Vampires: a cultural history
From 12th-century 'revenants' to teen thriller Twilight, belief in vampires has been an enduring theme in cultural history. Richard Sugg looks at the legend that just won't die and examines possible physiological causes
Published: September 1, 2013 at 5:22 pm
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In the late spring of 1870, an American journalist was staying in a little Hungarian village. One night at about 2am he awoke “in a cold sweat, screaming and struggling with some horrible thing, cold as death, that lay upon my breast pinioning my arms to my sides, and trying to fasten his clammy mouth about my throat. I yelled and fought, and presently I heard men running through the hall toward my room.”
Hearing this tale, the American’s landlord warned gravely that he had been sucked by a vampire – and must prepare for death. At this point the American is not persuaded. But presently, having had it explained to him that ongoing and widespread vampire hysteria in the region is due to the recent death of one Peter Dickowitz, who has since attacked many villagers, he follows a party of vampire-killers to the local cemetery. Two coffins are hauled from the earth. And at this point something remarkable happens. Our author, who had previously referred with disdain to “the old, horrible superstition of vampirism”, very quickly becomes a true believer:
“I saw – dare I tell it? – in the sickly light of the flambeaux, that the men within them were not dead; but, horrible beyond expression, deadly in their ghastliness, yet, alive, they lay there. Their bodies were swimming in blood, and a horrible leer was on their mouths, and agonised fate within their staring eyes. Loathsome beyond thought, ghoul-like beyond nightmare dream, they were the living dead.”
Dragged away from the consecrated ground, these two vampires are staked through their hearts. At this point, our already-traumatised witness hears from each “such a wailing sob and cry… as I never did dream even in nightmare”. The heads of both ‘vampires’ are then laboriously hacked off with sharp spades.
By 1870, most educated Europeans and Americans saw vampires as either thrilling entertainment (on both stage and page) or as an example of the backward superstitions of peasants in such lands as Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Greece. So what could have caused the radical change of heart seen in our previously sceptical reporter?
One factor was undoubtedly the relatively undecayed state of the exhumed corpses, supposedly swimming in blood. Since the painstaking forensic work of Paul Barber, it is relatively well known that some bodies are slow to decay, and that copious fluids (resembling blood) can issue from them. The sudden release of trapped gases can even result in ‘vampires’ screaming when staked.
Paralysed with fear
The second factor in the American reporter’s vampire epiphany is less well known. The attack that the American suffered was almost certainly a combination of sleep paralysis and nightmare. These inter-related medical conditions have occurred throughout history, and still occur now.
When we sleep we routinely become paralysed; this prevents us from acting out dreams and suffering possible injury. We’re not usually conscious of this state. But during a sleep paralysis nightmare, the victim feels absolutely conscious. They see their room, often in vivid detail, but are paralysed and cannot speak.
Presently, they become aware of an entity approaching. They may see it or hear it; but even if they do neither they are horribly convinced of it (perhaps hovering just outside their field of vision) and utterly traumatised by fear. Now the demon entity is on their chest, its weight crushing and its hands or mouth suffocating, squeezing the life from their throat… Although in reality such attacks last no more than a few minutes, to victims the experience can seem endless.
This mix of symptoms can vary, as can the extremity of attacks. But in many cases they cause a level of terror that mere words can barely capture. In 2011, some years after a nightmare attack, the American writer Alexis Madrigal wrote that: “It didn’t feel like my life was at risk. That was, in fact, too small. It felt like the presence was after something else, probably what you’d call my soul” – strong words from someone who describes himself as “a straight materialist”. This and many similar descriptions leave one wondering if the nightmare is indeed the origin of evil itself.
It certainly is the origin of many vampire epidemics. Some of the very earliest written accounts of proto-vampires come from Britain. In the 12th century alleged revenants (essentially, undecayed walking corpses) brought terror and death to people in Buckinghamshire, Wales, Northumbria and at Melrose Abbey on the Scottish borders. In Wales, sometime after 1149, an English knight complained of a recently deceased “Welsh wizard” who “keeps coming every night, calling by name certain of his former neighbours, who instantly fall sick and die within three days”. A contemporary report from Buckinghamshire tells of a dead man who, the night after his burial, “suddenly entered the room where his wife lay asleep and, having awakened her... almost killed her by leaping upon her with the whole heaviness of his weight and overlying her”.
In 1567, in the Bohemian city of Trawtenaw, the revenant of one Stephen Hubener “did pinch many men with such strait embracements, that many of them died”. Those who survived reported “with one consent... that they were thus clasped or beclipped by this... man” – who, for his pains, was decapitated, eviscerated and burned.
Around 1738, a young Serbian girl “named Stanoska... went to bed in perfect health, but awoke in the middle of the night, trembling, and crying out, that the son of the Heyduke Millo, who died about nine weeks before, had almost strangled her while she was asleep. From that time, she fell into a languishing state, and died at three days end.”
Many similar reports depict crushing and suffocation. All in all, the symptoms of sleep paralysis nightmares fit ‘vampire’ attacks uncannily well – in some cases, as snugly as one of Count Dracula’s well-tailored travelling gloves. The sense of weight and suffocation are obvious enough similarities. Name-calling was also pretty common, and fits the documented auditory hallucinations of nightmare bouts.
