Vampires, the irresistible creatures of Dracula fame, proudly flaunt their fangs through today’s pop culture. But where did the legend of the vampire originate? Bram Stoker wrote the first well-known vampire tale. His writing brings the literary archetype of the blood-sucking undead monster to readers as a debonair aristocrat from the dark, mysterious Romanian countries. Yet he wasn’t the first to write vampire tales.
The Vampyre was first published by John William Polidori in 1819. The author was one of the circles of friends that included Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. The inspiration for both Polidori’s The Vampyre and Shelley’s Frankenstein came from three days in June when a small circle of these friends shared ghost stories during a particularly rainy week in England. The Vampyre is a short story based on traditional folklore but with an aristocrat as the blood-sucking fiend. This idea sparked the imaginations of others and led to further writings impacting on the creation of today’s vampire.
However imaginative these tales were for their time, these blood-sucking characters were not completely original. They were founded on legends and myths of vampires that permeated Europe in the 17th century. The word “vampir” has Slavic originations from before these authors took pen to paper. But vampire legends originate even further back in time than the Dark Ages of Europe. Blood sucking demons have existed long before the written word; they just didn’t achieve the fine characteristics of a Count Dracula. Some form of a blood-sucking demon has existed through time in nearly every culture throughout the world.
If there is one thing everyone on the planet has in common it is death. And in earlier times, there were many unanswered scientific details involving death that people were not aware of. Except for a few cultures who wished to preserve the body, embalming practices didn’t exist. Rigor mortis is a temporary condition but once in the grave, many people weren’t aware of the on-going stages of decomposition. If a body was exhumed for any reason, they were often in for a shock. Decomposition led to dead bodies becoming bloated with gases, sometimes making the corpse appear healthier in death than it did in life. Salt in the body would absorb any surrounding liquids from the environment. Humidity and temperature caused corpses to disintegrate at different rates causing further confusion about the process.
Decomposing bodies produce heat. Imagine opening a casket and finding a warm body. That would be enough to give anyone the willies. And decomposition slowly liquefies the body. This liquefying process would cause pools of blood mixed with the liquid to accumulate around the nose and mouth, making the corpse appear as though it had recently fed off fresh blood. Where could they get the blood and the fullness of body if not from outside the grave?
Putrefaction causes the skin to darken and fall away, leaving the appearance of fresh new skin underneath. Fingernails and facial hair appear to grow when what actually happens is the skin loses fluid and retracts, making nails and hair appear longer. Blood and fluids can cause the genitals to swell leading to all sorts of wild stories about the dead corpse. And flatulence happens. That would send me running to find a stake even if none of the other symptoms did.
With no one around to explain the scientific process of decomposition, superstition ruled the day. A stake would be driven through the heart of the corpse to make sure the “vampire” died. And a stake driven through the heart of a bloated corpse would cause copious amounts of bleeding, giving further proof that the vampire hunter had killed a living vampire.
These simple explanations of the various stages of decomposition are only one of the many suspected reasons for the myths of the vampire. There are also cultural practices of drinking sacrificial blood; acts of cannibalism; tales of blood-stained coffins from people buried alive; and any number of acts by serial killers and necrophilia that have aided the myths. Imagine living in a world without a scientific base of knowledge. In that world, anything would be possible. Even vampires.
If you have never read Dracula, I highly recommend it. I read it for free on my Kindle.