VAMPIRES, Part IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

Vampiro_atacando_cristão_-_Século_XV

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

PART II: The Logic and Superstition of Vampire Watermelons. Yes, I Said ‘Watermelons.’

PART III: Corpse Desecration for Beginners

What’s the personality that animates a vampire? In traditional vampire fiction, it’s the same personality that animated it in life. That’s where much of the angst and drama comes from, as the person who has been transformed into a vampire grapples with his or her compulsion to kill other people and drink their blood. Some more modern takes have instead depicted them as little more than ravening, mindless monsters. Neither approach quite reflects the folklore

In folktales the creatures are not a talkative bunch. I can count the number of stories I’ve stumbled across where a vampire talks with a human being, or shows any sign that it remembers its previous life, on one hand. Likewise, you don’t see much in the way of vampire communities. Secret vampire societies are a cliché in modern literature, but are entirely non-existent in Slavic tradition.

You might find this odd, since those killed by vampires are supposed to come back as vampires themselves. Yet vampirism in folklore tends to be endemic, not epidemic, to any given society. Vampires are loners, and while they sometimes kill a number of people, few come back in the end, and they don’t all hang out together.

Generally, the old Slavs seem to have believed it was an evil spirit that animated the vampire’s corpse. Now, sure, sometimes it was the spirit of the same person, if they had been evil in life. Sometimes it was the spirit of somebody else, or a flat out demonic spirit, in which case they might use the memories of the deceased against the living.

Most often, it seems to be a foreign, hostile spirit of unknown origin. You may recall the anecdote from part II of this series, about a vampire being created when a black cat jumped over a corpse, presumably hunting for the dead man’s soul, since souls were often symbolized as mice. It’s the same idea. As the old spirit leaves, a horrible new one replaces it. It should be noted that some modern fiction has indeed used this approach; it was a pretty core concept to the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series. Still, it’s less common then you might expect.

There’s one Russian folktale that suggests where these evil spirits might come from. In the story, a Cossack fights a Russian vampire to a standstill. Then daylight comes and the vampire isn’t destroyed, but is simply rendered inanimate (this is usually the case; sunlight disintegrating vampires is a modern invention). The Cossack summons the nearby villagers the vampire had been preying on. They build a great bonfire and throw the corpse on the fire.

As it burns, the body bursts and thousands of little animals start to crawl out of it. Snakes, crows, maggots, rats, all of them crawl out of the body and try to flee the fire. The villagers kill them with shovels and pitchforks and throw each one back onto the fire. The idea was that each one was a little part of the vampire’s evil spirit, and that if even one escaped it could find another body and start the cycle all over again. Where the first evil spirit came from is anybody’s guess, though this sort of ambiguity means you can more or less invent any origin you’d like for such malevolent souls.

Yet, vampires do seem to have their sentimental side, though it is often shown through their actions, not their speech. There’s another folktale that is really more of a sad ghost story. A farmer’s wife dies, leaving him to care for their infant child. He hires a wet nurse, but the baby won’t drink her milk, and cries all the time, except for a short time during the wee hours of the morning. Confused, the farmer stays up with his baby one night to determine the cause. After ducking out of the room for a few minutes, he returns to find his dead wife, sitting by the crib, the baby quietly suckling. As he enters the room, the dead woman looks up sadly, puts the baby down, and then leaves without a word. The farmer rushes to the crib, to find the baby stone dead.

Vampires almost always return to their old home first, to feed on their surviving family and any animals in the household, before moving on to extended family, friends, and finally the rest of the community, if they get that far without discovery. Do they do this because they want their loved ones to join them in death? Or is there some intrinsic bond between the vampire and his kin that compels him to devour them first? You could use either approach in your writing, or come up with some alternate explanation. Maybe family blood is just more filling.

These different interpretations of the vampire’s origin may be more or less useful depending on the story you want to tell. The idea that there is some fragment of the former personality left is helpful if you want to make a vampire protagonist. Personally, I find the idea of an alien mind, waking up in a dead man’s body and trying to figure out its surroundings, much more intriguing.

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