Outside of fiction, the vampire did not always suck blood. But nightmares could give reason to think that it did. Recent accounts have described the pressure on the throat as like “something sucking the life out of me”. More precisely still, nightmares seem to cause spontaneous bruising in some victims. If these were found on neck or chest (over the heart), then thirsty teeth would easily be inferred.
Why, though, is one particular dead person often identified as the attacker? The answer is twofold. First, medical science has found that, bewildered by the nightmare, the brain shapes the imagined ‘entity’ into something familiar. In regions where vampire legend abounds, this will naturally be a vampire, and in a small community where everyone knows who has just died, the most recently deceased would be a prime candidate for the role. But recent studies have also shown that attacks are increased or exacerbated by stress. So after the first attack, once the story has spread with the speed of village gossip, there will probably be more attacks (often perpetrated by the same culprit), thus more stress, leading to yet more attacks – until the vampire is destroyed. As with many psychosomatic terrors, belief is potent: if you believe the vampire has been dispatched, it will usually stop haunting you.
Many people who died from ‘vampire attacks’ were actually victims of contagious disease – one reason why vampires were often said to attack their own families first.
Some deaths, though, are not so easily explained. The 12th-century Welsh victims and the Serbian girl Stanoska all died within three days of the first attack. Why? Astonishingly, these people probably died of fear. A number of travellers and anthropologists have reported ‘voodoo deaths’ of this kind in Africa and among the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In such contexts, if someone knows that they have been cursed (usually by a witch doctor or similar), their belief-driven terror is so potent that they fall sick, experience a kind of physiological shutdown, and die within three days.
This phenomenon was, for a long time, thought typical of primitive tribal beliefs. In fact, it is equally typical in vampire and witch territory. Writing in 1923, the traveller and folklorist Edith Durham told how “the peasants all through Albania, and Macedonia are extraordinarily affected mentally if they believe they must die, and seem to make no effort whatever to live... I heard of more than one case in which a man’s death having been foretold by reading the future in fowls’ bones, he proceeded to sicken and die.”
In her recent book on sleep paralysis, Shelley Adler related how the religious beliefs of Hmong people from south-east Asia led to several nightmare-related deaths during and after the 1970s. These attacks, which occurred in the USA among Hmong refugees, were thought to be due to angry ancestral spirits, and subsequently inspired the horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street.
So vampires (or nightmares incorporating them) really can kill you – if you believe in them. Anyone who has suffered from sleep paralysis nightmares will understand this level of terror. And if you suffered such an attack in a little Serbian or Greek village a century or more ago, what explanation could there be – except something supernatural and demonic?
Neither the nightmare nor the vampire have quite relinquished their hold, even in 21st-century Europe. Just before Christmas 2003, one Petre Toma died in the little Romanian village of Marotinu de Sus. As archaeologist Timothy Taylor reported, “his niece suffered nightmares and appeared seriously ill. She claimed that her uncle was visiting her at night and feeding from her heart; that he was a strigoi [a Romanian revenant]”. The girl’s illness was clearly psychosomatic: Toma’s corpse was disinterred and his heart burned, the ashes mixed with water that was given to the niece to drink – and she recovered. And this incident took place just as Stephenie Meyer was signing the deal for her first Twilight books.
More recent still was the case of Sava Savanovicˇ, a Serbian first identified as a vampire in the 18th century. When in 2012 his reputed home – an old water mill on the river Rogacˇica in Zarozˇje – collapsed, local authorities warned residents to arm themselves against the now-homeless revenant with crosses and garlic.
This was probably shrewd business PR rather than authentic superstition: the mill and village had been popular with tourists for some time, and the story made world headlines. Yet the announcement that “five people have recently died, one after another, in our small community”, and allegedly “not by accident”, would be all-too familiar to vampire believers of past times.
Vampires on screen: how the legend became box-office gold
The early wave of 18th-century reports on the folk vampirism of central-eastern Europe might well be described as the first phase of ‘vampotainment’. But it was in the 19th century that it became really popular.
A short tale, The Vampyre, penned by Byron’s physician, John Polidori, caused a sensation in 1819, prompting a popular stage version, The Bride of the Isles, and the invention of a highly sophisticated ‘vampire trap’, through which the defeated bloodsucker magically vanished in the closing scene. This tale gave us the prototype of the suavely seductive vampire aristocrat, Lord Ruthven – and it certainly didn’t hurt that many saw the shadow of Byron himself behind this figure.
Female vampires soon got their teeth into readers, starting with the impressively daring quasi-lesbianism of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Carmilla, on through John Payne’s long poem Lautrec in 1878, and reinforced by Robert Louis Stevenson’s powerfully atmospheric Spanish tale, Olalla, during Christmas 1885.
Stoker’s Dracula (1897) of course remains for many the vampire classic, and perhaps rightly so. There again, many people now ‘know’ Dracula without having read it – whether via the silent Nosferatu (1922), the numerous caped outings of Bela Lugosi, or Coppola’s superbly lurid version of 1992.
With many recent vampire tales getting more ironic than supernatural, one can see how the Twilight novels and films offered something new in vampotainment. Oddly, though, the Victorian Dracula is far more sexy than Stephenie Meyer’s tamely puritanical saga. Nothing in Twilight comes anywhere near the scene in which Jonathan Harker swoons under the eyes and lips of not one, but three alluring female vamps.
Richard Sugg is a lecturer in the English department at Durham University. He is the author of Faces of the Vampire: From Holy Terror to Sexual Taboo (2014)