The finale of our series of classical Halloween horrors is the vampire! Follow along from myth to box office to find the deeper truth behind the tales.
A series on the most popular Halloween icons would not be complete without a look into the strange history and symbology of the vampire. From the outright monstrous to the mysterious and alluring, the vampire has a long history of stalking the dark corners of the human mind. The classic image of a vampire is an undead, immortal aristocrat with a thirst for human blood. They are pale, fanged, and have many defense mechanisms. Some of these include transforming into bats or mist and control over lesser monsters.
The exact origins of the word vampire have been lost to time. The earliest uses occur in French “vampyre” and German “vampir” literature with similar spelling and with the modern meaning. However, vampires have existed in many forms across numerous cultures including the Albanian “shtriga,” the Greek “vrykolakas,” and the Romani “strigoi.” Vampires share overlapping mythology with zombies, werewolves, and demons. Folktales claim reanimated corpses of witches, victims of suicide, and other untimely deaths could return powered by spite, malice, or outside demonic forces to commit bestial atrocities.
Despite widespread myths of similar creatures, it is the mythology of Eastern Europe, Hungary and Romania in particular that has had the most influence on our modern conception of vampires, especially in the west. These ancient myths stemmed from a fear of the return of malevolent corpses, and they used peculiar burial practices to prevent them. They buried bodies upside down or preemptively mutilated them, cutting tendons or severing the head and legs. The 1718 Treaty of Passarowitz details exhuming and mutilating corpses to prevent their return as vampires.
Other preventative remedies and wards against vampirism may sound more familiar. People thought religious tokens and relics possessed power over the undead. They placed mirrors in front of windows to repel the creatures with the sight of their own soullessness, shown in their lack of reflection. Garlic, and small seeds like mustard and millet were thought to provide protection from night-walking corpses. They dropped grains around suspicious graves to preoccupy the vampire with a compulsive need to count them all. Now where have we heard of a vampire that obsessively counts things? Hm…
It is impossible to compile a history of vampires without discussing Vlad the Impaler, linked to myths of vampirism by the novel “Dracula.” Bram Stoker apparently knew very little about the former ruler of Wallachia, borrowing his name and heritage at the last minute. Vlad the III inherited the name Dracula, meaning “Son of the Dragon.”His father, Vlad II, took the name Dracul from his association with the Order of the Dragon, professed defenders of Christianity inspired by the Crusaders. Vlad Tepes, as we also know him, rose to power in 1448 and quickly established a reputation for cruelty. The murderous count ruled three separate times due to numerous rebellions and usurpers, in which time he developed his penchant for execution by impalement in response.
In 1610, Countess Elizabeth Bathory was accused of torturing and killing up to 650 girls and young women. Her trial proved inconclusive, bodies were found in the castle. However, witness accounts were second-hand or obtained by torture. Bathory’s large landholdings, the recent death of her husband, Protestant upbringing, and subsequent house arrest were all indicative of political undermining. Years after the Countess’s death, her story grew into something supernatural. They claimed she was bathing in the blood of virgins to maintain her youth. Through these fearful whispers, she became known throughout Transylvania as both The Bloody Countess and the Countess Dracula.
In 1892, the United States saw its own vampire panic in Exeter, Rhode Island. At this time, Mercy Brown as well as her mother and sister passed away from tuberculosis. Suspicious of their deaths, Mercy’s father and the town searched for explanations they could act upon. Exhumation revealed incredibly well-preserved corpses. This was because she had passed in winter, and her body was kept in a cold crypt. However, this was ignored by the panicked townsfolk, who set about performing one of many rituals against vampirism. This involved removing and burning Mercy’s heart and feeding it to her sick brother, her presumed victim. Unsurprisingly, he also succumbed to tuberculosis.
Culture and Media
Depictions of vampires vary all along the spectrum from monstrous to human-like. Some interpretations take on demonic winged forms to hunt mortals, others appear human until they reveal sharp fangs and ghostly visages. Others are unnaturally attractive, even sparkling in the sun on one notable occasion. Not all vampires drink blood; some myths see vampires surviving off the energy or life essence of their prey. All myths seem to agree that vampires possess some manner of superhuman abilities, from excessive strength and reflexes to immortality.
“The Vampyre” written in 1819 by John Polidori was the first real example of vampire fiction. Polidori wrote the short novel as part of a now-infamous horror story writing contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and himself. The same contest that saw Shelley produce the novel “Frankenstein.” “The Vampyre” is a tale about the Earl of Glenarvon and his stalking of the royal courts all while maintaining a noble’s facade. Polidori set the standard for vampire fiction in the Earl’s polished, aristocratic presentation.
Published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is by far the most definitive work of vampire fiction. Stoker meticulously researched various mythological vampires in crafting his own interpretation. His novel coincided and was in part influenced by the current real-life events involving Jack the Ripper from 1888 to 1891. As mentioned Stoker borrowed Dracula’s name and Transylvanian castle from history but it was a friend and actor that inspired his gentlemanly mannerisms.
Count Orlock snuck in just ahead of Dracula in film history thanks to 1922’s “Nosferatu”. When German film creator F. W. Murnau couldn’t get filming rights, he wrote his own similar story changing names and appearances. Relatives of Stoker filed a successful copyright claim against the film, which saw nearly every physical copy destroyed. The film survived this purge to become one of the first cult films and an influential landmark in film history. The film was considered so scary for its time that it was banned in Sweden. The ban finally lifted in 1972.
