Origins of Vampire Beliefs

It is possible that the concept of the vampire originated from the persecution of those few unfortunates with a congenital illness like porphyria, or from mental illnesses. The pervasiveness of the vampire trope, a blood-thirsty undead creature who survives by drinking the blood of the living is a stubborn and prevalent myth that spans cultures and geography from Japan and China to the Levant to Eastern Europe to Rome. From the lamia and Lilith to the vampyr and nosferatu, culminating in the literary works of Bram Stoker, Ann Rice and the Sookie Stackhouse stories of Charlaine Harris, the vampire is an enduring idea.

There are some commonalities in the various myths that indicate the reasons for the prevalence of vampire folklore beyond the unlikely possibility that ancient people groups were actually plagued very often with porphyria. Rather, it is much more likely that vampires, especially the Eastern European nosferatu or vampyr, the kind we are most familiar with from Hollywood and Dracula, comes from basic misunderstandings about what occurs to a corpse.

When superstitious people were confronted with a coffin that had been, for one reason or another, unearthed, they often discovered that the corpse was bloated, as if it had fed recently. Well, that’s suspicious, but to the modern mind, indicative of nothing more than the process of putrefaction. In addition, corpses were often discovered to have long hair and nails grown to claw-like lengths. Well, we know now that the hair and nails continue to grow after death. The teeth of a corpse were often seemingly enlarged and appeared like monstrous and inhuman fangs, and the lips were often bloody. Superstitious people did not consider that after death, gums often recede violently, pulling away from teeth. This makes the teeth look unnaturally longer, and also causes the seeping of blood into the mouth cavity.

In addition, coffins were often discovered with scratches on the inside. Aside from the probably not uncommon case of premature burial, one must also credit creative rodents and burrowing creatures. Such clues led uneducated and unenlightened minds that were flooded with religious imagery to assume the worst: demonic and supernatural assault.

Handling such a threat of vampires required extreme measures. The normal way to make sure a corpse did not rise usually entailed cutting off the head, spiking the corpse to the ground through its heart, burying it at the crossroads to ensure that it was decidedly trampled, filling the mouth of the severed head (often buried separate from the body) with consecrated host, salt, garlic, hawthorn or, in a pinch, wolfs bane.

Medieval minds were quick to see a wolf attack as the savaging of a were, and the prevalent tuberculosis, scurvy or anemic dysentery as an indication of vampiric activity. Superstition is the flip side of faith, and hysteria is the dark side of imagination. In a time when faith and imagination was a powerful and occasionally lethal combination, the myth of the vampire was born.