Historians document that vampires have most often been reported as inhabitants of shallow graves in the Eastern European countryside. Bram Stoker portrayed Dracula (1897), most renown of all revenants, as master of a gloomy and forbidding castle. For contemporary novelist Anne Rice, the French Quarter of New Orleans has long been a favorite milieu for the undead.

Perhaps the best place to find vampires is in the darker recesses of the human imagination. There is something about the image of the vampire that has attracted and fascinated as well as frightened and repelled. Understanding the vampire, then, may be a way of understanding some of the mysteries of the human psyche. Nevertheless, the vampire has not been constructed entirely of moonbeams and fantasies. There is a practical, down-to-earth side of the vampire that deserves careful attention.

Definition and History of Vampires

The vampire seems to defy the firm, mutually exclusive categories of being dead or alive. A vampire's biography begins with death. Furthermore, much of the vampire's time is spent as a corpse or corpse-impersonator. But at night, when the living lie themselves down, up rises the apparent corpse with its dangerous cravings. In the twenty-first century new definitional issues related to brain death, life support systems, persistent vegetative states, and the freezing of both embryos and cadavers (cryonic suspension) have blurred the boundaries between life and death. It is also recognized that some structures, such as the mosaic tobacco virus, can exhibit the properties of either a living or nonliving structure depending upon their situation. For much of history, though, it was the vampire who most daringly crossed and recrossed the borders between the living and the dead.

Vampires are sometimes referred to as "the undead" and sometimes as revenants, reanimated corpses that drink the blood of the living to preserve their own existence. Scholars currently believe that the word vampire derives from the Slavic language spoken in Serbia. The consensus is that vampire derives from the Slavic verb "to drink." The term was known in England in the late seventeenth century and entered other European languages early in the eighteenth century. Perhaps surprisingly, this term did not make its way to the supposed homeland of vampires—Hungary and Transylvania—until some time afterward.

The vampire (by whatever name) may have been with humankind since earliest times. In his The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (1963), the analytical psychologist Erich Neumann suggests that early civilizations had an intensely conflicted attitude toward both the earth and femininity.

In the myths and tales of all people, ages, and countries—and even in the nightmares of our own nights—witches and vampires, ghouls and specters, assail us, all terrifyingly alike. . . . This Terrible Mother is the hungry earth, which devours its own children. (Neumann 1963, pp.148–149)

Neumann offers many examples of rituals and artifacts to support his belief that the vampire is an ancient and universal symbol of the Great Mother swallowing up her own creations in order to recycle them in new form. However, this dramatic idea remains in need of more evidence for the supposed prevalence of vampirism in the ancient world and does not explain why males have been in the clear majority among vampire ranks (until the twentieth century). Scholars also reject the assumption that vampires are part of all world cultures. Native-American traditions, for example, have their own creatures of the night, such as the skinwalkers (restless spirits of the dead who sometimes make themselves visible), but these do not fit the precise profile of the vampire. A plausible case could be made for a widespread fear of the dead in many cultures, but not necessarily for belief in blood-sucking revenants.

It is clear that vampirism had a secure place in Slavic superstitions for many years before it became a household word with the publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). The author transformed these folk stories into a dark gothic romance. His leading character was inspired by a character he did not have to invent: Vlad Tepes, a fifteenth-century tyrant who slaughtered and sometimes tortured thousands of people. "Vlad the Impaler" was no vampire, though; he did his terrible deeds while alive and had a hearty appetite that did not include sucking blood. Stoker, using literary license, combined the historical Vlad with vampire legends and added a veneer of Victorian culture. Separating fact from fantasy became increasingly difficult as popular literary and theatrical vampires distanced themselves from their roots in anxiety-ridden folklore. Inquiring minds have therefore been following the trail of the vampire, classifying and explaining as best they can.

Folk and Literary Vampires

Classification and description are the first steps to shedding light on these dwellers in darkness. Of most interest to serious students of vampirism is the folk vampire. This is the creature who preceded the literary and commercial vampire. In general, the folk vampire is simpler, cruder, and less appealing than his citified cousin; therefore, folk vampires are seldom cunning or sexy. Many are just thirsty, and not always particular about their sources of nutrition. Rural vampires have been accused of rising from their graves to filch the blood of cows or other available livestock. Unlike the elegant Count Dracula, these revenants are foul-smelling and gross, as might be expected from those who, partially decomposed, spend much of their time in a grave.

