The history of vampires: How fiction overtook fact

The late Christopher Lee’s Dracula is one of the most famous portrayals of a vampire. (Universal pic)

Apart from ghosts and demons, the vampire is one of the most popular creatures of the supernatural. But why is that? How did vampires turn their image around from being rotting, shambling corpses to charming, handsome predators?

Stories of bloodsucking creatures of the night have been around as long as civilisation. These stories can be found in different cultures across the globe, with each having its own spin on the vampire.

They look nothing like the current popular image of vampires, with a cloak and fangs. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Lamashtu was a creature with a lion’s head and a donkey’s body. The Greeks feared the Striges, which were essentially bloodthirsty birds.

The Chinese Jiangshi hops about looking for victims. (Golden Harvest pic)

Malay culture has the Pontianak and the Penanggalan, a disembodied woman’s head floating around trailing its entrails. The Filipinos have a similar creature, called Manananggal, though this creature at least has her upper torso.

Old Chinese people sometimes scare youngsters with tales of the Jiangshi, reanimated corpses that hop about and survive on devouring the qi of their victims. In Australia, the Aborigines tell stories of the Yara-ma-yha-who, a dwarf-like creature with an enlarged head and mouth that could suck blood through its hands and feet.

Almost every culture has its own version of a bloodsucking ghoul, with its own distinct characteristics. But they all share one common characteristic — they survive by consuming a living being’s life force.

No matter how their looks and abilities or weaknesses change, that feature remains a constant.

Vlad Dracula, a Romanian ruler, is said to be the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. (Pinterest pic)

But most often when vampires are mentioned, one thinks of handsome, charming men with flowing capes and fangs. Why is that? The idea that vampires are undead creatures capable of shape-shifting can largely be attributed to Eastern European folklore and history.

In the 18th century, stories of vampire attacks were common in Eastern Europe. Without proper medical knowledge, many people believed evil spirits caused disease and death.

This lack of scientific knowledge would complicate matters when people started digging up corpses to check if the deceased were really vampires. What they found seemed to confirm it, with corpses having long fingernails and hair, bloated stomachs and bloodstained mouths.

Romania’s Bran Castle is sometimes referred to as Dracula’s Castle. (Pixabay pic)

Jumping to the conclusion that these corpses were really vampires, many people overreacted by desecrating them. Common practices to prevent these supposed vampires from terrorising the living included decapitation, cremation and nailing the body to the coffin so the vampire couldn’t rise.

Today, most of these physical changes can be explained by science as they are just common signs of decomposition. Decomposing skin dehydrates, causing hair and fingernails to extend, while stomach gases cause the organ to balloon, which causes blood and other internal matter to emerge through the mouth.

But a couple of hundred years ago, people did not have this knowledge and continued their attempts to keep vampires from rising from the grave.

In Austria, the problem was so endemic that Empress Maria Theresa sent out her doctor to educate people on the matter, before banning the desecration of corpses.

Modern-day vampires are often portrayed as tragic, attractive figures, such as Twilight’s Edward Cullen. (Summit Entertainment pic)

Although people stopped digging up the dead, tales of vampires remained popular, even more so after the release of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula in1897. Stoker based his legendary character largely on the historical Transylvanian ruler, Vlad Dracula, and he was inspired by Eastern European beliefs about vampires.

Hence, the popular association of Transylvania with vampires, the powers of garlic to repulse vampires and hammering a stake into the heart to kill them.

He also made up some ideas about vampires that would be incorporated into other people’s work, including vampires being sensitive to sunlight, fearing religious symbols and having no reflection.

Perhaps this is why vampires are immortal. It seems the living cannot stop making up new stories about these bloodsucking ghouls, even now.

If this generation’s version of vampires is endowed with sparkling skin, one must wonder what the next generation of vampires will look like.