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Seven Wrong Things You Know about Vampire Folklore

Misinformation is a lot like the stereotypical vampire. Once it gets a firm toehold, it tends to live forever, and it keeps coming back no matter how hard you try to kill it. It's easier to repeat the mistakes than check the facts.

At By Light Unseen Media, we'll be offering fiction and non-fiction that draws on folklore sources—but what does vampire folklore really say? Unless you've read as much original source material as we have, you probably don't know! Here are seven totally wrong "facts" about vampire folklore that you likely have heard, in TV documentaries, newspaper articles, books and on the 'Net, over and over again.

  1. "Folklore vampires were disgusting, ugly, old peasants, not elegant noblemen like Dracula."
    Well, not exactly. Folklore vampires, when they visited people or were seen walking around, are usually described as appearing just as they did in life. In some countries, "undead" vampires were believed to look and act so normally, they could settle down in a community, marry, and even produce families. Numerous cultures had traditions about "living vampires," live people who weren't really human and had magic powers.
    Many writers confuse the accounts of vampire exhumations—what the body of a suspected vampire looked like when it was dug up—with how the vampire was reported to appear to witnesses. They weren't the same thing.
    It's true that very few nobles were suspected of being vampires, but most reported vampires were people who had died untimely deaths in the prime of life. They were hardly old, ugly and decrepit. Often they had been especially attractive, virile or strong, making their death seem even more "unnatural." It was exactly the people who had the most to live for who were likely to be restless if they died too young.
  2. "Folklore vampires were monsters that drank blood. They weren't the sexy seducers in all the romance novels."
    This one couldn't be more wrong! Folklore vampires had voracious appetites for food, drink, and sex. Many folklore vampires returned to have sex with their widowed spouses or bereaved lovers, and some would "pester" strangers (including nuns). Some accounts report that when the bodies of suspected vampires were dug up, the males had erections, which surprised no one. Whether the vampire was attractive or seductive depended on the story and who you asked. Some of the "victims" did not appear to have many objections to the vampire's visits—it was other witnesses who turned the vampire in.
    Folklore vampires are described as going after food and sex more often than they're described as drinking blood. Were they sexy and seductive? Well...most living people weren't too thrilled at the idea of having a corpse in their bed, however beautiful it might be, and vampires tended not to take "no" for an answer. But their horror came from the fact that they were unnatural and out of place. They were dead—they were no longer human, they might do anything, they couldn't be trusted. They had to be laid to rest even if their victims defended them (which did happen in some of the accounts).
  3. "Vampire beliefs arose because people didn't understand scientific facts about how bodies decayed."
    This isn't true, either. Vampire beliefs arose from two sources. The first source was a very strong religious and philosophical sense of how the universe should work, and the rules and laws everyone was supposed to follow to keep it that way. If this right order of things was violated, all kinds of unnatural events could result. The dead might leave their graves, souls couldn't progress to the afterworld, and catastrophes like famine, plague and war could follow. The vampire was a symbol of reality turned upside-down, of disorder run amok.
    The second source of vampire beliefs was the actual occurrence of clusters of paranormal events, of a kind that have been reported throughout history and all over the world, and that continue to be reported regularly in modern times. Some of the things that happen in these clusters include poltergeist outbreaks, sightings of people who have recently died, unexplained lights, sounds and voices, and night time visitations in which victims feel paralyzed, experience a sense of weight and suffocation, see a dark shape in their room, and sometimes have a sexual encounter. These paranormal "flaps" have been explained in many different ways, and from about 1650 to 1800 in Europe, they were attributed to vampires.
    But our ancestors knew far more about how bodies decayed than we moderns do—they saw it every day. The bodies of executed felons were left exposed in public places until they rotted. Graves were exhumed commonly, sometimes to make room in churchyards, sometimes as part of religious tradition. Everyone knew that bodies decayed at different rates, and sometimes a lack of decay was a sign of sanctity, not evil. It all depended on the circumstances. Our ancestors weren't as stupid and ignorant as they're often made out to be.
