Creatures of the Night

by Peter Jekel


 
Every vampire fiction reinvents vampires to its own needs. You take what you want.  Joss Whedon


When Bram Stoker wrote his classic, Dracula, he could not have known what a sensation he would create. All that was evil became embodied in the body of a dead man who had come to life before an enthralled reading audience. It was not the first vampire tale stories of vampires go back centuries in one form or another across cultures the world overbut it did popularize the mythic monster to a horrified public. Many versions of the oft-told tale continue to this day and vampire movies and television series are more popular than ever. What is this fascination with such a horrid monster?

There is something about the vampire that lures us. Could it be its power? Dracula, the quintessential vampire, had the strength of twenty men and had the hypnotic ability to lure people into his influence. Could it be its shapeshifting ability? Dracula had the ability to change shape at will, including the ability to change into mist. Could it be the idea of immortality? Humans have always longed for immortality; most religions speak of an afterlife that promotes the idea of immortality. Some psychologists have suggested instead that there is some sort of sexual appeal to the bloodletting of classic vampires. Or could the vampire represent something more primeval, that we are fascinated by the dark side and all that is evil, of which the vampire is a symbol, a form of temptation that religions warn us against?


Models of Evil

The classic vampire of today’s literature and movies comes to us from Medieval Europe. Not surprisingly, the Middle Ages had many good templates on which to fashion their vampiric monster.

There was the Baron of Rais, Gilles de Laval, who lived from 1404 to 1440. He was a leader of the French army and actually fought alongside Joan of Arc. His father died when Gilles was still young. To add to his torment, his mother abandoned the young boy as well as his siblings to be raised by a cruel grandfather. Under the tutelage of his new foster parent, he learned the brutalities that would dominate his adult life. Some of his tortures included the luring of young boys who were hung upside down from the ceiling. Just before losing consciousness, he cut them down. The boys would think that they had escaped their suffering, only to be stripped and raped by de Laval. Death was by decapitation or slitting the throat. Laval’s torment would often continue with further abuse of the corpse. For his entertainment, he often abused two boys at once, forcing one to watch the torture and execution of the first victim, before the attentions of the monster would turn. Gilles de Laval was arrested and executed for his excesses in 1440.

Vlad Tepes (1431-1476), also known as Vlad the Impaler and Count Dracul, the namesake of Stoker’s monster, was the prince of Wallachia, a province of Romania. His reign of terror began in 1456 and was only ended in 1476 when he was killed in a battle with the Ottoman Turks. The prince came by his name through the method of torture that he preferred, impalement. The victim would be attached by each limb to a horse while a sharpened stake would be inserted into the anus. The executions were carried out slowly to maximize the enjoyment of the Count. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that he often ate his dinners amongst the moans and groans of the victims as they slowly died on the stake. Less frequent tortures included nails hammered into the heads of victims, mutilation and exposure of victims to the elements or wild animals. He was not fussy about his victims either, with women and children being executed as frequently as men. Vlad the Impaler also did not merely torture and kill the invading Turks, which may have allowed him to go down in history as a national hero, but his own people were as likely to fall victim to his sadistic extremes.

Men were not alone in being models of evil in the Middle Ages. There was the notorious Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) who was the daughter of Baron and Baroness George and Anna Bethory of the Slovak Republic. Familial connections across Europe included a number of very powerful and influential people. Her cruelties would often take the form of torturing her own servants but others fell victim to her merciless ways. She would brand them or pour hot wax over them. If one of the servants would speak while working and she was within earshot,  she would sew their mouth shut or open it, until the jaw snapped. She was also not above biting chunks of flesh from her victims. In other cases, she would force her victims into cages that were lined with stakes; the cages were too small to either stand or sit. Then the cage would be swung, until the victim was impaled upon one of the stakes. Her favourite form of torture, though, was known as the Iron Maiden. The Iron Maiden is a type of torture device that consists of a cabinet tall enough to enclose a human being. It had nails fixed through the sides and the victim would be put inside. The door would be slowly closed until the victim inside perished.

As this horrible woman aged, her evil took on a truly vampiric quality. She believed that the blood of virgins would keep her young so that she would have her henchmen seek out and collect the blood of virgins to be placed into a tub which she would then bathe in. Her excesses grew to a point where the authorities, in spite of the Countess’ high level political connections, had to deal with her. They placed her under house arrest since her family commuted a death sentence imposed by the courts. She survived another three years.


Vampires in Literature

The first fictional tale of a vampire comes to us from ancient Greece. In the story of Philinnion written by Phelgon of Tralles, there is no blood-sucking monster. The story is about a girl who returns from the dead as sanctioned by the gods of the underworld.

