Of all the mythological creatures that stalk the pathways of our subconscious and haunt our folk tales and legends, vampires are perhaps the ones that charm, seduce and frighten us the most. Wicked creatures which prey upon humans – both the dead and the living – and drink their blood, vampires in one form or another have shadowed our footsteps for thousands of years, perhaps even since prehistoric times. Belief in vampires can be found throughout the world, from America to Romania, Greece, Persia and even China.
The belief in these blood drinkers has been so prevalent and so powerful that each culture has developed differing ways of knowing – and slaying – a vampire; there are also many different apotropaics (wards) to fend off vampires. Garlic is the most famous one, but some of the others which have been used throughout the centuries include aloe vera, mustard seeds, hawthorn, mirrors and holy water. People also developed special practises to protect themselves, such as placing a bag of grain or seeds over the grave of a suspected vampire corpse; supposedly vampires are rather obsessive and will spend their time counting every single grain or seed. This would keep it busy all night long and prevent it from going off in search of human prey.
In Eastern European folklore, a vampire was thought to be a ghost or animated corpse come back to plague the living; it might also be a witch, or a demon which had taken possession of a corpse. They were said to be recognizable by their bloated appearance and often leaked blood from the mouth or nose. The body of a dead person would be suspected of being a vampire if it had an unnaturally ‘healthy’ appearance, was bloated and had blood oozing from the face. Panic would ensue and these corpses would be staked, or have their heads cut off and buried between their feet. Only recently, in the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, skeletons thought to be more than 8oo years old were found with iron rods embedded in their chest cavities to stop them from rising up over the grave. And these are not the first – many such graves have been unearthed throughout Bulgaria.
But metal rods were not the only means of destroying would-be vampires. In Venice, on the island of Lazzaretto Nuovo, a medieval female skeleton has been discovered with a brick thrust between her teeth, and a male skeleton dug up in the English town of Southwell had been pierced with metal spikes through his chest, his shoulders and his ankles. This was one of England’s few documented ‘vampire’ burials, and serves to impress on us the depth of fear and distrust which people felt in those times towards these mythological beings.
One of the most famous of these ‘real’ vampires was Arnold Paole. Arnold was an 18thcentury Serbian who served in the Austrian Army before returning to his home town of Meduegna. There he related how he had suffered a troubling encounter with a vampire during his military service and had taken the preventative measure of eating soil from the vampire’s grave site and daubing its blood all over him. However, after his death in 1752, he apparently resurrected himself and began to plague the people of his village. Four people died, and ten days later Arnold’s grave was opened up. The villagers were shocked to discover that his corpse had not begun to decompose and blood streamed from his eyes, nose, ears and mouth. His nails had also fallen out and new ones had grown in their place. Convinced that he must be a vampire, the villagers drove a stake through his heart and burned him. They repeated this procedure with the bodies of the four victims who had died days before.
However this was not the end of the vampire attacks, as several years later there was a new rash of deaths. Before her death one of the victims confessed to having eaten sheep slaughtered by vampires, and another had covered herself with vampire blood in order to protect herself from such things, after the fashion of the Ottomans. In her Serbian homeland, however, this meant that she would surely become a vampire.
Eventually so many people died from apparent vampire attacks that a medical professional was brought in to assess the situation. He concluded that the deaths were caused by malnutrition and the strictness of their religious fasting. When some of the dead were exhumed, however, he was stunned to find that many of the corpses had not yet begun to decompose, and were oozing blood. Other professionals were sent to re-assess the bodies and related the same findings, in more detail. The bodies that had not decomposed were duly decapitated and burned as vampires, and their ashes were cast into the water of the river.
Another famous vampire story is that of Mercy Brown, a 19th century girl who lived in Exeter, New England. Several of Mercy’s family members contracted tuberculosis – her mother first and then her older sister. Both women died, and Mercy’s brother Edwin became very ill with the disease, as did Mercy herself. Mercy was the third to die, passing away on January 17 1892. However she was not left to rest in peace. Because superstitions at that time stated that the cause for several members of one family dying was paranormal activity, it was said that one of the family must have been a vampire. The bodies of the three women were exhumed and Mercy’s body was found to be hardly decomposed and there was blood inside her heart. This duly pointed her out as a vampire and the cause of the deaths; her heart was taken out and burnt, and the ashes were mixed with water which Edwin was made to drink. It did not save him, however, and he died two months afterwards.
To modern minds, these stories might seem amazing and even a little hard to believe. But belief in vampires is still prevalent today. More recent news stories prove this. In Louisiana in 1996 a ‘vampire clan’ of youths were arrested for the double murder of one of the teenager’s parents. These modern ‘vampires’ indulged in graveyard rituals and drank blood from each other’s arms and from small animals in an attempt to give themselves more power and strength.
Meanwhile, a woman from Colorado told police that she had crashed her SUV because she was startled by a vampire who appeared in the road before her and, more famously, there have even been reports that a vampire lurks in London’s Highgate Cemetery. There have also been several outbreaks of vampirism in parts of Africa in recent times. A few years ago in Malawi, vampire hysteria broke out after a number of villagers reported being attacked by blood-suckers, and one man who was thought to be in league with the vampires was stoned to death. The rumours of vampires, however, were dismissed by the president who said that they had been spread by members of the opposition.
In America ‘real-life’ vampires aren’t viewed with such hysterical fear anymore – but with deep-set suspicion and, often, disgust. But the vampire culture is alive and growing; these days, among some circles of society, it’s considered cool to be a pale, be-fanged blood-drinker – if a bit weird. People trying to live the vampire lifestyle file their teeth and drink human blood, or engage in ‘psychic’ feeding if they are a so-called ‘psi’ vampire. Depending on their preference they might wear elaborate costumes – usually black – and shun the sunlight, holding down night-time jobs. Because of the popularity of the vampire ‘image’ more people are choosing to ‘become’ vampires; some even believe they were born like it. So the next time you walk down the street, look around you with an open mind – there could be a vampire walking past you or sitting at a pavement café, in dark glasses and a black trench coat. The vampire of myth and legend may be undead; but vampires nowadays are still alive and well.