October 12, 2012
If you ever feel like our culture is over-saturated with sexy, tragic, goth, emo vampires I’m pretty sure you can blame Bram Stoker and his novel Dracula. I suppose it’s because he was a Victorian, a period in history that was really groovy if you overlook all that repression, child labor, prostitution, and really terrible food. Although vampires have never fascinated me as much as certain other creatures of the night (I wasn’t pissing on the fence for kicks) there’s enough overlap in the folklore that I’ve gotten pretty well acquainted with mormos, vrykolakes, loogaroos, and other assorted bloodsuckers. And I can say with pretty fair certainty that before Bram Stoker vampires weren’t that sexy. They weren’t even necessarily bloodsuckers. That’s the tricky thing about vampires. They’re hard to nail down, even if you are Hugh Jackman and wielding a stake-shooting crossbow.
If you’re an average person here’s probably what you know about vampires: you become a vampire by being bitten by a vampire, vampires rise up from their coffins at night, drink blood, hate garlic, can’t be seen in a mirror, and can be killed with a stake through the heart or a crucifix. First, if you’ve ever wondered how vampires first came to be if the only way to become a vampire is to be bitten by a vampire, it may sound like a chicken or the egg question, but in fact there are numerous ways to become a vampire. They include:
Get a vampire’s blood on you.
Eat meat from an animal that’s been attacked by a wolf.
Die of the plague.
Be a terrible person in life.
Be unpopular with your neighbors.
Be buried prematurely.
Be buried in unconsecrated ground.
Be born with teeth.
Have your corpse carried out of your house head first.
Have your corpse carried out of your house feet first.
Have any animal jump over your corpse before it’s buried.
Have a cat jump over your grave.
Have a prominent birthmark.
Have red hair.
Have red hair and blue eyes.
Live in Transylvania.
With a list like that it’s not hard to figure out where vampires come from. In fact it’s harder to understand why there aren’t more vampires, especially since being buried prematurely is one way to become a vampire, and at one time premature burials were believed to be extremely common. At one time it was even estimated that over most of the 19th century in America at least one person was buried prematurely every week. The evidence for this is usually that claw marks were found on the insides of coffins, which always makes me wonder why so many coffins were being dug up and opened. I realize in the 19th century people didn’t have computer games, but were they so hard up for entertainment that they’d go dig up Uncle Charlie to see how he was decaying?
By the way, if you’ve ever worried about being buried alive you can relax. Modern embalming techniques are not only fun at parties, they’ll guarantee you’re dead long before you get put in the ground, oven, or gross anatomy class. And the frequency of premature burials has been greatly exaggerated. Corpses move and can even claw at the insides of their coffins, and while your hair and fingernails really don’t grow after death they do get longer as the body loses water and the skin shrinks. Corpses even make noises as they decay, which may have led to the belief that you could hear a vampire chewing on his shroud, although that makes me wonder why people were hanging around graveyards with their ears to Uncle Charlie’s grave.
Also not all vampires rise up from their graves at night, although some are destroyed by sunlight. Some project a spectral version of themselves, and can even come out during the daytime. These specters don’t always drink blood, but drain it from their victims by, I don’t know, teleportation or something. They cause their victims to waste away. When people in a village began wasting away the first thing they usually did was go to the graveyard and start digging up the recent dead. Vampires could be identified by the lack of decay of their bodies, and they’d also often appear red-faced and bloated. So if you find W.C. Fields sexy you could be forgiven for thinking there were sexy vampires before Bram Stoker. Also some saints’ bodies didn’t decay, so keep this in mind: if you’re a saint and your body doesn’t rot it’s a miracle. If you’re an ordinary person and your body doesn’t rot you’re a vampire. And I’ve never found any record of anyone checking for a corpse’s reflection in a mirror. The bloating and redness are caused by natural processes, and certain soil compositions can actually inhibit decay.
And sometimes earthquakes or other disturbances will push corpses to the surface so the dead appear to be rising. It’s even been suggested that vampire myths are most common in places with loose, rocky soil where it’s hard to keep a body buried. In the old days bodies that wouldn’t stay buried led to vampire myths. Now they lead to the wacky hijinks of movies like Weekend At Bernie’s and Shallow Grave, but that’s another story. If there is one area where traditional and modern folklore agree it’s that vampires hate garlic. One traditional way of stopping a vampire was to dig up the body suspected of being the local vampire and stuffing a clove of garlic in its mouth, although in some areas a lemon works just as well. The stake through the heart worked too, but according to some it couldn’t be just any stake. Oak, beech, or t-bone wouldn’t do-it had to be a hawthorn stake. Although a knife that had never been used to cut bread could also work. Or just plain nails. And contrary to Bram Stoker crucifixes and crosses weren’t a popular prophylactic, so forget trying to make a cross with your fingers, although this is also an area where traditional and modern views overlap, since in movies from Once Bitten to Interview With The Vampire crosses and crucifixes don’t work.
Fire, on the other hand, could take care of a vampire problem. Sometimes in the old days a priest could exorcise a vampire, but usually people had to deal with it through secular means. In addition to the hawthorn stake and the old lemon in the mouth trick these included cutting off the head and putting it under the feet of the person in their coffin, so the vampire couldn’t reach it to put it back on, cutting out the heart and filling it with millet or grain, cutting out the heart and boiling it in millet or grain, cutting out the heart and boiling it in wine, or sprinkling millet, mustard, or poppy seeds around the grave, although agent Mulder found that sunflower seeds work too. Vampires will feel compelled to stop and count the seeds. Centuries before there was a Sesame Street vampires were obsessed with counting. They also have a fascination with knots. A fishing net placed over their grave or over the door of a house will stop a vampire. They have to stop and count the knots, but they’ll keep losing count and have to start over until the sun comes up and destroys them, because vampires are supernaturally stupid. In fact traditional vampires are more like contemporary zombies, especially since, prior to Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, most vampires were common people. Bram Stoker made Dracula thin and pale, but traditionally vampires were fat and red-faced and looked like they spent all their time at Chinese buffets.
One exception was the Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who some people thought was a vampire, and who reportedly murdered over a thousand young girls. But she wasn’t really a vampire because she didn’t drink her victims’ blood-she bathed in it to stay young, making her both the most popular and controversial member of The Real Housewives Of Budapest. Vlad Dracula wasn’t a vampire either, and in fact many Romanians considered him a hero for fighting back invading hordes. Many Romanians still consider him a hero for bringing in invading hordes of tourists. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about vampires it’s that there are exceptions to every rule, and, prior to Bram Stoker, there is at least one story of a sexy vampire. In Hungary a man died unexpectedly, was buried, and a short time later came back as a vampire, wandering through the streets in a shroud. He’d go to his former home where his wife was, and, according to her, and based on the screams that people could hear, would torment her for hours then leave just before dawn. But she insisted that because he was a supernatural creature no one could help her. People got tired of this, and one night a couple of village vigilantes captured the vampire…and found he was the dead man’s brother. It turned out the wife and her brother-in-law had murdered the man and were using the belief that he was coming back as a vampire to cover up their very public, and apparently very loud, affair. With all that it’s a wonder the dead man didn’t really come back as a vampire, maybe even a sexy one.