This is the second in my It’s All in the Origins series where I examine the history and origins of a famous being associated with Halloween. First up was werewolves and now we’re sinking our teeth into vampire lore.
What is a Vampire?
Here’s the problem with exploring the origins of vampire lore, defining what a vampire is can be surprisingly complicated. Vampire characteristics vary greatly depending on who you ask. A lot of traits we see repeated in vampire fiction today e.g. having an aversion to sunlight, not having a reflection, needing to be invited into a property, turning into bats, not liking garlic and so on come from various pieces of modern fiction. Most notably of all for several of these would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula which we’ll revisit a bit later on.
In European folklore, the general consensus is that a vampire is a usually undead being that preys on the living by consuming their blood (or some other type of life force). That’s a very simple definition though, let’s venture into the history of vampire folklore and fiction.
Folklore and Famous Cases
Perhaps because of the vague and ever-changing definition of what a vampire is, it’s not surprising there is some kind of vampiric creature in nearly every culture around the world. And, much like werewolves, vampire lore dates way back to the ancient times.
In some strands of Judaism there is a possible interpretation that Lilith, the first wife of Adam, is the original vampire. She is often depicted in art as the snake that tempts Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and is sometimes thought to be a kind of demon. There is even one strand of belief that she would steal children and suck their blood, however this is a story that is more commonly attributed to Lamia of ancient Greek mythology.
It could be these figures of religion and mythology that bled into hysteria over vampire attacks. Archaeologists have discovered skeletons of individuals given a vampire’s burial (i.e. with a stake through the heart or a stone in the mouth) across Europe and from several different centuries. But, there are two particular bouts of vampire mass hysteria that I want to mention here:
- The 18th Century Vampire Controversy
Despite the dawn of the Age of the Enlightenment, mass hysteria gripped Europe after reports began in Prussia of a string of vampire attacks in the early 1720s. Bodies were dug up across the continent and stakes were driven through the hearts of these supposed vampires to ensure the dead would never leave their final resting places.
- The New England Vampire Panic
In the 1700s and 1800s, tuberculosis, known then as “consumption”, was spreading quickly amongst families in New England. Making sense of the illness and how it was infecting whole families in the days before science had a full understanding of TB led to the sufferers looking to folklore for answers. Some believed that consumption was spread by one infected family member draining the life forms of those around them, even beyond the grave. In order to cure consumption, families would dig up their dead relatives and examine them for decomposition. If the bodies looked fresh and were found to have still blood in their hearts, they would remove and burn several organs and the ashes would be fed to any remaining living sick relatives. Of the multiple New England “vampire” cases, Mercy Brown is the best-known. She died in January 1892 and her body was exhumed two months later after her father suspected she was causing her brother’s consumption. He died not long after drinking a tonic of her ashes. This case is thought be one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published just five years later.
From Dracula to Lestat
Although Dracula is thought to be the definitive work of vampire fiction, it wasn’t the first. There are several precursors to Stoker’s classic novel. These include Varney the Vampire (1840s), a long-standing penny dreadful, Carmilla (1872), Sheridan Le Fou’s novella which began the lesbian vampire trope and The Vampyre (1819), a short story by John William Polidori which features vampire Lord Ruthven, often thought to be inspired by Polidori’s friend Lord Byron and the closest of these three in similarity to Dracula himself.
This brings us to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. The antagonist is thought to be inspired by Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula, the ruler of Wallachia in the 1400s. He has become a historical figure both feared for his cruelty and revered for his status as a national hero in Romania. What he has to do with vampirism is, on the surface, very little. Modern scholars now believe that Stoker didn’t actually know a whole lot about Vlad the Impaler and what he did know came from one biased history book. However, one key aspect of the former ruler’s life has become synonymous with our contemporary understanding of what a vampire is.
Nowadays, there is a belief that Vlad Dracula might have had a condition call porphyria, this causes the body to not produce enough haem, a substance found in haemoglobin. Porphyria can cause paleness, an aversion to sunlight, pronounced fangs and even avoidance of garlic as it can worsen the symptoms. All of these vampiric qualities are found in Dracula and reoccur countless times in vampire fiction, from Lestat to Edward Cullen.
There are various theories as to why Dracula made such a mark on literature and how vampire myth has managed to endure for so long. One thing is for certain though, interest in these bloodsuckers is truly immortal.