Vampires (or Vampyres) are beings who subsist by feeing on the life essence (generally blood) of living creatures. The earliest appearance of the word in English occurred in 1734 in a book titled Travels of Three English Gentlemen. The word appeared in German literature as early as 1718 where officials noted the local practice of exhuming bodies and “killing vampires”. In other cultures the word has appeared as early as 1047 AD in a manuscript of the Book of Psalms where a priest writes about a man whose name meant “wicked vampire”. Vampires and vampirism has been documented for at least the past 1,000 years. Precursors to vampires have been mentioned in historical texts even earlier.
The notion of vampirism has existed for millennia. Cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had tales of demons and spirits that consumed flesh and blood of victims which are considered precursors to modern vampires. In Egypt, the warrior goddess Sekhmet drank blood. Early Persian pottery depicted demons attempting to drink blood from men on excavated pottery shards. However, despite the occurrence of vampire-like creatures in these ancient civilizations, the folklore for the entity we know today as the vampire originates almost exclusively from early 18th century South-eastern Europe, when verbal traditions of many ethnic groups of the region were recorded and published. In these instances, vampires are revenants of evil beings, suicide victims, or witches, but they can also be created by a malevolent spirit possessing a corpse or by being bitten by another vampire. Belief in such legends became so pervasive that in some areas it caused mass hysteria and even public executions of people believed to be vampires.
During the 18th century, there was a frenzy of vampire sightings in Eastern Europe. Stakings and grave diggings to identify and kill potential revenants were recorded in historical texts (even government officials were noted as participating). There was an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and in the Habsburg Monarchy from 1725 to 1734. In some cases the vampire attacks were eventually attributed to premature burials (people accidentally buried alive) or infections with rabies (promoting sensitivity to garlic and light) but in many cases the final conclusion was that the attacks were made by vampires. In the Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire wrote:
“These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption; while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite. It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.”
It is difficult to make a single, definitive description of the folkloric vampire, though there are several elements common to many European legends. Characteristics such as pale skin or rosy cheeks were often attributed to the recent drinking of blood. Indeed, blood was often seen seeping from the mouth and nose when the body was viewed in its coffin. Legends abound of bodies that were buried and later dug up only to find that teeth, hair, and nails may have grown somewhat.
The causes of vampiric generation were many and varied in original folklore. In Slavic and Chinese traditions, any corpse which was jumped over by an animal, particularly a dog or a cat, was feared to become one of the undead. A body with a wound which had not been treated with boiling water was also at risk. In Russian folklore, vampires were said to have once been witches or people who had rebelled against the Church while they were alive.
Cultural practices often arose that were intended to prevent a recently deceased loved one from turning into an undead vampire. Burying a corpse upside-down was common, as was placing earthly objects, such as scythes or sickles, near the grave to “satisfy any demons entering the body”. Other methods commonly practiced in Europe included severing the tendons at the knees or placing poppy seeds, millet, or sand on the ground at the grave site of a presumed vampire as a means to view any footsteps left behind after the undead left the grave.
Many elaborate rituals were used to identify a vampire. One method of finding a vampire’s grave involved leading a virgin boy through a graveyard or church grounds on a virgin stallion—the horse would supposedly balk at the grave in question. In addition, holes appearing in the earth over a grave were taken as a sign of vampirism.
Apotropaics—mundane or sacred items able to ward off revenants—such as garlic or holy water are common in vampire folklore. The items vary from region to region; a branch of wild rose and hawthorn plant are said to harm vampires; in Europe, sprinkling mustard seeds on the roof of a house was said to keep them away. Other apotropaics include sacred items, for example a crucifix, rosary, or holy water. Vampires are said to be unable to walk on consecrated ground, such as those of churches or temples, or cross running water. Although not traditionally regarded as an apotropaic, mirrors have been used to ward off vampires when placed facing outwards on a door (in some cultures, vampires do not have a reflection and sometimes do not cast a shadow, perhaps as a manifestation of the vampire’s lack of a soul). This attribute, although not universal, was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula and has remained popular with subsequent authors and filmmakers. Some traditions also hold that a vampire cannot enter a house unless invited by the owner (although after the first invitation they can come and go as they please). Though folkloric vampires were believed to be more active at night, they were not generally considered vulnerable to sunlight.
