The term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century, but that doesn't mean that its basic description wasn't around before that. In fact, many believe that the bloodsucking creature has been a mainstay of early civilization. While many areas around the globe had their vampire like legends, the true vampire legend took off in Eastern Europe in the early 1700's. People living in the Balkans and Eastern Europe passed down stories of vampires who they believed were revenants (ghosts or undead versions) of evil beings, suicide victims, or witches, but could also be created by being bitten by a malevolent spirit possessing a corpse, or by being bitten by another vampire. Things got so bad in the area that mass hysteria broke out and people were randomly staking corpses and accusing their neighbors of vampirism. Though not the case that started the widespread panic, a reported case of vampirism in Croatia got things going a little bit. Giure Grando was a local peasant that had died in 1656 but had risen from his grave to drink people's blood and sexually harass his widow. The town's leader ordered for the undead monster to be staked which apparently didn't kill him, so they cut his head off, which did the trick. I have no idea how the village mistook someone for a dead person and surmised he was a vampire, but perhaps Giure wasn't actually dead at all and only appeared dead to his family. In any case, this scared the crap out of the whole region who thought there were now a bunch of these creatures lurking around and word soon spread. What started the real widespread panic was a few cases in Serbia. In the first officially recorded vampire case, Peter Pologojowitz and Arnold Paole allegedly rose from the grave and started harassing their old neighbors. Peter died at the age of 62 but rose from the grave to ask his son for food. The son refused and he was found dead the next day. Peter's neighbors were also found dead in the next couple days, all of blood loss. Paole was a ex-soldier turned farmer who was said to have been attacked by a vampire years before he died while haying. In the subsequent days, Paole's neighbors all turned up dead. Everyone assumed that Paole had come back from the grave and drained the neighbor's blood. The 18th century was supposed to be the Age of Enlightenment, an age in which most superstitions and myths were stamped out, but for some reason the vampire legend still spread across all of Europe. When word of vampire attacks hit Germany and England, things really got out of hand and the legends really spread throughout every land the two countries made contact with. Books were published about the two cases and everyone was thrown into a frenzy. Even the writer Voltaire seemed to buy into the Vampire pandemic in Europe. The panic only subsided when Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her physician out to study the bodies and determine whether vampires were real or not. He concluded that they weren't, so the Empress made it illegal for people to open up graves and desecrate bodies. This proclamation soon became commonplace in European countries, but that didn't mean that the legend was dead. Vampires lived on in artistic pieces and in local superstitions.
How we basically interpret vampires though is mainly thanks to the Slavic and their beliefs about what vampires are. The Slavic people, though eventually Christianized, held onto their pagan beliefs, especially when it came to honoring their ancestors and believing that there was a stark difference between the soul and the body. In their opinion, the soul was not perishable and would leave the body after death, roaming around the person's neighborhood for forty days before heading into the afterlife. People would leave a door or window open in their household so the soul could pass more easily through. During this time however, the soul could go back to it's deceased body and occupy it for a time. The reanimated corpse would either bring glad tidings to it's neighbors, or wreak havoc on them. Slavs took extra care in providing the appropriate burial rites for the dead, as they believed that if they did it wrong, the soul would become unclean and had a much better chance of coming back and taking out some zombie vengeance. The souls of wizards, witches, suicides, murderers, and unbaptized babies were also considered unclean souls and many believed that they could be possessed by more than one undead being. Thus, the Slavs came up with the word Vampir for a decomposing body that had come back to life. These being were vengeful and jealous of the life that humans had. To stay alive in their reanimated corpse, the Vampir had to drink the blood of the living.
How were people fooled into thinking that bodies were coming back from the grave and seeking vengeance? Well, there were a few reasons. One was the way the bodies decomposed. Gases inside the stomach make bodies swell and appear well fed and give them a little bit of color. When the people dug up the graves of some recently dead folk, they saw what they thought was a vampire that was fat from drinking blood and still had color to their features as if they lived again. In fact, in the Paole case, an old woman was dug up and the villagers determined that she looked more healthy and full of color than she did when she was alive. Another prominent reason people thought that the dead were rising was because of premature burial. Yes, this is one of the most terrifying things that can happen to a person, but medieval medicine wasn't that great and sometimes people were thought to be dead when they really weren't. Some people would dig up the newly dead only to discover claw marks on the inside of the coffin or blood on the corpses face where the person most like hit their head or face while trying to escape. The diggers took this as the undead trying to get out and the blood as proof that the corpse had been feeding. In the cases of Arnold Paole and Peter Plogojowitz, the likely cause of the death all around the men was disease and not vampires. In both cases the neighbors all died from what appeared to be a loss of blood, but was most likely an effect of whatever contagion they had. So, even though all the cases could be explained away, the thought of vampires still lingers to this day. While almost no one believes they are real, the legend of them is alive and well.
