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Staking Claims: The Vampires of Folklore and Fiction

Article

Paul Barber

Volume 20.2, March / April 1996

We know about Dracula and the would-be vampires in the news, but what were the “real” vampires all about? People who learn that I wrote a book on vampire lore often say, “Oh, you mean like Vlad Drakul?”

“Not actually,” I tell them. “Vlad Drakul was a figure in Romanian history whose only association with the vampire lore is that Bram Stoker named the character Dracula after him. Until Dracula came out, no one ever associated the historical figure with the vampire lore.” This has been pointed out many times, and the Romanians have often expressed their dismay over the way we have expropriated their national hero and made him into a vampire. But in the media the sensational always has an edge on the prosaic, and by being associated with vampires — even if only via fiction — Vlad Drakul has become the only figure in Romanian history that Americans have ever heard about. If the Romanians began to make movies portraying George Washington as a ghoul, we would know what they feel like.

Here we see fiction becoming “historical fact,” while the scholars who try to correct the “facts” find that they have no hope of getting equal time with the people who purvey mythologies. One of these is Stephan Kaplan, who I think — but I'm never sure — is a notoriety freak who is putting us on and having a wonderful time doing it. For example, he was quoted recently as saying that vampires can come out in the daytime, they just need to wear a sunblock of 15 or higher. As wit, this ranks among the best things I've heard recently, right up there with the story that the Florida citrus industry is trying to get O. J. Simpson to change his first name to Snapple. I suspect that Kaplan will one day call a press conference, wearing a silly hat, and say, “I was just fooling, and you fell for it!” I got a call from the BBC a while back asking me for my reaction to Kaplan’s announcement that Los Angeles is awash in vampires. To me this is like an adult asking me what Santa Claus brought me this year: The question had better be ironic, and the answer may as well be. So I told the interviewer that it was true that vampires are everywhere in Los Angeles, but because of the muggers they're afraid to go out at night.

The folklore of the vampire has only a slight connection with the fiction, much the way the folklore of ghosts has little to do with the movie Ghostbusters. Most people aren't aware that, throughout European history, there have been extensive and detailed accounts of bodies in graveyards being dug up, declared to be vampires, and killed. I took some years out of my life to study these accounts and find out what in the world could have caused people to set out to kill dead bodies. And here we encounter our first real/non-real boundary: the digging up of the bodies was unquestionably real — indeed, beyond any doubt. We know this because we have a vast array of evidence to that effect, both archaeological and documentary, including highly detailed accounts written by literate outsiders, who gave information that they could not possibly have made up. For example, unless you are a forensic pathologist, you probably don't know that decomposing bodies may undergo a process called “skin slippage,” in which the epidermis flakes away from the dermis. The following account, from the eighteenth century, tells of the exhumation of a man named Peter Plogojowitz and remarks on this phenomenon: “The hair and beard — even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away — had grown on [the corpse]; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it. . . . Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.” When we see remarks about skin slippage, we know that the author has either (a) read a text on forensic pathology or (b) looked at, or heard about, a decomposing corpse.

Yet here we are confronted with a predicament: If our source is right about skin slippage, what are we to make of his evidence that the dead body had been drinking blood from the living? The answer, of course, is that we are not obliged to believe our informant’s interpretations, let alone those of his informants, just because he is giving us an accurate description of a corpse. Scholars have always thrown out the observations because they didn't believe the interpretations. This is not as odd as it might seem, for often description and interpretation are run together, as in such a statement as “the body came to life and cried out when it was staked.” But we'll get to that in a moment.