Another common feature of folk vampires is that they are rarely, if ever, seen at work. The classic case for the existence of a local vampire is built upon (a) something bad that happened in the night and (b) discovering a corpse in its grave that did not appear sufficiently dead. The corpse might have flecks of blood on its face, especially the lips, and might seem to have changed position.

An important distinction can be made among folk vampires. Some are simple, brutish, and unfortunate creatures. Others, though, are corpses that have either been "vampirized" by evil forces or who have willed themselves to return and wreak vengeance on those they believe have wronged them. Not surprisingly, it is this more dangerous and evil form that has attracted the most attention. Vampire-finders, accompanied by the bravest of the brave and a representative of the church, sought and opened suspect graves and took measures to ensure that the inhabitants would henceforth remain in place. Decapitation and, of course, driving a stake through the heart, were among the specific remedies.

Literary and commercial vampires are generally more sophisticated and take better care of their appearances among the living. The sexual allure and prowess of vampires is almost entirely a literary embellishment, again owed chiefly to the Victorian imagination of Bram Stoker. There is little doubt that the popular success of vampires has been enhanced by their dangerous sexuality. These dark lovers were nearly perfect for a society that discouraged open expression of sexuality, especially for women. Vampires embodied both forbidden sexuality and escape from death but their wretched form of existence was punishment for their transgression.

Scientific and Philosophical Vampires

Another type of vampire has been created by those attempting to explain the creature on scientific grounds. The cultural historian Paul Barber has made a strong case for the vampire as a creature of

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's 1922 vampire film Nosferatu starred Max Schreck, who played the uncannily realistic vampire. The title is Slavic for "plague carrier," linking a history of European plagues and unexplained deaths to the fascination with vampirism.
ignorance and circumstance. He notes that most people have little knowledge about the normal course of postmortem changes. Natural events may therefore be given supernatural explanations. Furthermore, bodies may emerge from the grave for a variety of simple if disquieting reasons. Because the most influential collection of vampire reports comes from rural areas of Eastern Europe, Barber offers the following alternative explanations to the folk belief in the reality of the undead.

  • • Animals dig up bodies from shallow graves.
  • • Flooding uncovers bodies from shallow graves.
  • • Grave robbers dig up corpses as they seek items or body parts for sale.
  • • People dig up corpses to move them to other places.
  • • Gases form in the corpse, sometimes causing postmortem movement.
  • • Some corpses decompose slowly for various reasons (e.g., cold temperature or death by poison).

It may be added that fears of being buried alive were widespread in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of these fears were justified, for example, by an epileptic seizure or other loss of consciousness mistaken for death. Porphyria has been nominated repeatedly as a medical condition that produces pallor, giving the individual a somewhat bloodless appearance. The victims are highly sensitive to sunlight and therefore are likely to adopt lifestyles resembling the nocturnal vampire.

The philosophical (or inner) vampire has been created by those seeking to understand the meaning of vampirism in their own minds. Although the speculations have some grounding in fact, some are more appropriately offered as questions rather than answers. For example, is the vampire a sort of "middle man" who provides an image and focus point for all the organic recycling that occurs in nature through season after season and life after life? Is the vampire a concealed warning to humankind? Meaning, people should perhaps be content with one life and not grasp for more. Or, is it possible that within each person lurks an ancient and relentless archetype that seeks satisfaction in the most primitive ways despite one's learning, civilization, and moral development? However when one answers these questions, it is likely that the vampire will not be leaving its haunts in the human mind anytime soon.

See also: Aids ; Brain Death ; Buried Alive ; Cryonic Suspension ; Death Instinct ; Definitions of Death ; Ghosts ; Gods and Goddesses of Life and Death ; Horror Movies ; Life Support System ; Persistent Vegetative State ; Personifications of Death ; Sex and Death, Connection of ; Thanatomimesis ; Zombies


Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Dresser, Norine. American Vampires. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.

