Vampires: Origins of the Myth

The Blood is the Life

"My Friend -- Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you. Sleep well tonight. At three tomorrow the diligence [traveling party] will start for Bukovina; a place on it is kept for you. At the Borgo Pass my carriage will await you and bring you to me. I trust that your journey from London has been a happy one, and that you will enjoy your stay in my beautiful land."

-- Dracula, Bram Stoker

"... the plantation was in a state of pandemonium. The overseer's body had been found and so had the blind old man... And no one had been able to find me in New Orleans... It was already quite dark, naturally, and Lestat quickly explained to me that I must not let the police see me in even minimal light, especially not with my body in its present remarkable state; so I talked to them in the avenue of oaks before the plantation house, ignoring their requests that we go inside..."

-- Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice

"1. A bloodsucking ghost or reanimated body of a dead person believed to come from the grave and wander about by night sucking the blood of persons asleep.
2. One who lives by preying on others; a bloodsucker..."

-- Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary

How are we to understand the vampire? Is it myth, a mere legend, the story of romantic, gothic writers? Or is the vampire based in fact -- at least to some extent?

The popular notion of the vampire is largely based on the classic 1931 film "Dracula" with Bela Lugosi. In our minds the vampire is sophisticated, European, a creature of the noble classes -- in short, a Count who lives in a castle and enjoys the finer things in life... but who never drinks... wine. The vampire has a taste for something else; and that is what really separates him from us. The blood. The vampire must drink the fresh blood taken from the living, for he has none of his own.

In more recent years the concept of the vampire has come to America, to New Orleans (although New Orleans can seem more European than American at times). Anne Rice's Lestat and other vampires from the film and novel Interview with the Vampire also have a sophistication about them not unlike Count Dracula. They are knowledgeable, elegant, cultured, but also savage. Additionally, they are sensual and alluring. This is another significant element of our modern view of the vampire, an element which separates them from all other fiends and ghouls: vampires have sex appeal.

But bloodlust and eroticism are not the only aspects of the vampire. And not the key. The key aspect of the vampire is death -- and everything that death conjures up in our minds. And the eternal human questions about death, our anxiety and our nightmares about this inevitability feed the story of the vampires.

"The blood is the life," says Bela Lugosi's Dracula (a phrase originally found in the Bible); later adding, "to die, to be really dead -- that must be glorious." And it is this ancient issue of life and death and blood that explains the antiquity of the vampire myth as well. For the first vampire was not Count Dracula. The first vampires had their origins in the centuries long before Christ, who in modern times is the ultimate adversary of the ostensibly Satanic vampire -- remember, the vampire shrinks before the sacred cross.

The vampire legend dates back to the earliest times of human civilization to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and other peoples of the ancient Orient. The original vampire was not like the sophisticated, suave European aristocrat that we know of today. The vampire, at its origins, was a monster.

Historical Vampires

When did vampires begin? As with many legends, the exact date of origin is unknown; but evidence of the vampire tale can be found with the ancient Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, near the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, and with Assyrian writings on clay or stone tablets. The land of the Chaldeans is also called the "Ur of the Chaldeans," which was the original home of Abraham from the Bible.

"Lilith" was a possible vampire from the ancient Hebrew Bible and its interpretations. Although she is described in the book of Isaiah, her roots are more likely in Babylonian demonology. Lilith was a monster who roamed at night taking on the appearance of an owl. She would hunt, seeking to kill newborn children and pregnant women. Lilith was the wife of Adam before there was Adam and Eve, according to tradition; but she was demonized because she refused to obey Adam. (Or to see it from a more liberated viewpoint, she demanded equal rights with Adam). Naturally, she was considered evil for such "radical" desires and became a vampire who eventually attacked the children of Adam and Eve -- namely, all human descendants.

References to vampires can be found in many lands, and some scholars believe this indicates that the vampire story developed independently in these various lands and was not passed from one to the other. Such an independently occurring folktale is curious indeed.

References to vampires can be found among the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean such as Egypt, Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks believed in the strigoe or lamiae, who were monsters who ate children and drank their blood. Lamia, as the mythology goes, was the lover of Zeus; but Zeus' wife, Hera, fought against her. Lamia was driven insane, and she killed her own offspring. At night, it was said, she hunted other human children to kill as well.

