Chapter One: The Origins behind the Myth: The Evolution of a Legacy
“The word ‘vampire’, in its written form first appeared in the eleventh century as a scribbled note in a manuscript in the book of Psalms, This was translated by a humble priest for a Novgorodian prince, Vladimir Yaroslavovich, In this note the priest addresses the prince as ‘upir lichyj’ (a ‘wicked vampire’). Given the lowly position of the priest to the prince it is highly unlikely to be a criticism. The derivation of the word ‘vampire’ is uncertain but theorists believe it comes from various Indo- European words for the verb to fly.” (Montague, C (2010:p18))
The vampire myth it has been argued could have developed with the misunderstanding of death and the decomposition of the bodies in the middle ages, as the corpses were normally laid out for everyone to witness, but folk lore tales date back much earlier than this and have stemmed from societies superstitions of the unknown. The idea of something dying and coming back to life to prey on the living has said to of been derived from old religion of Slavic times and ancient folklore when Christian imagery described hell and the rise of the devil. The stories of horror and eye witness accounts would have come from the people/peasants within that society at the time seeing their loved ones die from illness like plague and tuberculosis, also seeing nature at its greatest like witnessing bats sucking blood from cattle or wolves devouring their latest catch, these things would have been imbedded into their everyday lives creating fears of the unknown. It all comes down to the lack of education and dire living conditions people of this time would have had to endure.
“Such superstitions were based on ignorance and fear; for the most part, stories told by uneducated peasant communities about the frightening, cruel, and brutal conditions of life around them, and which they had little scientific knowledge about. However, these stories also expressed some deep-rooted, and understandable, anxieties about a world in which their needs, their individual circumstances, and their common humanity were often ignored. For that reason, these stories are still powerful today.” (Montague, C (2010:p18))
Folklore is stories passed on throughout the ages changing slightly becoming more exaggerated each time it’s told within different cultures. There are reportedly vampire legends and stories all over the world within different culture but all seem to carry the same fear of drinking blood. Recent finding have indicated there is another form of vampire called a ‘psychic’ vampire which drains energy from its victims rather than blood. Some may find the idea a little strange to say the least given the unusual theories surrounding vampire myth but with vampirism one should keep an open mind to the possibilities as this creature has endured many transformations throughout the ages. One theorist in particular Konstantinos has indicated an interest in uncovering the truth behind ‘psychic’ vampires and within his book Vampires: The Occult Truth he claims to have met ‘psychic’ vampires and helped people who have suffered at the hands of such a creature. “A psychic vampire is a creature, in either human or phantom-like form that feeds on psychic energy. What do I mean by “psychic energy”? It’s been known by many names in different cultures and time periods- Orgone Energy, Odic Force, Bioplasma, Chi and Prana to name a few. Whatever it’s called, the energy is what seems to keep us alive and well; think of it as our life force.”(Konstantinos (2002:p126)) This idea could be criticised as being farfetched or it could just be added to the extensive vampire list of new interpretations. The idea that vampires live among us is not a new theory many books have been written indicating the existence or the belief of certain individuals within history who could be bestowed with the title of vampire.
One name in particular is brought up frequently within vampire studies and this is Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) of Hungary, the infamous “Blood Countess” legend has it Bathory slaughtered virginal maidservants and bathed in their blood as she believed this helped her maintain youthful looks. Bathory was put on trial accused of witch craft this lead to the execution of two of her maidservants but she escaped the same fate as them being of noble blood. Bathory was locked away with her only access to the outside world being an air vent where food was passed through. Bathory is believed to have murdered over six hundred and fifty women but as with much of the information passed down throughout history the amount of people who were slain could all be fabrication passed down through folk tales. There is apparently a diary which has been kept in Hungarian state archives but this diary has never been published and its existence is highly doubted. It is tales like the one of Elizabeth Bathory which has been bred into the imagination of people. Given the lack of education and the fear of the unknown, stories like the one of the “Blood Countess” would have haunted them. It is only now that society is more aware of what certain people and animals are capable of. With the discovery of science and substantial proven evidence that we can understand the things which we once feared can now be investigated and analysed.
