Destroying the Vampire

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Drawing of Vlad the Impaler torturing his victims. Vlad is considered by some to be the “real” historical Dracula.
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Perhaps the most popular way to destroy a vampire is to thrust a stake through the vampire’s heart, as actor Frank Langella does in this 1979 version of Dracula.

Destroying the Vampire

(pop culture)

Almost everywhere vampires have been seen as evil, monstrous creatures. Once a vampire was confirmed to be wandering in a neighborhood, people hastened to locate and destroy it. In the most famous vampire novel, Dracula, the lengthy process of destroying Dracula took up half the novel.

Dracula’s death was presaged by the killing of Lucy Westenra, whom Dracula had turned into a vampire. Confronted in her crypt, the men who knew her in life put a stake through her heart, decapitated her, and filled her mouth with garlic. Later, in his speech to the men assembled to kill Dracula (chapter 18), Dr. Abraham Van Helsing informed them of the means of destroying vampires:

… The branch of the wild rose on his coffin keep him so that he move not from it; a sacred bullet fired into the coffin kill him so that he be true dead, and as for the stake through him, we know already of its peace; or the cut off head that giveth rest. We have seen it with our eyes.

In the end, however, the men deviated from the formula. Dracula was killed with a Bowie knife plunged into his heart by Quincey P. Morris; Jonathan Harker then carried out the decapitation. His body then crumpled to dust as everyone watched. Among the sources he used for his novel, Bram Stoker referred to Emily Gerard’s The Land Beyond the Forest as a major source of information on vampires. Concerning the killing of vampires, she had observed in her travels that the vampire:

… will continue to suck the blood of other innocent persons till the spirit has been exorcised by opening the grave of the suspected person, and either driving a stake through the corpse, or else firing a pistol-shot into the coffin. To walk smoking round the grave on each anniversary of the death is also supposed to be effective in confining the vampire. In very obstinate cases of vampirism it is recommended to cut off the head, and replace it in the coffin with the mouth filled with garlic, or to extract the heart and burn it, stewing the ashes over the grave.

She noted further that it was a common practice to lay a thorny branch of the wild rose across the body at the time of burial to prevent a suspected vampire from leaving its coffin.

Folklore Traditions: In his treatment of the methods of destroying the vampire, Stoker reached back into the folklore of Eastern Europe to develop his own myth. While traditions concerning vampires varied widely on some issues, when it came to killing them, there was consensus across cultures from Greece and the southern Slavic lands to Poland and Russia. In eastern Europe, vampire activity would be traced to the graveyard and to a particular body, usually that of a recently deceased person, as the suspected vampire. The body would then be disinterred, examined for signs of vampiric activity (lifelike appearance, blood around the mouth), and a determination made that the person was indeed the vampire. Once the designation was made, there was a tendency to treat the corpse at two levels. First, steps would be taken to stop its vampiric activity by specific actions against the body. Among the least intrusive would be the firing of a bullet into the coffin.

In Eastern Orthodox countries, the local priest might repeat the services for the dead, which in effect would again dispatch the soul on its journey to the realm of the dead. If the coffin was opened, the suspected vampire’s clothing might be nailed to the sides of the coffin (away from the mouth area). Commonly, however, the body would be mutilated in one of several ways. It could be staked (with different cultures using materials that varied from an iron stake to a hat pin or local woods). In most cultures the stake did not have to go through the heart and usually was put through the stomach area. In these cases, it was assumed that the stake would hold the body in the ground. At times the body would be turned face downward and then staked. If the stake did not work, the corpse would only dig itself deeper into the earth. Occasionally, the body might have been staked with a nail or pin even before it was buried; in that instance a subsequent opening of the grave would be followed immediately by more drastic activity.

Along with staking, decapitation was common. Among the Kashubian Poles, the severed head might be placed between the legs. If mutilating the body with a stake and decapitating it did not work, the last resort was to burn the body. There are few reports of vampire activity continuing after cremation. It was, of course, this mutilation and cremation of long-dead persons that moved the authorities to suppress belief in vampires in the eighteenth century. Through the early part of that century, the ruling powers not only were receiving accounts of vampire activity but also had to deal with complaints of families against hysterical townspeople who were mutilating the corpses of loved ones.

Thus the authorities, primarily Roman Catholic Austrians, were forced to take action against antivampire attacks on the graveyards. While edicts against mutilating bodies did not end belief in vampires (which persists to this day in some areas), they did slow the reports of vampires and spread skepticism.

The Fictional Vampire: Once the vampire became an object of fiction, its death frequently became the point of the story. Such was not the case in the beginning. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Polidori, who respectively wrote the first vampire poem and short story in English, left their vampires free to attack the next victim. Polidori did allow his vampire to be killed in quite normal ways by the bandits who attacked Lord Ruthven and his traveling companion, but he could always be revived by the light of the full moon. Varney the Vampyre, after what seemed like endless adventures, finally committed suicide by jumping into a volcano. Thus the current conventions concerning the death of vampires have to be traced to the story of “Carmilla”. Drawing from the folkloric traditions, author Sheridan Le Fanu suggested that the vampire should be decapitated, staked, and then burned, and such was the fate of Carmilla. As noted previously, Stoker’s characters saw the staking of the corpse as adequate, and thus did not advocate its burning.

