Vampires have always been a minor foible of mine and their colourful and varied history deserves exploring in celebration of Halloween!
For most people, when you say ‘vampire’, their mind goes straight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, written in 1897. There’s a good reason why – the book was a fantastic and has inspired myriad classic movies.
Many consider the character to be based on the Romanian Prince, Vlad the Impaler. The grim nickname, of course, coming from his morbid way of dealing with enemies but it is important to note that Romanians consider him a national hero rather than a grim villain.
The concept of vampires actually goes back a lot further than this historical character.
Some consider the birthplace of vampires was in fact Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians view on death and the afterlife was complicated and vibrant. They did not have blood-suckers in the cartoonish modern sense but the similarity comes from an aspect of their belief in the soul after death. The Ka was one of the aspects of the soul and was the spark that distinguished the living from the dead. Part of their complex burial practice was to provide food and drink for the Ka in the afterlife and the belief became that if the Ka was not feed it would leave the tomb and consume blood.
A lot of people think that link a little spurious and I admit it is a bit of a stretch.
However, there seem to be a vampire equivalent in almost every culture. In Europe, during the Middle Ages, vampires were a concern…
The Middle Ages were famous for their demons.
It is thought that the belief in vampires stems from a lack of understanding about how a body decayed after death. For medieval people not schooled in modern medicine of course the decomposition processes might sometimes come across as a supernatural phenomenon. For example, most would assume a body would decompose immediately but, if the weather was cold or the coffin was well sealed, then decay could be delayed by months. At times, intestinal decomposition would force blood up into the mouth, making it look like a dead body has recently sucked blood.
The modern idea of vampires is based less and less on these historical vampires and more on the rise of gothic horror fiction. Pre-dating Stoker’s Dracula is works such as Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and my personal favourite Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, a short novel with a female vampire lead who preys on young women, positively brimming with sexual repression.
Of course, the modern, sympathetic view of the undead owing much to books like Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire series. Our appetite for vampires remains unsalable with multiple vampiric movies coming up within the year and no end in sight.
Vampires reflect societies’ fears and their hidden appetites; their versatility and ability to remain relevant makes them truly impossible to kill off. I certainly am far from sick of them.