This week archaeologists in the Bulgarian town of Sozopol unearthed two skeletons dating from the Middle Ages. Both had pierced through the chest with iron stakes. They were vampires.
During the 18th century, there was a frenzy of vampire sightings in Eastern Europe, with frequent such stakings and exhumations. The hysteria raged for a generation. Even Voltaire wrote about it: “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living, either at their throats or stomachs, after which they returned to their cemeteries. The persons so sucked waned, grew pale, and fell into consumption, while the sucking corpses grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite.”
In medieval times, a murderer, suicide or a witch was thought to be susceptible to possession by other unclean souls and spirits upon their death. But folk beliefs of supernatural beings consuming the blood or flesh of the living are even more ancient than that. Such tales have been found in nearly every culture around the world since prehistoric times. Creatures attempting to drink blood from men were depicted on excavated pottery shards in Bablonia and Assyria.
But it was actually the Christian Church of the Middle Ages that reinterpreted vampires into minions of Satan. It was expedient to do so: “Just as a vampire takes a sinner’s very spirit into itself by drinking his blood, so also can a righteous Christian by drinking Christ’s blood take the divine spirit into himself.” This led to the belief in Christian iconography as protection against the undead.
So it is not difficult to see how hysteria might take root in any superstitious rural community. Allegations of vampire attacks swept through rural Malawi in Africa as recently as 2002, with mobs stoning one individual to death and attacking at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, who they believed was colluding with the vampires.
It caused the Malawi president to make his famous announcement in his defence: “No government can go about sucking the blood of its own people – that’s thuggery.” Tell that to the IRS, pal.
But are vampires real? Actually – sort of. There is a condition known as Renfeld’s syndrome, (coined after Dracula’s repulsive bug-munching gopher, Renfield, in the Bram Stoker novel), that drives certain individuals to crave blood, for its supposed supernatural properties. They also become sexually aroused by it, which is after all the subtext to all vampire movies. (Dracula could get blood out of the girl’s wrist, but it’s always the neck. Love at first bite!)
Though extremely rare, the condition is thought to be almost exclusively found in men. Serial killers Peter Kurten and Richard Trenton Chase drank the blood of people they murdered. Curiously though, the most famous ‘Renfield’ was the 16th-century Hungarian countess and mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory, who bathed in her victims’ blood in order to retain her youth.
Some of the first references to this disorder were described by German psychiatrist Richard van Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 text Psychopathia Sexualis and it’s thought that Dracula’s creator Bram Stoker was familiar with that work.
So what really creates vampirism? The Spanish neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso believes that rabies is the culprit. The disease can lead to a drive to bite others and to a bloody frothing at the mouth. Wolves and bats, familiars of all vampires, are often carriers of the virus. In his article for Neurology, Dr Gomez-Alonso wrote: “Hypersexuality may also be a striking manifestation of rabies. Literature reports cases of rabid patients who practiced intercourse up to 30 times in a day.”
Cue the sexy, insatiable beast.
Rabies or not, by the time of the Middle Ages the church authorities were caught between a stake and a hard place. They could not undermine their parishioner’s belief in physical resurrection, so at times they even joined in the disinterment and staking of the “problematic” dead.
But the hysteria was largely confined to the Balkans until the 19th century and the success of John Polidori’s 1819 novella The Vampyre. The theme was picked up by a highly popular series of pamphlets referred to as penny dreadfuls (because of their inexpensive price and typically gruesome contents.)
They in turn inspired Bram Stoker’s quintessential vampire novel, ‘Dracula.’ Unlike the vampires of folklore, who were basically just zombies, Dracula exuded aristocratic charm and sophistication.
Stoker’s portrayal of vampirism as a disease of contagious demonic possession, and the novel’s undertones of sex, blood and death, struck a chord in 19th century Europe where TB and syphilis were all too common. The fangs and the vulnerability to sunlight were his idea; but the trademark cloak did not appear until stage productions of the 1920’s.
But why Dracula? Stoker came across the name in his reading on Romanian history and chose this to replace the name (Count Wampyr) that he had originally intended to use for his villain.
The 15th century Wallachian was better known by his nickname, Prince Vlad III the Impaler. He was a member of the Order of the Dragon (Dracul) founded to protect Christianity in Europe from the invading Ottoman Turk.
And protect he did, though not in a very Christian way. As his nickname suggests his favourite method of execution was inspired by the kebab. Though not always; he once had two Turkish envoys killed – on the pretext that they had refused to raise their “hats” to him – by nailing their turbans to their heads.
Estimates of the total number of his victims range from 40,000 to 100,000, more than even four centuries of witch hunting right across Europe.
Perhaps it was his liberal use of impaling that gave Bram the idea to choose him as the namesake for his villain. But whatever the reason one thing seems certain; given the success of Stephanie Meyer and Anne Rice and Buffy, vampires are going to live on forever.
But what’s behind our passion for the undead? Is it because they scare us … or because they’re sexy?
Or do you think it’s something deeper than that … ?