Origins of vampire beliefs

Origins of vampire beliefs

Many theories for the origins of vampire beliefs have been offered as an explanation for the superstition, and sometimes mass hysteria, caused by vampires. Everything ranging from premature burial to the early ignorance of the body's decomposition cycle after death has been cited as the cause for the belief in vampires.



Paul Barber in his book "Vampires, Burial and Death" has described that belief in vampires resulted from people of pre-industrial societies attempting to explain the natural, but to them inexplicable, process of death and decomposition.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 1-4.]

People sometimes suspected vampirism when a cadaver did not look as they thought a normal corpse should when disinterred. However, rates of decomposition vary depending on temperature and soil composition, and many of the signs are little known. This has led vampire hunters to mistakenly conclude that a dead body had not decomposed at all, or, ironically, to interpret signs of decomposition as signs of continued life. [cite web |last=Barber |first=Paul |title=Staking claims: the vampires of folklore and fiction|work=Skeptical Inquirer |date=1996-03-01 |url= |accessdate=2006-04-30] [cite news|last=Benecke |first=Mark |coauthors=David Pescod-Taylor|title=The Restless Dead: Vampires & Decomposition |pubisher=Bizarre Magazine |date=May-June 1997 |url=|accessdate=2006-10-23] Corpses swell as gases from decomposition accumulate in the torso and the increased pressure forces blood to ooze from the nose and mouth. This causes the body to look "plump", "well-fed", and "ruddy"—changes that are all the more striking if the person was pale or thin in life. In the Arnold Paole case, an old woman's exhumed corpse was judged by her neighbours to look more plump and healthy than she had ever looked in life.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 117.] The exuding blood gave the impression that the corpse had recently been engaging in vampiric activity.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 114-15.] Darkening of the skin is also caused by decomposition.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 105.] The staking of a swollen, decomposing body could cause the body to bleed and force the accumulated gases to escape the body. This could produce a groan-like sound when the gases moved past the vocal cords, or a sound reminiscent of flatulence when they passed through the anus. The official reporting on the Peter Plogojowitz case speaks of "other wild signs which I pass by out of high respect".Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 119.]

After death, the skin and gums lose fluids and contract, exposing the roots of the hair, nails, and teeth, even teeth that were concealed in the jaw. This can produce the illusion that the hair, nails, and teeth have grown. At a certain stage, the nails fall off and the skin peels away, as reported in the Plogojowitz case—the dermis and nail beds emerging underneath were interpreted as "new skin" and "new nails".

Premature burial

It has also been hypothesized that vampire legends were influenced by individuals being buried alive due to primitive medical knowledge. In some cases in which people reported sounds emanating from a specific coffin, it was later dug up and fingernail marks were discovered on the inside from the victim trying to escape. In other cases the person would hit their heads, noses or faces and it would appear that they had been "feeding".Marigny, "Vampires", pp. 48-49.] A problem with this theory is the question of how people presumably buried alive managed to stay alive for any extended period without food, water or fresh air. An alternate explanation for noise is the bubbling of escaping gases from natural decomposition of bodies.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 128.] Another likely cause of disordered tombs is grave robbing.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", pp. 137-38.]


Folkloric vampirism has been associated with a series of deaths due to unidentifiable or mysterious illnesses, usually within the same family or the same small community.cite journal |last=Sledzik |first=Paul S. |coauthors=Nicholas Bellantoni |month=June |year=1994 |title=Bioarcheological and biocultural evidence for the New England vampire folk belief |journal=American Journal of Physical Anthropology |volume=94 |issue=2 |pages=269–274 |doi=10.1002/ajpa.1330940210 |url= |pmid=8085617] The epidemic allusion is obvious in the classical cases of Peter Plogojowitz and Arnold Paole, and even more so in the case of Mercy Brown and in the vampire beliefs of New England generally, where a specific disease, tuberculosis, was associated with outbreaks of vampirism. As with the pneumonic form of bubonic plague, it was associated with breakdown of lung tissue which would cause blood to appear at the lips.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 115.]