One could suggest that with the lack of education and the harsh living conditions people once endured they were more likely to believe anything and pass down their fears and anxieties through generations, giving us the folklore stories we see today within text books and media. During the eighteen hundreds the need to uncover the truth behind the existence of vampires became a focal point for many. There were reports of vampire epidemics circling around Eastern Europe and spread westwards towards England and Germany, these tales of vampire sightings and superstitions were brought back with travellers and soldiers who told fascinated audiences tales of their experiences.
“Throughout much of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were reports of vampire epidemics in Eastern Europe, the first in Istria in 1672, followed by Prussia (1710, 1721, 1750), Hungry (1725-30), Silistria (1755), Wallachia (1756) and ending in Russia in 1772...The scale and longevity of these reports caused a considerable amount of interest among the great thinkers of the period. On 1 November 1765 the ‘Gazette des Gazettes’ put forward a challenge to the scientific community to ‘provide conclusive evidence’ against vampires and settle the argument for good. (Beresford, M (2009:p99))
Unfortunately for the scientific minds of the time society was reluctant to let go of the superstition and mythology surrounding the origins of the vampire. Many saw the scientist’s investigations as ridiculous and unnecessary. It wasn’t until great philosophers of the time began to ridicule the notion of the vampire being real that people started listening. Voltaire (1694-1778) author and philosopher of the time argued against the prospect of the existence of vampires believing the only true vampires were the churchmen draining the resources from the land and people. It was around this time when people were questioning religion and the moral order of the country with the advancement of science and the vast growing world of the industrial revolution.
“What! Vampires in our Eighteenth Century? Yes...In Poland, Hungry, Silesia, Moravia, Austria and Lorraine ...There was no talk of vampires in London, or even Paris [The] true bloodsuckers did not live in cemeteries, they preferred great places ...Kings are not, properly speaking, vampires. The true vampires are the churchmen who eat at the expense of the king and the people.” -Voltaire (Beresford, M (2009:p113))
The eighteenth century saw the raise of gothic era were ghouls and creatures that stalk the night became a focal point for many aspiring writers who could allow their imaginations to explore new boundaries of literature.
It is no secret that the Victorians had a morbid fascination with death and graveyards. This was the century were the vampire was born within literature and progressed into the iconic legend we see in today’s popular culture.
The first story which is said to of made an impact into vampire literature was John William Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’. This was a short story published within ‘The New Monthly Magazine’ in 1819. Polidori was physician and companion to the infamous ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron. ‘The Vampyre’ envisions a Lord Ruthven a villainous and spoilt aristocrat who preys on the ruling class, charming and swooning women, feeding off them to survive once he has them lusting after him. This tale is believed to be a revival of a short story Lord Byron had constructed in 1816 but never finished, Polidori made some changes to Byron’s creation starting with the name Ruthven. In Byron’s version the lead was called Darvell a heroic young aristocrat who voyages to Turkey only to return to England to die in a cemetery vowing to rise from the dead. Obviously with Byron’s influence Polidori saw the appeal of this story and decided to carry the tale on. By the time ‘The Vampyre’ was published Polidori’s and Byron had parted ways, this was after Byron had discovered Polidori’s had been commissioned to keep diaries of his exploits, after a series of rows between the pair Byron fired Palidori. The lead character Lord Ruthven is said to of been based on Lord Byron arrogant, greedy, dangerous and a predator of women.
It could be argued that Polidori in his own envious rage created monster which would unfortunately cause his own demise. The ironic thing about Polidori’s creation was he didn’t gain recognition for ‘The Vampyre’ it was published under Byron’s name and because of Byron’s reputation and stature of that time the story was released as a book and became an immediate best seller. It could also be argued that the likeness the lead character had to Byron could indicate why still today the male vampire seem to prey more on women. Vampires of folklore stories didn’t distinguish between sexes; Polidori gave the vampire a guise to fool its victims with using charm and good lucks to draw his victims, the vampire in Polidori’s story is the victor this idea will be reversed later on with Bram Stokers Dracula were good defeats evil. Understanding Polidori’s story it is easy to see were Stoker formed the basis for his creation eight decades later.