It was in the early 1700’s though, that vampire literature really took root. Many of the early stories of vampires were not prose but poetry. In 1748, Heinrich Ossenfelder wrote a poem entitled The Vampire. It tells the story of a man whose love is rejected by a maiden. He pays her a nightly visit to drink her blood. It probably is the first tale that truly describes a blood-sucking vampire. In The Bride of Corinth, written in 1797 by German poet Wolfgang Goethe, a young woman returns from the grave to seek her betrothed. Samuel Coleridge, more famous for his poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kublai Khan, also wrote Christabel sometime between 1797 and 1801 (it was published in 1816). In the poem, the heroine is seduced by a female supernatural being named Geraldine.

In 1813, English poet and politician, Lord Byron, wrote The Gjaour. The poem sets the stage for a lot of future vampire tales. The poem describes the vampire as something that is damned to suck blood and destroy life. It was in 1819 that the poems turned to prose with the publication of John Polidori’s short story, The Vampyre. Polidori was an English physician and writer; in fact, he was the personal physician of Lord Byron himself.

Tales of vampires started to become more common. In 1847, the serialized Varney the Vampire by James Rymer and Thomas Prest was published. It further developed the concept of the vampire as a being that not only feeds on blood but actually has fangs that it will plunge into the victim in order to get the blood supply.

The seductive appeal of vampires comes alive in Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, published in 1872. It not only introduced the eroticism of vampires but set the stage for vampire tales to be moved to the remote regions of central Europe.

It was Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula though, that took all of the characteristics of vampires portrayed in earlier stories and created the vampire that the horror-reading and -watching public have come to expect. There is a sequel to the famous novel written by Freda Warrington; it was commissioned by Penguin Books as a celebration of the centennial of the first novel. The story, Dracula the Undead, takes place seven years after the original.

There are some modern classics of the vampire genre. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, uses much of the Dracula story and transports it into the typical small town that are the setting of so many of his stories. Anne Rice wrote a series of vampire novels beginning with the novel, Interview with a Vampire. The story follows an unwilling victim of a vampire, Lestat, who tells how he became a vampire. Rice’s vampires are different from the classic Dracula type; they are connected instead with a vampire lineage from ancient Egypt. Though her vampires also are unaffected by crucifixes or any other religious symbols, they are still vulnerable to sunlight. Rice wrote a number of more vampire novels with the main character, Lestat, collected in a series entitled The Vampire Chronicles. Rice’s work was paralleled by the very successful Chelsea Yarbo Quinn’s St.-Germain series also written during the 1980’s.  Elizabeth Kostova’s critically acclaimed debut novel, The Historian, reads not as a horror story, but as a biography of Vlad the Impaler and his afterlife nemesis, Dracula.


The Vampire Myth

How did the people of medieval Europe explain the vampire? How did one become a vampire? The favoured idea was that they were suicides. Suicide is a mortal sin according to the Christian Church of the day and so they were not to be buried in consecrated grounds. Wizards and witches could also, in a pact with the Devil, create vampires. People killed by werewolves, all too real as well in medieval Europe, were said to sometimes come back as vampires. The list goes on: illegitimate children, those with certain birthmarks, those with red hair, the seventh son or daughter in a family, and those born covered with a caul (membrane) on their heads were all said to come back as vampires upon death.

How does one stop such a monster from rising from the dead? Medieval Europeans had their ways to limit the power of the vampire. Upon burial of a person, the nostrils, eyes and ears are stuffed with garlic. Garlic also acts as an apparent repellent for already-existing vampires. Some theorize that this belief in the repellent power of garlic has its origin in the idea that garlic had suspected curative powers for certain ailments including the plague, an illness that decimated the population of Europe in the Middle Ages, by almost a third. It is known that when civic authorities were charged with picking up the plague dead for disposal, they wore masks that were infused with garlic.

Other weaknesses of the vampire are its obligation to sleep during the day and to rest upon a layer of hallowed ground from its native land. Middle Ages vampires are also repelled by religious symbols, especially the Crucifix. Religious symbols being a repellent is losing its importance in more modern versions of vampire stories. It may be merely a symbol of our times. The religious symbols having a repellent effect on vampires comes to us from the belief that vampires are soulless beings, which is why it is not possible to see them in a mirror; the mirror was once looked upon as a window to the soul. As the importance of religion has waned in modern society, the strength of the symbols lessen as well.

