Origins of the Vampire

Origins of the Vampire

(pop culture)

How did vampires originate? If vampires did (or do) exist, where did they come from?

The answers to these questions have varied widely as the vampire has appeared in the folklore of different countries and various fiction writers have speculated on the nature of vampirism.

The Folkloric Vampire: The vampire figure in folklore emerged as an answer to otherwise unsolvable problems within culture. The vampire was seen as the cause of certain unexplainable evils, accounted for the appearance of some extraordinary occurrences within the society, and was often cited as the end product of immoral behavior. The earliest vampires seem to have originated as an explanation of problems in childbirth. For example, the langsuyar—the primary vampire figure of Malaysia—was a beautiful young woman who had given birth to a stillborn child. Upon hearing of her child’s fate, she clapped her hands and flew away into the trees. Henceforth, she attacked children and sucked their blood. A similar tale was told of the lamiai, the original vampire of Greece. Just as tales of vampires were inspired by childbirth problems, they also originated from unusual circumstances surrounding births. Children who were different at birth were considered to be vampire candidates. For example, among the Kashubian people of Poland, children born with a membrane cap on their heads or with two teeth were likely to become vampires unless dealt with properly while growing up.

Similarly, some vampires stories originated from problems surrounding the death of a loved one. In eastern Europe, vampires were individuals who returned from the grave to attack their spouses, their immediate families, and possibly other acquaintances in the village. Symptoms of vampiric attack included nightmares, apparitions of the dead, and the death of family members by a wasting disease (such as tuberculosis). Some of the symptoms point to the vampire as a product of the grieving process, especially the continued ties of the living to the dead, often taking the form of unfinished emotional business. Thus, vampires were seen as originating from the failure of the family (in a time before the existence of funeral parlors) to perform the funeral and burial rites with exacting precision. A common event that allegedly led to the creation of a vampire was allowing an animal such as a cat to jump over the body of a dead person prior to burial.

Vampirism was also caused by unexpected and sudden violent deaths, either from accidents or suicides. Suicides were also part of a larger class of vampires that existed as a result of the immoral behavior of the person who became a vampire. The vampire served as an instrument of social control for the moral leaders of the community. Thus, people who stepped outside of the moral and religious boundaries of the community not only jeopardized their souls, but might become vampires. A potential vampire committed evil acts, among them suicide, and anyone guilty of great evil, especially of an antisocial nature, was thought likely to become a vampire after death. In some Christian countries, notably Russia and Greece, heresy could also lead to vampirism. The heretic was one type of person who died in a state of excommunication from the church. Excommunication could be pronounced for a number of unforgiven sins from actions directly attacking the church to more common immoralities such as adultery or murder. Heresy was also associated in some cultures with witchcraft, defined as consorting with Satan and/or the working of malevolent antisocial magic. Witches who practiced their craft in their earthly lives might become vampires after their deaths.

Vampire Contamination: After the first vampire was created, a community of vampires might soon follow. When a particular vampire figure, such as the original lamiai, took its place in the mythology of a people as a lesser deity or demon, they sometimes multiplied into a set of similar beings. Thus, Greek mythology posed the existence of numerous lamiai, a class of demonic entities. They were assumed to exist as part of the larger supernatural environment and, as such, the question of their origin was never raised. Also, such demonic entities did not create new vampires by attacking people. Their victims might suffer either physical harm or death as the result of the vampire’s assault, but they did not become vampires. Things were quite different in eastern Europe. There, vampires were former members of the community. Vampires could draw other members of the community into their vampiric existence by contaminating former family and neighbors, usually by biting them. In the famous case of Arnold Paul, the vampiric state was passed by meat from cows that had been bitten by Paul.

The Literary Vampire: In the nineteenth century, the vampire figure was wrenched from its rural social context in eastern Europe and brought into the relatively secularized culture of western European cities. It was introduced into the romantic imagination of writers cut off from the mythological context in which the vampire originated. Those writers had to recreate a new context from the few bits of knowledge they possessed. In examining the few vampire cases at their disposal, most prominently the Arnold Paul case, they learned that vampires were created by people being bitten by other vampires.

The imaginary vampire of nineteenth-century romanticism was an isolated individual. Unlike the Eastern European vampire, the literary vampire did not exist in a village culture as a symbol warning residents of the dangerous and devilish life outside the boundaries of approved village life. The imaginary vampire was a victim of irresistible supernatural attack. Against their wills, they were overwhelmed by the vampiric state and, much like drug addicts, forced to live lives built around their blood lust. The majority of beliefs associated with the origins of vampires were irrelevant to the creators of the literary vampire, although on occasion one element might be picked up to give a novel twist to a vampire tale.