In 1985 biochemist David Dolphin proposed a link between the rare blood disorder porphyria and vampire folklore. Noting that the condition is treated by intravenous haem, he suggested that the consumption of large amounts of blood may result in haem being transported somehow across the stomach wall and into the bloodstream. Thus vampires were merely sufferers of porphyria seeking to replace haem and alleviate their symptoms. [Dolphin D (1985) "Werewolves and Vampires", annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science. ] The theory has been rebuffed medically as suggestions that porphyria sufferers crave the haem in human blood, or that the consumption of blood might ease the symptoms of porphyria, are based on a misunderstanding of the disease. Furthermore, Dolphin was noted to have confused fictional (bloodsucking) vampires with those of folklore, many of whom were not noted to drink blood.Barber, "Vampires, Burial and Death", p. 100.] Similarly, a parallel is made between sensitivity to sunlight by sufferers, yet this was associated with fictional and not folkloric vampires. In any case, Dolphin did not go on to publish his work more widely. [cite web|last=Adams |first=Cecil |title=Did vampires suffer from the disease porphyria--or not? |work=The Straight Dope|publisher=Chicago Reader|date=May 7, 1999 |accessdate=2007-12-25 |url=] Despite being dismissed by experts, the link gained media attention [cite web |last=Pierach|firstClaus A. |title= Vampire Label Unfair To Porphyria Sufferers |work=Opinion |publisher =New York Times|date=June 13, 1985 |url= |accessdate=2007-12-25] and entered popular modern folklore. [cite web |last=Kujtan |first=Peter W. |title=Porphyria: The Vampire Disease| publisher =The Mississauga News online |date=October 29th, 2005 |url = |accessdate=2007-12-25]


Rabies has been linked with vampire folklore. Dr Juan Gómez-Alonso, a neurologist at Xeral Hospital in Vigo, Spain, examined this possibility in a report in "Neurology". The susceptibility to garlic and light could be due to hypersensitivity, which is a symptom of rabies. The disease can also affect portions of the brain that could lead to disturbance of normal sleep patterns (thus becoming nocturnal) and hypersexuality. Legend once said a man was not rabid if he could look at his own reflection (an allusion to the legend that vampires have no reflection). Wolves and bats, which are often associated with vampires, can be carriers of rabies. The disease can also lead to a drive to bite others and to a bloody frothing at the mouth. [cite journal |last=Gómez-Alonso |first= Juan |month=September |year=1998 |title=Rabies: a possible explanation for the vampire legend |journal=Neurology |volume=51 |issue=3 |pages=856–9 |pmid=9748039] [cite news |=date=September 24, 1998 |url= |title=Rabies-The Vampire's Kiss |publisher=BBC news |accessdate=2007-03-18]

Psychodynamic understanding

In his 1931 treatise "On the nightmare", Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones noted that vampires are symbolic of several unconscious drives and defence mechanisms. Love, guilt, and hate are emotions that fuel the idea of the return of the dead to the grave. Desiring a reunion with loved ones, mourners may project the idea that the recently dead must in return yearn the same. From this arises the belief that folkloric vampires and revenants visit relatives, particularly their spouses, first. [Jones, "The Vampire", pp. 100-102.] However in cases where there was unconscious guilt associated with the relationship, the wish for reunion may be subverted by anxiety. This may lead to repression, which Freud had linked with the development of morbid dread. [cite journal |last=Jones |first=Ernest |year=1911 |title=The Pathology of Morbid Anxiety |journal=Journal of Abnormal Psychology |volume=6 |issue=2 |pages=81–106 |url= |doi=10.1037/h0074306] Jones surmised in this case the original wish of a (sexual) reunion may be drastically changed: desire is replaced by fear; love is replaced by sadism, and the object or loved one is replaced by an unknown entity. The sexual aspect may or may not be present. [Jones, "The Vampire", p. 106.]

The innate sexuality of bloodsucking can be seen in its intrinsic connection with cannibalism and folkloric one with incubus-like behaviour. Many legends report various beings draining other fluids from victims, an unconscious association with semen being obvious. Finally Jones notes that when more normal aspects of sexuality are repressed, regressed forms may be expressed, in particular sadism; he felt that oral sadism is integral in vampiric behaviour. [Jones, "The Vampire", pp. 116-20.]

Political interpretation

The reinvention of the vampire myth in the modern era is not without political overtones [cite book |last=Glover |first=David |year=1996 |title=Vampires, Mummies, and Liberals: Bram Stoker and the Politics of Popular Fiction |publisher=Duke University Press |place=Durham, NC. ] . The aristocratic count Dracula, alone in his castle apart from a few demented retainers, appearing only at night to feed on his peasantry, is symbolic of the parasitic "Ancien regime". Werner Herzog, in his Nosferatu, gives this political interpretation an extra ironic twist when his young estate agent hero becomes the next vampire; in this way the capitalist bourgeois becomes the next parasitic class. [cite journal |last=Brass |first=Tom |journal=Dialectical Anthropology |volume=25 |page=205–237 |year=2000 |title=Nymphs, Shepherds, and Vampires: The Agrarian Myth on Film]


