The modern idea of the vampire is open to many different possibilities. What defines a vampire? And where did these traits come from?
Certain ideas about the vampire are now fixed. Sie almost always survives by drinking blood. Sie has died, and come back to life. Almost always, sie is unable to be active during the daylight hours. Often, sie fears holy objects such as crucifixes and blessed wafers, and is also allergic to garlic. Sie can be killed by means of a stake through the heart, or, sometimes, by burning.
But the vampires of Eastern Europe, whence some of the oldest traditions regarding the ‘vrolock’ can be traced, were not blood drinkers at all. They were reanimated corpses who killed their victims out of pure malice rather than any need to survive, and their usual means of murder was suffocation by pressing on the chest, which later developed into biting the chest. Unless appropriately treated, anyone who died in this way would go on to become a vampire.
These days, vampirism is usually considered to be contagious only when an exchange of blood occurs, when the victim consumes some of the vampire’s blood. In Anne Rice’s tales, almost all the blood in the body must be thus exchanged before any change can take effect. In Bram Stoker’s time, it was enough for the victim merely to have tasted their attacker’s blood; however, they would not necessarily die when bitten, and would not be transformed until their death occurred, often years later. If the vampire who bit them died before they did, they would be saved.
In older mythology, as Montague Summers concluded in his research on the subject, anyone who faces damnation, has been excommunicated or has traded in hir lifetime with the powers of darkness, faces the danger of turning into a vampire after the point of death. Summers warns that such creatures are wholly the possessions of the Devil, and have no real free will of their own, so that this is a foolish way for a sorcerer to attempt to prolong hir own life.
The idea of the damnation of the victim was perhaps the most terrible aspect of the curse of vampirism in past ages, and implied the connivance of the victim in the damning act. This is notably parallel to developing cultures’ attitudes to rape. In primitive times, women who had been raped were often excommunicated or killed for having behaved imorrally. It was believed that the moral nature of the victim could be altered and condemned by forces wholly outside hir ability to control.
Various things could be done, in old Eastern Europe, to prevent the transformation of a corpse into a vampire occurring, and so to save the soul of the unfortunate individual. As sie was damned, the victim could not be buried in consecrated ground, but the planting of a thorn bush on top of the grave might prevent hir from rising again. After several nights had passed, a white gelding might be led into the graveyard, where it would indicate the location of a vampire’s grave. The vampire could then be killed in the appropriate way. Afterwards, the body could be reconsecrated and reinterred in consecrated ground, whereby the soul could escape the clutches of hell, if the person had, in life, been appropriately good.
Anne Rice has conjectured that the mindlessness of these early vampires might well be due to their burial in the earth, and their lack of awareness of their state, so that when they came around – effectively buried alive – they would go insane with terror, like the Haitian zombies drugged into a temporary seemingness of death. Certainly, as the vampire legend developed, vampires became more intelligent, and have in modern times often been held to be of superior intelligence to the average mortals around them
Perhaps the most significant contribution to this developing evolution was Dr. John Polidori’s eighteenth century novel The Vampire. The protagonist of this novel is suave, sophisticated and able to seduce almost anyone he chooses. He is charming and intelligent, but fickle in his affections, and absolutely cold hearted. Polidori wrote the piece as a satire, intending to insult Lord Byron, whom he had adored and who had recently discarded him. However, much to his horror, the public bestowed equal adoration on the Vampire figure himself, and, as Polidori drifted into obscurity, many attributed the authorship of this astounding book to Byron himself.
It was with this novel that the concept of the aristocratic vampire really took off, and a whole wave of similar tales precipitated over the following century. Sheridan LeFanu’s famous Carmilla used the vampire myth to explore forbidden aspects of sexuality, and in so doing created an interesting heroine who, despite her nature, attempted to resist harming the girl whom she loved. The vampire and the human had at last become directly entwined.
Thus the vampire finally completed its progress from mindless, terrifying monster to sometime sympathetic, tragically cursed hero.
