The vampire of folklore was a far cry from the modern image of a suave, sophisticated creature of the night. Tales of creatures that drain some vital force from innocent victims during the night have been told in all times and all places, but the direct ancestor of what we think of as the vampire was born in medieval Europe.
It was a dark time. A man in the prime of life grows sickly and dies in the space of a week. Without any real understanding of disease, grieving survivors grope for an explanation: God’s wrath against some sin committed in the village? A malign spell from a witch? And now the same thing is happening to others, especially members of his family and those who had been in close contact with him before the end. Surely something supernatural must be going on.
The man’s corpse is hastily exhumed in a desperate search for clues, because if the cause is known, perhaps there is some charm or prayer which might bring an end to the misfortune. But when the coffin lid is removed, the body is found to be bloated, with blood around the mouth!
Today, we understand this to be a stage in the natural cycle of decay. At the time, with no scientific knowledge, is it any wonder legends of the undead who fed on the blood of the living thrived?
In slavic folklore in particular, vampires were corpses possessed by evil spirits. (Or the ghost of a werewolf, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post in and of itself!) The demonic spirit would inhabit the body, rise from the grave at night, and attack the living. Usually this meant preying on the dead person’s family and other nearby villagers, but some were far more wide-ranging and traveled across the countryside. Their victims grew pale and weak, until they died—and themselves rose as spirit-possessed undead.
The easiest solution was to simply trap the vampire in its coffin—this is the origin of the “staking” myth, except the stake was just meant to pin the vampire in place, not destroy it. Burying corpses face-down, so they would try to dig out in the wrong direction, was another solution.
Some stories, however, held that vampires could be truly destroyed. One involves a soldier traveling by himself, who came upon a what he thought to be a fellow traveler and offered to share his evening fire. Later that night, the soldier awoke to find himself under attack by the other traveler, who turned out to be a vampire. The soldier overcame the undead monster, cut off its head, and burned it on a pyre. But as the flames devoured the body, a plague of rats, lizards, snakes, and other creepy crawlies poured forth. The solider knew that if even one of them escaped, the evil spirit animating the vampire would escape inside it, free to find another human host. Fortunately, the solider was able to kill all the vermin before they escaped. Or so he claimed.
Next week, we jump forward in time and take a look at the legend of the vampire in the Victorian Era, when the suave creature we’re familiar with came to be.