I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research, and I thought I’d share some of the interesting tidbits I’ve come across as I create The van Helsing Legacy (which you can read free HERE).
Whenever new vampire media comes out, it’s common to see strongly-worded objections in the comments section of all the reviews – something along the lines of “A REAL vampire doesn’t [insert thing here].”
Common complaints include sparkling, failing to burst into flames in the sun, not being a corpse, being capable of, ah, engaging in hanky-panky with humans, being able to consume the blood of animals, being too pretty, being too ugly… The list goes on and on.
The reality, though, is that our idea of what a real vampire looks like is extremely recent. Even when Bram Stoker wrote “Dracula,” ideas of vampirism were only just beginning to consolidate. The folk beliefs from which our current ideas have grown are… shall we say, “loose” at best.
For example, in many regional traditions, the distinctions between a vampire and a witch are casual or even nonexistent. A witch might become a vampire after death, but she also might prey on other people even while she’s alive, sometimes by changing her form into some predatory animal or by leaving her body as a spirit and attacking people as they sleep. Whether or not she is considered a vampire before she dies depends entirely on which old person is telling the story. And of course, while this predatory creature usually seems to do her predatory thing at night, she usually spends her days trying very hard not to be burned at the stake, hanged, or stoned to death for witchcraft, all of which tend to be more immediately dangerous than sunlight.
The dead kind of vampire catches fire in the sun, though, right? Actually, no. There is no folkloric support for sunlight destroying vampires. That bit of our modern myth comes from the 1922 film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, and even in the film, it’s not the sun itself that kills Count Orlok, but the noble sacrifice of a pure woman. In folklore, it’s true that vampires usually do their nasty work at night, but many also attack humans in their sleep, which has been known to include daytime naps as well. Others simply vanish when the sun comes up, with no mention of what would happen if they stuck around.
But they can only drink human blood. Sorry, this one is recent, too. Traditional vampires do an awful lot of harassing livestock, and often took the blame for plagues among cattle and sheep. On the other hand, the monsters of folklore never go after livestock because they have any moral compunction against going after humans, as contemporary vampires often do. In fact, a European peasant was likely to be just as devastated by attacks against his livelihood as by attacks against himself, so killing his cows was certainly not a decision of mercy.
They do drink blood, though. Weirdly enough, not always. The stories lumped together under the ‘vampire’ umbrella cover all kinds of depredation, and not all of it centers on the blood of humans or of animals. Eviscerated livestock was blamed on vampires. Failing crops, dying trees, noises on the roof or in the chimney, disappearing money, dry wells, bad dreams, good dreams that made people feel guilty, unexpected pregnancies in unmarried women… Heck, vampires even took the blame for eating their own bodies. Essentially, if there’s any kind of trouble in the neighbourhood, you might have a vampire problem.
So the next time someone gripes at you about contemporary media getting it wrong, you can head them off with a “Well, actually…” The only real constant in folklore is that it’s constantly changing. I, for one, am interested to see how it changes next!
For an interesting and informative read, check out “Vampires, Burial and Death” by Paul Barber.