Among all these famous vampires there is one, of course, who truly stands out, and whose name will always be remembered: Dracula. Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula (the impaler) lived between 1430 and 1476, when he was reportedly killed in war. At this time, a whole variety of supernatural insults were hurled at him to emphasise the horror of his cruel treatment of prisoners – he not only impaled his victims, but also blinded, skinned, castrated, dismembered, boiled them alive and gave them to savage animals in order that he might watch them be torn apart. However, he made no pretense of immortality, and was quite definitely and finally killed – slain in battle, his head was later presented as a trophy to the Sultan of Constantinople.
It was only among the peasant folk that any real supernatural traditions regarding the Wallachian warrior persisted, and it was not until the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, centuries later, that an incarnation of Vlad Tepes was thoroughly portrayed as a blood-drinking, damned vampire.
Older stories of the actual powers and abilities of vampires differ more widely than is genuinely understood. Not all of them fear the daylight. Count Dracula could go about in the light quite safely, though his other powers would be weakened by it. In desert countries, and in some of the Ancient Egyptian traditions, vampires were active not by night, but by day. In the desert, it is the daylight hours when mortal man might rightly fear to wander. In the desert, it is the daylight hours during which people die.
Many vampires of the last three centuries were considered to have hypnotic powers over their victims, particularly if they managed to make eye contact (their eyes are often described as reddened or glowing red, though in keeping with the modern tradition, female vampires enjoy an unmarred beauty). Older tales of vampires place a great deal of emphasis on their capacity to shape-shift (most commonly into ‘devillish creatures’ such as bats, crows or wolves), but the modern vampire tends to lack these traits. Likewise, it is uncommon for a modern vampire to require to rest on the soil of hir own homeland during daylight, or to suffer from the old eldritch traditions of being unable to pass a threshold unless invited to do so, and unable to cross running water except at the flow or the ebb of the tide.
The ancient vampires of eastern Europe and of the desert cultures were uniformly described as ugly – they were little more than half-rotted corpses, and would be perpetually filthy from the grave where they must rest each day. In modern times, however, the image of the vampire has often been adored. Though Murnau’s classic Nosferatu gave us the image of a shrivelled, impish fiend worn by the ages, more popular are the tall, dashing men and voluptuous women, usually pale skinned and dark haired, with the giveaway pointed fangs so noteably absent from their earlier incarnations.
With the decline of popular religion over the last century, less and less influence has been placed on the significance of the vampire’s damnation, and it is rarely any longer considered that items such as crucifixes and holy water might be used against these creatures. Also the subject of modern hilarity are the old herbal remedies, garlic and dogroses and rowan, with which a person or a house might be protected.
In ancient times the vampire could be killed in a variety of ways, such as staking, burning, decapitating, or even striking with a blessed knife or sword. Sometimes, the evil spirit posessing what was really just a corpse could be driven out by means of excommunication. In modern mythology, only a wooden stake through the heart tends to be effective; if the head is cut off, garlic should be placed between it and the neck, and the liberal application of blessed crucifixes is desirable.
Neither does the modern vampire always feed on blood. Throughout the ages, there have been various stories relating alternative forms of parasitism on the living by the dead. In Iceland, the tradition holds that one must never put a baby to sleep in a room with an old person, because even without intending to the old person will be drawing life out of the infant and into hirself. Increasinly, vampirism is used as a metaphor used to refer to many such conditions. As some eighteenth century authors had intended, the figure of the aristocratic vampire has begun to be perceived as a satirical one; the rich man is drawing life out of the beleagured working classes.
Some modern vampires feed off the personality, or draw a kind of psychic energy out of their victim; or a sheer, unadulterated life-force. In The Girl with the Hungry Eyes, an icon is built out of society’s idealised woman, a figure who always wants more, always wants you; but the horror of it is that her need for the absolute nature of her worshippers can destroy them utterly, and condemn them to the emptiness of a modern damnation.