Vampires also have a number of restrictions on their movements. For example, they cannot enter a home uninvited, but once in, the passage is open for them and they can come and go at will. A vampire also cannot cross a rose thicket, running water or a line of salt.

The vampires of the Middle Ages survived by feeding on the blood of its victims, but the blood-sucking would not always kill. Instead the victim was condemned to live for a time to allow that vampire to savour its meal over a series of evenings. If the victim survived for two to seven days (depending on the source of the information) the victim has the potential to become a vampire. In order for the transformation to be complete, the victim would have to drink the blood of a vampire. Once the blood was swallowed, the victim would die only to return as a vampire under the domination of a master vampire. Only with the death of the master vampire, would the victim be released from its immortal torment.


Vampires in Science and Science Fiction

Creatures rising from the dead to terrorize the living? Can science root out the cause for vampirism? Here are some more far-fetched possibilities.

There is a theory that vampires are an evolutionary step ahead of humans, that there is a dormant gene within the human genome that is activated in vampires. In spite of its circulation in popular culture, no true evidence of this theory exists.

Science fiction writers however, saw the idea as fodder for a story. In 1981, The Hunger, by Whitley Streiber, was published. It saw vampires not as the undead, but rather a species that evolved in parallel with humans that needed blood to survive. Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin, describes vampires as living beings that prey on humans in order to survive until one of their kind creates a dietary supplement that would allow them to be relieved of their bloody diet. Peter Watts’ in his tale, Blindsight, depicts vampires as an evolutionary advancement of the human race. Hard science fiction writer Larry Niven’s Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers features vampires as being descended from humans. Christopher Farnsworth wrote a an interesting story about vampires in government in his The President’s Vampire.  The story is about vampires as dominate predators with one having served in the American government since 1867.

Brian Stableford wrote a vampire tale featuring time travel to showcase his evolutionarily superior vampires. In his The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires, a professor under the influence of drugs travels three times into the future recapping his story to some famous historical figures including, H. G. Wells, Nikolas Tesla, Oscar Wilde as well as the narrator of the story. He describes a future where the world is dominated by vampires that milk humans for their blood. Further in the future the time traveller finds that the vampires have been able to develop synthesized blood and are respectful of human rights. 

Brian Stableford didn’t stop there with his vampire tales. He also wrote The Empire of Fear that views vampires as the dominant but minority species in an alternate history of medieval England. Several historical figures such as Attila the Hun, Richard the Lionhearted and the Pope himself are, in this alternate universe, vampires.

More recently there is a nanobot theory of vampires. Nanotechnology became a popular technological pursuit ever since Eric Drexler made it famous with his book, The Engines of Creation. However, as often happens with new technologies, there are those who fear them and look at the technology with apprehension at the least and a conspiracy at the worst. Nanotechnology is not immune. There is a thought that vampires have been created by scientists working on nanotechnology. Nanobots are microscopic robots that have been created to be injected into humans with the expressed goal of creating a new race of humans. The nanobots are self-replicating in the human body, but according to the theory, they require the iron atoms of heme, the iron-based compound of red blood cells, to do so. Yet, even if there was any truth to this theory, how on earth do we explain the vampires of the Middle Ages?

Nonetheless some science fiction writers have speculated on technological vampires. Roger Zelazny wrote a story The Immortal, about an artificial vampire warrior that drinks its victim’s blood. In a bit of a twist on the robotic vampire idea, he also wrote The Stainless Steel Leech, about a robot that does not feed on humans but instead draws sustenance by draining the power supplies of other robots. 

There is even a story about a vampire that was not purposely created but accidentally, due to technology, in this case, radiation exposure. C. M. Kornbluth’s psychic vampire in The Mindworm, is a mutant created by atomic radiation; one has to appreciate when it was written in 1950 just a few years after the atomic bomb detonations in Japan. 

How about alien vampires? Many earlier science fiction writers saw this as another option. In 1908, Gustave Le Rouge wrote Le Prisonnier de la planete Mars. The story is about bat-winged aliens on Mars that happen to drink blood. Sounds a little far-fetched to today’s science fiction readers, but Le Rouge played an important role in the maturation of modern science fiction. His French author predecessor, Jules Verne was far better known due to his writing of mainly juvenile adventure stories with a lot of advanced technology whereas Le Rouge’s presented science fiction as an adult genre. Classic science fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt wrote in 1942 Asylum, which features a blood-sucking alien vampire. Van Vogt also wrote about alien vampires, the Coeurl, in his Black Destroyer. George R. R. Martin, in his Plague Star, features non-intelligent “hooded draculas.”