One tale known by both the Greeks and Romans, for example, concerns the wedding of a young man named Menippus. At the wedding a guest, who was a noted philosopher called Apollonius of Tyana, carefully observed the bride, who was said to be beautiful. Apollonius finally accused the wife of being a vampire, and according to the story (as it was later told by a scholar named Philostratus in the first century A.D.) the wife confessed to vampirism. Allegedly she was planning to marry Menippus merely to have him handy as a source of fresh blood to drink.

Vampire tales occurred in ancient China, where the monsters were called kiang shi. In ancient India and Nepal, as well, vampires may have existed -- at least in legend. Ancient paintings on the walls of caves depict blood drinking creatures; the Nepalese "Lord of Death" is depicted holding a blood-filled goblet in the form of a human skull standing in a pool of blood. Some of these wall paintings are as old as 3000 B.C., it is believed. Rakshasas are described in the ancient Indian holy writings called the Vedas. These writings (circa 1500 B.C.) depict the Rakshasas (or destroyers) as vampires. There is also a monster in ancient India's lore which hangs from a tree upside-down, not unlike a bat, and is devoid of its own blood. This creature, called Baital, is in legend a vampire.

Other ancient Asians, such as the Malayans, believed in a type of vampire called the "Penanggalen." This creature consisted of a human head with entrails that left its body and searched for the blood of others, especially of infants. The creature lived by drinking the victims' blood.

It is also said that the vampire may have lived in Mexico prior to the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors, according to the renown vampire author Montague Summers whose 1928 book The Vampire -- His Kith and Kin is a classic. He further wrote that Arabia knew of the vampire as well. Vampire-like beings appeared in the "Tales of the Arabian Nights" called algul; this was a ghoul which consumed human flesh.

Africa, with its spirit-based religions, may be seen as having legends of vampire-like beings as well. One tribe, the Caffre, held the belief that the dead could return and survive on the blood of the living.

In ancient Peru there were also vampire legends; the canchus were believed to be devil worshipers who sucked the blood of the young.

Thus from ancient times and from a bounty of exotic lands came forth the vampires. It is from these ancient fears about death and the magical, life-sustaining powers of blood that the vampires as we know them today have evolved.

Vampires International

On the Caribbean island of Granada, there is the Loogaroo. This is a woman, usually, who in legend is in league with the devil. Under the deal she will get magical abilities only if she gives the devil blood every night. The term Loogaroo possibly comes from the French mythological creature called the Loup-garou which is a type of werewolf, but the belief is also mixed with African Vodu or voodoo.

The Loogaroo can leave its own skin and turn into a flame which haunts the night searching for blood for the devil. After it collects enough blood, it can return to its skin, resuming human form. This creature is apparently compulsive and must stop to count grains of sand spread upon the ground. So, a defense against it, if you were bothered by such a monster, was to leave a pile of rice or sand near your front door. Hopefully, the creature would take a long time to count it all, and the sun would eventually return with the next morning. By then the Loogaroo would have to return to its skin without making an attack.

The Loogaroo is an example of how a vampire belief can result from a combination of beliefs -- here a mixture of French and African. The Loogaroo is also evidence that not all vampires have Slavic accents, although many certainly seem to. With the vampire having been found in many lands, naturally it has many names.

The term vampir was used in Russia and in other Slavic lands such as Poland and Serbia. The word vampir may possibly be derived from the Magyar (Hungarian) language, although some say that vampir is related to the Russian word peets which means "to drink."

Vrykolakas was the Greek term for vampire. The Greek vampire may have been a person who was excommunicated from the Orthodox Church prior to death.

Ekimmu was a vampire spirit of ancient Babylonia which rose from the dead when hungry, especially if foolish humans forgot to leave food sacrifices near his grave. When hungry he returned to earth for human blood.

Murony was a vampire from Wallachia which was a shapeshifter as well as a bloodsucker. It could change its form into that of a dog, a cat, an insect or another creature. In Wallachian lore, a person who died unexpectedly was highly suspect of becoming a vampire. Sudden death was assumed to be the work of a vampire. Sometimes a long spike or nail was punched into the skull of a dead body to prevent it from returning from the grave. The Murony may also be seen as a werewolf, a living human who became a dog or wolf at night and hunted other animals especially cattle.

