Over the ages, certain artifacts have gained a reputation among popular cultures as ways to ward off, or even kill, vampires. This guide takes you through the historical meaning and reasoning behind the ways we've found to hunt the vampire. So grab your crucifix, and wade on in!
Early mythological vampires did not sleep in coffins. Up until the 19th century, only the very rich could afford coffins, and so much of the history of vampires did not include a 'secured' burial - indeed, it was the very precarious nature of medieval burial that fostered the fear that vampires could very easily rise from their final resting place in the earth.
Even up to the time of Dracula, vampires did not require coffins to slumber. All that was required was that the vampire rested in its native soil. When Dracula came to England, he brought crate upon crate of his native soil with him, and it was that soil in which he rested and regained his strength.
In more recent times, the best explanation for the commonality of the coffin to all vampire stories rests in the fact that vampires are dead; today, we bury our dead in coffins. The coffin also provides protection from sunlight (which is known in modern times to damage or kill the vampire). However, the coffin has provided a perfect target for the vampire hunter - a vitally important aspect of the modern vampire story.
Still, in these more secular times, the most modern of vampire writers are again challenging the myths of old. In Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles as well as other novels in this decade, vampires require nothing but protection from sunlight. Crypts, sealed rooms, and even the earth itself is sufficient for their needs.
The crucifix is a major symbol of the Christian faith. Many times shown on a chain or rosary beads, the crucifix has the body of Christ attached to the cross.
Although Christianity had liked vampires to Satanism as early as the 16th century, it was not until Bram Stoker's Dracula that the crucifix was considered to have power against the vampire. Stoker imbued the crucifix with an almost supernatural power. He used the cross as symbolic representation of Christ and all that is holy. Because historical Christian thinking encouraged associating vampires with Satan, a symbol like the crucifix with its Christian power, would ward off the beast. In Dracula, the crucifix drained the vampire's strength. It could also burn vampire flesh, and leave a mark on the skin of anyone who had been bitten by a vampire.
Stoker's ideas were carried on into modern literature and film, although often the crucifix was substituted by the empty cross, without the corpus. More recent twentieth century authors, such as Anne Rice, began to break with tradition by creating vampires who were immune to the effects of the cross and other religious symbols. These were true secular vampires who were not associated with Satan and therefore were not affected by artifacts imbued with Christian power.
In Christianity, one of the most sacred objects is the eucharistic wafer. The wafer is a symbol of the body of Christ, and together with wine (the symbol of the blood of Christ), it is taken during the Holy Communion of the Eucharist. Older religions such as Roman Catholicism look upon the eucharistic objects as being mystically empowered by the spirit of Christ.
Because of its apparent mystical powers, the wafer was often used in ancient times for other purposes. It was used both in burial when the deceased had lived an evil life, and to ward off spirits. Many historical religious papers cited these other uses for the wafer. It's believed that Bram Stoker used these papers as a basis for the wafer's power in his book, Dracula. In the book, Abraham Von Helsing used the wafer many times; it left a mark on Mina's skin when held to her forehead, and Von Helsing used it to seal Lucy's grave until he could return to kill her.
Since Dracula, the wafer has been used only rarely by those wishing to ward off the vampire. It has been largely substituted by the cross, which has picked up one of the wafer's qualities; the ability to burn vampire skin.
Fire has long been considered an effective way to kill vampires. Fire has been used since pagan times as a ritual, a cleansing, warmth, and defense. Many vampires have met their doom by this method.
Although Dracula makes no mention of fire, there are few other literary or film references who don't. In Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, fire was the only known way to destroy a vampire, or a vampire to destroy himself. Lestat's maker committed suicide in this fashion shortly after Lestat was made.
Unlike the cross, which in these secular times has been losing its popularity and effectiveness, garlic has grown in esteem as a way to detect or ward off vampires. Garlic has been used since ancient times as an herb and a medicine. It was used as a healing agent before modern medicine, and is even used to this day as a vitamin to strengthen the body's natural defenses to disease. However, its rumored magical properties are what has made it an effective defense against the vampire. The traditional use is to stuff the vampire's mouth with a head of garlic after the body has been decapitated. Other uses include hanging it around the neck or at the doorway to a home to ward off a vampire attack.
Garlic was also thought historically to be a method by which to detect vampires. In the Slavic countries, a person's aversion to eating garlic meant that they could be a vampire. Hundreds of years ago, it was even distributed in churches to ensure that only humans were attending the service!
The first real literary tie to garlic was in Dracula, where Van Helsing used it around Lucy's neck to keep Dracula away from her, and to keep her from harming others. Since then, garlic has become a major tool in the vampire hunter's kit. Most movies and novels give some reference to its effectiveness, although Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles and The Lost Boys both tend to disregard it as a viable form of defense.
Staking a vampire has been one of the major methods of killing vampires for hundreds of years. Originally, it was used as a way of affixing the corpse within the ground. Before coffins, the only way people could be sure the revenant would not escape from its burial site was to fix it through the ground. Traditionally, this was done by staking the corpse through the stomach or back.
After coffins were in widespread use, the importance of the stake changed somewhat. It became instead a method of actually killing the vampire. There were two common beliefs of how this method worked.
1. By destroying the heart, which pumped the blood that gave the vampire life.
2. The wooden stake itself killed the vampire.
For those who believed it was the wood itself, several types of wood were recommended; ash, aspen or juniper were among the most common. Bram Stoker used this method heavily in both the killing of Lucy and also of Dracula.
Traditionally, sunlight was not thought to kill vampires. In medieval times, vampires were thought to be able to walk around just as easily as humans during daylight. As literary vampirism increased, so did the vampire's aversion to sunlight. In Dracula, Van Helsing notes that the vampire can walk around by day, although he is not as strong. However, modern film and novels have increasingly shown vampires as vulnerable to sunlight, perhaps even mortally so. In Forever Knight, Nick can go out in daylight but only if it does not touch his skin. Even the nearness of sunlight can cause him to become weak.
In Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, sunlight is one of only two methods available to kill vampires, the other being fire. This method does work well for the newly initiated, who are still weak. However, even Rice's vampires are immune to the power of sunlight if they have lived long enough and grown strong enough.