400 years of vampires

Today they’re portrayed as stylish, mysterious, a little dangerous and dead sexy, but vampires weren’t always on the celebrity A-list.

Vampires are mythological beings who survive by feeding on the blood of living creatures, and they’ve been hanging around on the edges of folklore since ancient times. Every continent and culture has its own version of the legend, and they go by many names. The term "vampire" was only popularised in the early 18th century when the superstition suddenly peaked in Eastern Europe, leading to a wave of mass hysteria.

The original legend

Eastern European legends held that vampires were bloated and dark, even purplish in colour and had blood seeping from the nose and mouth when viewed in their coffins. It was also reported that their left eyes remained open, and that their hair, teeth and nails kept on growing in the grave. Today it’s not hard to recognise many of these as standard signs of decomposition, but in the 18th century they were regarded as genuine proof of vampire activity.

Recorded sightings

One of the earliest recordings of vampires, as we understand them, came from Croatia in 1672. A local peasant, who had died in 1656, apparently returned from the dead and villagers claimed he was drinking people’s blood and harassing his widow. The leader of the village ordered the peasant’s body to be staked through the heart, and when they thought that this hadn’t worked, also beheaded the corpse.

Later, during the 18th century, a wave of vampire sightings were reported in Eastern Europe, leading to vampire hunts which caused graves to be dug up and bodies staked. Although this era was considered the Age of Enlightenment when many legends were being quelled, belief in vampires actually increased, and led to increased "sightings" in Europe. 

A couple of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 started a panic which spread to the Habsburg monarchy, and eventually even government officials were involved in hunting vampires. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria intervened by sending her personal physician, Gerard van Swieten, to look into vampire claims and to conduct a scientific investigation.

His conclusion: vampires did not exist. The empress duly passed laws strictly forbidding the desecration of graves and bodies, and the panic subsided.

Dead, but not gone

Although vampires had been officially declared a myth, their legend had captured the imagination of writers and artists across Europe, and several influential novels paved the way for the charismatic modern take on vampires. 

The first was The Vampyre by John Polidori in 1819, but possibly the best known is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker combined material from the old legends, included a little werewolf myth and apparently culled the name Dracula from Vlad the Impaler (VladIII, Prince of Wallachia 1431 – 147), whose cruelty was in itself legendary. 

Other characteristics were added to the legend such as sensitivity to sunlight, no reflection in mirrors, and having a fatal aversion to garlic and religious symbols. Some characteristics, such as vampires being portrayed as unable to stand sunlight, stemmed from misunderstood medical conditions, and the idea that  nails, hair and teeth grew in the grave – we now know that skin shrinkage causes nails and hair to appear longer after interment.

In the 20th century conditions such as porphyria were used to explain vampires, based upon certain perceived similarities between the condition and the folklore, but these theories have since been criticised for causing sufferers to be stigmatised and having little basis in fact.   

Moving with fashion

Over the last century there have been vampire genres to meet every trend – biker vampires, black urban vampires from the future, comedy vampires and dark, enigmatic gothic creatures of the night. But the most enduring is the charismatic and romantic vampire who relies on seduction – initially popularised by Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. From these sexy and wicked undead in their lace-edged shirts and powdered wigs, it’s been a short jump to the modern vampire.

Vampires in the new millennium

It seems that the modern vampire owes more to club and dance culture than to legend. While he may maintain a strong allergy to garlic, sunlight, sharpened stakes and religious symbols, he looks more like an interesting emo character whose pallor stems from partying all night and coming down from some chemical plane. The characters portrayed in the current Twilight series are centuries away from the bloated purple monsters that caused a wave of horror in the 18th century, and have launched a new kind of mass hysteria – that of shrieking fans.

Possibly, vampires of the future will be portrayed as sensitive creatures who subsist on legally approved synthetic blood substitutes, undergo Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to get over their religious symbol phobia, and whose idea of living dangerously is to run their castles purely on solar power. But hold onto the garlic, because you never know.

(Joanne Hart, Health24, September 2010)


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