Dundes, Alan, ed. The Vampire: A Casebook. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Gladwell, Adele O., and James Havoc, eds. Blood and Roses: The Vampire in Nineteenth-Century Literature. London: Creation Press, 1992.

Heldreteth, Leonard G., and Mary Pharr, eds. The Blood Is the Life: Vampires in Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1999.

McNally, Raymond T., and Radu Florescu. In Search of Dracula. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1972.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Perkowski, Jan L., ed. Vampires of the Slavs. Cambridge, MA: Slavica Publishers, 1976.

Rice, Anne. The Vampire Lestat. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire and His Kith and Kin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1928.

Wolf, Leonard. The Annotated Dracula. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1975.


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User Contributions:

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hey im doing a research paper on the history of vampires and hoped you could give me info.
Hi, I am also doing a research project on vampiric history mainly because I am obsessed and my class likes to make fun of me... Thank you for the info!
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Hey I've only heard little about vampires and I've only seen images of them in a some what of a "demon" form what i want to ask is can vampires apear in a human form?
hey have heard of vanpires in some foreing movies and magazine am kind of wondering if it is true that vanpires really exist or if its based on friction not fact of some people.
Vampires are real. i'm not joking around. it's a legitimate genetic condition that many people have, including myself. the most common and logical belief for the cause of actual vampirism (not role players or the impossibility of the undead) is a human endogenous retrovirus. we would have been confused with corpses because humanity would not think that a vampire would be something you could be born as. they did not know about genetics. so they would confuse our pale appearance, nocturnal behavior and need to consume blood with something that their belief system could better conform to. we have had to hide from people for obvious reasons in the past, however we are being more open about it, because it seems that there a great many more people fascinated with us that apt to kill us.
some websites where you can find some useful and correct information about this is and the same person who wrote this website also published a very informative book, and has some good youtube videos. i highly recommend that you do your own research and decide for yourself what would seem more logical. feel free to email me, i would be happy to answer any questions.
Yes . But one thing awayls stuck in my mind when we had asked her: She would awayls ask, Will it be after 7? No one had questioned her .I mean it may have been just another coincidence; maybe her mother was strict with those things? Who knows. But she became a welcome part of our group. She didn't talk much, but that was fine with us, we just liked being around her. She only stayed in town for 2 years, and near the end of the 2nd year me and her shared a special relationship together if you could say so. We began to talk to each other more, and we hanged out more frequently. Then, one night, at the bowling alley, she told me she was moving away. I remember her giving me a kiss right on the cheek, and boy did it feel wonderful. As she had said, the next day, she had left. Just like that. She was a mystery none of us or I could solve. It wasn't until the past few years that I had begun to notice and realize why she was so mysterious, why she was the way she was, I began to pick out details from my past and now that I take a better look, the coincidence is striking. She almost NEVER came to school on completely cloudless days. Her attendance was more frequent during the Fall and Winter months. Her eyes were literally enchanting, they were a very deep blue, and under her eyes were dark circles which made her stand out even more from the class. She only hung out with us on early evenings, for example, from 7-9. Then she hurriedly left. Her manners were VERY decent, she ate very proper and she awayls said Please and Thanks . Her presence when she entered any room was a mysterious vibe , a creepily dark one, and even I could never tell what she was thinking or feeling. Her emotions were well hidden. Don't get me wrong, maybe these are just surprising coincidences, maybe she grew up in a well-mannered home. Maybe all the animals that awayls seemed to be drawn to her was also just a coincidence. I'm not going to assume she wasn't human. She did eat lunch, although very little. She laughed and she acted like everyone else. But something about her really struck a nerve. I never really tell much of anyone about her. It was a more personal memory and experience. I believed I had befriended a Vampire. This is pure speculation. I never saw her drink blood, I never saw her burst into flames or fly or whatever these modern vampires do. She dressed rather normally. Her name was a bit strange but it was unique, her name was Nasya. I'm not sure if that's how it was spelled but it went something like that. (Old Man memory). I have tried to locate this woman (or girl), but no records that I could recall came up. It saddens me indeed. Well that was my supposed Vampire Tale.

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