Lithuanian vampires apparently got drunk on blood, not being content to simply have a sip or two of the bright, red liquid. In Lithuanian the word wempti meant "to drink."

The English word "vampire" (also spelled "vampyre") was first seen in the early 1700s. Its exact origin is unknown. It may have its roots in the Turkish word uber, a term meaning "witch." This word in turn underwent a metamorphosis to Slavic tones to sound like "upior" or "upyr," eventually resulting in the words "vampyre," "vampir" and then "vampire."

In Sanskrit the monster was a Baital. There were other terms for this monster, from the Spanish vampiro and Latin vampyrus, to the unquestionably German-sounding Blutsaeuger (literally, "Bloodsucker") and my favorite, the elegant French version: Le Vampire.

"Nosferatu" is another Eastern European term for vampire, or at least it is believed to be. "Nosferatu" is one of the more curious words for the vampire. The Western world became acquainted with this term first with the Irish writer Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula. Later, in 1922, the word appeared again with the first film ever made about the evil Transylvanian count, called, of course, "Nosferatu." (There were earlier silent films made about vampires, but they no longer exist for viewing purposes.)

The word "nosferatu," however, might not actually be a Slavic word. In fact, it might not be a real word at all. David J. Skal, a modern researcher of vampires, believes that the word "nosferatu" was a mistake or alteration of the Romanian word nesuferit, which comes from ancient Latin and means "not to suffer," or could imply "insufferable" or "intolerable" -- all words descriptive of a vampire's offensive personality. It is argued that Bram Stoker first discovered the word "nosferatu" while doing research for his book Dracula. He apparently read an 1885 writing called Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily de Laszowska Gerard, wherein she used the term "nosferatu" in place of "nesuferit." It is also possible that "nosferatu" could have been a slang term or variant for "nesuferit."

Whatever the case, today "nosferatu" means vampire largely because of director F.W. Murnau's 1922 German film which bears the name.

Still another interpretation of the word "nosferatu," from author Manuela Dunn-Mascetti, implies the word could be related to the Romanian term meaning "unclean one" -- necuratul. The people of Transylvania (which, by the way, is a real place in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania) have long held a belief in the so-called nosferatu (or vampire) -- a term which has demonic connotations as well.

Vampires and the Age of Ignorance

Throughout history the legend of the vampire has been used to "explain" other natural phenomena that primitive people who lacked scientific knowledge could not otherwise explain. Possibly the most astonishing belief which people associated vampires with was the Black Death during the Middle Ages in Europe.

The Black Death, as we now know, was actually Bubonic plague spread by fleas and rats. The plague (which came from the East, not unlike the vampire) may have killed as much as a third of the population of Europe in the 1300s. Some people of the day, however, associated the multitude of deaths with vampires. Somehow they believed that the deaths were the workings of these monsters; perhaps the vampires spread plague, they may have thought. In some cases people believed a deceased relative returned as a vampire and killed a victim (who actually died of the plague). Alternately, it was believed a dead enemy could return and kill someone turning the victim into a vampire as well. Many graves were dug up and the bodies of suspected vampires mutilated to "kill" the vampire.

Idiotic methods were used to "locate" the graves of vampires. For example, a virgin was placed naked on a horse, and the horse was paraded through a graveyard. If the horse (which was apparently more intelligent than the people) decided not to walk over a certain burial site, this was assumed to be the grave of a vampire. The body was immediately exhumed and mutilated to "kill" the vampire and, yes, thereby stop the plague which was devastating the region.

Some of the most foolish vampire beliefs involved the methods used for killing vampires or stopping the spread of vampirism. It is important to remember, however, that while these beliefs seem absurd today, in an age when ignorance ruled unchecked, desperate people became susceptible to the power of superstitions.

Corpses were sometimes buried face-down. If the corpse became a vampire it would actually dig deeper into the ground in an attempt to escape the grave, if it was facing the wrong direction -- or so it was thought. Wooden stakes were sometimes planted in the ground above the grave, so if the body rose it would stab itself on the stake -- hopefully through the heart.

