the vampyr - A Study on the Undead
by Edwina Carson

History of vampirism
What exactly is a vampire?
How to become a vampire
Ways to kill a vampire
How to protect yourself against a vampire
What happens when a vampire bites?
Heightened senses and powers
Vampires - myth or reality?


Vampires are dark, glamorous and gloomy; mysterious and haunted by inner demons, fighting an irresistible desire for fresh blood. Which is exactly what makes them so fascinating. They can be the embodiment of evil, violent and powerful, while - strangely enough - oddly romantic and sensuous at the same time.

Or so they are presented to us by the media these days. Numerous well-known authors have shaped the image of the guild-ridden and anguished, but likewise seductive, vampire.

Actually, though, the idea of vampirism is quite an old one. It has fascinated and frightened people since time immemorial. There have been tales of bloodsucking walking dead for centuries and in a lot of different cultures, which might not match entirely, but have certain elements that keep reappearing.

History of Vampirism

The name vampire - or rather vampyr - originates from the Slavic folklore. But there have been tales of similar phenomena in other areas as well, only under different names. Reportedly, the word "vampyre" entered the English language in the year 1734.

Especially during the 18th century, but also long before that, many people believed that the dead came back at dusk to hunt the living and drink their blood.

A person that is often associated with vampirism - since he was most likely the model for Bram Stoker's well-known book, at least where names are concerned - is Vlad "Tepes" Dracula (1428-1477), a 15th century Rumanian sovereign who used to stake his enemies on posts as a means of deterrence. Therefore, he was named Tepes, the Impaler.

He was also rumored to have drunk the blood of his victims, but that was probably just that, a rumor.

The name "Dracula" comes from the fact that his father used to be a member of The Order of the Dragon, an organization of knights that fought against the Turk. Therefore, he was given the name Dracul, which means dragon. His son, then, was named Dracula, the son of the dragon.

Another person who probably served as some sort of role model for the vampire legend was the Transilvanian countess Elizabeth Bathory, a sadistic, homicidal maniac mass murderess. She tortured and killed a number of young girls and bathed in their blood because she thought it would make her look young and beautiful.

Scientists and historians often make illnesses like rabies responsible for the origin of vampire myths, because some of the symptoms resemble characteristics often associated with the undead: sensitivity for sharp scents (like garlic, for instance) and garish sunlight, the biting and the animal-like behavior.

Early symptoms of rabies are feeling ill (malaise), anorexia (having no appetite), headache, nausea, sore throat and fever. Later, the victim suffers from increasing nervousness and hyperventilation. Confusion and hallucinations are also common. As mentioned, bright light, sound or even touch may cause brief periods of hyperactivity. Eventually, this leads to the patient's death due to seizures and respiratory paralysis 3 to 5 days after the symptoms start to show. The chances of survival are practically non-existent once the symptoms have started.

During the plague, it wasn't unusual for victims to be buried as fast as possible to avoid contagion. Because of that, it wasn't so rare that people assumed to be dead were not actually dead and, when they later woke up, appeared to get back to life. Others were buried alive and screamed or moved in their graves so the people thought they'd be hearing the dead calling; and, when the graves were later opened, the body was found to be lying in a cramped position.

Interestingly enough, the vampire bat, however, got its name from the vampire legend, not visa versa. There are only very few bat species that actually drink blood. In fact, there are only three; and only one of them, the desmodus rotundus, drinks mammal blood - only about a wineglass full each night, which they lap from a v-shaped wound they inflict. The other two species only drink the blood of birds. These bats won't be found in Europe; they live in South America, and the Spanish conquerors must have known the legends about vampires too.

Still, bats are regarded as some sort of a trickster spirit in those regions. For a number of Native American tribes such as the Cherokee and the Apache, bats are a symbol of ghosts, death and disease.

It is quite likely that their existence fueled the believe that vampires can turn into bats and fly. This is not found in the original Rumanian folklore.

Then, in the 18th century, a vampire panic spread in Europe. Stories of the walking dead circulated all over the country, scientists examined the bodies of said vampires and investigated vampire cases. The people did the weirdest things to their dead in order to protect themselves against a vampire attack back then. The corpses were burned, the heads cut off or ears and mouth filled with garlic.

The Vampyr, written in 1816 by John Polidori, is regarded as the first prose featuring a vampire as a main character. The tale was the result of a private poetic contest with Lord Byron - whom the young Dr. Polidori served as a personal physician - Mary Shelley and her soon-to-be-husband Percy Shelley, when they spend rainy days during a vacation by Lake Geneva in Switzerland writing horror tales to pass the time. (Which, by the way, is where Mary Shelley began work on Frankenstein. She was only 19.)

