Summary of the scholarly history by Claude Lecouteux
Vampire stories have been a fixture of horror literature since the 19th century. But scholarly treatises -- examining debunking vampire myths, mostly -- had been written in the 18th century. These included reports on the Serbian vampires of Medvegia published in 1732, and the "Dissertation sur le apparitions des esprits et sur les vampires ou les revenants de Hongrie, de Moravie" in 1751.
The result of both spates of publication, fictional and analytical, was to fix the vampire myth permanently into the forms mostly known through the story of Dracula. This book is an attempt to dig behind the synthesis to find the original stories and folklore.
The Vampire Myth
The most significant founders of contemporary vampire lore were
* William Polidori: Author of The Vampyre, A Tale in 1819 and started the craze. Plot concerns an aristocratic vampire, Lord Ruthven, who seduces and murders a young girl.
* J. S. Le Fanu: Author of Carmilla, which married vampirism and lesbianism.
* Bram Stoker: Author of Dracula, which systematized the lore through the character of Dr. Van Helsing, himself based loosely on Professor Armin Vambery of the University of Budapest.
Also notable was Alexei Tolstoy (brother of Leo) whose The Family of Vourdalak describes a patriarch who gradually turns his entire family into vampires.
Man, Life, Death
Classical belief held that man had an allotted natural lifespan. Anything that cut that allotment short could lead to dangerous consequences by preventing the person from passing into the realm of the dad. Failure to perform certain prescribed rites could also lead to bad things. In general any sort of "bad death" (most prominently including suicide) could cause problems. Physical and social defects, and the leaving of unfinished business, could also prevent a safe passage into the afterlife. After Christianity took hold, the excommunicated and witches were added to the list of defects.
Linked to these beliefs was the belief that the soul of the dead person remained close to the body for up to 40 days. (The souls of animals could also remain to trouble the living.) If anything interfered with the passage to the next life, the "iimpure dead" would remain behind to prey upon the living in order to fulfill whatever was lacking. Their bodies would not decay or putrefy, and the land would not receive them.
Some foreign terms. In Russia, the pure and impure dead were "cistyi" and "necistyi." In Dalmatia, they were "demac" and "orko" -- the latter related to the English word "ogre."
The Life of the Dead
It was widely supposed in ancient, classical, and post-classical times that the dead led a complex existence. They carried on much as before their death, with ceremonies, dances, and other activities. They sometimes walked or came into houses to keep warm, and rewarded or revenged themselves upon friends and enemies among the living. Sometimes they troubled the living by returning to continue their jobs. In some traditions they could even have sexual relations and father children (though these would soon die after birth, being boneless).
Sometimes they weren't even dead, but had been snatched away by elves who substituted fake corpses for them. Stories are told of deceased people rescued from the elves and returned to normal life.
In general, anything returning from the dead would be merely a "revenant." Vampires emerged as a particular kind of revenant.
Precursors of the Vampire
Various kinds of revenant could trouble the living, and in many of these revenants can be glimpsed details that joined up in the notion of a vampire.
1. The Summoner: A revenant that calls a person by name. In some traditions, this was enough to kill the person called; in other traditions, answering would lead to death. In England, this kind of revenant was called a "fetch," and it was merely a portent of death, not an agent of it.
2. The Knocker: A revenant that kills by knocking at doors. Opening the door would be fatal. This aspect is reflected in vampire lore as the claim that vampires must be invited inside if they are to enter a house.
3. The Visitor: A revenant, either a stranger or a family member, that troubles a house or village. Typically they are dispelled by staking their headless corpse to the ground.
4. The Famished: A revenant that feeds on the living. The Romans believed in the empusa, which fattened and fed on victims. In other tales, it feeds (like vermin) on stored food. Or the vampire (called such) only feeds on the "life" of others without actually taking blood.
5. The Nonicide: A revenant that returns to kill the nine people closest to him.
6. The Appesart: A dead person that hurls itself onto the backs of passersby and forces them to carry it to its destination. The weakened victims frequently die afterward.
7. The Nightmare: A being that oppresses sleepers by sitting on their chests. This may be the creature out of which the vampire most directly evolved, as vampires cause similar distress to sleepers.
8. The Strangler: A nightmare that goes so far as to strangle its victims. This seems to have been an intermediate stage between nightmare and vampire, as stranglers of this type did not feed on blood, but their coffins when opened were deep with it.
9. The Chewer: Associated with pestilence. A corpse that does not leave its coffin, but causes death at a distance through sympathetic magic by consuming its own shroud.
Names of the Vampire
My own note based on this chapter: There are a plethora of names and concepts for the malign dead. There is no single point overlapped by all, save that the entity is a corpse, and some concepts have little or no resemblance to each other, save by being linked by intermediate concepts that resemble the terminal ends. Nevertheless, here is a partial list of names the author gives, their locality, and in some cases an account of what they are.
* Balkans (general area): "Vampir." Term seems to have first appeared in print in 1732. The English "vampyre" appeared in 1745 in a travel book.
* Poland: "Wampir" or "wieszczy" (announcer); latter is also present in Kashubia.
* Kashubia: "Uport".
* Carpathians: "Opyr"; in Russian, the term meant "suspended death."
* Romania: 1. "Murony"; a bloodsucking corpse born from the illegitimate offspring of two illegitimate children, or from the harmful spirit of one killed by a vampire. 2. "Nosferat"; a bloodsucking corpse born from a stillborn child. 3. "Strigoi"; a revenant (if dead) or a witch (if a living woman). 4. "Moroiu"; born of a child not baptized.
