Vampires: Myth and Media

Image 3166 years ago saw the birth of one of literature’s greatest horror writers, Abraham Stoker.  Known more commonly as Bram Stoker, he wrote the novel Dracula which would terrify readers and inspire books, plays, and movies for generations afterwards.  But how much did Stoker actually know about vampires?  The answer is not much.  Like all good fiction writers, he found an idea that he liked and ran with it, taking complete poetic license and forever changing the way western society viewed the bloodsucking undead.

For one thing, while monsters that drink blood pop up in the myths of all cultures, such as the livestock-hunting chupacabra of Mexican and Puerto Rican myth, the vampire as we know it—a pointy-toothed, reanimated corpse that feeds on human blood—hails from the legends of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, such as the vrykolakas of Greece and the strigoi of Romania.  The word vampire, or vampyre, as it was more archaically spelled, is taken directly from various Slavic cultures, where awareness of vampires is a very crucial issue—Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Croatian have the word vampir, Polish calls them wapierz, while Czech, Slovak, Ukranian, and Russian have some variation on either upir or upyr.  This in turn is proposed to have developed from an old Turkic word for “witch”, and the word upyri has shown up in old Russian treatises regarding pagan worship from the 11th century.

In fact, Stoker’s vampire, the pale, lonely, brooding sex symbol that has gone on to influence writers from Anne Rice to Stephanie Meyer, is a fabrication of the Romantic movement, started by John Polidori with his 1819 novel The Vampyre.  The vampire of Slavic legend was in fact ruddy, bloated, long-nailed, and hairy-palmed, barely human at all—often the corpse of a suicide or heretic, or someone a dog or cat had jumped over before their burial.  They did not creep sensuously into people rooms to bite them on the neck so much as hurl themselves face-first at victims’ chests, often preying on barnyard animals when humans were scarce.

While Stoker immortalized the methods of garlic, holy water, and crucifixes in deterring vampires, a branch of wild rose or hawthorn is also effective in harming them.  Traditionally, vampires cannot cross running water, so if your house happens to be surrounded by a moat, you should be safe.  Many legends tell of people scattering rice or poppy seeds in front of a house because all vampires apparently have OCD and will have to stop and count every single seed or grain before they continue.  And, of course, the classic stake to the heart is the failsafe way to dispatch a vampire, although incinerating and beheading work equally well.

Even the name “Dracula” itself Stoker borrowed from Slavic legend.  While originally planning to give his monster the generic name of “Count Wampyr,” he changed it to “Dracula” after Prince Vlad Dracula III of Wallachia.  Notorious for impaling his enemies on wooden stakes, Vlad was given the nickname Tepes or “The Impaler” after his death.  (Though apparently Romanian history came to view him as a sort of George Washington figure, uniting the kingdom and driving out their enemies.)  The name Dracula comes from the word dracul, meaning “dragon” or “devil,” while the suffix –a means “son of.”  Hence, Vlad the Impaler was the son of Vlad Dracul II, his ancestor who was a devout member of the Order of the Dragon, a military order urging nobles to defend Orthodox Christianity against the encroachment of the Ottoman Turks.

While Stoker’s novel Dracula wasn’t commercially successful right away, critics and other writers heaped praise on it, and today it’s known as a paragon of Gothic horror.  It has served as the basis of countless adaptations, from the 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu to a brand-new TV series, and is celebrated religiously every year at Dublin’s Bram Stoker Festival, as well as the Bram Stoker International Film Festival and Vampire’s Ball hosted every October in Whitby.  Given the enormous success of vampires and vampirism in media and entertainment today, it’s safe to say that Stoker fathered a legend.

Do you know any bloodcurdling facts about vampires, either of myth or cinema?