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Vampires: The History Behind the Myth

Four vignettes with figures in Elizabethan costume. Are scenes from an opera, popular in the 19th century, known as Le Vampire.

From Lestat to Edward, vampires have intrigued us all the way back to tales of Dracula and his origins. But which of those origins could be true? Where did the idea of a bloodsucker biting necks come from?

How Far Back Does the Tale of the Vampire Go?

It seems that the belief in vampires has been around since the Middle Ages. Back when plagues were frequent, superstitious folks thought that the remnants left behind by the disease were signs of vampirism. It wasn’t uncommon for people to believe that blood found around the mouth meant that a person had been feeding on another.

Being afflicted by the plague, and probably dying from it, weren’t the only things that made others think you might be a vampire back in the Middle Ages. If you suffered from any kind of blood disorder, had pale or cold skin, or had an allergic reaction to the Sun, you were likely pegged as a vampire.

How to Kill a Vampire, or How They Did It Back Then

People may not have hunted vampires like they did witches, but when somebody died and was suspected of being a vampire, certain things were done to ensure that they didn’t rise to feed again.

How people dealt with a deceased person who was believed to be a vampire included some of the things that we see now in the mythos of the vampire:

  • A stake may be put through the hear of the corpse.
  • Decapitation could keep the dead from rising again.
  • Burning the dead bodies was another common practice.

We’ve all seen each of these happen in various vampire movies. But what’s with the fear of the Sun, the cross, and even sometimes silver (though that is often saved for werewolves)?

Vampires in Movies and Building the Mythos We Have Today

Movie vampires come in all shapes and sizes. One of the earliest vampires that we’ve all probably heard about comes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s Dracula was based loosely on the tale of Vlad the Impaler, a fifteenth-century Prince of Wallachia who liked to put the heads of his enemies on sticks, giving him the name Vlad the Impaler. He was also called Dracula because his father was named Dracul, and Dracula means son of Dracul or son of the Dragon.

Played out in one movie by the talented Gary Oldman,  we see the story of a distraught Vlad who gives himself over to evil, becoming Dracula, the mythological creature. His motivation? The eternal hunt for his true love who died by suicide when she thought she’d never see her beloved Vlad again. In the story, Dracula is a shape-shifting being who can become a bat, a wolf, among other things. This belief in shape-shifting could stem from the existence of the Vampire Bat, which is a bat that feeds on the blood of animals, not humans.

Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania
Bran Castle in Transylvania is one of several locations associated with the Dracula legend. Vadym Lavra

Of course, the stabbing in the heart and slashing of the head in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to bring him to his final death, didn’t always happen in every movie or TV show about vampires. As the mythos grows, different tactics are used to kill vampires.

In some vampire stories, the stake only immobilizes a vampire rather than killing them. Sometimes, holy water is enough to kill a vampire, yet at other times it only burns their skin a little bit. Some vampires are afraid of the cross, and others are not.

Whether it was the first tale to touch base on this background of Dracula in the vampire, Dracula 2000 took a different stance on the mythology of Dracula.  Instead of making Dracula Vlad the Impaler, he was Judas Iscariot. In this version of Dracula, one of his aversions with silver is due to the silver coins he received for betraying Jesus.

Keeping Vampires Away from Us

The same movies and television shows teach us how to keep vampires away, but where did they get the ideas from? It seems to make sense that using holy water or a cross to kill or keep away a vampire would have something to do with the Judas and Jesus mythos. However, how is it that a wooden stake can kill or harm a vampire, and how is garlic possibly going to keep them from getting in your home or biting you?

Various reasons may explain why garlic can keep a vampire away, but one of the most likely candidates is the fact that it masks the scent of your blood. If the smell of blood attracts vampires, it makes sense that such a pungent garlic odor could keep them away.

As far as wooden stakes, it’s likely that any type of stake through the heart, if that would actually kill a vampire, would do. Wood was probably chosen because it was the most available item to grab in the Middle Ages. Using a metal stake likely was more costly and harder to find.

And again, as stated in Dracula 2000, it could be that Dracula was Judas, and that’s why he was afraid of silver, the cross, and holy water. Or, as far as crosses and holy water go, maybe it’s just the dark and devilish side of Dracula and vampires that make them fear something holy.

The Vampire of Reality

Has anyone ever actually been attacked by a vampire? There are unusual cases, like that of the Vampire Clan Murders, where a young gentleman named Rod Ferrell killed the parents of his girlfriend in the name of vampirism. But was Rod a real-life bloodsucker? It’s not likely.

Elizabeth Bathory bathed in the blood of virgins. According to some accounts, she was the real inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was by accident the Bathory found that putting blood on her skin made her look more youthful, and after that, she started killing young girls to bathe in their blood in an attempt to stay young forever.

While the “rising from the dead type” of vampire probably isn’t real but could be, clans of people do exist who believe that they are vampires. These groups of people, and sometimes single individuals doing it on their own, like to avoid sunlight and even delve into drinking blood. And, a stake through the heart would kill them because they’re humans.  While being a living vampire may seem like fun, drinking human blood or even animal blood can be dangerous to your health and is a great way to spread diseases.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »