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In both novels and motion pictures, vampires sleep in coffins, and as they move from place to place, they transport their coffins with them. The association of vampires and coffins began with the simple fact that vampires were dead, and dead people, by the time of the development of the literary vampire in the nineteenth century, were buried in coffins. It should be noted that much vampire lore originated in an era prior to the use of coffins. Until recent centuries, the use of coffins was limited to those wealthy enough to afford them. The poorer classes would be transported in coffins to the graveyard, but then the body would be removed and buried in the shroud in which it had been wrapped. The coffin was then available for reuse. One kind of reusable coffin, termed a “slip” coffin, came equipped with hinges on the bottom to allow the body to be dropped into the grave.
Before the seventeenth century, when coffins became common even for the poor, the dead were commonly wrapped in a burial shroud and placed in a relatively shallow grave. In times of epidemics, the dead might be buried quite hastily and in very shallow graves. Such bodies were subject to predator damage, seemingly the source of northern European beliefs that vampires first devour their own extremities. To keep predators away from bodies buried without a coffin, a flat rock could be placed over part or all of the body. The problems of burial were further complicated by winter weather and frozen ground that would delay burials for weeks or months until the spring thaw, and by various beliefs in astrology that suggested that some moments were better than others for an auspicious burial.
The practice of putting a stake into a vampire’s body may have originated as a means of fixing the vampire to the ground without a coffin, rather than attacking the vampire itself. Since keeping the corpse in the ground was one purpose of staking someone, the stake did not have to go through the heart. It could just as appropriately go through the stomach or the back. Also the material from which the stake was made was not as important as its functionality. Thus stakes were made of various kinds of wood or iron.
At the time of the great vampire epidemics in eastern Europe in the early eighteenth century, it was the common practice to bury the dead in coffins. Anti-vampire measures consisted of various actions to keep the vampire, usually designated as a recently deceased member of the community, confined to the coffin. The coffin would be opened and the body staked. In some areas the clothes would be attached to the sides of the coffin in order to hold the body in place. The appendages would be nailed to the sides of the coffin so that the vampire could not eat them. The coffin could then be returned to the grave.
Early literary vampires did not have coffins. Geraldine (from Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s “Christabel”), Lord Ruthven, and Varney the Vampyre had no casket home. Carmilla brought no coffin with her, though she was eventually found resting in her crypt at an old chapel. Otherwise, these vampires seemed perfectly comfortable to rest wherever they happened to be.
In Bram Stoker‘s Dracula, (1897) the vampires did not rest in a coffin (as was depicted in the 1931 movie), but he did need to rest on his native soil. Thus he transported large crates (not coffins) of soil with him to England, and the desecration of the soil with sacred objects led to his hasty return to his native land. At the end of the novel, Abraham Van Helsing entered Castle Dracula to destroy the three vampire brides who resided at the castle. He found them in their tombs and destroyed them. He also found a large ornate tomb with the word DRACULA written on it. There he laid bits of a eucharistic wafer, thus destroying it as a resting place for a vampire.
The idea of the vampire resting in a coffin primarily derived from the Dracula (1931) movie in which the vampires were shown rising out of their coffins in the basement of the castle. In later movies, the boxes of earth that Dracula carried to England tended to be replaced by a coffin partially filled with dirt. Numerous vampire movies made use of a scene in which the vampire awakened and slowly thrust his hand out of the coffin.
While modern novels and movies tended to picture vampires sleeping in coffins, this was not a necessity. The coffin was merely one way to meet the requirement that the vampire rest on native soil. Throughout the twentieth century, the vampire increasingly lost any attachment to native soil, and the coffin was utilized more as a protective device shading the vampire from the sunlight. At the same time, the coffin served several additional useful purposes, especially in the movies. As a visual object immediately recognized by the audience, it helped build atmosphere. It also provided comic moments, as in George Hamilton’s Love at First Bite, with all of the problems inherent in transporting, protecting, and explaining the presence of a coffin. The coffin also supplied a ready means of international transportation for the mobile vampire of the modern world. In the movie Pale Blood (1989) the vampire carried a light, unobtrusive, portable “coffin,” which he could set up like a tent. Finally, and probably most importantly, the coffin supplied a target for the vampire hunter that made locating the vampire during the day far easier.
In developing her modern vampire myth, Anne Rice altered the importance of the coffin through the several novels of the “Vampire Chronicles.” In Interview with the Vampire, the vampire Lestat de Lioncourt slept in a coffin, and the night he made Louis a vampire, he forgot to obtain a coffin for him. Thus Louis had to sleep with Lestat as dawn approached. Coffins were a convenience for Rice’s vampires, not a necessity. Her vampires could simply return to the earth (as Lestat did for many years) or stay in a sealed chamber protected from the sunlight as the two original vampires (Akasha and Enkil) had done for centuries. Though coffins were not required, most vampires slept in them and only after some years of vampiric existence realized all they needed was a shield of protection from the sun’s rays. As in Rice, coffins largely disappeared from the world of vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and in the “Twilight” series.