We may think of vampires as hypnotic, blood-thirsty villains (or heroes) of the modern horror genre, yet vampires have been part of western culture for 1000 years.
English historian William of Newburgh (1136 – 1198 A.D.) wrote of revenants – the word ‘vampire’ only appeared in the English language in 1734 – in his History of English Affairs. One account related how a man of ‘evil conduct’ died and was buried, only to rise and wander from house to house at night, killing townspeople. A group of men removed the corpse from its grave, cut out its heart and burnt it on a funeral pyre.
Five decades later, vampire hysteria began in Moravia (today’s Czech Republic), to spread over the next 500 years westward to France and Germany, and eastward to Russia.
Although not your stereotypical vampire, Count Dracula was just as blood-thirsty. Born in 1431 in Schassburg, Transylvania, young Vlad became known as Vlad Dracula (son of Dracul) after his father joined the Order of the Dragon (Dracul), a Christian organization dedicated to fighting the Muslim Turks. When Vlad took the throne in the Romanian province of Wallachia, he became one of the most brutal rulers in history, responsible for the torture and death of over 40,000 people. His penchant for impaling his enemies on stakes, beneath which he dined on bread dipped in their blood, earned him the nickname ‘Vlad the Impaler’. Vlad was assassinated by the Turks in 1476, his head allegedly taken as a trophy.
The Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory played an equally horrible role in furthering the belief in vampires. Born in 1560, the ‘Blood Countess’ believed she could retain her youth and beauty by bathing in the blood of young girls. She tortured and ex-sanguinated hundreds of girls, the discovery of whose bloodless bodies around the countryside led to rumors of vampires among the peasants. Countess Bathory was arrested in 1610 and imprisoned for life in her castle.
Greek theologian Leo Allatius (1586 – 1669) undertook the first methodical treatment of vampires in his work, On Certain Modern Opinions Among the Greeks. Other writers followed, recording the folk beliefs that circulated about vampires: You could become a vampire by being bit by one; drinking the blood of a vampire; inheriting the condition from your parents; committing suicide or suffering a violent death. You could protect yourself from vampires by wearing a string of garlic, a rosary or a crucifix around your neck, or by draping garlic around the windows and doors of your home. If bitten, you could break the spell by burning the vampire’s heart and consuming it.A suspected vampire could be stopped from rising by stuffing its mouth with garlic and spreading garlic, thorns and poppy seeds in and around the coffin. To destroy a vampire, you had to drive a stake of aspen, maple, hawthorn or whitethorn wood into its heart, behead it, remove its heart and burn it, or simply burn the entire creature in fire or sunlight.
As time passed, the vampire wound its way into mainstream culture, where it now enjoys fortune, fame and infamy on screen and in literature.