  4. "People believed that some diseases made people vampires because they didn't know medical facts."
    There have been several tortured attempts to "explain vampire beliefs" by identifying symptoms of some disease as "vampire traits." The best known of these is Dr. David Dolphin's argument that porphyria sufferers were thought to be vampires. Other diseases that have been proposed as making victims "vampire-like" include rabies and tertiary syphilis.
    These "rational explanations for vampire beliefs" ignore the real roots of vampire folklore in deeply held cultural traditions and in genuine paranormal events (see #3, above). It's condescending and reductionist to say that our ancestors were so ignorant that they couldn't tell the difference between sickness and something outside the ordinary. They may not have understood the cause of diseases but they knew what sickness was.
    But the main argument against these "rational explanations" is that they all "explain" vampire traits invented by fiction writers, rather than folklore vampires. Sensitivity to sunlight, long pointed teeth, loss of appetite, and a gaunt, pallid appearance are all characteristics invented over the years for fiction. Folklore vampires tended to look more robust and ruddy than ordinary people (small wonder, they were usually eating so well!). And folklore vampires had no problems with sunlight. They were frequently seen in the daytime.
  5. "People believed in vampires because the ghastly atrocities of nobles like Vlad the Impaler or Elizabeth Bathory seemed inhuman."
    There's no evidence that either Prince Vlad Tepes Dracula or Elizabeth Bathory were considered vampires in their lifetimes. Vlad Tepes is still thought of as a national hero in his native country, Romania. He was a stern ruler and a fierce enemy, but so were many warlords in the 15th century. Some historians are now arguing that Elizabeth Bathory was a victim of a political smear campaign and was not guilty of all the vicious acts she was accused of. Whether or not that's true, she was seen as a criminally cruel and deranged person who abused power to an extreme degree, even by the standards of her time. She was not seen as a vampire.
    Bram Stoker did not base his character of Dracula on Vlad Tepes, nor was he "inspired" to write his book by reading about Prince Vlad Dracula. Stoker had his book fully outlined and plotted before he ran across the name Dracula and adopted it for his character, who had been named Count Wampyr. Dracula's statements about his own history are based on general accounts of a "Voivode Dracula" that Stoker found in a book in the Whitby Library, and which included nothing about impalements or torture. Stoker liked the name "Dracula" because his source claimed that it meant "devil."
  6. "The traditional way of destroying a vampire in folklore was to drive a stake through its heart."
    Nope. There was only one sure way of laying a folklore vampire to rest for good: burn the body completely to ashes. Everything else, including driving stakes through the body, dismembering the body, burying the body face down, piling heavy stones on the grave, or planting thorns on the grave, was intended to physically hold the vampire down and keep it from wandering. Often, these methods (including staking) didn't work. But they were used because the Orthodox Church forbid cremation, on pain of excommunication. If you were excommunicated in the Orthodox Church, you were condemned to walk the earth as a vampire.
  7. "Every culture in the world has a version of the vampire myth."
    This is a very popular notion, but it's a result of sloppy thinking. The true vampire folklore tradition belongs to European culture, especially those parts of Europe where Orthodox Christianity prevails. Early writers who created compendia of vampire folklore (such as Montague Summers, Dudley Wright, and George R. Stetson) were writing at a time when there was a general trend among scholars to develop "universal theories" that attempted to link vast amounts of history and diverse cultural traditions into a coherent system. In the case of vampire folklore, this led to scholars taking each individual trait associated with "vampires" and calling anything that had any one of those traits "a type of vampire." Child killing monsters, blood drinking demons, any kind of restless dead (aside from pure ghosts), sexual and non-sexual night terrors, all were lumped together as "types of vampires."
    In fact, these colorful beings were unique forms in their own right that meant something quite different to the cultures that created them. The early scholars, being intensely Euro-centric, disregarded the cultural context of the myths they collected. In recent years, some vampire writers are recognizing this and abandoning the "universal vampire myth" idea, but it's still found in many books and Internet sources.