Science fiction authors also have looked at vampirism beyond the blood-sucking of the classic early tales. Belgian writer, J.-H. Rosny aine  wrote a 1920 novella La Jeune Vampire. The story describes vampirism arising from the possession by souls from another universe.  

A story that features vampires not as soul-possessors but as soul-suckers is C. L. Moore’s 1933 Shambleau about a Medusa-like alien. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has creatures known as Dementors that reduce their victims to a soulless vegetable.

Some vampires of science fiction do not feed on the soul or blood but on one’s very lifeforce. Perhaps the most famous of these is Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires. Other such tales include David Mitchell’s Slade House, which has vampires that feed on memories and experiences. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station’s slake-moths (larger than a human moths) feed on human thoughts, leaving the victims as mindless “vegetables.”

Before we dismiss science as a source of explaining vampires, there are truly some more legitimate attempts to explain the legend. In spite of being found in cultural myths across the world, most genuine scientific theories that attempt to explain vampires rely on looking at the genesis of the vampire myth in Europe. Nosferatu, the original vampire, was grotesque in appearance, After all, vampires are dead and corpses will hardly win any beauty contest. Nosferatu was draped in a sackcloth to avoid detection of the authorities of the day. They also lacked hair. They were a far cry from the debonair appearance of the Dracula of movies and stories.

In 1985, David Dolphin of the American Society for the Advancement of Science suggested that porphyria might explain the vampires of the Middle Ages. The disease is a series of genetic disorders that are characterized by an enzyme deficiency that inhibits heme, the iron containing pigment of hemoglobin in our red blood cells. Symptoms include light sensitivity, skin lesions, brownish or reddish teeth with receding gums. Victims will have a somewhat sinister appearance. Being genetic, Dolphin felt that the disease could be perpetuated in isolated inbred populations of Middle Ages Europe. He also went so far as to suggest that the drinking of blood might have alleviated the symptoms. 

Is there another theory to explain vampires? Some have speculated that catalepsy may explain them. Catalepsy is a neurological disorder that causes the body to go into a form of paralysis. One can hear and see their surroundings but unable to move or communicate. Symptoms can last a few minutes or even several days. Unfortunately many people may have been prematurely buried possibly due to catalepsy and other mimickers of death. The phrase, “saved by the bell,” actually arose from the fact that in the Middle Ages, people were often buried with a bell that could be rung in the event that someone “came back to life,” and needed rescuing from their premature burial. Perhaps the theory of the vampire arose when frightened villagers dug up the graves of suspected vampires only to find their bodies not only intact but also having moved suggesting a possible rising from the dead.

Until the development of a rabies vaccine by Louis Pasteur in 1885, rabies was a deadly disease that took its toll not only in Europe but across the world. Even today, rabies kills around fifty thousand people per year. Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso is a neurologist who has speculated that rabies may explain the vampire. Since rabies affects the brain, it could cause disturbances in sleep patterns to explain the often nocturnal behavior of vampires. Sensitivity to light, another weakness of vampires is also a symptom of the disease. Perhaps the most telling symptom of rabies and how it may be linked to vampirism is the fact that a rabid animal, or person for that matter, may become exceedingly aggressive and bite others.

Perhaps the most famous of the disease theory of vampires comes to us from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which has been the basis of a number of movie versions. The story takes placed in a futuristic Los Angeles that is overrun with the undead who feed on flesh and blood; the cause, a bacterium. The hero of the novel must fight the deadly horde nightly as he attempts to understand the biology of his nemesis. Stableford wrote Young Blood, in which vampiric possession is linked to the effects of a retrovirus. On a lesser scale, but along the same lines, Randall Garrett’s The Breakfast Party, imagines vampirism as a psychic disease entity that can inhabit and animate dead bodies. Brian Aldiss’ Dracula Unbound, vampires are viewed as a vile disease. Raymond Villareal took the disease concept of vampires to an extreme in his A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, creating a worldwide plague being investigated by a Centres for Disease Control investigator.

Perhaps the true origin of vampires is much more primeval. Vampires are a creation of the fear of the unknown. During the Middle Ages, diseases were making their presence known across Europe and the rest of the world. When isolated populations confronted these deaths, they needed a means to deal with them and would attribute them to the legendary vampire. Death by vampire at least would provide the frightened villagers with a means to deal with the unfortunate deaths, hence the weaknesses of vampires. Simply put, the vampire gave substance to the horrific deaths caused by infectious diseases that were all too common in the isolated villages of medieval Europe. 

 

References

 

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Bartlett, W. and Idriceanu, F. 2006. Legends of Blood: The Vampire in History and Myth. Praeger.

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