Vampire myths and legends are found all around the world. In Europe the blood-drinking, charismatic vampires typified by Count Dracula are of east-European origin. Typically, Bram Stoker has the Count Himself originating in Transylvania. Why do there appear to be no such native legends in the west? The reasons lie in the faith and culture of older times.
The very earliest folk writing does not mention drinking blood or biting, it was only ever an inference, arrived at after the exhumation of corpses feared to be vampires and finding them full of blood – actually liquefied internal organs. It’s not until the late 1600s and early 1700s that we hear the first mention of blood drinking. Stoker himself invented the idea vampires could make other vampires through blood transfer.
As with other aspects of the vampire legend, the tale grows with the telling. Staking a vampire was originally a method simply to stop it rising, to physically pin it to the ground. Hawthorn or ash were traditionally used, both woods with supernatural powers. Staking came to replace lesser methods such blocking the mouth, tying up the jaws and burying face-down. Only later did it become a sure-fire way to destroy the creature.
Other methods of dealing with vampires have also escalated. Originally only a ‘pistol shot’ was required to kill a vampire, then it was a ‘holy’ (blessed) bullet, and finally it had to be a silver one – with a final twentieth-century variation that the silver bullet should be marked with a cross.
The first reference to a silver bullet was in 1928, by Montague Summers, clergyman, author and translator of the “Malleus Maleficarum”, in his The Vampire: His Kith and Kin.
“In some Slavonic countries it is thought that a Vampire, if prowling out of his tomb at night may be shot and killed with a silver bullet that has been blessed by a priest” (ibid, p107)
Likewise, the power of the crucifix has grown, from being able to repel the creature, to actually destroying it. Or so I’m led to believe. There are several references to the first mention of this in a 1964 or ’65 edition of Penthouse, but I can’t confirm this, so Vampire-hunters beware! (And also note it’s the crucifix, not the cross – you’ll only make that schoolboy error once!)
Summers’ The Vampire is a strange and curiously charming book, packed with folklore methods for disposing of vampires. If you don’t like the rather romantic Wallachian style of a briar rose placed in the winding sheets to tangle them if the corpse arose, try the Bulgarian method of luring the fiend into a bottle. Don’t forget your cork.
The earliest references link vampires to poltergeist, shape shifters and other bringers of catastrophe. Several hundred years ago the bodies of people who died in winter would have been buried in frozen ground. Inevitably many village graves would be shallow. In an era both deeply religious and superstitious, illness, omens, dreams and local mishaps and catastrophe could easily lead to an exhumation. And there, preserved by the cold – an uncorrupted body.
And here’s the reason for the geographic origin . While both Western and Eastern Christianity believed the uncorrupted body is a sign of holiness*, in eastern Europe older beliefs also endured. Beliefs that viewed an incorruptible body as an evil thing. And so it needed to be destroyed.
The people alive several hundred years ago may not have been well-educated, but they were no fools. Their fears of the supernatural were genuine and they developed what they believed to be practical and effective methods to defend themselves from perceived real threats. Threats not only to their bodies, but more importantly to their immortal souls. And if the methods of destruction – fire, stake, beheading, the gun – all seem like overkill, well, far better to be safe than sorry.
Such fears endure. In 2007 this was exactly the reason given by a young Serbian who drove a hawthorn stake through the corpse of Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic on the first anniversary of his death.
* For example, the 1545 Council of Trento declared: ‘The Bodies of the saints for us are like great and holy relics, which move us to honour the saints who God has chosen to honour by preserving them incorrupt.’
David Gullen is a SF & Fantasy writer and editor, and one of the judges for the 2015 Arthur C Clarke Award.
His short fiction has been widely published with one story being an Aeon Award winner (2011), and another shortlisted for the James White Award. His collection, Open Waters (theEXAGGERATEDpress), appeared in early 2014.
Born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune, David now lives in Surrey, England, with fantasy writer Gaie Sebold, and too many tree ferns.