Monday, October 24, 2011

On Vampires

References to vampires (or entities like them) have been found in just about every culture in the world since the beginning of verbal traditions. Most of these early vampires weren’t vampires as we know them now- they were demons, zombie-like walking dead creatures, witches, and a variety of other things. The uniting factor for all of them was that they drank blood and that this action allowed them to continue existing despite the absence of normal human life.

Given the variances in stories and distinguishing characteristics between all these different groups of vampire-like creatures it’s no wonder that the idea of a vampire as we know it now didn’t exist. Back then, the folktales described drastically different creatures from area to area and none of them were identified by the term vampire. Still, the idea was planted long ago.

Fast forward several centuries and you start seeing reports of vampiric activity in eastern Europe. These stories are what lead to the modern-day idea of a vampire: a creature who looks rather human in appearance, rises at night to feed on blood, and is mischievous, charismatic and randy.

It was the late 17th century when reports of vampires first started popping up in small villages. The stories would go that someone in the village would die, somehow not stay dead, cause general havoc, and the villagers would have to take action. Staking and beheading as methods of killing started pretty early on and become the norm for trying to rid a village of its pesky vampire problem.

Soon after, the idea of vampires entered the world of fiction literature and there was a mad dash by writers of the time to expand on this genre. Starting in the early 18th centuries poems and books describing blood-drinking creatures of the night using the term vampire started being published. With the accompanying verbal tradition spreading the folklore the idea of the creature became common place.

So common place, in fact, that there was actually a bit of vampire hysteria much like witch hysteria had swept the continent earlier. It became a common occurrence for precautions to be taken during the burial right to prevent the rise of a vampire. These precautions varied from region to region but the thing they were trying to prevent seems to be similar.

There are a number of hypothesis to explain this. First, there is the idea premature burial wherein a person in a comatose state was improperly declared dead and buried before escaping later on to scare the locals. There’s also the scientific process that occurs in decomposition: dead bodies bloat seeming to grow in size and gain a sometimes ruddy complexion, the skin shrinks giving the appearance of hair and nails growing, and depending on the rate of decomposition a person might be exhumed several weeks after their death and look pretty well considering what people expected to see. Add in too all the very healthy folklore traditions with stories of revenants, demons and the like and you could see the fertile ground for the stories to take hold.

Needless to say, by the time the 19th century rolled around the world was ripe and Bram Stoker took full advantage of that. Although Dracula is nowhere near the first publication on vampires it remains the most well known, even all these centuries later. And by the 19th century vampires were their own genre and remain so to this day.

It is because of their nature as supernatural beings, their penchant for only coming out at night, their common label as evil things and most of all their ability to inspire fear that they are celebrated during this holiday.

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