Whatever his personal convictions were, Calmet’s apparent support for vampire belief had considerable influence on other scholars at the time.
Eventually, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her personal physician, Gerhard van Swieten, to investigate. He concluded that vampires do not exist, and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies. This was the end of the vampire epidemics. By then, though, many knew about vampires, and soon authors would adopt and adapt the concept of vampire, making it known to the general public.
During the late 18th and 19th centuries the belief in vampires was widespread in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. In this region there are many documented cases of families disinterring loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family (although the word “vampire” was never used to describe him/her). The deadly tuberculosis, or “consumption” as it was known at the time, was believed to be caused by nightly visitations on the part of a dead family member (who had died of consumption him/herself). The most famous (and latest recorded) case is that of nineteen year old Mercy Brown who died in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892. Her father, assisted by the family physician, removed her from her tomb two months after her death. Her heart was cut out then burnt to ashes. An account of this incident was found among the papers of Bram Stoker and the story closely resembles the events in his classic novel, Dracula.
Modern Belief in Vampires
Belief in vampires persists to this day. While some cultures preserve their original traditions about the immortal, most modern-day believers are more influenced by the fictional image of the vampire as it occurs in films and literature.
In the 1970s, there were rumours (spread by the local press) that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in London. Amateur vampire hunters flocked in large numbers in the cemetery. Several books have been written about the case, notably by Sean Manchester, a local man who was among the first to suggest the existence of the “Highgate Vampire” and who later claimed to have exorcised and destroyed a whole nest of vampires in the area.
In the modern folklore of Puerto Rico and Mexico, the chupacabra (goat-sucker) is said to be a creature that feeds upon the flesh or drinks the blood of domesticated animals, leading some to consider it a kind of vampire. The “chupacabra hysteria” was frequently associated with deep economic and political crises, particularly during the mid-1990s.
During late 2002 and early 2003, hysteria about alleged attacks of vampires swept through the African country of Malawi. Mobs stoned one individual to death and attacked at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was colluding with vampires.
In Romania during February of 2004, several relatives of the late Toma Petre feared that he had become a vampire. They dug up his corpse, tore out his heart, burned it, and mixed the ashes with water in order to drink it. In January 2005, rumours began to circulate that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fueling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crime had been reported. This case appears to be an urban legend.
In 2006, Costas Efthimiou and Sohang Gandhi published a piece that uses geometric progression to attempt to disprove the feeding habits of vampires, stating that, if each vampire’s nourishment depended on making even one other person a vampire, it would only be a matter of years before the Earth’s entire population was among the undead or vampires died out (compare matrix scheme). However, the notion that a vampire’s victims must themselves become vampires does not appear in all vampire folklore, and is not universally accepted by modern vampire believers. This theory also assumes that a single bite turns the victim into a vampire, which is not generally the case in most vampire lore.
In March 2007, self-proclaimed vampire hunters broke into the tomb of Slobodan Milošević, former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia, and staked his body through the heart into the ground. Although the group involved claimed this act was to prevent Milošević from returning as a vampire, it is not known whether those involved actually believed this could happen or if the crime was simply politically motivated.
Pathology and Vampirism
Folkloric vampirism has typically been associated with a series of deaths due to unindentifiable or mysterious illnesses, usually within the same family or the same small community. The “epidemic pattern” is obvious in the classical cases of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole, and even more so in the case of Mercy Brown and in the vampire beliefs of New England generally, where a specific disease, tuberculosis, was associated with outbreaks of vampirism.
In his book, De masticatione mortuorum in tumulis (1725), Michaël Ranft makes a first attempt to explain folk’s belief in vampires in a natural way. He says that, in the event of the death of every villager, some other person or people – much probably a person related to the first dead – who saw or touched the corpse, would eventually die either of some disease related to exposure to the corpse or of a frenetic delirium caused by the panic of merely seeing the corpse. These dying people would say that the dead man had appeared to them and tortured them in many ways. The other people in the village would exhume the corpse to see what it had been doing. He gives the following explanation when talking about the case of Peter Plogojowitz: “This brave man perished by a sudden or violent death. This death, whatever it is, can provoke in the survivors the visions they had after his death. Sudden death gives rise to inquietude in the familiar circle. Inquietude has sorrow as a companion. Sorrow brings melancholy. Melancholy engenders restless nights and tormenting dreams. These dreams enfeeble body and spirit until illness overcomes and, eventually, death.”
Some modern scholars have argued that vampire stories may have been influenced by a rare illness called porphyria. The disease is a blood disorder that disrupts the production of haem. Porphyria was thought to be more common than elsewhere in small Transylvanian villages (roughly 1000 years ago) where inbreeding probably occurred. The haem group, found in every blood cell in the human body, is excited by electrons, but in a controlled fashion. However, the haem groups in porphyria sufferers causes uncontrollable tissue, bone and skin damage, made worse when the person comes into contact with sunlight. This would have given the porphyria sufferer a very pallid skin colour, with teeth that appear larger than normal, due to the porphyria damaging the gum tissue and causing it to recede. These people would have been very anemic, and drinking (animal) blood was a traditional treatment for anemia. Certain forms of porphyria are also associated with neurological symptoms, which can create psychiatric disorders. However, suggestions that porphyria sufferers crave the heme in human blood, or that the consumption of blood might ease the symptoms of porphyria, are based on a severe misunderstanding of the disease.