The Vampyr was first published in 1819, in the April issue of the New Monthly Magazine, where it was falsely accredited to Lord Byron.

Vampire tales then gained real popularity after Bram Stocker published his famous novel Dracula in 1897. There, the vampire was given his romantic touch. He was transformed from the daunting monster into a being with longings who was utterly conscious of his nature, which only added to his fascination.

From then on, vampires began to conquer the media. Today, there is such a great number of books, films and even comics that a world without vampires is hard to imagine now.

In that spirit: Carpe Noctem!

What exactly is a vampire?

A vampire is an undead creature that feeds on the living. A hunter that stalks the world at night and drinks the blood of his prey with long, sharp fangs, which are, by the way, a nice add-on by Hollywood. They do not appear in the original tales.

Typical characteristics are also said to be the pale complexion as well as the cold skin.

In movies, especially older ones, the typical vampire is clad in dark colors. Mostly black, some blood red, and somehow managing some sort of baronic air supported by the effects of an impressive cape. I can't recall ever having seen any classical vampire in a ragged shirt and blue jeans. Of course, things have changed over the years. Modern vampires wear modern clothes and sometimes even live right among us and we never even notice.

A vampire owns heightened senses that give him a more intimate sense of his surroundings and enable him to see in the dark and hear much better than any human ever could.

Since vampires are "undead", they are not subject to the usual aging process and look just as they did when they died; and they live forever - as long as they are not killed by chance or by a vampire hunter, that is.

At daytime, they are said to sleep in coffins to come out only at night, for daylight is harmful to them. There are films and books where vampires actually were not harmed by sunlight, but they are rare and usually not typical vampire tales. They are mostly stories of other genres that have vampirism as some sort of gag on the side.

Since - back in the old days - the mirror image was considered to be an image of the soul, vampires are said not to reflect in mirrors because they don't have one.

I must say, though, that I find this extremely illogical. Other (lifeless) objects that do not have souls reflect in mirrors, too. And then, I don't see why vampires should not have a soul. Okay, maybe it all comes down to how you define the concept of a soul. But in my opinion, they were humans once, who did have a soul. And - though undoubtedly shaped by their death and needs of their current existence - they do remain that same person. They aren't zombies, after all.

However, this not reflecting in mirrors is what the legend says, and what is - for reasons of effect, probably - frequently picked up in many a vampire movie.

Others say that vampires do reflect, but have a certain dislike for mirrors. For whatever reason.

Even more controversial is the discussion of whether vampires cast shadows. That they might not do so for some reason is very much arguable, as anything casts shadows, and this believe is not very widely accepted.

How to become a vampire

There are many theories on how people are bound to become vampires after having been bitten by another vampire (see:
What happens when a vampire bites), but very little is known about the origin of the very first undead.

It was believed that an animal jumping over the dead body or the opened grave was a possible cause. Other beliefs include causes usually rather associated with the origin of ghosts, like suicide or an unrevenged death.

Then, many films present the weirdest theories and legends about people drawn to the dark side who made a deal with the devil and stuff like that.

Ways to kill a vampire

The legends become a little fuzzy where the killing of vampires is concerned. As far as you might actually talk about killing when speaking of a creature that is already kinda dead, anyway.

It is widely accepted that a stake run straight through the heart will have the desired effect, though there are people who believe that this would merely pierce the vampire to the spot instead of killing him.

Another method is to cut off his head. Rumor has it that - where usually vampires can heal their wounds in practically no time - once the head is separated from the body, it won't get back together again.

Then again, I do agree with a character in one of my favorite vampire stories when discussing the question of whether it would be better to cut off the head or stake the heart: "Maybe you'd better do both, just to be sure." (Lost Souls in the Hunting Ground, Penelope Hill)

It's also said that vampires couldn't cross running water, like e.g. rivers, but it's completely unclear whether this actually kills a vampire or merely takes his strength away.

The same consideration also applies to sunlight. It's often argued whether sunlight might really be capable of killing the vampire - as a means to turn him into dust from which he can't rise again - or just weakens him. Others say that sunlight burns into a vampire's skin like acid, as do holy symbols.

In the old days, especially during the vampire panic, many corpses were burned because the people believed that fire, too, was harmful to the undead.

How to protect yourself against a vampire

If you can't - or won't - kill a vampire right away, there are some ways of protection.

As a symbol of the holy spirit, a crucifix is said to drive vampires away. In other religions, other holy signs are believed to serve the same purpose. On the same line is holy water, which is said to burn into a vampire's skin like acid.

Being a creature with heightened senses, vampires are sensitive to garlic. In the old days, it was a general cure for a lot of things, so the people figured it would also be good against vampires.

You might also use fire to keep the vampire at bay.

If you can, go out into the sun. As mentioned before, sunlight either kills or weakens the undead.