* Istria/Dalmatia: 1. "Strigon", from "strige" or "stirge"; originally meant "witch." 2. "Vischun" or "strzysz" (wizard); the concepts are associated with magic.
* Croatia: "vikodlak", "ukodlak", "vuk" (wolf). In the Ukraine, vampires were men who were werewolves when alive.
* Bulgaria: 1. "Dedejo" or "platnik" (flesh). 2. "Grobnik", from "grob" + "tenee" = "grave shadow." 3. "Lepir"; a dead person of unknown origin. 4. "Ustrel"; a demon that inhabits graves.
* Greece: "Broucolaca", from "vrikolakas" (zombie).
* Byelorussia: "Mjertovjec" (the walking dead).
* Russia: 1. "Varkolac"; a specter formed by the union of a corpse and a demon. 2. "Vourdalak; a term imported from Croatia by nineteenth century Russian novelists.
* Locale not given: "Stafia"; revenants born when a person's shadow falls upon a wall, is measured, and then the measure is buried under the building's foundations in order to steady it, with the result that the revenant is bound to the building.
How Do We Protect Ourselves From Vampires?
There are four ways to protect against vampires.
1. Protect against suspect births. Monstrous births, especially when the father is not known, can turn into vampires. Typically, such births were burned.
2. Take precautions during death and burial. There were many precautions that could be taken with any corpse for any reason: carrying it over running water, or removing it from the death chamber via a hole in the wall, for instance. Other prophylactics were specifically aimed at vampires and would be carried out if certain signs -- such as blood oozing from the dead body -- were observed. The rituals could be very specific, but conformed to one of four types. (a) Mourners would make a sacrifice or bestow a gift on the corpse. (b) Mourners would provide the dead with material for the afterlife. (c) The funerary arrangements would be carried off perfectly. (d) Mourners could avoid invoking the dead.
A "ticket of St. Luke" might be issued -- a death notice or Bible verse ("et verbum factum est et habitavit in nobis") placed in the mouth. Mouths and throats were also tied to prevent chewing (see "The Chewer" under "Precursors") and the limbs tied. Burial on the belly rather than the back was another practice; poppy seeds to be counted or nets to be unstitched could be placed in the coffin. In the case of suspected sorcerers, iron chains and stag skins could be used in the burial garments.
3. Take precautions after burial. Seeds could be scattered in the path to the grave. IN Bulgaria, special commemorations were held to send the dead away.
4. Protect the house from vampires. Garlic over the doors, windows, and in the cracks was a sure-fire prophylactic.
Identifying and Killing the Vampire
The first sign that a vampire was active was the onset of sudden and inexplicable plague. Rapid die-offs without fevers was almost certain evidence of a vampire's presence.
Next, the vampire had to be identified. It might be disquieting stranger, in which case his behavior and character were examined. Lameness, the possession of iron teeth, being red in the face or being a butcher were usually taken as evidence that the person was a vampire. Vampires might also identified after opening its coffin. This required finding its resting place, of course. Animals -- or a black horse ridden by a naked boy -- would be driven around a cemetery in the belief that the animals would not cross a grave in which rested a vampire. Gravediggers, who had their own idiosyncratic tests, could be consulted. Holes in the ground were taken as a sure sign of the vampire's place of egress. Once a coffin was opened, the corpse was examined for new growth of skin and nails; for pools of blood; the absence of clothing; and in the case of men, erect penises.
Vampires could be destroyed after exhumation by decapitation, the removal of the heart, and incineration. (Impalement was not reserved for vampires, but could be used on any revenant.) Any such exhumation, however, had to be done in accord with both secular and canon law. In some cases this even involved trials of the dead to show cause why exhumation should be carried out. Public officials would have to preside and carry out the judgments.
In general, the pattern for identifying and executing vampires followed what has been called the "Oedipal" pattern: 1. A scourge attacks the community. 2. An investigation is made to find the responsible party, with previously innocent facts being marshaled into a pattern of guilt. 3. A scapegoat is identified and marginalized by emphasizing his or her differences with the community. 4. A community representative executes the scapegoat.
After the death of the vampire, victims had to be succored. In some cases, the vampire's death was sufficient. More usually, victims had to inhale the smoke of the burning corpse; to drink a mix of its ashes and wine; or even to drink the vampire's own blood.
Questions and Answers
Belief in vampires flourished in the 18th century, at a time when a close study was being made of death and dying. it also corresponded with the end of the last major wave of witch trials, and many beliefs about vampires and how to deal with them are similar to beliefs about witches, suggesting a mere transference of belief in one to the other.
Various attempts have been made over the centuries to explain the roots of belief in vampires. In the 18th century, vampires were accepted (at least provisionally) in some circles and given explanations that presumed their existence.
Theologians reasoned that vampires were the corpses of excommunicants: their bodies being rejected by the earth, they were ripe as vessels for demons. (Notably, perhaps, in Moldavia the word for word for "evil spirit" was drakul.) This explanation may explain the supposed efficacy of religious symbols and procedures against vampires -- they were efficacious against the animating demon.
Contemporary medical opinion hypothesized that vampires were corpses animated by a remnant of vegetative force. More recently, some specialists suggest that "vampirism" was inspired by real-life cases of rabies outbreaks or porphyria, which often have vampire-like symptoms.
At the back of it all, though, may be a very ancient belief in the "double" -- that every person has another self that can go forth. This other self is physical and can metamorphose into animals (as vampires can) and can manifest even when the original person is sealed up (as a vampire can exist a closed coffin without opening it or infiltrated locked rooms). Superstitions that vampires cast off their shroud but must resume it on returning to the coffin seem to echo traditions of doubles that are prevented from reintegrating with the original when their body is disturbed.