Vampire

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A mythical being that is said to subsist on human (and sometimes animal) blood; usually the vampire is the corpse of a recently dead person, reanimated by one means or another.

Vampires in history and culture

The tradition of the dead craving blood (regarded as containing the life force) is very old, going back to the ancient Greeks at least. An example is the episode in book 11 of the Odyssey where Odysseus carries out a necromantic ritual; the dead are lured to the fresh blood of sacrificed rams, and Odysseus holds them back with his sword until the shade of Tiresius, whom he had wanted to speak to, appears.

It is believed that vampires have no reflection, as traditionally it was thought that mirrors reflected your soul, and creatures of evil have no soul, consequently they have no reflection. Fiction has extended this belief to an actual aversion of mirrors, as depicted in Dracula when he casts Harker's shaving mirror out of the window.

A vampire (despite not being alive in the classical sense, and therefore referred to as undead) may be "killed" (for good) using several methods, which can vary between 'species':

  • Ram a wooden stake through a vampire's heart, traditionally the stake would be made from ash or hawthorn, and the vampire should be impaled with a single blow. In some areas, a red-hot iron was preferred. The body should subsequently be burnt or buried at a crossroads.
  • The idea that exposing a vampire to sunlight will destroy them varies from culture to culture. Some 'species' of vampire are destroyed by sunlight, although it depends upon how powerful the vampire is, this is associated with vampires that are active from sunset to sunrise. Many species of vampires are active from 12 noon to midnight or the converse, and consequently sunlight is harmless.
  • remove internal organs and burn them
  • Garlic, holy water, running water, silver, crosses and bibles keep vampires away

According to Orthodox Christian belief, the soul does not depart the body until 40 days after it has been buried. In some places, bodies were often disinterred between 3 to 7 days after burial and examined: if there was no sign of decomposition a stake was driven through the heart of the corpse.

In Eastern Europe, the vampire is said to have two hearts or two souls; since one heart or soul never dies, the vampire remains undead.

Pathology and vampirism

Folklore describing deathly paleness, people that avoid sunlight, drink blood, and loathe garlic could come from a rare illness called porphyria. The disease disrupts production of hemoglobin; for some reason, garlic aggravates the symptoms, causing intense illness in people with the disease. Lacking hemoglobin, victims might crave the hematin (critical precursor to hemoglobin) in human blood. People with extreme cases of the (hereditary) disease are so sensitive to sunlight that they can get a sunburn through heavy cloud cover. In its very rare, most severe form, the teeth and bones of sufferers actually become fluorescent, shining pink or possibly red. (Incidentally, Britain's King George III may have had porphyria, which poisoned his nervous system, attacked his brain and caused delirium and mental disturbances. Contrary to its depiction in the film The Madness of King George, he did not recover.)

There is also substantial evidence for the relation between vampirism and rabies. The legend of vampirism is known to take place in the 19th century Eastern Europe, where there were massive rabies outbreaks. Rabies causes high fever, loss of appetite and fatigue as initial symptoms. In later stages patients try to avoid the sunlight and prefer walking at night. Strong light and mirrors may cause episodes characterised by violent and animal-like behaviors and a tendency to attack people and bite them. Concomitant facial spasms may give the patient an animal-like (or a vampire-like) expression. In a furious form of the disease patients may have an increased urgency for sexual activity or may occasionally vomit blood. Rabies is contagious just like vampirism and a single bite may evoke the same symptoms in the victim.

Vampires in fiction


Dracula has been the definitive description of the vampire in popular fiction for the last century. Its portrayal of vampirism as a disease, (contagious demonic possession!) with all its undertones of sex, blood and death seem to have struck a chord in a Victorian England where tuberculosis and syphilis were common. Before the Victorian era, the romantic connection between vampires and sex did not exist.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was only partially based on legends about a real person - Vlad Tepes, a savagely cruel prince known also as Vlad Drakul (Drakul, or "Dracula" meaning "son of a dragon") or Vlad the Impaler, who lived in the late Middle Ages in what is now Romania; Stoker also drew heavily on Irish myths of blood-sucking creatures, and was also indebted to a contemporary vampire story, Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu. Oral tradition regarding Tepes includes his having made a practice of torturing peasants who displeased him and hanging them or parts of them, such as heads, on stakes around his castle or manor house. Tepes may have suffered from porphyria. He is said to have roamed abroad at night only, to have a pathological distaste for garlic (a notable dietary quirk in ancient Romania) and to crave human blood. His supposed periodic abdominal agony, especially after eating, and bouts of delirium would have also been characteristic of the disease. Legend has it that any food other than human blood will cause a vampire intense stomach pain and nausea.

Nearly all later vampire fiction draws heavily on Stoker's formulation; the later films such as Nosferatu and those featuring Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee are examples of this. (Nosferatu, in fact, was so similar to Dracula that Stoker's widow sued for copyright infringement and won; one result of the suit was that all known prints of the film were destroyed). One exception to this indebtedness is the series of novels by Anne Rice, which make the vampire the hero.

  • I am Legend by Richard Matheson - an interesting twist: vampirism is caused by a bacterium (the use of a wooden stake keeps air in the wound, preventing the bacterium from making repairs), and after the pandemic the hero is the last normal person in a world filled with vampires. It was filmed as `The Omega Man' and remade at a later date.

Vampires can be roleplayed too:

External links : http://www.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/vampirefilms.html An extensive list of vampire movies.

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