For now, let’s slow down and look carefully at the observations in the account we have quoted:

  1. “The hair and beard have grown on the corpse.” Sorry, this just doesn't happen, even though many people believe it even today. It can appear to happen, however, because the skin may shrink back after death and make hair and beard more visible.
  2. “The nails have fallen off and new ones have grown.” The nails do in fact fall off as a body decomposes. The Egyptians were aware of this and dealt with it either by tying the nails to the fingers and toes or by putting metal thimbles over the tip of each finger or toe. The “new nails,” according to Thomas Noguchi, former medical examiner for Los Angeles, were probably an interpretation of the nail bed.
  3. “The old skin has peeled away and new skin has emerged under it.” This is skin slippage: epidermis and dermis. Many accounts remark also on the “ruddy” or “dark” color of the corpse, a phenomenon that may be caused by decomposition and a variety of other things as well. Contrary to popular belief, the face of a corpse is not necessarily pale at all, since pallor results from the blood draining from the tissues. If the person was supine when he or she died, the face of the corpse may be pale; if prone, the face may be dark. Those parts of the corpse that are lower than the rest may be gorged with blood that, having lost its oxygen, is dark and causes the skin to appear dark as well. And the parts that are under pressure — where the weight of the body is distributed — may be light in color because the (now dark) blood has been forced away from the tissues. The dark coloration resulting from the saturation of the tissues with blood is called “livor mortis” or “lividity.” It is this phenomenon that allows medical examiners to determine whether a body has been moved after death: If lividity is present where it shouldn't be, or not present where it should, then the body has been moved.
  4. “There is fresh blood at the mouth.” The adjective “fresh” is less puzzling if we suppose that the author hasn't actually tested the blood for freshness. What he was surely observing, and confused by, was the fact that the blood was liquid. This was remarked on many times by people who observed such exhumations. It is simply not unusual. In fact, blood normally coagulates at death, then either remains coagulated or becomes liquid again.1 The reason the blood migrates to the mouth is that the body, as it decomposes, bloats from the gases produced by decomposition, and this bloating puts pressure on the lungs, which are rich in blood and deteriorate early on, so that blood is forced to the mouth and nose.

And did you notice that we were just told why people believed that the dead sucked blood from the living? The standard theory about death was that it came from the dead, and when people dug up the first victim of an epidemic and found that he had blood at his mouth, they concluded that he had sucked the blood from the other people who had died. “Not without astonishment,” says our author, “I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.” Moreover, the bloating of the body was taken for evidence that it was full to bursting with the blood of its victims.

So we have cleared up an old mystery merely by paying attention to the people who, centuries ago, tried to tell us about it. From here on things will be easier: If our informants tell us that the vampire “came to life and cried out” when they drove a stake through him, we shall accept the observation and reject the conclusion: Yes, a body would “cry out” if you drove a stake into it, because doing so forces air past the glottis — but this is not because the body is still alive. Among modern medical examiners, there is remarkable agreement on both points.

The vampire lore did not die when people worked out forensic pathology: by that time it had become part of literature. The folkloric vampires had been peasants, but in the eighteenth century, authors were still reluctant to make peasants into major characters in stories, so the fictional vampire was moved into the upper classes. By the time of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), he had became a pallid count, rather than the ruddy peasant of the folklore. Along the way, Linnaeus named a Central American bat after the European vampire, since the bat lived on blood, and the fiction writers, noting this, added the bat to the store of their motifs. This is why, in modern movies, vampires are apt to turn into bats in the night, when they need to go somewhere quickly.

Oddly, when this material became fiction, it once again became “fact,” for nowadays the media keep digging up not just scholars and pseudoscholars who talk about the folklore but also people who actually claim to be vampires. The scholars and the vampires are brought together by their common fate: The media trot them out every year around Halloween. The modern “vampires” derive their inspiration not from the perfectly good material from folklore, which in fact has been sadly neglected, but from the fiction, perhaps because it is more dramatic and coherent. The folklore is about cantankerous peasants who come back as spirits to torment their nearest and dearest, and this simply doesn't translate into a glamorous lifestyle. So our modern “vampires” drive hearses, cap their canine teeth, and wear cloaks when they go out at night. None of these things has anything whatever to do with the folklore of the vampire — even the canines are an artifact of the fictional tradition. Some modern “vampires” claim a taste for blood and tell stories of raids on bloodbanks and of obliging friends who let them open a vein.

