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
- • 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.