Methods of destroying suspected vampires varied, with staking the most commonly cited method, particularly in southern Slavic cultures. Ash was the preferred wood in Russia and the Baltic states, hawthorn in Serbia, with oak being the primary choice in Silesia. Potential vampires were most often staked though the heart, though the mouth was targeted in Russia and northern Germany and the stomach in north-eastern Serbia. Decapitation was the preferred method of vampire disposal in German and western Slavic areas, with the head buried between the feet, behind the buttocks or completely away from the body. This act was seen as a way of hastening the departure of the soul, which in some cultures, was said to linger in the corpse. The vampire’s head, body, or clothes could also be spiked and pinned to the earth to prevent rising. Gypsies drove steel or iron needles into a corpse’s heart and placed bits of steel in the mouth, over the eyes, ears and between the fingers at the time of burial. They also placed hawthorn in the corpse’s sock or drove a hawthorn stake through the legs. In a 16th-century burial near Venice, a brick forced into the mouth of a female corpse has been interpreted as a vampire-slaying ritual by the archaeologists who discovered it in 2006. Further measures included pouring boiling water over the grave or complete incineration of the body. In the Balkans a vampire could also be killed by being shot or drowned, by repeating the funeral service, by sprinkling holy water on the body, or by exorcism. In Romania garlic could be placed in the mouth, and as recently as the 19th century, the precaution of shooting a bullet through the coffin was taken. For resistant cases, the body was dismembered and the pieces burned, mixed with water, and administered to family members as a cure. In Saxon regions of Germany, a lemon was placed in the mouth of suspected vampires.
Corpses thought to be vampires were generally described as having a healthier appearance than expected, plump and showing little or no signs of decomposition. In some cases, when suspected graves were opened, villagers even described the corpse as having fresh blood from a victim all over its face.
In modern fiction, the vampire tends to be depicted as a suave, charismatic villain. Despite the general disbelief in vampiric entities, occasional sightings of vampires are still reported. Indeed, vampire hunting societies still exist today. Allegations of vampire attacks swept through the African country of Malawi during late 2002 and early 2003, with mobs stoning one individual to death and attacking at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, based on the belief that the government was colluding with vampires.
In early 1970 local press spread rumors that a vampire haunted Highgate Cemetery in London. Amateur vampire hunters flocked in large numbers to the cemetery and the vampire hunt was even televised on local television stations. Sean Manchester, a local man who was among the first to suggest the existence of the “Highgate Vampire”, later claimed to have exorcised and destroyed a whole nest of vampires in the area.
In January 2005, rumors circulated that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fuelling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. The attacker bit a local pedestrian and later bit several onlookers who had come to the man’s aid. A woman had large chunks bitten from her neck and hands. Police investigated but were never able to find the culprit.
In one of the more notable cases of vampiric entities in the modern age, the chupacabra (“goat-sucker”) of Puerto Rico and Mexico is said to be a creature that feeds upon the flesh or drinks the blood of domesticated animals, leading some to consider it a new kind of vampire.
In Europe, where much of the vampire folklore originates, the vampire is now considered a fictitious being, although many communities have embraced the revenant for economic purposes. In some cases, especially in small localities, vampire superstition is still rampant and sightings or claims of vampire attacks still occur frequently. In Romania during February 2004, several relatives of Toma Petre feared that he had become a vampire. They dug up his corpse, tore out his heart, burned it, and mixed the ashes with water in order to drink it.
Vampirism also represents a relevant part of modern day’s occultist movements. The mythos of the vampire, his magical qualities, allure, and predatory archetype express a strong symbolism that can be used in ritual, energy work, and magic, and can even be adopted as a spiritual system. The vampire has been part of the occult society in Europe for centuries and has spread into the American sub-culture as well for more than a decade, being strongly influenced by and mixed with the neo gothic aesthetics.