VAMPIRES, PART VII: The Bones of the Vampire (The End Already, Goddamn)

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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

PART IV: Who’s in There, Anyway?

PART V: Buckets of Blood

PART VI: Wolves and Witches

Over the course of this series, I’ve tried to showcase the great variety of Slavic vampire beliefs and traditions, despite the many competing or contradictory ideas therein. We’ve had vampires that are walking corpses and vampires that are more like ghosts. We’ve had vampires that drink blood, vampires who eat flesh, and vampires who steal your breath. We’ve even had owl-monsters and vampire watermelons. At this point a reasonable person might well be wondering, well, just what is a vampire?

It’s a tricky question, and you can read a lot of different books that will propose a lot of different answers. It seems every time I go to a bookstore I spot an “encyclopedia of vampires” or similarly titled work that lumps together every blood drinker and walking corpse from all the mythologies of the world. For example, there’s a monster in Malaysian folklore, the penanggalan, that frequently shows up in such books. It looks like a human being during the day, but at night its head pops off and floats through the sky trailing tentacle-like entrails that end in little mouths and drink blood or eat babies. Yet, according to local tradition, it’s a living creature, not a dead man walking.

The simplest definition for a vampire is probably “a dead person who returns from the grave to prey upon the living for nourishment.” It’s a very loose definition, mind you. If one wanted to be pedantic, they could attach “from Slavic traditions,” but cultural exchange isn’t quite that simple; vampire traditions have leaked into Greece, Romanians aren’t ethnically Slavic, and there are even vampire beliefs in Canada thanks to the Ontario Kashubians. Even then, the folklore doesn’t always line up. The Bulgarian obour vampire isn’t so much a walking dead person, but a spirit that clones the dead person’s body and walks around in it, leaving the corpse in the grave. Should that count?

Then you’ve got all the literary complications that have come along over the centuries. You might have heard of references to “historical” vampires, like Elizabeth Bathory, or Vlad the Impaler, but there are no actual folktales connecting them to vampire traditions. That’s all the influence of much later writers. Sure, Vlad Dracula was a bloodthirsty man who impaled people on stakes, but there’s no evidence he was associated with vampires until Bram Stoker came along and wrote his book.

Really, that’s one of the great advantages of the vampire as a literary character or narrative device. Because the definition encompasses so many different superstitions and beliefs, you can endlessly re-invent it while still being true to the folklore. A writer can sift through it all, picking out the things they like, ignoring the things they don’t, and thus make own creation in the process, which is exactly what Stoker did. You might be surprised how many of the things we take for granted about vampires come from this.  I talked earlier in this series about how Stoker introduced the idea of vampires turning into bats. The idea that they have hypnotizing eyes or telepathic powers comes from him as well; mesmerism was a big fad in Victorian Britain, and he worked it into his story. The idea that vampires disintegrate in sunlight is even newer, coming from the 1922 movie Nosferatu.

It’s a little shocking, really, how much mileage we’ve gotten out of vampires, since they’re not that old. The first mention of them in Slavic records is from 1047 AD, less than a thousand years ago; a bit ironic, considering how many stories about millennia old vampires one can find on the bookshelves these days. Yet they’re far more unpredictable than much older traditions. You can find traditions about dragons older than Ancient Rome that are very consistent with modern depictions, but in far less time vampire traditions have grown like ivy, snaking out into all sorts of nooks and crannies.

Believe me; I’ve only scratched the surface of how many crazy and weird things you can dig up out of vampire folklore. I could talk at length about all the different ways vampires are created, or about weird stuff like the Serbian dhampirs, half-human vampires with who could supposedly identify the monsters by sight, a superstition that led to many a successful con-man. I’m sure much of it will show up on this site some other day in a different form, but really, you can write entire books about this stuff, and many people have. Hopefully, I’ve given you some fodder for your own.

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