Project Haunted House's History of Vampires

Philip Burne-Jones' "Le Vampire," 1897
Olde Vampyre

Vampires, like zombies, appear in folklore and ancient mythologies dating back to the Akhkharu of Sumer and the Lilu of early Babylonian demonology. One of the Akhkharu, Lilitu, later re-appeared in Jewish demonology as Lilith. The Chinese hopping corpse, the Egyptian god Sekhmet, the Greek Lamia, and the Romanian strix also point to the wiley old-ageyness of vampiric behavior.

Folklore across a variety of cultures depicts vampires and how to detect and/or defeat them, though the majority of what has been retained in vampire lore is rooted in East European (specifically, Slavic) lore. In these stories, vampires were usually the reanimated corpses of suicide victims, criminals, or evil sorcerers, as well as victims of very violent deaths, and they were thought to kill by draining their victims of blood, throttling them, or sitting on them to suffocate them.

I'll Know 'Em When I See 'Em

Other causes or signs of vampirism:
  • Being born with a caul
  • Being born with a tail
  • Being conceived on certain days
  • Unnatural death
  • Excommunication
  • Improper burial rituals
  • Having red hair
  • Death of livestock in an area
  • An exhumed body being in a life-like state with new/growing hair/nails OR blood on the mouth and a ruddy complexion
  • Having an extra nipple
  • Being born prematurely
  • Being the seventh child in a family, if all siblings are of that child's same gender
  • Being born out of wedlock
  • Being born to a woman who avoided eating salt while she was pregnant
  • An unsuitable amount of decay after three years of being buried/dead
  • Dying alone
  • A cat jumping across a grave
  • Eating meat from a sheep killed by a wolf
  • Being cursed

(Webmaster's note: isn't it interesting how many of these have to do with birth and/or death?) Also note: according to Romani folklore, female vampires could lead normal lives, and even marry, but they would exhaust their husbands to the point of death.

Early Means of Taking Back the Night

Ways to kill/avoid a vampire mentioned by various folklore (Slavic, Greek, Romani, etc):
  • Place a crucifix in the coffin
  • Put blocks under the corpses' chins (keep shroud from being eaten)
  • Nail corpses' clothes to the coffin walls
  • Placing sawdust/other small objects into coffin
    (counting them is a distraction 'til dawn comes)
  • Pierce body with stakes/thorns
  • Bury corpse with scythes above neck (self-decapitation)
  • Burn the corpse
  • Bury the body upside down
  • Repeat the funeral service
  • Sprinkle holy water on corpse
  • Exorcism
  • Sever the corpse's tendons at the knees
  • Place thorn across threshold
  • Paint crosses on doors (use tar)
  • Place naked blades under pillows
  • Rub everything and everyone (livestock too) with garlic (yum!)
  • Find a set of twins, brother and sister, born on a Saturday, and make them wear their shirts and underpants inside out. They will be able to see the vampire outside, at night, but once the vampire sees them, the vampire will run away, "head over heels."

Politics, Plogojowitz, and Puritans

In the 18th century in Eastern Europe, starting in East Prussia in 1721 and the Hapsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734, a bit of a vampire panic spread which eventually included government officials in the crazed hunt-and-stake crusades. The two first officially recorded vampire cases involved Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole from Serbia: Plogojowitz died at age 62, but alledgedly returned several times to ask his son for food. When his son refued, the son was found dead the next day. Shortly after, Plogojowitz returned to attack his old neighbors, who died of exsanguination. Arnold Paole, a soldier-turned-farmer who'd been attacked by a vampire, died while haying, and some time after his death, people in his village began to die. The common belief, at the time, was that Paole had returned to kill his neighbors.
These two cases were so well-documented that serious debate about the existence of vampires raged for about a generation and included works from scholars such as Augustine Calmet and Voltaire. Voltaire commented, in his Philosophical Dictionary:

These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.
Eventually the Empress of Austria sent her personal physician (Gerhard van Swieten) to investigate; he concluded that vampires did not, in fact, exist, and the Empress passed a law forbidding the desecration of graves (which put a stop to concerned villagers exhuming corpses right and left).

