Explanations of Vampirism

Explanations of Vampirism

(pop culture)

As reports of vampirism filtered into western and central Europe from the east, along with accounts of otherwise credible western witnesses offering support to the vampire hypothesis, scholars and church leaders attempted to find some explanation. Some simply dismissed the reports as stories of primitive superstitions. Many, however, otherwise unable to fit vampires into their eighteenth-century world view, took the reports seriously. They began to propound various alternative explanations to account for what people had observed, especially the phenomena reported in the case of Arnold Paul. Actual reports of vampirism, radier than the general folklore concerning vampires, usually began with people dying from a lingering disease. After some of these people died, neighbors dug up the corpses and observed a variety of unusual conditions, all signs of continuing life. The bodies had not decayed. The skin had a ruddy complexion and the hair and fingernails had continued to grow. Fresh flesh had appeared as the outer layer of skin had peeled off. Blood was present around the mouth and in the body when it was cut or punctured. There might be a sexual erection on the bodies of males. If staked, the body reacted as if in pain. Occasionally, when a stake was thrust into the body, the corpse was heard to cry out. In northern Europe, reports of chewed-off appendages suggested to observers that vampires fed on themselves before leaving the grave to feed on others.

By far the most popular explanation of vampire reports was premature burial. Many people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries knew of catalepsy, a disease in which the person affected took on many of the symptoms of death; on occasion, such people were removed by the undertaker and even buried before they reawakened. Herbert Mayo presented an extensive argument for this thesis in his volume, On the Truths Contained in Popular Superstitions (1851). In 1896 theosophist Franz Hartmann wrote a book based on widespread accounts of accidental interments. Premature burial remained a popular explanation of vampirism into the twentieth century and Montague Summers, in his famous treatise on vampirism, felt the need to devote a number of pages to a discussion of it before making his own case for the reality of the vampire in The Vampire: His Kith and Kin (1928). He admitted that cases of premature burial “may have helped to reinforce the tradition of the vampire and the phenomenon of vampirism.” As recently as 1972, Anthony Masters also argued for the plausibility of premature burials to account for vampire beliefs.

Others suggested that anomalous incidents of preservation of the body from its normal rate of decay accounted for the state of the exhumed bodies. Perhaps something in the soil or an unusual lack of air or moisture slowed the decay. Possibly the shriek heard when the corpse was staked was the escape of trapped air. Similarly, others suggested that what was being observed was simply the natural decay of the body. Most people were unaware of continued changes in the body after death, such as the loss of rigidity. As debate over the reasons for the vampire epidemics continued, other explanations were offered. For example, one set of literature suggested that some form of disease accounted for the vampire symptoms. High on the list was the plague—sometimes known as black death. An epidemic of the plague occurred simultaneously with a vampire outbreak in East Prussia in 1710. The spread of plague germs could account for the spread of vampire symptoms. During the twentieth century, rabies was offered as a specific explanation of vampirism. People with rabies would bite others and manifest animal-like behavior, and had an unquenchable thirst. There also were outbreaks of rabies in Hungary, Saxony, and East Prussia during the eighteenth century. In nineteenth-century New England, families suffering from tuberculosis used vampirism as an explanation after experiencing multiple deaths, and treated the bodies of the deceased accordingly. Most recently, in the 1960s, the disease porphyria has been suggested as an explanation of vampire reports. One characteristic of porphyria is an extreme sensitivity to light.

Social explanations were also offered for the spread of vampirism. For example, some noticed that vampire reports came from areas in which the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches were in contention for the faith of the people. Others saw the reports as a reaction to national defeat, especially in those areas taken over by Austria in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pope Benedict XIV, who ruled in the mid-eighteenth century, believed that his own priests were the problem. They supported and spread the accounts of vampirism in order to get superstitious people to pay them to do exorcisms and additional masses.

The most satisfying explanation of the vampire reports to date has come from cultural historian Paul Barber, who in the 1980s conducted a thorough survey of the original reports. Barber also had the benefit of modern medical knowledge concerning the process of decay of human bodies. He analyzed the arguments against the previously cited explanations; none really explained the broad range of phenomena reported in the vampire stories. Vampires were reported whether the factors cited were present or not. Barber has built a comprehensive case that the various accounts of vampires fairly accurately report what actually was observed. The eighteenth-century observers saw bodies in different states of decay from a perspective of limited understanding of the normal processes of decomposition. They tended to offer both natural and supernatural explanations of the unexpected things that they saw. Barber was able to account for the overwhelming majority of the reported attributes of the bodies observed by the eighteenth-century vampire hunters. The hunters had dug up bodies within a few months of their original burial. Some were bodies of people who had died during winter and had been kept in cold storage (which significantly inhibited decomposition) for burial after the spring thaw. He also accounted for such odd phenomena (to modern researchers) as the appendages seen sticking out of graves (usually of bodies buried without coffins) and appendages that appeared to have been eaten by the corpse, both of which probably derive from the activity of various animal predators on bodies buried in shallow graves without a coffin.

Conclusion: A consideration of the strengths and limitations of many explanations of vampires suggests that the belief in vampirism is a very old and possibly cultural response to an event that happens in all cultures—the untimely death of a loved one as a result of childbirth, accident, or suicide, followed by an intense experience of interacting with the recently dead person. Given that belief, there are a variety of events, such as the irregular rate of decay of the soft flesh of corpses, that could be cited as visible “proof” that vampires exist or as factors that on occasion correlate to their presence. Since “unnatural” deaths still occur, and people still have intense experiences with the dead (now usually thought of as encounters with ghosts or apparitions), those people who also believe in vampires can point to those experiences as in some manner substantiating their belief. Thus, these experiences indicate the presence of vampires. Hence, we know vampires exist because of these experiences.


Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988. 236 pp.
Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. London: Faber and Faber, 1991. 429 pp.
Masters, Anthony. The Natural History of the Vampire. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. Rept. Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1976. 280 pp.
Summers, Montague. The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1928. 356 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1960. 356 pp.
———. The Vampire in Europe. London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co., 1929. 329 pp. Rept. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1961. 329 pp.