Underlying much of the modern vampire lore was the belief that vampires attacked humans and, through that attack, drew victims into their world. Again, like drug addicts might share an addiction and turn others into addicts, so the vampire infected nonvampires with their condition. Writers have generally suggested that vampires primarily, if not exclusively, created new vampires by their bites. The radical simplification of the vampire myth can be seen in Dracula (1897), especially its treatment on the stage and screen. Bram Stoker did not deal directly with the problem of Dracula‘s origin as a vampire. In Dr. Abraham Van Helsing famous speech in chapter 18, where he described in some detail the nature of the vampire, he suggested that Dracula became a vampire because he “had dealings with the Evil One.” More important, however, was his ability to transform people into vampires. Dracula’s bite was a necessary part of that transmission, but, of itself, not sufficient. Jonathan Harker was bitten a number of times by the three vampire women, but did not become a vampire. On the other hand, Lucy Westenra did turn into a vampire and Mina Murray was in the process of being transformed into a vampire when the men interrupted Dracula. In the key scene in chapter 21, Dracula, having previously drunk Mina’s blood, forced her to drink his. Thus, in Dracula new vampires originated not from the bite of the vampire but by an exchange of blood.

Bram Stoker had little material to draw upon in considering this point. The question was avoided by John Polidori in his original vampire story. Varney the Vampyre, the subject of the 1840s novel, became a vampire as punishment for accidently killing his son, but the actual manner of transformation was not revealed. Sheridan Le Fanu was familiar with the folkloric tradition and suggested suicide as the cause of new vampires, but saw the death of a person previously bitten by a vampire as the basic means of spreading vampirism. His anti-heroine, Carmilla was the product of a vampire’s bite.

In the rewriting of Dracula for screen and stage, the scene from the book during which Mina consumed Dracula’s blood was deleted. It was considered too risqué, but without it some other means had to be found to transmit the vampiric state. Thus came the suggestion that merely the vampire’s bite transmitted the condition—the common assumption in most vampire novels and movies. At times, vampires required multiple bites or the bite had to take enough blood to cause the death of the victim. While most vampire books and movies have not dealt with the question of vampire origins apart from the passing of the vampiric condition through the bite of a preexisting vampire, occasionally writers have attempted to create a vampire myth that covers the origin of the first vampire.

Among the more intriguing of recent origin stories was that told by Anne Rice in the third of her “Vampire Chronicles,” The Queen of the Damned. Akasha and her husband Enkil ruled as queen and king of ancient Egypt. At one point Akasha had two witches, Maharet and Mekere, brought to her court. They allowed her to see the world of spirits, but then one of the spirits, Amel, attacked her. Akasha turned on the two witches and in her rage ordered them raped publicly and then banished. However, both Akasha and Enkil were intrigued by the spirit world and began to explore it on their own. Meanwhile, an uprising occurred and the rulers were seriously wounded. Akasha’s soul escaped from her body temporarily only to encounter the spirit Amel who joined himself to her. Her soul reentered her body and brought Amel with it. Fused with her brain and heart, the presence of Amel turned her into a vampire. She, in turn, passed the vampiric condition to Enkil and to their steward Khayman by the more traditional bite. All other vampires in the book, who originated from a vampire’s bite, have a lineage that can ultimately be traced to these three first vampires.

The Vampire Bat: In chapter 12 of Dracula, Bram Stoker suggested, but did not develop, the idea that vampire bats might ultimately be the cause of vampirism. Quincey P. Morris delivered a brief oration on his encounter with vampire bats in South America. Although vampire bats made numerous appearances in vampire lore—primarily as humans temporarily transformed into animal form—few writers developed the idea of vampirism originating with vampire bats.

Most prominent among the few stories in which vampirism originated with a bat was Dark Shadows. The Dark Shadows story line, took Barnabas Collins back to 1795 to his origin as a vampire. Spurning the witch Angelique’s love for him, Barnabas wound up in a fight with her and shot her. Wounded and near death, she cursed Barnabas and a bat attacked him. He died from the bite and arose from the grave as a vampire. Subsequently, Barnabas created other vampires in the common manner—by biting them and draining their blood to the point of death.

The Science Fiction Vampire: A final option concerning the origin of vampires was derived from science fiction. As early as 1942 in his short story “Asylum,” A. E. van Vogt suggested that vampires were an alien race who originated in outer space. The most successful of the comic book vampires, Vampirella, was a space alien. She originated on the planet Drakulon and came to earth to escape her dying planet. Ultimately, in the Vampirella story line, even Dracula was revealed to be an alien.

Science fiction also suggested a second origin for the vampire: disease. Not incompatible with either vampire bats or outer space aliens, disease (either in the form of germs or altered blood chemistry) provided a nonsupernatural explanation of the vampire’s existence—an opinion demanded by many secularized readers or theater-goers. Disease explained the vampire’s strange behavior, from its nocturnal existence to the “allergy” to garlic to its blood lust. This idea was explored most prominently in Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend. In the end, however, the science fiction space vampire was like its supernatural cousin. Whatever its origin, the vampire was the bearer—at least potentially—of its condition to anyone it attacked, and the vampire’s bite was the most common way to spread vampirism.

Sources:

Ramsland, Katherine. The Vampire Companion. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993. 508 pp.
Rice, Anne. The Queen of the Damned. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. 448 pp.
Perkowski, Jan L. The Darkling: A Treatise on Slavic Vampirism. Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1989. 174 pp.
Scott, Kathryn Leigh, ed. The Dark Shadows Companion: 25th Anniversary Collection. Los Angeles: Pomegranate Press, 1990. 208 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.
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