Corpses were sometimes wrapped in a carpet or cloth to make it more difficult for them to rise from the dead. Alternately, the legs or arms were tied up with rope.

Large rocks were often placed over the grave to prevent the corpse's return. (Could this possibly be the origin of the modern tombstone?) And it is significant to note that some people consider the vampire to be a type of ghost which lives after death, transcending the grave. What better way to keep the ghost in the grave than seal it in stone?

The natural process of bodily decomposition after death sometimes convinced people that corpses were actually transforming into vampires: the hair and nails continued to grow, indicating continued life; the corpse bloated from naturally occurring gasses in the body, meaning it fed on the living; blood sometimes appeared near the mouth as a natural result of bodily decay, indicating the drinking of blood; the generally grotesque appearance of the corpse complete with pale skin, indicating a vampiric need for blood.

Ignorant people followed superstitions to thwart assault from vampires, too. Two of the most commonly known substances used to scare away vampires were the herbs "wolfsbane" and, of course, garlic. It is theorized that people during the Middle Ages believed that the horrible smell of the dead was related to the cause of death, especially during the Black Death, and that the deaths were somehow related to vampires. It is not unlikely that herbs would be used to counteract the smell of death, considering the potent aroma of garlic. Also, throughout the ages garlic had been used as a medicinal herb even by the ancient Romans. Ironically enough, modern science also believes garlic can help people become healthier, in some cases.

People developed curious beliefs relating to vampires. Some believed if a black cat or dog jumped over a corpse, the deceased could turn into a vampire. In Bukovinian lore a stake of ash wood should be driven through the chest of those who died by suicide; suicide being a presumed cause for vampirism. In several cultures, including old England, people who committed suicide were buried at a crossroads (a sign of the cross made by roads) to prevent the corpse from becoming a vampire.

Various people had their various methods for destroying vampires as well. In some Slavic nations a spike made of ash wood, if driven through the chest, was believed to kill a vampire -- this is everyone's favorite method, a stake through the heart. In different lands, however, the wood used sometimes needed to be from a certain tree. For example, oak wood did the job in Silesia, while hawthorn wood was required in Serbia.

Additionally, the heads of corpses suspected of being vampires were sometimes chopped off. Sometimes corpses were thrown into pools of water or burned.

These beliefs were based on the general ignorance of the population, but the greater tragedy of the vampire legend was that the actual ascendance of the belief of the vampire myth may have been helped through the deeds (and misdeeds) of organized religion.

The Church in Europe during the Middle Ages came to recognize the existence of vampires and changed it from a pagan folk myth into a creature of the Devil. The vampire, though clearly a thing of evil and a pagan myth, had its believability reinforced by preexisting Christian doctrines such as life after death, the resurrection of the body, and "transubstantiation." This was a concept based on the Last Supper and the dogma of Pope Innocent the III in 1215 A.D., that the "bread and wine" and its equivalent during Christian Communion literally transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Christ. People who adhered to this belief, and who consumed the blood of Christ, would have little difficulty in believing the corrupted corollary to this -- the drinking of blood by evil demons, namely, vampires.

The Church during the Middle Ages gave credence to the belief in vampires, concluded that it alone had the power to stop vampirism, and then reinforced this position two centuries later in 1489 with its landmark book, Malleus Maleficarum. This work was actually designed to deal with the persecution of witches, but it could be applied to evil vampires as well. Unfortunately many innocent people fell victim to this document, and were tortured and executed for no good reason whatsoever. This book, known as The Hammer Against Witches in English, was used to help identify and persecute people who were supposedly in league with the Devil.

Two centuries after this, evidence that the Church still clung to a belief in vampires was found in the writing of the noted theologian Leo Allatius. As a Church scholar he studied the vrykolakas, the Greeks' concept of the vampire. In his 1645 work called On the Current Opinions of Certain Greeks, he concluded that vampires were often the result of excommunication. Proof of their vampirism is that the body does not decay, indicating that it cannot leave this earthly plane. A swollen body was also evidence of possible vampirism. As some bodies might not decay rapidly due to the type of chemicals in the soil or the cold air temperature, and since bodily swelling was the result of naturally produced gasses in a corpse, many a dead man was wrongly presumed to be a vampire. Oddly enough, incorruptibility --the failure of the dead body to decay -- was also a sign of holiness, even evidence of saintliness. The difference was that a vampire did not totally decay but did become grotesque in form with discoloration and bloating, while a holy body remained almost perfectly intact as if still alive. Also, vampires smelled bad during the lack of decay, whereas sanctified bodies did not. (Remember, you needed garlic to overcome the smell of the vampire's corrupting but non-decomposed, undead body.)