So where did the attributes and ways of destroying vampires come from? Well, with any creature of the night, it was thought that vampires could only come out at night and that eventually evolved into that vampires are destroyed by the sunlight. The whole vampires turning into bats wasn't an integral part of the legend until the 1700's with the discovery of the vampire bat in South America. Sure, they aren't in Europe, but many people believed that vampires could turn into any nocturnal bird such as an owl. Vampire bats do only drink blood, though it's always from cattle. The frightening creature and it's blood sucking ways eventually made it a part of vampire lore and cemented it's own name as a "vampire" bat. We think of vampires of being kind of pale, but like mentioned before, a lot of people thought them to be bloated and looking a little purple, seemingly from feeding on people. This was of course the look of a decomposing body. In more recent years, people have instead pictured vampires as pale creatures since they don't get any sunlight. The stake being used as a weapon against the vampire goes back to the Slavs and other scared Europeans. They noticed that when they stabbed the corpses, the bloated look went away and thus they believed they had killed the evil being. The corpse was of course just getting the gas stabbed out of it. While the Slavs would stab in the heart, others would stab in the chest or even in the mouth (example in the above picture, though they used a sharpened brick instead of wood). The type of wood it took to kill the vampire varied from country to country. Early vampires weren't even thought of as having fangs as we think today. That was just an added feature onto vampire lore, something that made sense when thinking about someone drinking another's blood. The Holy Cross as a weapon against the undead vampires is just practical. As agents of evil, they can be warded off by the ultimate sign of the Holy Spirit.
The vampire's depiction has changed a lot over the years, and we know think of them as being kind of a suave villain or not even a villain at all. Sightings of vampires are still reported every year and there are vampire hunting groups worldwide. Urban legends have popped up in America, London, and countries in Africa detailing a group of vampires that have either taken over the government or haunt a local graveyard. A professor at University of Central Florida wrote a paper about the existence of vampires, namely how it's impossible due to geometric progression. He argued that if the first vampire bit a person in 1600, and then from then on the victims would bite another person every month, then in two and a half years the whole population of the Earth would be vampires. This study was assuming the part of vampire lore that once you are bitten by a vampire, you become one yourself. Vampires have now become part of our culture. It's basically a sub-culture that influences kids who consider themselves goths. And of course with the whole Twilight thing you have even more people getting into the vampire legend, no matter how cheesy and out of order with prior vampire lore it is.
Vampires have been the subject of many books over the years, perhaps most notably in the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Released in the Victorian age, it struck a cord with many due to it's subject on evil, lust, and vampirism as a disease. Dracula has of course been adapted into many different movies and is now THE vampire that people think of when they hear the word "Vampire." Read the book if you get the chance, as the movie is great and all, but a bit clunky. Dracula also gets it's roots from Vlad the Impaler, someone known for their ruthless and bloody ways....like vampires! While there have been countless movies and books on vampires, the two that stand out among pop culture are Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. I would recommend Rice's novel before the other (yes I have read the first Twilight novel). The movie version of Interview with the Vampire with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt is also very good. Both books have sparked new interest in vampires and made them out to be a somewhat more sympathetic creature. To end off, here are a few recommendations for movies that involve vampires:
- Interview with the Vampire (1994) (Modern Vampire classic.)
- Nosferatu (1922) (Eerie even though it's a silent movie. Hope you like organ music!)
- Dracula (1931) (Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye are great, not much else. Still a classic.)
- Fright Night (1985)
- Shadow of the Vampire (2000) (This is a must. Fantastic movie.)
- The Lost Boys (1987)
- From Dawn Til Dusk (1996)
- House of Dracula (1945)
- The Dresden Files: Storm Front, Grave Peril, and Death Masks. (All involve vampires but Grave Peril is centered around them. Very good book series. I'm at the end of Death Masks at the moment.)
- The X-Files: "Bad Blood."
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Obvious addition though I haven't watched it. Heard good things though.
- Dark Shadows. (Cheesy vampire soap opera. Tim Burton is making it into a movie.)
- Supernatural. (Several episodes in this excellent TV series deal with vampires.)