Dracula finally saw his silver-screen debut in 1931. Bela Lugosi went on to act out the most famous and influential depiction of Dracula in media. He had to fight for the role, however, despite having had success playing Dracula in stage plays. Our cultural image of Dracula was further solidified by Christopher Lee’s exemplary reprisal of the role in 1958. The success of the original “Dracula” film lead to the future success of early horror films, including “Frankenstein” and “The Wolfman.” Dracula has made countless appearances in media cross-overs, sequels, remakes, video games and plays, reigning supreme in the horror genre ever since.
Vampires in modern media are too numerous to count. However, some of the most influential to follow in the Count‘s footsteps include Lestat and Louis of Ann Rice’s “Interview With The Vampire”. The pair depicts a key dichotomy central to vampire storytelling, the struggle to remain good or succumbing to evil. The same has to be said of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series. Despite claiming no experience with vampire fiction due to a religious upbringing, Meyer’s vampires inspired a new wave of vampire hype in the Young Adult reader landscape. I got quite sick and tired of sifting through the “mysterious new boy in school that’s actually a vampire” books in my high school library.
Causes, Cures and Corpse Medicine
Speculation links porphyria, a liver disease, to the vampire myth. However, this is unlikely due to its extreme rarity. As in the Mercy Brown incident, tuberculosis was often mistaken as symptoms of being fed upon by a vampire throughout history. Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs and causes weight loss and paleness that people once associated with vampiric blood loss. The path towards controlling and understanding TB was arduous due to the myths, romanticism, and stigma surrounding it. TB can pass between humans and cattle, contaminated milk went undiscovered as a spreader of TB until the development of pasteurization. Robert Koch’s discovery of the M. tuberculosis bacteria in 1882 spelled the beginning of the end for vampire hysteria.
Normal decay created some “telltale” signs of vampiric corpses. Bodies can “moan” as gases escape, especially when a stake to the chest punctures the lungs. Over time, the release of these gases can bring up blood out of the mouth and nose. The gums retract from the teeth making them appear elongated and skin dries out creating the appearance of hair and nail growth.
Corpse medicine inspired key parts of the vampire myth. Documented as early as 25 AD, people regularly practiced corpse medicine from the 1200s into the 1800s. The discovery and subsequent appropriation of Egyptian mummies created a demand for medicine and other goods made from their powdered remains. Back in Europe, grew moss on mummies’ skulls to prevent hair loss. They also used human fat as an ingredient in a cure for rabies. Egyptian corpses were rare and expensive, however, and local substitutes soon appeared in the markets. Considered too obscene for corpses that could afford a church plot and headstone, criminals, the poor or social minorities like the Irish were frequently targeted for repurposing after death.
Take the fresh, unspotted cadaver of a redheaded man (because in them the blood is thinner and the flesh hence more excellent) aged about twenty-four, who has been executed and died a violent death. Let the corpse lie one day and night in the sun and moon—but the weather must be good. Cut the flesh in pieces and sprinkle it with myrrh and just a little aloe. Then soak it in spirits of wine for several days, hang it up for 6 or 10 hours, soak it again in spirits of wine, then let the pieces dry in dry air in a shady spot. Thus they will be similar to smoked meat, and will not stink.Johann Schroeder, “Pharmacopoeia Medico-Chymica“
This quote is not from a witch’s grimoire but rather the medical journal of a 17th century German physician. As graphic and peculiar as these things now seem, they have paved the way for our future medical successes. Personally, I have found no magic in medicine in modern times either; weird or wonderful. It is still necessary to donate blood and organs and harvest skin grafts and arteries for bypasses. We’ve simply learned to source things more respectfully and transplant with less risk of infection or host rejection. However, these practices illuminate the inherently parasitic nature of the wealthy on the poor, bolstering the image of the vampire as an aristocrat.
Picking Off the Leeches
We more frequently see media finding empathy for vampiric protagonists. “Interview,” “Being Human” and even “Twilight” are just a few examples. Never is this vampire a member of the established ruling class; the vampiric hero is reborn into a manipulative system with no hope of escape. The vampire must decide whether to give in to evil or remain human in spite of the circumstances.
This provides an interesting reflection of our own role in society. We are encouraged to scrape by, numbing ourselves to the pain of those less fortunate. Otherwise, we risk the disdain of those above us by calling for changes to the economic system. Many sympathetic vampire protagonists seek workarounds for their parasitic nature, including draining animals, criminals, going to blood banks, or developing synthetic blood alternatives. Most are still left to lament the continued suffering of mortals at the hands of less conscientious vampires.
We also see an acknowledgement of the protagonists’ inability to cure themselves of what they are. The only change they can hope to achieve is systemic or, more dramatically, the removal of that ruling class. We witness this trend as early as the original “Dracula” in which Mina is freed from her vampiric fate when her “master” Dracula is killed. Personal responsibility, choosing the animals and criminals over innocent people, is depicted as admirable but ultimately futile. We too cannot truly hope to remove ourselves from our responsibilities to one another with token gestures or well wishes from afar. If we want to improve things, the best way is to change the existing structures of society from the inside out.
The Vampire myth rose from our collective misunderstanding of both the power and frailty of the human body. Our mythology of monsters grew and intertwined into our first attempts to understand the world. These myths comprised our first hypotheses that we had the power to change our surroundings. The vampire continues to exist in the story of humanity as a reflection of our capacity for evil and our struggles against it. Vampires succeed by appealing to a broad demographic in those who want a better world and don’t know how to achieve it.