The Vampire. That ubiquitous movie monster, start of a thousand films, novels, and video games. They haunt our nightmares and stalk the moonlit nights of our souls. Of course, most of us recognize them as mere fantasy, the figments of the feverish imaginations of our superstitious forebears.
But what if I were to tell you the legends we tell of vampires are rooted in fact? Facts distorted by ignorance and superstition, surely, but facts never the less? Let’s look first at the attributes of the vampire, as laid out by Bram Stoker in his wonderfully chilling book Dracula.
Vampires are creatures of the night, cursed to sleep during the day and spend their nights feasting on the blood of innocents. In fact, were they to step into sunlight, they would be destroyed. In the novel, Dracula has a hypnotic gaze and can ride moonbeams to steal stealthily into his victim’s bed chambers. He is also a shape shifter, changing at will between wolf, man, and bat. There is a strong sexual component to the vampire, their signature feasting on blood being used as a metaphor for sex. Also, they are forced to sleep by day in the dirt of their native land.
I’ve come across a couple of different explanations for the attributes of vampires as we know them here in the West. Most of the stories that inspired the Western vampire archetype come from Eastern Europe. It might be argued that many of the stories could be traced back to outbreaks of a certain infamous virus: rabies.
Victims infected with rabies show sensitivity to sunlight and have an increase in violent and sexual urges. The latter stages of the disease can result in a kind of madness. Afflicted would wander around at night, possibly waylaying unwary travelers on the road. It’s interesting to note that the disease vectors for rabies in that time and place, bats and wolves, are the forms that a vampire is said to be able to take. Is it possible that vampirism was a way to explain this strange disease that destroyed a man’s mind and left him wandering the darkness, attacking people until his untimely demise?
Another element that likely contributed to vampire lore was ignorance about the decomposition process. When a body decomposes, it goes through several distinct stages. The muscles stiffen, then relax. The skin dries and shrinks. Gasses released by the decomposition process cause the body to bloat and might push any remaining blood or other bodily fluids out the body’s orifices.
People back in the Middle Ages had no conception of any of this though. They might uncover a corpse and find it appeared fatter than when they’d buried it, with rivulets of blood draining from its lips. Besides that, its nails and hair would seem to have grown! To them, the only logical conclusion was that the body was coming out of the grave at night, and feasting on the blood of the living (seems a leap of logic to me, but hey I didn’t live back then.)
There were myriad ways of dealing with the vampire threat. If illness fell over the community, people would begin vampire hunts, many times digging up recently buried graves. They’d look for the signs of decomposition I outlined above, and if found they would take what we might consider drastic actions. Sometimes the body would be burned. Many times they would drive a wooden stake through the heart, stuff the corpse’s mouth with garlic, then lop off the head and lay it face down. Sometimes, they would rig a farming sickle into the coffin, positioned over the neck, so that when the corpse rose it would decapitate itself as it tried to leave the grave.
Sound bizarre? Sound like the delusions of a benighted age? It still happens. In the back woods of East Europe, the belief in vampires is still strong. People still perform the old customs to protect themselves against nosferatu.
Should it be any surprise? Vampires are ingrained in our pop culture. They dominate the cinema and our television screens. They live in our novels and comic books.
Nowadays they’ve become watered down. Now vampires are quaffed and shiny, with model looks and expensive clothes. In some ways, that echoes the old style vampire: Dracula was a nobleman with all the trappings thereof. But the old style vampires had something the new ones lack: a monstrous side. The old vampires were unequivocally monstrous and evil. They were ugly beneath the beautiful facade. They killed to live, and lived to kill. They slept in grave dirt. They were doomed to lurk the night for all eternity, separate from but preying on the sunlit world of humanity.
New vampires lack any sort of disadvantage the old ones suffered. They are ‘vegetarians.’ They’re always beautiful. They don’t burst into flame in sunlight, nor are they forced to sleep in grave dirt at night. They’re homogenized, safe, and terribly boring.
I say we put the bite back into vampires. Want to see vamps from the good old days? Read Dracula. Watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the movie. I might also recommend the anime Hellsing. Watch Universal Picture’s Dracula as well. And definitely check out Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. Feel free to recommend any other great vampire movies or books, and let’s all reclaim that once great archetype of evil, the Vampire.