VAMPIRES, PART I: In Which You Learn All Drunk People Are Secretly Undead Monsters

Smile at Night (Sukanto Debnath)

Vampires are everywhere in fiction these days, and if you pay attention you may have noticed most representations of them fall into two broad camps. One is the idealized vampire, the sexy, cool, romantic figure. He’s full of tortured angst and/or witty quips, has stunningly good looks, and probably wears a long black coat. The other kind of vampire is created by people who hate the first type. It’s a monster, part bat/rat/other hideous thing, blood spattered, possibly rotting. Neither one of them much resembles the vampire of Slavic folklore, which is where all this started, and it is the Slavic vampire we’re going to explore.

Let’s start with appearance. A vampire wasn’t pale. It didn’t have fangs. It didn’t even look dead. To the Slavs, a vampire didn’t immediately look like a monster, let alone a sexy superhuman; it looked like a completely normal person. If they were ugly in life, they were ugly in death and the same goes if they were handsome. That, of course, was one of the vampire’s strengths: anonymity. They looked like everybody else. In the folk stories, when people recognized a vampire for what it was while it was walking around, it usually had more to do with the fact that they knew the person in question was supposed to be dead. That or they caught the vampire, well, “red-handed.”

There were a few things mentioned as little tells that could give away a vampire, though, distinguishing features the canny observer could look out for. They don’t show up in the stories that much, but they were a common superstition. For example, a vampire’s fingers might all be the same length, it might have a uni-brow, or hairy palms. These traits weren’t universal; you could go from one village to the next and get a slightly different version. Really, almost any unusual physical feature you can think of shows up in these traditions, and the same tells were often associated with werewolves or witches. It must have been a big pain for the peasants of Eastern Europe, trying to sort this all out, not wanting to accidentally murder the guy with a minor deformity. For them it seems the most reliable way for detecting a vampire was simply to dig up a suspect and see if the corpse had decayed since “death” or not, and that’s what they usually went to first.

This leads us to one particular recurring trait, unique to vampires almost everywhere. After they’d fed vampires would swell up like ticks, their entire bodies saturated with blood till even their skin was shiny from being stretched taut, adopting a reddish tint. If you saw one stumbling by in the street, gorged with blood, it’d just look like a ruddy faced drunk. A vampire dug up the day after feeding was frequently supposed to have blood leaking out of its nostrils, eyes, and the corners of its mouth, and at that point the peasants would indulge in a little good ol’ fashioned grave desecration.

This whole concept of an almost unidentifiable vampire actually works pretty well for modern urban fantasies, where writers often need to find ways to hide their fantastic creatures in plain sight. More generally, it’s a great tool for writing stories steeped in paranoia; it lends itself very naturally to an “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” kind of story. You can also borrow a little bit of pathos from zombie movies, what with the monsters looking exactly like your deceased loved ones.

There’s something fundamentally creepy about a monster that looks like a normal person, and a good writer can make great use of that aspect of traditional vampires.

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