The development of staking as a conventional means of destroying the vampire led to two important reinterpretations of the vampire myth. First, by emphasizing that the stake had to be driven into the heart rather than the stomach or back, a change in the myth occurred. The vampire no longer was pinned to the ground. The stake now attacked the heart, the organ that pumped the blood, and “the blood is the life.” Second, the vampire, being seen as in some way immortal, could be brought back to life by pulling the stake from the chest.

Crucial to the development of the vampire myth was the movie Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Garuens. Director Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau, in altering the storyline of Dracula, created the idea that the vampire could be killed if a beautiful woman held his attention until dawn. The vampire could not return to his resting place and would be killed by the sunlight. The vampire’s death in the dawn’s light was one of the memorable scenes in the movie. This perspective on the vampire was an addition to the myth. Previously, while the vampire preferred the night, it was not limited to it. Its powers were enhanced during the evening, but Lord Ruthven, Varney, and Dracula all made daytime appearances. Folkloric vampires were nocturnal creatures, but the daylight merely protected the living from them.

There was no hint that daylight killed them. However, once suggested, the negative effects of sunlight became a common element in twentieth-century vampire stories. In the movie The Mark of a Vampire, Bela Lugosi disintegrated in the presence of sunlight. The effects of sunlight were used effectively in the Horror of Dracula, which climaxed as Abraham Van Helsing ripped the draperies from the wall of Castle Dracula and caught the vampire in the dawn’s early light. Frank Langella‘s Dracula (1979) was impaled on a ship’s hook and hoisted high into the sunlight. Lesser bits of sunlight would do significant damage but not be fatal. In one episode of the television series Forever Knight, for example, a boy innocently opened a window, and the little beam of light falling on vampire Nick Knight’s eyes temporarily blinded him. The clan of vampires in the movie Near Dark, while able to be active in daylight, received severe burns each time the sunlight penetrated their barriers of drapes and tinfoil.

Modern Vampires: As the myth has been restructured in the twentieth century, vampires face three fatal dangers: a stake in the heart, sunshine, or fire. Usually there is also the possibility of being revived by removal of the stake or by a magical ritual, and/or by adding blood to the ashes of someone who had died after being burned in the sun or by fire.

In the face of these assumptions, several prominent contemporary vampire writers have attempted to reinterpret the vampire tale. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has written a series of novels concerning the vampire St. Germain. St. Germain was affected by the sun, but not fatally. However, there was the possibility of what was termed the “true death.” The vampire would die if his spine was severed or if he was consumed in fire. Stakes could hurt, but unless they cut the spine, he would recover.

Anne Rice thoroughly and systematically demythologized the vampire myth. Her vampires were not affected by many of the traditional forces or objects (especially holy objects) that have plagued other vampires and reduced their powers. Though her vampires were nearly immortal, they could be killed by sunlight or by fire and the subsequent scattering of the ashes.

However, some vampires (those older and closer to Akasha in lineage) were somewhat immune to the sunlight. Rice’s vampires also faced a threat over which they had little or no control and of which most were unaware. In Rice’s world, vampires were created by the merger of a spirit that moved into Akasha, the first vampire. All vampires remained in some way tied to Akasha, hence whatever happened to her was passed on to them. Were she to be killed and the spirit driven out, all vampires would cease to be.

In the post-Rice era, playing with the vampire myth has become common. One popular variation has been to provide a motivation for the vampire hero/villain to become a daywalker, someone who is immune to the effects of sunlight. His ability to maneuver in daylight make the vampires hunted by the Marvel Comics hero and half-vampire Blade envious of him. Blade is, of course, a variation on the dhampir, a character in Slavic vampire lore who is the product of a human mother and vampire father, a hybrid child with the power to discern, hunt, and destroy vampires, regardless of the time of day. A dhampir is the also the hero in Rebecca York’s 2007 novel, Daywalker. In 1999, Marvel villainess Baroness Blood, the spouse of Baron Blood, discovers a means to become a daywalker using the Holy Grail, and almost succeeds. At about the same time, daywalkers began to appear in Japanese animé/manga. In the popular children’s series Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, the evil Count Kinkell is able to bend light around himself so it will not consume him. Daywalking vampires also appear in the animé/manga series Vampire Princess Miyu, Negima, and Hellsing.

In Season Four of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy is able briefly to realize her desire of a life with the vampire Angel when she gains possession of the Gem of Amarra and passes it on to him. A vampire wearing the ring can experience the sunlight unharmed. In the end, however, Angel smashes the ring and continues his business of slaying various denizen of the night. In the “Twilight” series of popular novels, the vampires are able to move about in daylight, but have moved to the rainy world of Forks, Washington, to escape the harmful effects of direct sunlight (which Edward Cullen plans to use in his suicide attempt in volume two, New Moon (2006).


Dorff, Stephen. Blade. New York: HarperPaperbacks, 1998. 343 pp.
Glut, Donald F. The Dracula Book. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975. 388 pp.
Meyer, Stephenie. New Moon. Boston: Little, Brown Young Readers, 2006. 576 pp.
Perkowski, Jan L. The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. 174 pp.
Ramsland, Katherine. The Vampire Companion. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 508 pp.
Yarbro, Chelsea Quinn. Hotel Transylvania. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. 252 pp.
The Vampire Book, Second Edition © 2011 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
d) Using a white wolf to find the vampire; the wolf is capable of destroying the vampire as well, and accomplishes this by strangulation.
During the day he tours his abandoned hometown, tracking down and destroying the vampires, always making sure to return before nightfall.