When you say “vampire”, most people in our portion of the world probably picture the modern version of this folk monster: a beautiful, suave, smooth-talking creature who offers the prospect of eternal life. There are a number of different versions of this breed of vampire, and the one that comes to mind probably depends on your age: Dracula, Lestat, the Lost Boys, Spike and Angel, Edward Cullen. They’re all different, but they share a common thread — they’re just so flippin’ cool and pretty that of course you want to get bitten and hang out with them forever. Especially the Lost Boys.
This version of the vampire that we’re familiar with is fairly recent, dating back to the mid-19th century when the “literary vampire” first began appearing, with the iconic example being Bram Stoker’s Dracula (published in 1897). However, the folk legend of the vampire is much older. Medieval stories about undead creatures and re-animated corpses dating as far back as the 13th century are thought to be folkloric precursors to the vampire myth, while the earliest recorded tale of what we would recognise in Western folklore as a ‘true’ vampire comes from Croatia in 1672, where villagers claimed a man who had recently died came back from the dead and started drinking people’s blood and harassing his widow (he was subsequently beheaded for being both a vampire, and a jerk).
SO…where do vampires come from?
Unlike our cool and pretty literary vampire friends, the old school vampires of European folklore were neither charming nor attractive. They were also considered to be a very real danger, whereas today they’re simply fictional beings that we typically aren’t really afraid of. The original vampires were generally reported to be bloated and discoloured, with dark red or purple skin, and with blood leaking from their eyes, mouths, and noses. Interestingly, the similarities between these descriptions of old school vampires and what happens to the human body during the process of decomposition are such that it’s commonly thought that this is the root of the original vampire legend.
It’s helpful if we think about folklore, myth, legend, and similar concepts as stories that we tell ourselves on a cultural level in order to make sense of the world. Our brains are pretty smart, and they like to think that they know what’s going on all the time, because that gives us a sense of control and makes us feel safe. So, often, when things happen that we don’t fully understand, our brains just do us a quick favour and make something up that seems reasonable, and bam, a folk tale is born.
Before the days of hospitals and funeral homes, people were very familiar with death. Not only were lifespans typically much shorter, but people died at home, and their bodies were prepared for burial by their immediate family. In the hours after death, as the decomposition process begins, bacteria within the body starts to produce gases, which cause the body to bloat, and for bodily fluids to be forced out of the nearest openings — the eyes, mouth, and nose. As well, blood pooling within and, eventually, escaping the blood vessels causes dark red-to-purple discolouration of the skin. Sound familiar?
While the body of a loved one was being kept at home and prepared for burial, family members would see these changes taking place and not be able to explain why they were happening. How did frail old Grandpa Bert suddenly get so fat? And why is there blood in his mouth?? Without the scientific knowledge of the decomposition process that we have now, Grandpa Bert becoming undead and sneaking off in the night to drink blood perhaps seemed like the most reasonable explanation at the time.
As well as explaining the inexplicable, folklore often also serves as a vehicle for certain social fears and anxieties. Folk monsters act as a sort of manifestation of otherwise intangible fears, and by confronting and controlling these monsters, people indirectly control and confront the issue or idea that they’re really afraid of. There’s also often a distinct aspect of social control that underpins many of these types of stories. For example, the fact that vampires started to get really sexy right around the same time that society in western Europe (particularly England) became very concerned with the moral purity of young people, especially young women; and that young women are often the victims in vampire stories, is not a coincidence.
You can see this fear-slash-social-control aspect at work when we look at the original vampire stories. Often, the people considered most at risk of becoming vampires after death were those who were already on the fringes of society and treated with some level of suspicion or fear: outsiders, the disabled, the disfigured, the sick. And, because vampires used to be real, people who were suspected to be vampires, or to be at risk of becoming one sometimes got ‘special’ treatment during burial when they died. How do we know this? Because archaeologists sometimes dig them up and get really excited about it. Vampire burials fall under the umbrella category of ‘deviant burials’, which refers to any burial that differs significantly from the typical burial ritual of a given group or community. Before I got distracted by folklore-chat, the main purpose of this post was to look at some examples of vampire burials, but I’ve been told that brevity is a virtue so I’ve split this up into two parts – the REALLY GOOD stuff (aka skeleton pictures) is coming up in part two!