Another disease that has been linked with vampire folklore is rabies. Dr Juan Gomez-Alonso, a neurologist at Xeral Hospital in Vigo, Spain, examined this in a report in the journal Neurology. The susceptibility to garlic and light could be due to hypersensitivity, which is a symptom of rabies. The disease can also affect portions of the brain that could lead to disturbance of normal sleep patterns (i.e., becoming nocturnal) and hypersexuality. Legend once said a man was not rabid if he could look at his own reflection, which relates to the legend of a vampire not having a reflection. Wolves and bats, which are often associated with vampires, can be carriers of rabies. The disease can also lead to a drive to bite others, and to a bloody frothing at the mouth.
Some psychologists in modern times recognize a disorder called clinical vampirism (or Renfield Syndrome, from Dracula’s insect-eating henchman, Renfield, in the novel by Bram Stoker) in which the victim is obsessed with drinking blood, either from animals or humans.
There have been a number of murderers who performed seemingly vampiric rituals upon their victims. Serial killers Peter Kurten and Richard Trenton Chase were both called “vampires” in the tabloids after they were discovered drinking the blood of the people they murdered. Similarly, in 1932, an unsolved murder case in Stockholm, Sweden, was nicknamed the “Vampire murder”, due to the circumstances of the victim’s death.
Finding “Vampires” in Graves
When the coffin of an alleged vampire was opened, people sometimes found that the cadaver did not look as they thought a normal corpse should. This was often taken to be evidence of vampirism. However, corpses decompose at different speeds depending on temperature and soil composition, and some of the signs of decomposition are not widely known. This has led vampire hunters to mistakenly conclude that a dead body had not decomposed at all, or, ironically, to interpret signs of decomposition as signs of continued life.
Corpses swell as gases from decomposition accumulate in the torso and blood tries to escape the body. This causes the body to look “plump”, “well-fed” and “ruddy” – changes that are all the more striking if the person was pale or thin in life. In the Arnold Paole case, an old woman’s exhumed corpse was judged by her neighbours to look more plump and healthy than she had ever looked in life. It should be noted that folkloric accounts almost universally represent the alleged vampire as having ruddy or dark skin, not the pale skin of vampires in literature and film. Darkening of the skin is also caused by decomposition.
Blood can often be seen emanating from nose and mouth of a decomposing corpse, which could give the impression that the corpse was a vampire who had recently been drinking blood. The staking of a swollen, decomposing body could cause the body to bleed and also force the accumulated gases to escape the body. This could produce a groan when the gases moved past the vocal chords, or a sound reminiscent of flatus when they passed through the anus. The official reporting on the Peter Plogojowitz case speaks of “other wild signs which I pass by out of high respect”.
After death, the skin and gums lose fluids and contract, exposing the roots of the hair, nails, and teeth, even teeth that were concealed in the jaw. This can produce the illusion that the hair, nails, and teeth have grown. At a certain stage, the nails fall off and the skin peels away, as reported in the Plogojowitz case – the dermis and nail beds emerging underneath were interpreted as “new skin” and “new nails”. Finally, decomposition also causes the body to shift or contort itself, adding to the illusion that the corpse has been active after death.
It has also been hypothesized that vampire legends were influenced by individuals being literally buried alive, due to primitive knowledge in medicine. In some cases where people reported sounds emanating from a specific coffin, it was later dug up and fingernail marks were discovered on the inside from the victim trying to escape. In other cases the person would hit their heads/noses/faces and it would appear that they had been “feeding”.
Bats have become an integral part of the traditional vampire only recently, although many cultures have stories about them. In Europe, bats and owls were long associated with the supernatural, mainly because they were night creatures. Conversely, the Gypsies thought them lucky and wore charms made of bat bones. In English heraldic tradition, a bat means “Awareness of the powers of darkness and chaos”. In South America, Camazotz was a bat god of the caves living in the Bathouse of the Underworld. The three species of actual vampire bats are all endemic to Latin America, and there is no evidence to suggest that they had any Old World relatives within human memory. It is therefore extremely unlikely that the folkloric vampire represents a distorted presentation or memory of the bat. During the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors first came into contact with vampire bats and recognized the similarity between the feeding habits of the bats and those of their legendary vampires. The bats were named after the folkloric vampire rather than vice versa; the Oxford English Dictionary records the folkloric use in English from 1734 and the zoological not until 1774. It wasn’t long before vampire bats were adapted into fictional tales, and they have become one of the more important vampire associations in popular culture.
Vampires in Fiction and Popular Culture
Lord Byron arguably introduced the vampire theme to Western literature in his epic poem The Giaour (1813), but it was John Polidori who authored the first “true” vampire story called “The Vampyre”. Polidori was the personal physician of Byron and the vampire of the story, Lord Ruthven, is based partly on him — making the character the first of our now familiar romantic vampires. The “ghost story competition” that spawned this piece was the same competition that motivated Mary Shelley to write her novel Frankenstein, another archetypal monster story.
Other examples of early vampire stories are Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s unfinished poem Christabel and Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire story, Carmilla.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been the definitive version of the vampire in popular fiction for the last century. Its portrayal of vampirism as a disease (contagious demonic possession), with its undertones of sex, blood and death, struck a chord in a Victorian Europe where tuberculosis and syphilis were common. Stoker’s writings are also adapted in many later works. In modern popular culture, book series by Anne Rice, Laurell K. Hamilton, and Stephenie Meyer, as well as many other popular novels, feature vampires.
Vampires have also proved to be a rich subject for the film and gaming industries. Television series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Konami’s Castlevania and Crystal Dynamics’ Legacy of Kain video game series, role-playing games such as Vampire: the Masquerade, and Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing manga have been especially successful and influential.