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Vampires: The Origin Story

From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Stephanie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, vampires come in all shapes and forms. Vampires are a pervasive part of society today and have some interesting features surrounding their lore. What seems to be even more interesting is the exact reason for these seemingly arbitrary yet highly specific parts of the vampire story. For instance, what’s the deal with the whole vampires not liking garlic thing? Is it true that the only way to kill them is to stake them?

To start with, we all are probably familiar with the concept of the vampires. A vampire is a being that sustains itself by feeding off the blood of the living. They are usually threatening (although there are a few sparkly exceptions) with fangs. They often suck out the blood through bites at the neck. As mentioned, they are commonly believed to have an aversion to garlic. Bats are often associated with the creatures. Many stories depict the vampires transforming into bats and vice versa. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and we see vampire lore being changed and adapted in various different forms across different cultures.

The concept of vampirism has existed across centuries. Cultures from Mesapotamia to Ancient Greece and Rome believed in vampire-adjacent demons, spirits, etc that are considered to be the spiritual successor to the modern vampire. However, what we consider as a vampire today has its roots in 18th century South-eastern Europe. The belief in vampires in these cultures stemmed mostly from superstition and mistaken understandings of post-mortem decay. Vampires seemed to be an easy way to blame the bad, scary things that happened around people before science came along.

An especially striking example of this is seen in the hysteria that surrounded dead bodies and corpses getting reanimated. Sometimes, when a body is placed in a well-sealed coffin in the right conditions (harsh winters, for example), its decomposition may get delayed. Intestinal decomposition may then happen first causing bloating and forcing the blood up to the mouth. This is probably what led to the belief that vampires were undead people that awoke to feast on the blood of the living. Vampirism has also been linked with porphyria, a rare blood disorder that manifested in the sufferers drinking blood to obtain the chemical haem necessary for their treatment. Another disease that has been linked with the lore is rabies, because it caused such irritability that it led to nocturnal behaviour and inability to stand still or even look at one’s self in a mirror.

This fear of the undead or reanimated corpses alarmed the people around that time to a great deal. Corpses were buried with stakes driven through their hearts or effectively nailed to the coffins to prevent them from wandering about again. The superstitions were also strengthened by myths about other mythical creatures like genies hating iron, leading to the popularity of the iron stake being used to dispatch these corpses. This tradition led to the depiction of stakes as the go-to weapon for killing vampires.

Other traditional methods of leaving the undead defenceless were decapitation and stuffing the severed head’s mouth with garlic or a brick. “According to a 2012 Live Science article, ‘The body of the woman was found in a mass grave on the Venetian island of Nuovo Lazzaretto. Suspecting that she might be a vampire, a common folk belief at the time, gravediggers shoved a rock into her skull to prevent her from chewing through her shroud and infecting others with the plague, said anthropologist Matteo Borrini of the University of Florence.’ In 2013, archaeologists in Bulgaria found two skeletons with iron rods through their chests; the pair are believed to have been accused vampires, according to an article in Archaeology magazine.” (Source: livescience.com)

The vampire myths also seem to tie into other themes. The myth of a vampire only being able to enter a home they had been formally invited seemed to be a form of the stranger danger myth repackaged for younger children. Reinventions of the vampire myths have also seen overt political tones. The most famous of all vampires, Dracula was a Count, an aristocratic man. Alone at his castle, the count would only rise at night to feed on peasants. This was reflective of the parasitic ways in which peasants were treated. Marx compared capital to a vampire like dead labour that lived only by sucking more and more labour from the working classes. Vampires were the bourgeois.

In the end, whatever be the interpretation you prefer, it is evident that vampires are persistent in their prevalence in our lore. In some sense, these undead villains seem to be truly immortal. It seems that there are some things that science simply cannot erase.

Picture Credits : inverse.com



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