The baffling part of this is that the modern “vampires” are claiming kinship not with the vampire that our ancestors actually believed in but with the fictional vampire derived from that one. This is like somebody claiming to be related to Rhett Butler in the movie Gone with the Wind. “You mean Clark Gable,” you say. “No, no: Rhett Butler. You know, the character in the movie. He’s my cousin.” And, lacking anything further to say, you ask, “Do you and Rhett talk a lot?” But in its way, theirs is a successful lifestyle, for those of us who study the folklore have long since become accustomed to getting two minutes on television programs that then give ten minutes to a ditsy lady who sleeps in a coffin. And anyone can get media attention who will bring up Vlad Drakul or even the moribund porphyria theory, which supposes that people really were drinking blood to cure their rare disease, even though we have no evidence either that drinking blood would alleviate the symptoms of porphyria or that any live people were accused of drinking blood — it was always corpses. This theory never got beyond the wild hypothesis stage but has historical interest for following the trend that confuses folklore with fiction. I describe it as “moribund,” but such theories seemingly never die in the media, no matter how often they are demolished by evidence and argument. By now you couldn't kill the porphyria theory with a stake.

The peculiarities of this subject have a way of compounding themselves with time. We have seen how confusing it is to have data in which accurate observation and inaccurate interpretation are all balled up together. As the discipline of anthropology formed and took shape, it looked back on its earlier indiscretions and made a firm resolution not to view other cultures as inferior to that of the anthropologist. Indeed, it took us many decades to figure out that “primitive” cultures aren't any younger than “advanced” ones. But their attempt at dispassion discouraged anthropologists from making distinctions: Now you're not supposed to notice when someone from another culture is simply wrong about something. Indeed, it’s no longer politically correct to make distinctions at all between right and wrong ideas, unless of course they are the ideas of our own culture. So it doesn't bother us to say that Copernicus corrected Ptolemy, but it does bother us if I point out that nonliterate cultures typically misunderstand the events of decomposition. What is odd about our modern view is that it appears to be the very kind of patronizing that we are trying to get rid of.

One review of my book complained about my applying scientific discourse to my subject. The reviewer did not suggest an alternative mode of interpretation — intuition, perhaps? But the reason I studied this particular aspect of the folklore is that it is replete with evidence, and evidence lends itself to analysis better than hunches or intuition. One objective of the serious scholar, it seems to me, is to find likely subjects, ones where there is enough evidence to base an argument on. I have had several fruitless discussions with television directors who wanted me to tell them not just more about the vampire lore than I know, but more than can even be known. “What about the really early stuff?” one woman kept asking. “What about the Paleolithic?”

But we simply don't have any clear evidence from the Paleolithic. The literary evidence, going from present to past, continues to change subtly until finally you would be hard put to identify the “vampire” phenomenon at all. Early Greek views of the dead have much in common with the later vampire lore, but no one would identify Patroclus as a “vampire” simply because he appears to Achilles after his own death. And the early archaeological evidence is often ambiguous: People may put slabs of stone over graves either to keep the dead from returning or to keep animals from digging into a grave.

The fact is, no one leaves documents around explaining the things that everyone knows. It is only much later that it occurs to anyone to wonder about those things — when it is too late, and they are no longer known. So we will almost surely never know anything about the origins of the vampire lore. The most we can know is that by the eighteenth century the vampire was a certifiably dead body that was believed to retain a kind of life and had to be “killed” in order to prevent it from killing other people. And, of course, we now know that the misconceptions about the folklore have proved to be more viable than the folklore itself.

Note

  1. There are other correlations here that I've dealt with in detail in a book: Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Paul Barber

Paul Barber is a research associate with the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California, Los Angeles 90024-1549, and author of Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality.