Sometimes we look at vampires *cough* Twilight *cough* and wonder how the hell we got here. While vampire myths pervade most world cultures, the American and Western European vampire almost certainly comes from the Slavic world. Matthew Beresford writes,
The soldiers stationed [in Austria] to retain possession of these areas became aware of the strange local custom of exhuming dead bodies and ‘killing’ them. Reports were then made on these by the literate, which in turn created a more widespread interest on the subject.
However, there’s a problem. Slavic vampires look something like this:
Now our vampires are more like this:
For the couple of hundred years vampires have been a part of English-language fiction, they’ve undergone amazing and, sometimes, questionable transformations that have become ingrained in our collective psyche. However, our popular vampires today follow certain conventions that would make them unrecognizable to people from the eighteenth century.
#1: Sunlight always kills them
Pretty obvious, right? Vampires, creatures of the night, are eventually destroyed by their natural enemy and the enemy of all people with hangovers: sunlight.
It’s how you get scenes like this:
And people got whiny when “Twilight” didn’t incorporate the fiery destruction that we see in the masterpiece that is “Subspecies III: Bloodlust.” Which is kind of silly for two reasons. a) Different authors or script writers make their own universes with their own rules. b) Sunlight has not always been the surefire way to kill vampires—not by a long shot.
You see, the myth was popularized by this incredible scene from “Nosferatu:”
While the classic 1921 film cemented the belief that sunlight kills vampires, this was also the first time it was ever mentioned. Like, ever. In folklore, vampires happen to be nocturnal, so they rest during the day. But sunlight was as harmful to them as it might be to sugar gliders.
Florescu and McNally report, “The ultimate way to destroy a vampire is to drive a stake through its heart or navel during the daylight hours when the vampire must rest in his coffin.”
In the earliest English-language vampire literature, vampires had no aversion to the sun. The protagonist in Polidori’s “The Vampyre” spends months traveling with the vampire and in Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” the vampire has no problem with sunlight:
“Her looks lost nothing in daylight—she was certainly the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.”
Even “Dracula,” the quintessential vampire novel, doesn’t assert death by sunlight. Van Helsing claims that during the day “the Vampire is limit [sic] to the powers of man,” not that daylight destroys him.
The Count ventures out in the day, too, in an attempt to sneak a box of earth somewhere secret, but his plan is foiled by Mina, who writes a telegraph to the vampire hunters.
#2: Dracula is the father of all vampires
Everyone knows Dracula—probably the version played by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film. His slicked black hair, his beautiful sable cape, and his haunting eyes are part of what made vampires so iconic. So, it’s reasonable to assume that because this guy was so influential that he must’ve been the original vampire. Right?
You see, Dracula is no where near the first vampire—in film or literature. Lugosi’s performance, however, was so haunting that he sticks in our imaginations even today. Then, of course, there is the slew of vampire movies created in the 1970s…and every decade since.
Chilton remarks, “To date, more than 1,000 novels and 200 films have been made about the vampire Dracula.”
The earliest vampires occur in folklore and they predate the Count by millennia, so Bram Stoker was a little late to the game. According to Thomas Garza, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “For more than a thousand years, stories of reanimated creatures that sustain their own lives by taking away the ‘life force’ of other living beings have filled our imaginations and the pages of world literature.”
Even if you focus on the 1800s, Dracula is still not the most influential vampire. He, and vampires modeled after him, are actually based on the “Ruthven formula”, popularized by Dr. John Polidori in “The Vampyre,” published in 1819.
According to Bodart, “[Polidori] created the prototype vampire.”
#3: All vampires are aristocrats
Because of the Ruthven formula, many of us believe that vampires are supposed to be rich and refined. They do live in castles after all. Plus, you’d think after being alive for a thousand years, they’d have some money saved up. And they’re refined, so they always wine and dine their victims before they themselves…wine and dine. Right?
Well, not always. Belief in vampires—like actual vampires—was prevalent in rural parts of Eastern Europe. And when we say “rural” we mean 1740s, Eastern Europe rural. This is a time and place where people may have heard of cities, but those places may as well have been Narnia. Therefore, we see a lot of stories about vampires from villages. And when we say “village” we mean, like, with huts and shit.
Take, for example, the story of Peter Plogojowitz, which is a really fun name to say. Try it. See? Peter lived in the village of Kisilova, died, and immediately began killing his neighbors. Barber gives us an account of Calmet’s:
And [the victims] said publicly, while they were yet alive, but on their death-bed, that the above-mentioned Plogojowitz, who had died ten weeks earlier, had come to them in their sleep, laid himself on them, and throttled them.
Not a very romantic evening.
#4: The only way to become a vampire is to be bitten
Everyone knows this. Your 4-year-old niece who doesn’t know how to read probably knows this. You become a vampire when a vampire bites you. It’s the scene in movies that gets the most time devoted to it, the scene with the most erotic undertones.
*caption: sometimes the eroticism is bit more overt.*
You see, while being bitten is the most popular and well-known way to become a vampire, there are others. Many, many others. According to Lifton (quoting McNally and Florescu) “criminals, bastards, witches, magicians, excommunicated people, those born with teeth or a caul, and unbaptized children” all have the potential to be vampires.
Hallab asserts anyone [quote] “by being just generally obnoxious” could become a vampire.
This is bad news for all you generally obnoxious people out there. Or good news, depending on your point of view.
#5: All vampires drink blood
This one is obvious. Of course vampires drink blood. That’s their thing—it’s what they do. What else would they drink? Water? Wine?
Well, vampires actually feed on “life essence.” To most people, that translates as blood. However, there’s actually a book, “The Blood of the Vampire” by Florence Marryat, that was published in the same year as Dracula. The vampire, Harriet, doesn’t drink blood. Instead, she subsists on the “the health and strength of all with whom she may be intimately associated—that may render her love fatal to such as she may cling to.”
Harriet ends up killing a baby when she holds it for too long and then she accidentally murders her fiancé. Not as sexy as Dracula, which may be why most people have never heard of it.
#6: They’ve always been called vampires
So there are vampires older than Dracula, vampires with a larger influence than the Count, and vampires who don’t drink blood. Big deal. If we went back in time and started talking about vampires, people would still know what we were talking about. Right?
Probably not. The word itself has multiple potential roots and wasn’t popularized in the English language until about 1732 in an account of our friend Peter Plogojowitz.
Graphically, the English word “vampire” is most similar to the German “vampir.” Which itself might possibly be derived from the Slavic “upyr.” In Slavic mythology, though, Dr. Garza writes, “the upyr’ is inaccurately identified with the vurdolak, the werewolf” (13).
If you did go back in time, you would also have trouble figuring out what a vampire even is. Sure, you’d find people who agreed that it drinks blood or “life essence,” but then the similarities would stop. Sometimes the vampires would be people physically back from the dead, sometimes they’d be closer to ghosts, and sometimes they’d just be straight up demons.
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