The University Record, October 29, 2001

Vampires: Devils of the Night

By Lesley Harding

Their black capes swirl in the night. Their jet-black hair starkly contrasts their ghostly white skin and ruby lips, and their smiles carry a devilish grin. The “Hollywood” vampire we know today is a whole lot of fiction, but to 19th century Serbia these evil creatures were fact.

The argument was not over whether vampires existed, but rather what to do with them, says John V.A. Fine Jr., professor of history. “They were simply a part of this world that children learned without question from their elders.”

Much of our current vampire history comes from age-old Eastern European myths. These legends originated in the Far East, and were transported along trade routes from places like China, Tibet and India.

Fine, author of In Defense of Vampires: Church/State Efforts to Stop Vigilante Action Against Vampires, says, “Vampires explained certain sudden and unusual events and, as blame was thrown on the dead, they produced a far more harmless scapegoat than when blame was thrown on the living like the witches in Serbia.” Evidence of a vampire included the death of cattle, sheep and even humans.

But what set a vampire apart from a human? Fine says an honest man could not become a vampire unless a bird or other living creature jumped or flew across his dead body. Other lore says a baby born with teeth or a tail was deemed a vampire. Those born out of wedlock, those who died an unnatural death or before being baptized were destined for vampirism. And, some legends even went as far as to say the seventh child of the same sex in a family and the child of a pregnant woman who didn’t eat salt were most certainly condemned to a vampire existence.

To detect a vampire, villagers led a black stallion without any spots or marks to a graveyard; whichever grave the horse refused to step on was that of a vampire’s. Some Eastern European countries opened graves three to seven years after a person’s death to check for vampirism. And, living vampires were detected by handing out garlic in church and seeing who didn’t eat it.

These early Europeans came up with many ways to prevent a person from becoming a vampire. A crucifix or branch from a wild rose bush was placed in the grave. Boiling water was poured over a grave or boiled wine poured through suspected vampires’ intestines. Bodies were pierced with stakes and thorns. And some myths had people placing millet or poppy seeds in the grave because vampires had a fascination with counting.

Vampire legend and lore ran rampant in the mid-centuries. Fine says belief in vampires “was not limited to the ignorant peasantry, but also widespread among the clergy.”

Modern day’s most notorious vampire is Bram Stoker’s, Count Dracula. This evil character was based on the life of Vlad the Impaler; a 15th-century ruler of what is now Romania. Vlad was an extremely cruel man who is said to have impaled as many as 15,000 people alive. He became known as Dracul because of his membership in Hungarian Kind Sigismund’s military organization, the Order of the Dragon (Dracul).