What happens when a vampire bites?

The logical consequence of a vampire bite would be resultant anemia caused by the recent blood loss, therefore followed by the suffering of immediate deficiency of iron. The victim would be extremely exhausted and feel kind of drained, depending on the amount of blood that the vampire has taken. Usual symptoms of anemia are pale skin, fatigue, tendency for fading, dizziness, labored breathing and palpitation.

Massive blood loss leads to symptoms like cold sweat, restlessness, thirst, faint and erratic pulse up to shock reaction. If the blood loss is too severe, the victim is very likely to die.

Scientifically speaking, an adult human body contains about 5-6 liters of blood. Losing 10% (ca. 0.5-0.6 l) is bearable without complaints for a healthy adult. Up to 30% (ca. 1.5-1.8 l) is critical, and blood loss around 50% (2.5-3 l) or more most likely turns deadly if untreated.

The vampire bite marks are usually located on the carotid artery, more rarely on the wrist or other major veins.

It is a point of discussion whether a person bitten by a vampire will inevitably become one himself. Some people think that to become a vampire, the person must drink the blood of the other vampire after having been bitten.

Other beliefs say that the person must die before becoming a vampire, whether killed during the feast or dying on a later point in his life.

There is also the three-bites-scheme that describes a slow transformation where the victim has to be bitten three times before he actually becomes a full vampire. This transformation can be stopped if the vampire who caused it is killed before the transformation is complete.

Yet another theory says that only people who have a predisposition for becoming a vampire before being bitten can actually transform into one.

One thing is for sure, though. The vampire generally transforms his victim into another vampire on purpose. I'm not sure whether there's anything about that in the legends, but it's a simple matter of mathematics: If everyone bitten by a vampire would inevitably become one - given that a vampire needs to feed at least every few days to weeks - the world would be full of vampires now and there wouldn't be a single human left. If this happened, all those vampires would have no one to bite. Thus, it is logical to assume that not everyone who is bitten will transform into a vampire.

A rather scientific approach is the consideration of vampirism as being some kind of disease. According to those theories, it's some sort of virus or a parasitic cell that transforms the recipient's body. And if that were the case, there might also be a likewise scientific cure for it.

Heightened senses and powers

Rumor has it that vampires have heightened senses and powers that mere mortals could only dream of. Being predators, their instincts are far more pronounced than those of the common man, much like those of animals.

Since the undead are creatures of the night, it seems unavoidable for them to be able to see in the dark. This night-sight, assumedly infrared, gives them a big advantage.

By controlling other people's actions with their thoughts, vampires are able to mesmerize - which means to control through hypnosis - their victims or other people so they can make them do whatever they want.

Another common power is said to be the ability to transform into a bat, probably originating from the vampire bats in South America that also drink blood, or - more rarely - into a wolf, which kinda reminds of the legends about werewolves. There are also people who believe that the undead might transform into any other animal, mostly thinking of those that might harm a human being, like rats, dogs, etc.

The undead are also said to possess unnatural strength, have the ability to move real fast and climb up walls like spiders. Then, they are rumored to be able to fly, too. Whether they can do it in their human form or have to transform into bats in order to be able to fly is debatable.

As I mentioned before, the wounds inflicted on a vampire heal fast. The time it takes is, of course, dependent on how severe the damage is. It seems that a vampire's body is continually regenerating itself. As a result, vampires don't age and look the way they did when they died for eternity. They are not subject to any form of decay, as far as the legend is concerned.

Vampires - myth or reality?

That's quite a tough one. You probably can't say for sure whether vampires really exist until you find yourself facing one. ;)

Seriously, it's really hard for me to decide whether I believe in vampires or not, so making that judgment is certainly not up to me. I wouldn't say - beyond any trace of doubt - that I believe in vampires; yet, I couldn't honestly say that I don't believe in their existence, either.

For one thing, there probably is at least some amount of truth in any tale, which, of course, doesn't mean that everything should be believed without question.

On the other hand, there are quite a lot of scientific approaches that sound convincing, like when seemingly dead "got back to life" and the people - who didn't know too much about medicine and simple biology back in those days - thought that the dead had stepped out of their graves. Seriously, did you know that hair and nails keep growing for a while after the body is dead? The people back then certainly didn't.

As it always is with things passed on orally, the vampire legends get a little fuzzy at times, spot conflicting opinions and got mixed up a little with ghost and werewolf tales. Which only adds to the effect of unrealness.

I think everybody is entitled to their own opinion, especially concerning issues that just can't be proven and involve a great deal of belief. Therefore, no judgment shall be passed here to the content of truth behind the vampire myth.

And then, whether we actually believe in vampires or not shall not keep us from enjoying good vampire prose.

© Eddy Carson
August 2004

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