A number of murderers have performed seemingly vampiric rituals upon their victims. Serial killers Peter Kürten and Richard Trenton Chase were both called "vampires" in the tabloids after they were discovered drinking the blood of the people they murdered. Similarly, in 1932, an unsolved murder case in Stockholm, Sweden was nicknamed the "Vampire murder", due to the circumstances of the victim’s icon cite book |last=Linnell |first=Stig |title=Stockholms spökhus och andra ruskiga ställen |origyear=1968 |year=1993 |publisher=Raben Prisma |isbn=91-518-2738-7 |pages=] The late 16th-century Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Báthory became particularly infamous in later centuries' works, which depicted her bathing in her victims' blood in order to retain beauty or youth.Hoyt "Lust for Blood: The Consuming Story of Vampires" pp. 68-71]

Vampire lifestyle is a term for a contemporary subculture of people, largely within the Goth subculture, who consume the blood of others as a pastime; drawing from the rich recent history of popular culture related to cult symbolism, horror films, the fiction of Anne Rice, and the styles of Victorian England. [Skal, "The Monster Show", pp. 342-43.] Active vampirism within the vampire subculture includes both blood-related vampirism, commonly referred to as "Sanguine Vampirism", and "Psychic Vampirism", or 'feeding' from pranic energy. Practitioners may take on a variety of 'roles', including both "vampires" and their sources of blood or pranic energy. [cite journal |last=Jon |first=A. Asbjorn |month= |year=2002 |title=The Psychic Vampire and Vampyre Subculture |journal=Australian Folklore |volume= |issue=12 |pages=143–148 |issn=0819-0852 ]

Vampire bats

Although many cultures have stories about them, vampire bats have only recently become an integral part of the traditional vampire lore. Indeed, vampire bats were only integrated into vampire folklore when they were discovered on the South American mainland in the 16th century.Cohen, "Encyclopedia of Monsters", pp. 95-96.] The vampire bat was revered in Central American culture; Camazotz was a bat god of the caves who lived in the bathhouse of the Underworld. Although there are no vampire bats in Europe, bats and owls have long been associated with the supernatural and omens, although mainly due to their nocturnal habits,cite book |last=Cooper |first=J.C. |title=Symbolic and Mythological Animals |pages=pp. 25-26 |year=1992 |publisher= Aquarian Press |location=London |isbn=1-85538-118-4] and in modern English heraldic tradition, a bat means "Awareness of the powers of darkness and chaos". [cite web |title=Heraldic "Meanings" |publisher=American College of Heraldry |accessdate=2006-04-30 |url=]

The three species of actual vampire bats are all endemic to Latin America, and there is no evidence to suggest that they had any Old World relatives within human memory. It is therefore unlikely that the folkloric vampire represents a distorted presentation or memory of the vampire bat. During the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors first came into contact with vampire bats and recognized the similarity between the feeding habits of the bats and those of their legendary vampires.Dubious|date=March 2008 The bats were named after the folkloric vampire rather than vice versa; the "Oxford English Dictionary" records their folkloric use in English from 1734 and the zoological not until 1774. Although the vampire bat's bite is usually not harmful to a person, the bat has been known to actively feed on humans and large prey such as cattle and often leave the trademark, two-prong bite mark on its victim's skin.

Though the literary Dracula's flying shapeshifted form was originally described as merely bird- or lizard-like, it was not long before vampire bats were adapted into vampiric accoutrements; they were used in the 1927 stage production of "Dracula" and the resulting film, where Bela Lugosi would transform into a bat. The bat transformation scene would again be used by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1943's "Son of Dracula". [Skal, "V is for Vampire", pp. 19-21.] Ironically, vampire bats are small creatures and have never been used in the film industry; instead, the much larger flying fox bat is used in bat transformation scenes.



*cite book|last=Barber|first=Paul|title=Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore and Reality|year=1988 |publisher=Yale University Press |location=New York |isbn=0-300-04126-8
*cite book|last=Bunson|first=Matthew|title=The Vampire Encyclopedia|year=1993|publisher=Thames & Hudson|location=London|isbn=0-500-277486
*cite book|last=Cohen|first=Daniel|title=Encyclopedia of Monsters: Bigfoot, Chinese Wildman, Nessie, Sea Ape, Werewolf and many more...|year=1989|publisher=Michael O'Mara Books Ltd|location=London|isbn=0-948397-94-2
*cite book|last=Jones|first=Ernest |title=On the Nightmare |chapter=The Vampire |year=1931 |publisher=Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis |location=London |oclc=2382718
*cite book|last=Marigny|first=Jean|authorlink=|title=Vampires: The World of the Undead |year=1993 |publisher=Thames & Hudson |location=London |isbn=0-500-30041-0
*cite book|last=Skal|first=David J.|title=V is for Vampire |year=1996 |location=New York |publisher=Plume |isbn=0-452-27173-8

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