On the other side of the pond during the 18th and 19th centuries, both Rhode Island and Connecticut sported documented cases of family members disinterring corpses to remove their hearts in the belief that this would prevent the corpses from causing further sickness and/or death in the family (though the word "vampire" was never used). One of the most famous of these incidents involved 19 year old Exeter,Rhode Island resident Mercy Brown, whose father dug up her corpse and removed her heart roughly two months after she had been buried in 1892. He then burnt her heart to ashes (an event which was documented by Bram Stoker and was perhaps used as inspiration for Dracula).

Science Tentatively Pokes at Hysteria

There is also the possibility that those accused of vampirism in the past were merely victims to a rather rare disease called porphyria, which disrupts the production of haem. Porphyria is thought to have been more common in small, Transylvanian villages than in other places, perhaps due in part to inbreeding. Porphyria-sufferers may experience uncontrollable tissue, bone, and skin damage, exacerbated by sunlight, and the tissue damage in the gums may have made these individuals' teeth appear exceptionally large. These individuals would have also suffered from severe anemia, one of the traditional cures for which was drinking (animal) blood.

Rabid dog, with saliva dripping from the mouth. From the CDC's library.

Yet another possible answer to the vampire-existence question is — believe it or not — rabies. The vulnerability to garlic and strong sunlight could be caused by hypersensitivity, which is one of the symptoms of rabies. Nocturnal behavior (or a flip of normal sleep patterns) can also be caused by the way that rabies affects certain portions of the brain (also resulting in hypersexuality). Legend held for a long time that a man who wasn't rabid could bear to see his own reflection, which might have contributed to the idea that vampires have no reflection at all. Wolves and bats, also associated with vampirism, can carry rabies, and the disease can instill an urge in its victims to bite others (and then there's the whole bloody-frothing-at-the-mouth bit, as well).

Renfield Syndome, named after Dracula's bug-eating henchman, is a psychological disorder recognized by modern psychologists, in which the victim becomes obsessed with drinking blood, either human or animal.Another note: when people in the past would exhume bodies for signs of vampirism, the bodies often did not appear as the exhuming parties felt they should, which lead them to assume that their loved ones had become vampires. In reality, the rate of decomposition varies based on soil, temperature, and a number of other factors, and some of the "signs" of vampirism are normal parts of decomposition (blood emanating from nose and mouth, ruddy skin [as folklore almost universally depicts vampires, unlike their portrayal in literature and film], "new" skin and nails, shifting of the body, etc).

Vampires: Here and Now

Of course, pop culture has its own representations and interpretations of vampires and vampirism: London's Highgate Vampire in the 1970s, Count Chocula, those featured in Anne Rice's novels, and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Proinsias Cassidy of the Preacher series, to name just a few. Most recently, in Romania in February, 2004, the remains of Toma Petre were exhumed, his heart cut out and burnt to ash, and the ash mixed with water and consumed by his relatives, who feared he was a vampire. In March 2007, vampire hunters broke into the grave of Slobodan Milošević and shoved a stake through his heart into the ground, in order to prevent him from returning as a vampire. Joss Whedon's explanation and history of vampires, as given by Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) Season 1 Episode 2, "The Harvest," is as follows:

This world is older than any of you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth. They made it their home, their, uh, their hell. But in time, they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for mortal animals, for man. All that remains of the old ones are vestiges, certain magicks, certain creatures. The books tell that the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a human form possessed — infected — by the demon's soul. He bit another and another. And so they walk the Earth, feeding. Killing some, mixing their blood with others to make more of their kind. Waiting for the animals to die out and the old ones to return.
Granted, this history is used primarily within the Buffyverse, but on some points it does agree with other myths and legends regarding vampires. Another point of debate in the definition/defeat of vampires is whether or not they are even of this world; some scholars argue that they share far too many characteristics with the typical "alien" to be natives of Earth, though most lore would argue otherwise. Regardless, you, dear reader, may of course take your pick of mythologies and folklore to believe and to propagate; these are just a few of the many, mentioned to give you a bit of a background into whom and why you're fighting (or running away, if that's your choice *cough*wimp*cough*).

Questions, comments, criticism, praise — make a suggestion or contact the author at: meghan[dot]armes[at]gmail[dot]com.