31 Days: Vampires
Of all the supernatural creatures that are known about, I reckon that Vampires are quite possibly the most well known.
The literary creation of John William Polidari (one time physician to Lord Byron) and popularized by Bram Stoker, the Vampire has blazed a trail through books, movies, cartoons, comics and theater productions for much of the 20th century and is still going strong in the 21st. YA fiction in particular has adopted the vampire with gusto, turning them from blood sucking horrors that lurk in the night to sexy, angst ridden anti heroes. Needless to say, everyone knows all about Vampires.
Or do they? Because in actuality, there is no one true Vampire. In both myths and literature there are many characters and concepts which refer to ‘vampirism’ and yet there are massive differences between them. So can we really consider ‘the Vampire’ to be one creature? Taking some examples from literature and film, we have:
– Vampires whose skin reflects the sunlight in such a way that they sparkle (Stephenie Mayer’s Twilight series)
– Vampires who are actually an alien, slug like parasite which inhabits an animal host, slowly replacing the host’s flesh with their own protoplasmic flesh which has massive regenerative properties, can be reshaped into many forms but also has an intrinsic allergy to garlic and silver as well as burning easily in sunlight. When they infect a human they are called Wamphyri, when they infect an animal they often lead to myths related to lycanthropes (Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series)
– Vampires who are compelled to dress in evening wear all the time and have strong obsessions with various social mores connected with a vampiric lifestyle, including a ‘sportsman’s honour’ which insists that they always provide plenty of things that can be turned into a holy symbol for the hero to use as well as conveniently large windows facing the rising sun that only need a curtain to be pulled down to expose them (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld)
– A subspecies of Vampire that are composed of living water and drink the blood of humans and vampires (preferring Vampires) by forming pools of themselves and leeching the blood out through thousands of microscopic bites. These Draugr (as they are called) are also the inspiration behind the Sirens in the Odyssey as they have an ability to tempt their prey to them with seductive songs (Rachel Caine’s Morganville Vampires).
– A species of Haemovores from the far future, on an earth with no sunlight and few resources, that feeds on blood but is repelled by someone with confidence enough to erect a strong enough psychic shield – faith in something being a good way to achieve this (Doctor Who, The Curse of Fenric).
– A species of transdimensional moth which absorbs the life force from sentient beings it has hypnotized using its oneirochromatic wings ( Slake Moths from China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which can be described as a form of Vampire).
And I have not even begun to talk about some of the things that go on in Manga….
Even among the more traditional vampires, there is variance in the traditional strengths and weaknesses associated with them. The response to crucifixes is a controversial one, for example, with some claiming that it is the faith of the wielder that is important, others the faith of the vampire and some claim it is the faith of both. Though one thing worth considering about this is the fact that you could claim that the response to the crucifix is something specific to Dracula. As a former Crusader who felt betrayed by his religion, this character has a very strong reaction to anything linked to that particular religion. Therefore, it is a purely psychological reaction to something he has a strong phobia to rather than a supernatural reaction to any power inherent in the item itself or the person wielding it. Many writers seem to have taken this concept of Dracula’s phobia to Christianity and extrapolated it to encompass all Vampires and some have even considered the role of other religions such as one comedy film (Dance of the Vampires or The Fearless Vampire Hunters in the US) which had a Jewish Vampire unaffected by Christian symbols and, more recently, BBCs Being Human had a Jewish character using his Star of David to repel hostile Vampires. There are other settings where the response to religious items is believed by many but is later shown to be a hoax perpetuated by the Vampires to confuse mortals who may try to hunt them.
So, there is a lot of variation and, in truth, we can only really say that these creatures are all vampires because they share the same need to feed off the life force of other creatures, usually in the form of blood. This is the only true, universal link between all literary and even mythological vampires – whether you think of the shape changing, demonic Estrie from Medieval Jewish literature or the Greek Vrykolakas who are closer to werewolves* or even the bizarre ‘hopping Vampire’ or Jiang Shi of Chinese myth. They all only share one feature – the feeding on life force, two of them through blood, the third via absorption of qi (life energy). You could also argue that a Succubus or Incubus is also a form of Vampire as they absorb life energy via sexual intercourse. Indeed, the Vrykolakas are also known to sit on a victim’s body, suffocating them in much the same way the two sex demons are famous for and equally founded in experiences of sleep paralysis.
The conclusion this leads to is grounded in the imagination of human culture. From limited evidence – lack of decay due to soil too dead for bacteria, hair and nails seeming to ‘grow’ due to shrinking of the skin and descriptions of hallucinations borne from sleep paralysis – we have constructed a vast number of stories of demons, monsters and half men who drain the life force of victims and live forever.
Unless, of course, the truth is that Vampires really do exist and their ubiquitous presence in every culture and in much of our legend and literature is due to this fact…
*The term Vrykolakas actually means ‘Wolf Hair’ or ‘having the hair of a wolf’