Furthermore, it was a common belief of early Greek Christians that a priest or bishop upon excommunicating an evil-doer could also prevent the sinner's body from decomposing, hence the soul would not be free to go to heaven and was left to dwell on earth until it received a pardon for its sins. In the western Church this belief was apparently also held. There was the case of the Archbishop of Bremen in the 10th century, St. Libentius. He was said to have excommunicated some pirates; the body of one of them was allegedly discovered many years later still undecomposed. It apparently required a pardon of its sins by a bishop before its body would dissolve to ashes -- so it was believed. The clergy thus had the power to make or break possible vampires through excommunication and absolution.

Leo Allatius may have been one of the first scholars to declare officially that vampires were under the power of the Devil and that they prowled at night.

Proof of the Church's power over vampires (and hence the power of the crucifix or holy cross to scare off vampires -- although more modern vampires appear to be less susceptible to this) dates all the way back, at least, to Medieval England. A writer named William of Newburgh discussed the case of a man who died in the 12th century A.D. Supposedly he rose from the dead to torment his wife. After causing much consternation with the local villagers and clergy, the bishop of the region pardoned the corpse in writing for all his past sins. The grave was opened and the actual written pardon was placed over the body of the "vampire." The people were surprised -- or maybe not -- to see the body was still in good condition without signs of decay, sure proof of vampirism. But fortunately for everyone, once the pardon was placed in the grave, the vampire visited no more. Note that this method of dispelling the vampire with an official Church document was remarkably more civil and legalistic than the ordinary way peasants would dispense with a vampire found in the grave -- by burning the corpse, ripping out its heart, chopping off its head, or giving it the old wooden stake through the heart.

In the early 1700s the Sorbonne university in Paris formally opposed the all too common practice in popular culture of mutilating corpses to prevent the dead from becoming vampires. The Sorbonne (which the renowned writer Voltaire had once been shocked to discover actually debated the legitimacy of the mythological vampire) finally took the apparently radical position at that time that the mutilation of corpses suspected of vampirism was a practice based on irrational superstitions.

The belief in vampires, however, did not go without intelligent criticism. Dom Augustine Calmet, a French Benedictine monk, actually wrote a book in 1746 which dared to question the existence of vampires, called A Treatise on Apparitions, Spirits and Vampires a.k.a. The Phantom World. Calmet challenged the rampant vampire superstitions of the day and required proof before acceptance of a belief. He especially doubted that vampires could perform superhuman tasks, such as rising from the dead. He also analyzed and critiqued the supposed vampire epidemics throughout Europe, questioning their basis in reality.

Eventually the centuries of ignorance and superstition gave way to the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the rise of the scientific method. Eventually medical science was able to prove that plagues, such as the Black Death, were not spread by evil, metaphysical vampires but had a very physical, although microscopic, biological basis.

The Romantic Demon

Marie Laveau, the famous 19th century voodoo queen from Old New Orleans, was once said to be a vampire. She was not. But a noted New Orleans writer in the late 1800s, Lafcadio Hearn, said she was -- at least it was so speculated. He was probably speaking of her daughter, also named Marie, with whom he purportedly once lived. Then again, Mr. Hearn was a romantic. Born in Greece (the land of the vrykolakas), renowned as a journalist and writer in New Orleans where he became a familiar with the voodoo community, and a sojourner to a then exotic Japan where he was married eventually and settled down, Lafcadio Hearn walked on the wild side, to be sure. But his alleged statement about Marie Laveau was not altogether unbelievable.

In New Orleans voodoo in the 19th century, the blood of the rooster was drawn and, it was said, consumed. Wild, unsubstantiated tales were spread that the voodoo worshipers cooked children in cauldrons and ate them. This didn't happen, but some people believed it, just as many people believed that vampires spread the Black Death and other plagues in Europe.

But there may have been another reason for calling beguiling Marie Laveau a vampire; dare we say, a vamp? She was sensual as well as supernatural. And not unlike Laveau (who lived in the exotic city where the fictional vampire Lestat would dwell), the vampires of old Europe carried the subliminal message of sex with them as they rose from the dead at night in search of blood.

The Victorian mind would be confronted with the subliminal sensuality of vampires through the fiction of Dracula, but in ancient lore there were two demons who were not so subtle about the purposes of their nocturnal visits and they may have supported the beliefs about vampires. These "romantic" demons were the incubus and the succubus.

Nightmares, under classic and probably outdated Freudian analysis, may relate to anxiety or sexual repression, so we are told. But in the Middle Ages, visions of demons in the night who visited one's bed chamber were unquestionably the work of the incubus (male) and succubus (female). The incubus/succubus was a demon who attacked a human during sleep. (Could this be an early manifestation of the modern-day belief in "alien abduction" as well?) The night creature paralyzed the victim (read this as sleep paralysis) and engaged in sexual relations with the victim, against the human's will, of course. This belief in romantic night demons is explained away today as a rationalization of sexual repression from the oppression and guilt instilled by organized religion -- at least, that's one view. The vampire legend is not much different from the tale of the incubus/succubus, except the vampire will drink the blood of a victim instead of engaging in relations with the victim. Still, a true Freudian could have a field day with an analysis of this action as well, no doubt.

Some say the female succubus was essentially a gorgeous but demonic shape-shifter who assumed the female form and whose goal it was to mate with a male human to reproduce new little demons. Hence, a vamp... Others say the succubus would turn into an incubus after having relations with a male human, then as a new incubus it would pursue a female human, and so on...

The incubus/succubus was usually associated with witchcraft as well. A book from 1584 called Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot discussed the incubus/succubus phenomenon, and stated that in one case witnesses saw an incubus on the bed of a woman. However, in other cases he attributes the demon to the imagination. But basically someone would be very reluctant indeed to claim to have had relations with an incubus/succubus, for in witch trials, assumed sexual relations with the devil or a demon was evidence of being a witch. And they killed witches.

It is also interesting to note that people believed there were different classes of demons, some more exalted than others. The incubus/succubus was at the bottom; it was the low-life in the pecking-order of demons.

The Blood Countess

Support for the vampire myth could be found historically, extrapolated from a few extraordinary facts. Such was the case of the "Blood Countess."

The deeds of a 16th century Hungarian countess named Elizebeth Bathory would rival the tales of horror told in almost any land. Her crimes were evil beyond description, though some say she was more insane than evil. When he was doing research for his novel about vampires, Bram Stoker came across a book called The Book of Werewolves by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould. (Authors Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu suggest that the real-life Dracula -- and yes, there was one -- may have been related to Bathory on his Hungarian side of the family.) In this work was a description of the sinister deeds of the so-called Blood Countess. It is likely that this story, among other things, provided inspiration to Stoker for his vision of Count Dracula. In fact Elizebeth's cousin, Stephan Bathory, would one day become a prince in Transylvania.

Elizebeth was a well-educated and clever woman, but she possessed a tremendous cruel streak. Apparently fearing her own mortality after the death of her husband, she became sadistic towards her servants and eventually sought to acquire if not eternal life or longevity, then at least the appearance of youthful skin by washing in blood. Elizebeth actually got tips on how to torture from her husband who, as a soldier, used to brutalize Turkish prisoners-of-war. Bathory reportedly murdered scores of women, sometimes aided in her brutal deeds by her underlings (not unlike the fictional Dracula commanding his own servants to do his evil bidding.)

Bathory beat her victims routinely and mutilated them as well. Reportedly she froze some in the snows of winter near her home called Castle Csejthe, dumping ice water on them in freezing weather. There were possible acts of cannibalism as well; allegedly Bathory once took several bites out of the flesh of a living servant girl. And there were legendary tales of the Blood Countess literally bathing in the blood of virgin girls in the hopes of remaining young (although at least one source claims the blood baths are more legend than reality). Nevertheless, it is quite clear that the Hungarian countess Elizebeth Bathory did exist and that she committed evil acts. Another source says she drank the blood of 650 girls who were also murdered.

