History of Vampires In Halloween and Horror
The Vampire is another stalwart of Halloween and Gothic Horror culture.
The Vampire story is present in many cultures from many eras. The image usually has to do with the fact that even ancient cultures associated blood with life. Many of the early stories have to do with female vampires sucking the blood of children.
Ancient Greeks had stories of a Vampire-like creature called Lamiae, who attacked children and drank their blood. Ghouls in the Arabian Knights stories have definite Vampire like tendencies. Chinese vampires were called Chiang-Shih; Vampires show up in the Vedas of India. Meso Americans, especially the Maya and Aztecs have their own versions.
There is even a possible Vampire in the Old Testament: Lilith, who is described in Hebrew texts.
Our own popular Halloween and horror images of the Vampires, however, come mostly from Eastern Europe. The word Vampire apparently comes from the Hungarian word for a spirit who feasts on the living: vampyr.
While the concept of a monster rising from the grave to feast on the blood of humans seems ridiculous to modern man, in the past, the world was a much more mysterious place. Lack of scientific and medical knowledge may well have contributed to a belief in the undead.
One source of the legend may well have come from the medieval practice of digging up burial grounds either to reuse the consecrated ground for new burials, or - strangely, to use as garbage dumps. The bones of the disinterred often were cleaned and moved to reliquaries, where they were piled with the bones of others long gone. (There are vast catacombs under Paris full of bones from reused gravesites).
While digging up these graves, the workers cannot have failed to notice that some showed definite signs of activity after burial. Scratch marks on the lids of the coffins … bodies that had changed their position.
To the superstitious mind, this could be evidence of the undead. After all, they were certainly dead when they were buried.
Or were they? It is often difficult to tell - even with modern medicine - when a person is really, truly dead. Stories in the media still surface about people who woke up just as an autopsy was about to begin (or worse, in the middle of one), or who were delivered to the mortuary only to revive just as preparations were underway. The stuff of horror, indeed.
So the rational explanation is that people were sometimes - perhaps often - mistakenly buried alive.
Fear of being buried alive led to a number of customs that persist to this day: After a person died, relatives would gather at the house to maintain a prayer vigil and a watch over the body, which was held in the front room, or parlor of the house (thus, funeral parlors).
This practice of watching over the body was known as holding a wake. Wake is related to the word “watch.” Another explanation for the word, which is widely circulated, is that people would wait for the deceased to “wake.”
Interestingly, there are several inventions registered in the US Patent office for notifying those above ground that the person in the coffin had awakened. (The simplest thing to do today would be to bury people with fully charged cell phones).
One interesting story - probably apocryphal - says that people would run a string from the coffin to a bell on the surface. If the person awakened, all he had to do was pull on the string, and the bell would ring, letting people know that he was still alive. Some scholars have cited this as the origin of the term “saved by the bell.”
But if the person awakened in the middle of the night, there would be no one to hear it. This problem apparently was solved by hiring village boys to sit in the graveyard for a couple of days after a burial to listen for ringing. The boys were said to be working the “graveyard shift.”
The above story should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s interesting to think about.
Another thing that the gravediggers may have noticed about the disinterred bodies is that their hair and nails appeared to have grown, and their teeth seemed longer. While it may have been mistaken for signs of the undead, such growth is the normal result of tissue shrinkage and decomposition.
Mysterious deaths and unknown diseases may also have contributed to belief in Vampires. Some have suggested that early outbreaks of the Bubonic Plague or a hemorrhagic virus may have started such stories. Both could result in horrible, bloody deaths.
And if the mysterious death came on the heels of a stranger visiting town (presumably bringing an infection with him), superstitious imagination could run wild.
Imagine this situation: A stranger comes to your village. A few days later, he gets sick and dies, with blood at the mouth, and strange pustules on his body. The villagers bury him in the local cemetery. A few days later, another person in the village gets sick and dies with the same symptoms of the stranger … and then another … and another. With no knowledge about the spread of disease, it becomes obvious that evil forces are at work, and that the stranger is the culprit. The villagers disinter his body and burn it, along with the bodies of the other victims. Then, on the advice of the local priest, they also burn the huts of the victims. The deaths stop.
Obviously, fire cleansed the village of the evil spirits. Now everyone knows that you can kill a vampire with fire.
Of course, we know that the fire would have destroyed the source of the germs. But remember that it was not until 1677 that Anthony Leeuwenhoek first even observed bacteria, which he called Little Animals.
The rare disorder Porphyria also has been suggested as a source of the Vampire legend. Porphyria, an inherited disease can cause a number of interesting symptoms, including seizures, and mental illness such as hallucinations, depression and paranoia. It can also cause skin issues, such as photosensitivity, blisters, itching and swelling. Interestingly, the main issue with porphyria is lack of production of heme, the principal ingredient of blood.
The sources for individual elements of vampire lore in modern horror and at Halloween are varied. The idea that a Vampire can be killed by driving a stake through his heart is almost certainly related to the idea that the heart is the source of life.
A Vampire’s allergic reaction to sunlight can possibly be traced to light sensitivity caused by certain rare diseases, such as porphyria. It may also be as simple as the connection that vampires are evil, and evil is associated with darkness.
The idea that Vampires are repelled by garlic may come from the time of the Black Death, when the stench of the bodies of the victims became overwhelming. People would suspend cloves of garlic around their necks to block out the smell.
It apparently was also thought that it was the smell of the decomposing victims that spread the disease. So, blocking the smell could prevent the Plague; and wearing garlic could repel Vampires.
An interesting side note to this involves the children’s nursery rhyme Ring Around The Roses. One explanation suggests that it’s actually about the plague. The imagery of rings and roses (skin lesions), pockets full of posies (to cover the stench of the dead), ashes (of the burned dead; or, alternately, the sound of the sneezing victims) and falling down (dead), seems to some to fit. Others claim it’s just a nonsense rhyme.
A vampire’s allergy to silver could come from the fact that silver is a white precious metal - pure, and therefore repulsive to evil. (Presumably, the same would be true of platinum). The idea that a vampire doesn’t appear in a mirror may also be related, since mirrors are pieces of glass backed by silver. In the same way, vampires won’t show up on traditional film, since the photoreactive element in film is silver.
Horror literature, movies and modern Halloween imagery have borrowed heavily from all these elements in creating the Vampire as we know it.
In 1897, Bram Stoker successfully combined many of these Eastern European legends into his novel, Dracula. His is the iconic image that has shaped much of our modern horror literature, movies and Halloween themes. Later writers such as Stephen King in Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice with her Interview with the Vampire have kept many of the same classic horror images, but have reimagined them in original ways.
Copyright 2005 by John Retzer. All Rights Reserved.