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Thoroughly Modern Monster: The Primal Vampire

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Today we’re going to look at vampires. Vampires are pretty popular right now. Just about anybody could tell you what a vampire is these days, even if they’re not a huge nerd or horror fan. Pale, beautiful, suave, mysterious, superpowered creatures of the night who are hurt by sunlight and drink the blood of the living. But as we saw with werewolves last week, monsters can change a lot over time. How old are vampires as we know them?

Like werewolves, the answer is complicated because it depends on what you define as a vampire. If you define a vampire as an undead monster who drinks human blood than vampires have been around since ancient times, and across most cultures. This is a fact you might find between the pages of a YA vampire series, or on a fun Halloween facts page, or even in the dialogue of a TV series. But are vampires really so old, and really spread over so many cultures? No. No, they really aren’t.

To be sure multiple ancient cultures across the globe have stories of blood drinking undead, but these monsters have almost nothing to do with vampires. They are far better defined as revenants. A revenant is a corpse that has left it’s place of burial and roams around performing various kinds of mischief, from slaughtering livestock and spreading plague, to drinking blood and devouring flesh. Revenants take many forms and have many names, but they all share the same basic idea: someone dies and for some reason or another their corpse does not remain at rest.

And when I say corpse, I really mean corpse. Revenants are shambling, bloated, rotting, stinking things. They are not sexy. They are not sauve. They have far more in common with modern zombies than modern vampires.

Now we have scattered stories of various revenants from ancient times up through the Middle Ages. However between the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment periods we start to see a more specific type of revenant legend develop. In southeast Europe during this time period is where the vampire legend is actually born. It is during this time period that we begin to see vampire panics, vampire trials, and widespread anti-vampire burial practices (which we’ll get to later). But again, these vampires are far different from the ones we know today. Arguably they are far scarier as well.

It can be hard for modern readers, with their heads full of True Blood and Interview with a Vampire to really understand what these primal vampires were like. Let me try to explain with a short story:

It’s 1672. You are a Bulgarian peasant, living in a small village up in the hills. You know everybody in town and everybody knows you. One day your brother dies. Perhaps he got sick, or maybe it was an accident of some kind, but however it happened he’s dead and it’s time to consign his remains to the earth. The funeral procession brings his coffin up to the church graveyard on top of a hill overlooking the village, where he is given his last rites and buried beneath the earth.

You’re sad, of course. This is a real tragedy, and you’ll miss your brother terribly. However you have to get back to working the land, and you try to put the bad memories behind you. However, in the weeks after the burial, bad things start happening. A local farmer loses some of his sheep: one is found mutilated in the woods. Probably wolves. Then a local boy gets sick. He starts to waste away, turning weak and pale. Soon he can no longer get out of bed. Eventually he dies. They say it was consumption. Soon more people are getting sick. A few more animals have been lost. People are starting to talk. You try to ignore it. Then, one dark, cloudy night, you hear a scream outside your door. It’s one of your goats, and it’s crying bloody murder. You run outside and check the pen, but the goat is gone. The other animals are terrified. You try to calm them down, when suddenly you see him. Your farm is near the old woods, far from town. There isn’t anyone around for over a mile, but there in the trees is a figure is crouched over. It’s hard to see in the dark, but the figure is stooping over something, holding it to it’s mouth. As you watch it suddenly turns to look at you, slowly. It’s too far away to see clearly, but your blood goes cold in your veins. The figure drops it’s load, and begins to lumber over to you. It staggers as it walks, but it’s picking up speed. You quickly run back inside and bolt the door on your little shack. You peer through the crack around the doorframe, and watch as the figure comes closer. It’s a human alright, but not like any you’ve seen before. His body is bloated and his skin blotched with purple like fresh bruises. His clothes are tattered, barely hanging on to his swollen body. The air is filled with the smell of death, clogging your nostrils and almost sending you into a coughing fit. As it comes closer you see that blood is dripping from its mouth and nose, sending red rivulets over a doughy and mottled face. You put all your weight against the door as the creature comes up to it, pounding with its fists.

Suddenly your heart stops as you hear it speak, speak with a distorted and pleading voice. But even through the distortion you recognize it.

“Let me come in, brother. I’m so cold brother. Please. Please let me in.”
And that, my friends, is an old fashioned vampire. A corpse bloated and purple with blood and decay, the corpse of someone you likely knew and perhaps loved, walking about and devouring the living There are a few other noticeable differences between this “classic” vampire and the modern conception. For example, early vampires could come out in daylight just fine and were not hurt by the sun; it was merely that they were more active at night. Also there was no clear idea of how one became a vampire. Some people thought that vampires formed when evil spirits took control of recently killed corpses. This would lead some people to include holy objects such as crosses or communion wafers with the deceased in order to drive such evil spirits away. It’s also the origin of the idea that vampires will be repelled by crucifixes and harmed by holy water.

Another theory was that vampires were great sinners in life who had committed some terrible crime (perhaps killing a loved one, or cannibalism) and that whatever heinous acts they had committed would cause them to become a monster. Others didn’t know why vampires became vampires, but still believed that they could happen and that you had to be prepared. Though a variety of objects and plants (such as garlic and hawthorn, or crucibles and scattered rice) could help protect you from a vampire the creature would continue to terrorize the area until someone hunted it down and did something about it.

That’s why they can still find corpses from this period that have stakes driven through their hearts. However we’re liable to misunderstand this too. The purpose of the stakes wasn’t to kill the vampire: after all, how can you kill a corpse? How can you kill what is already dead? No, the purpose of the stake was to literally pin the creature to its grave, preventing it from physically rising to feast on the living. And stakes are just one of many ways to accomplish that goal. Corpses of suspected vampires had their heads chopped off, their leg tendons severed, their arms and legs bound in iron chains, or any other way they could think of to prevent them from escaping their coffins.

That’s the way it worked: if people started getting sick and dying, or animals disappeared, and people began to suspect a vampire, they would soon form a posse and start digging up recent burials. They would look for a corpse that didn’t seem to be decaying properly, or one that was swollen or showed signs of blood around the mouth. They would then take that corpse and do whatever they could to contain it, hoping to God that it wouldn’t “wake up” while they were doing the deed. Many villages had individuals who were given the particular responsibility of finding and binding vampires: some of these “vampire hunters” even persisted into the 1900s.

Actual belief in vampires peaked between the 17th and 18th centuries, before falling out of fashion during the enlightenment. After that something happened that would transform the vampire legend entirely. But that’s a story for next week. In the meantime, if you bemoan the newest vampire flick featuring hunky bloodsuckers that look like they came out of the pages of a fashion magazine; take heart, and remember a time when vampires were truly something to be feared! Something horrible, gross, unsettling, and terrible.

Next week we’ll find out how all that changed.

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