As the body count grew, Bathory's servants dumped the corpses outside the castle. When local peasants found the dead bodies, drained of blood, naturally they assumed vampires killed them. Rumors spread.

In 1610 she was arrested after her attempts to kill girls of nobler birth; apparently the grounds for arrest pertained to alleged witchcraft, not vampirism per se. Reportedly victims were found in the castle drained of blood. The countess' henchmen were put to death by the authorities and Elizebeth was imprisoned in her bedroom in her Castle in the Carpathian Mountains until her death years later. The only real evidence of Bathory's atrocities were recalled in her two trials in 1611 -- though she was never allowed to appear personally in court, only her henchmen appeared. Still, many myths have continued to flourish about her. It is said that some people even today claim to see her ghostly vision in her homeland in the Carpathians, prowling at night... in search of blood.

Elizebeth Bathory's story demonstrates how the myth of vampirism can be supported by the misinterpretation of the true life actions of a deranged criminal and feed the ignorance of believers.


There were other stories written in the 19th century about vampires besides Bram Stoker's monumental work. There was Dr. John Polidori's The Vampyre in 1819, with its hero/villain vampire character, Lord Ruthven, who was actually modeled after the famous poet Lord Byron. As a product of the same writing competition out of which Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Polidori developed his own frightening tale of a vampire based on suggestions from Lord Byron. Some people thought that Byron actually wrote the story himself, but this apparently was not the case. Polidori wrote it.

Then there was Carmilla, written in 1872 by an Irish countryman of Stoker's, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; no doubt this work influenced Stoker's work. However, in Le Fanu's work, the vampire was a female.

Furthermore, there was an 1847 English fiction called, incredibly enough, Varney the Vampyre. This was a popular horror tale of the day, but of questionable quality.

Bram Stoker's Dracula, however, is the ultimate vampire story. Today, more than a century after his creation in 1897, Dracula is still the archetypical vampire image. However, there were actually two Draculas. One was fiction, Stoker's creation. The other was real. He was known as Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, or -- since his father was called Dracul (which meant devil or dragon) -- he was also called Dracula, which means "son of Dracul."

Vlad Dracula was a real Romanian prince who lived in the 15th century who was noted for his military campaigns against the Turks. In Romania he is considered a hero, even today. (For instance, the Romanian military has honored him by naming a modern assault helicopter the AH1 RO-Dracula.) Vlad was also a mass murderer and a fiend whose favorite form of killing was impalement. This was a type of crucifixion except instead of hanging the victim on a cross, the victim was impaled, from bottom up, with a long, sharp, wooden pole -- in other words, a stake was driven into the body vertically. The body was then displayed for Vlad Dracula, who once enjoyed dining amidst a forest of impaled bodies. Allegedly Vlad once killed 20,000 Turks in this way and lined them up as scarecrows to terrify any further enemies. (Vlad did not limit his murderous means to impalement, however; he also enjoyed cooking his victims and chopping them up.)

As to whether Vlad Dracula was an actual vampire, this was not likely. However, according to perhaps the most authoritative modern account on Dracula (McNally and Florescu's In Search of Dracula), Vlad Dracula actually used the blood of his victims as a sauce with his meals, using human blood as a dip for his bread. This was according to a document called "The Story of a Bloodthirsty Madman called Dracula of Wallachia" written in 1463, a document which was only fairly recently discovered. So, it is possible after all that Vlad did enjoy consuming human blood.

Influenced by Vlad Dracula, the vampire which Bram Stoker created was more base, and quite frankly, uglier than the villain in the typical film versions -- although it has been said that the German 1922 film Nosferatu depicted Dracula as Stoker probably would have wanted it. Remember that vampires, according to legend, were essentially ugly, smelly, non-decomposed corpses; Stoker and the 1922 film Nosferatu followed this tradition of a grotesque vampire, which differs vastly from the suave and debonair modern version.

Vampires Demystified

From the paranormal world, there may be a possible explanation for vampires who roam the earth by night but reside in their graves by day; this would be the phenomenon of astral projection. In this procedure it is assumed there is a counterpart to the physical body which dwells on the astral plane, the plane of existence just above our three-dimensional, material world. The astral body may leave the physical body in an out-of-body (OBE) experience -- so the belief goes -- and travel back and forth from the body underground to the surface (in the case of the vampire, in a search for blood).

