In June 2015, a 21-year-old Westmoreland County man was arrested on charges of “bloodletting” and sexual assault. He allegedly not only convinced several underage victims to slice their wrists so he could drink their blood, he also engaged in intimate acts with a 14-year-old girl while they bled on each other from self-inflicted lacerations. It is a shocking case for a Pennsylvania town that's about as inclined to believe in vampires as it is zombies, or any other version of the walking dead. But it's a case that also, markedly, demonstrates the eternal life of the vampire myth.
Contrary to popular assumption, our fascination with vampires started long before the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Stoker didn't invent the bloodsucking menace, but he did cement many of our modern, fictional formulas. Today, mention the word “vampire,” and most people conjure visions of a suave, charismatic character living in an apartment-like crypt or well-appointed mansion. Male vampires are often empathetic, fraught with guilt over their means of survival. Female vampires seem less remorseful, probably because they are usually young, and what woman - alive or dead - doesn't want eternal youth?
Four hundred years ago, though, vampires held no charm or entertainment value. They were considered very real half-dead killers whose victims were usually friends and family. And it was not the dead themselves inhabiting their reanimated corpses, but rather an entirely different form of evil: demons who protected themselves from decay via involuntary transfusions of the blood of the living.
Many historians and theologians propose that the church inadvertently created the vampire legend. By warning the faithful that corpses of suicides were susceptible to demonic possession, religious oligarchs may have sparked the first fears of the “living dead.” Some published works suggest that in England, into the early 1800s, suicides were buried at crossroads with stakes driven through their hearts to prevent their bodies from leaving the grave.
Early Greek churches took this threat of possession even further by teaching parishioners that the dead bodies of excommunicated worshippers did not decay. Instead, they became vessels demons could reanimate to return to prey on mankind.
Scandinavians believed that the corpses of dead warriors were particular favorites for possession. Evil spirits took advantage of the soldiers' strength and natural instincts to kill.
The 1730s seems to be the decade when the myths of the bloodsucking vampire exploded throughout Europe. An abundance of pamphlets and journals discussed the possible existence of these creatures, as well as how to eradicate them. It is through these reports that we learn the many differences between vampires of yesteryear, and our modern creations.
Unlike True Blood, for instance, sunlight posed no threat to 18th century vampires. Both townspeople and country dwellers believed it was the time between mid-day and midnight that was most dangerous. And these immortals did indeed sleep in their graves, not self-chosen hideaways. Since the soil was never disturbed, however, it was assumed vamps of old simply materialized in the “upper world” at will.
Dietary habits have changed as well. For ancient bloodsuckers, both human and animal blood could sustain their needs, and there was little regard for moderation. Descriptions abound of vampires that consumed so much blood it issued forth from their noses, mouths, and ears - and even oozed out of their pores. Upon opening their coffins, some “vampires” were found nearly floating in blood.
By the 19th century, many Western Europeans regarded vampires as silly superstitions, but belief had taken firm root in places like Poland, Hungary, Bohemia, Silesia and Walachia. The Walachians in particular had an interesting method for detecting vampires. A young, virgin boy rode through a cemetery on a jet black horse. When the horse came to a grave he refused to pass, it indicated a vampire was buried beneath. The equine prognostication was confirmed by the disinterment of the body. Unlike a normal corpse, that of the half-dead had perfect flesh, flexible limbs, and its blood still flowed in liquid form. To prevent it from rising again, the body was decapitated and re-interred. In other regions, decapitation alone was considered insufficient. The additional measures of a stake through the heart followed by cremation were required.
At the dawn of the 20th century, most vampire stories and legends were confined to Romania and its surrounds. Here it was believed that every victim of a vampire became a vampire, making the the threat exponentially more dangerous. It is also from this region that many of today's stereotypes spread: the pale complexion, extraordinarily long canine-like teeth, a vampire's inability to drink or eat human food, and - of course - the complete lack of shadow or reflection.
Today, vampires possess an unrelenting hold on our imaginations. Though hard to find, there are even “vampire friendly” nightspots and social clubs for those who dress and act the part of the blood-lusting undead. Self-described paranormal investigators make pilgrimages to Dracula's castle. Hardly a month goes by without a movie or book release with some root in the myths of the “revenans” that once terrified villagers and vicars alike.
Our love of a chilling vampire tale is as hard to kill as the creatures themselves. And even if it died, it would only come back to life, stronger, and more seductive. 💀