“In spite of the deadly hue of his face, which never gained a warmer tint, either from the blush of modesty, or from the strong emotion of passion, though its form and outline were beautiful, many of the female hunters after notoriety attempted to win his attentions...” (Jackson, K (2009:p33))
The more sympathetic vampire was created in 1847 by James Malcolm Rymer with ‘Varney the Vampire’ this was over 850 pages long and stemmed to 237 chapters in a series of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. Rymer had taken the idea from Polidori’s Lord Ruthven and changed the character making him more relatable to folkloric ideas of the vampire giving the character gaunt features, sharp pointed teeth and bone like hands which were similar to the stories of the un-dead heard of within folklore tales. Rymer also played on the conscience of the character, portraying guilt after turning one of his female victims.
“I thought that I had steeled my heart against all gentle impulses,” he laments after turning a young girl into a vampire, “that I had crushed –aye, completely crushed dove-eyed pity in my heart, but it’s not so, and still sufficient of my once human feelings clings to me to make me grieve for thee.” (Jenkins, M (2010:p82))
Varney commits suicide mercilessly by throwing himself into the crater of a volcano to prevent his remains from re-animating. He does this because he is disgusted and sickened by his lack of self control and the atrocities he has inflicted on his innocent victims. One could suggest that with the influence of Polidori’s Byronic interpretation and Rymer’s more sympathetic approach Stoker had the beginning of his infamous count. Stoker’s Dracula is the epitome of eighteenth century gothic literature that has set the bar for the interpretations of vampires we see in today’s popular culture. Stoker grew up in Ireland as a sickly child bed bound by his illness. His mother told him tales of Irish folklore and ghost stories. Stoker as an adult worked within the theatre becoming manager for Henry Irving the sought after actor of the time, he grew very fond of his boss and would work long hours for him, his only escape being the quaint little fishing village of Whitby in Yorkshire, it was here were Stoker found the premise for his masterpiece. Dracula took Stoker seven years to write as he spent time researching the premise of his book studying folklore and other stories surrounding the vampire, Stoker kept journals and notes on his findings including times tables of trains. Stoker would have been well aware of the fears felt within society at the time, possibly feeling the same fears himself. The industrial revolution was advancing fast and people who once looked to the church and religion to find solace were starting to question their beliefs with the advancement of science and the vast growing technology, the very morality of society was being scrutinised.
“The people had always looked to religion to feel safe and now with the advancement in science and the introduction to a new vast growing world made society sit up and question the religious doctrine which had formed the basis of moral and social order for centuries.” (Spark notes (2011))
Dracula re-invented the vampire myth introducing death by sunlight, steaks, crosses and the conception that Count Dracula did not cast a reflection in a mirror, this was also the first time the vampire had been seen to transform into animals and weather elements bat, wolf, mist etc. The story unfolds through different characters journals, diaries, notes and letters this gives the impression of multiple narrators throughout and can be classed as being written as an epistolary were the reader becomes a detective; This made Dracula seem biographical rather than a fictional novel making the reader believe that the contents were true accounts of real people. It could be believed that this was Stokers clever idea to bringing to life his monster (Count Dracula) to give the unsuspecting reader a cause for thought on the true existence of this sinister fictional character, Others could argue that Dracula is autobiographical and Stoker was writing down his true thoughts within the book but being a good Victorian kept them hidden within the narrative. Stoker had used his vast research of Romanian mythology, and had discovered a piece of Transylvanian history surrounding a prince Vlad Dracula in the 1400’s it has been said that Prince Vlad impaled his enemies on poles thus earning him the tile of ‘Vlad the impaler’. Stoker had also discovered the term ‘Dracula’ as being Wallachian for ‘devil’ although this has been discovered to be an incorrect assumption (Karg, Spaite, Sutherland (2009:p70)).
It was Prince Vlad’s medieval castle in Transylvania which became the setting for the Counts dwelling within the novel and later on the name which has turned Stokers masterpiece into a legacy. The original title for Dracula was The Un-dead but he changed it just before publication. One could suggest that the name change has influenced the books success and it could have turned out very different if Stoker had stuck to the original title. The book was released in 1897 unfortunately for Stoker he never gained satisfactory recognition for his novel within his lifetime he died in 1912 in the same week as the Titanic. One thing is for certain Dracula definitely didn’t die with him and still survives within today’s popular culture Bram Stokers masterpiece will live on for an eternity (like its lead character) and be re-invented time and time again.