In addition to the occasional psychotic murderer who thinks he is a vampire and modern-day cultists who pretend to be vampires, there may be some scientific basis for what appears to be vampirism. Daniel C. Scavone has outlined several of these possibilities in his 1990 book Vampires.

Some writers in recent years have theorized that perhaps some persons who were falsely accused of vampirism in ancient times may have actually suffered from a medical disorder known today as porphyria. The bodies of people with this condition cannot produce the correct amount of red blood called "heme." Supposedly this disorder could produce symptoms which ignorant people during the Dark Ages might have concluded to be a case of vampirism. Needless to say, people with this disease do not become vampires; the porphyria theory (elaborated in McNally and Florescu's In Search of Dracula) appears to be merely an attempt to explain the irrational beliefs of the ignorant.

Another disorder which could cause people in olden days to suspect a case of vampirism was extreme anemia. In this event, the patient is low on red blood cells and hemoglobin (an element containing iron in the blood which carries oxygen). Such a severe condition could make the patient's skin appear pale -- clearly a sign of vampirism to the uninformed mind.

Catalepsy is another medical condition which could have been mistaken for evidence of vampirism. In this disorder the patient suffers a form of temporary paralysis and appears dead. It is quite possible that some people historically were actually buried alive while suffering from catalepsy. A person in this state has the ability to hear and has vision, but it is impossible to move a muscle, and the individual certainly cannot call for help. If this person came out of the paralytic state after a premature burial, the resulting confusion with vampirism would be obvious. Imagine witnessing a "corpse" struggling to free itself from a fresh grave or a coffin... Anyone unfamiliar with catalepsy (and this was probably most people) would immediately fear for his life and claim he had seen a vampire rising from the dead.

There very well may have been any number of other blood disorders or physical or mental ailments which produced some symptoms which the fearful in the past might have seen as signs of vampiric or demonic possession. One can imagine that any number of skin diseases or other disfigurements could cause primitive people to believe they had seen a vampire.

Then there is the psychological factor. If the population already believes in the vampire myth, because they are taught this myth as fact, and if the population knows almost nothing of science, then how would we expect these people to explain mysterious yet natural phenomena? The vampire belief would only be reinforced in the face of the otherwise inexplicable. Ignorance and fear would reinforce a belief based on superstition.

Whatever the case may be, whether vampires were actual supernatural beings (most unlikely) or legends based on some non-related facts (possible) or pure fabrications of fantasy, ignorance and anxiety mixed with superstition (most likely), the popular image of the vampire will probably reflect the sign of the times. How we view the vampire at any given point in our human history may be a Rorschach test for our society, revealing more about us than about the vampire.

Sources and Further Reading:

The Book of Vampires by Dudley Wright. Dorset Press, New York. 1987.

Vampires (Great Mysteries: Opposing Viewpoints Series) by Daniel C. Scavone, Greenhaven Press, San Diego, 1990.

Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice.

Dracula by Bram Stoker.

V is for Vampire by David J. Skal, Plume/Penguin Books, New York, 1996.

Vampire: The Complete Guide to the World of the Undead by Manuela Dunn-Mascetti, Viking Studio Books, New York, 1992.

In Search of Dracula by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1994.

Haunted City: An Unauthorized Guide to the Magical, Magnificent New Orleans of Anne Rice by Joy Dickinson, Carol Publishing, Secauscus, N.J., 1997.

Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant, 1946.

Sex and Spirit by Time-Life Books (From the series "Living Wisdom.")

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror edited by Phil Hardy, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, N.Y., 1986.

Films referred to include Interview with the Vampire (1994), Dracula (the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi) and the first silent movie ever made about Dracula, the 1922 German film Nosferatu.

Special thanks to Mr. Christopher Smith for his help with the various computer problems and cyber-crises faced by the author during the composition of this article and on my two previous articles for ParaScope: Ghosts of New Orleans and The Voodoo Queen: Marie Laveau and New Orleans Voodoo. Thanks again, Chris.

Author: Adrian McGrath


Joleene Naylor May 17, 2018 at 12:59 AM  

Wow, very well written article! Thanks for this.

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