The History of Vampires

March 9, 2011
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Who hasn't heard of Twilight or the Vampire Diaries? Vampire's are a big part of media programs and the like...especially for teens. So as the rest of us sit here and suffer with the obsessive love of Twilight, I though why not take a look at how this whole vampire thing started. No, not the how Stephanie Meyer first published Twilight, but how mankind came up with the idea of vampires. Twilight wasn't the beginning of vampire obsessions, nor the end of them. The interest in vampires and creatures like them have gone back, not only hundreds, but thousands of years.

Traditional vampires are creatures that crave the life essence or blood of living humans and suck the blood using their fangs. They're considered the undead since they were once human beings, transformed into vampires by the bite of another vampire. They can take the form of different animals, the most famous example being bats. They're considered immortal, even though they do have weaknesses. You've probably heard of the "stake through the heart" thing and that direct sunlight will kill them, or turn them into dust. They're also afraid of holy water, crucifixes and garlic.

If we look at some ancient origins of vampire-like creatures, we can discover that they date back to at least 4,000 years. For example the ancient Assyrians believed in a demon goddess named Lamashtu. She was depicted as a woman with wings, long talons and sometimes with the head of a lion. According to myths, she liked to suck the blood of young men.

A monster from Greek mythology named Lamia, was a human woman on top and had the lower body of a snake. In one story, she was one of Zeus' lovers (when she was fully human, she later turned into the monster), and when Hera found out she made Lamia insane. Lamia ended up eating all of her children during this insanity period and when she saw what she had done, she was angry and turned into her monster state. She ended up going around sucking the blood from children because she was jealous of their mothers.

Over the years these various myths and stories mixed together as the different cultures meet and did a "story swap" mixing elements from all the myths to come up with different creatures. The more modern kind of vampires showed up around the medieval or 12th century in Eastern Europe, but the really vampire frenzy showed up sometime in the 18th century.

Around that time many people (including government officials) investigated possible vampires and went out on vampire hunts. Throughout this time period, the bodies of people who were suspected vampires, were being dug up and were either destroyed by decapitation, or by driving a stake through its heart. Other methods of containing potential vampires was to bury the person upside down so that when they tried to dig themselves out, they would actually be digging themselves deeper into the ground. Another method was to secure stakes in the coffin so when the vampire moved around, it would impale its self. This hysteria inspired the Irish author Bram Stoker to write the famous novel Dracula.

Bram Stoker's work, Dracula, was really one of the turning points for the modern vampire. Whereas some of the medievel vampire's were supposedly fasinated by their own reflection, Bram Stoker's main character, Count Dracula, had no reflection. Count Dracula was also weakened by sunlight, was very intelligent and was repelled by crucifixes.

Believe it or not, but Count Dracula was inspired by an actual person: Prince Vladislav Basarab. The prince ruled Wallachia (now a part of Romania), in the mid 1400s. His father was known as Vlad Dracul (which means Vlad the dragon, or Vlad the devil) because of his involvement with The Order of the Dragon. Prince Vladislav Basarab was sometimes called Vlad Dracula (son of Dracul), which is probably where Stoker got the name for his villainous character, but was more often called Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler, because of his preference for impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes. The prince had a reputation for being extremely brutal and Bram Stoker stole the prince's status for his character. However, the real Dracula and Stoker's character were not too similar, and there isn't much evidence that anyone believe Vladislav Basarab was a vampire.

Another noble, Elizabeth Bathory, was actually believed to have been a vampire. According to, Bathory "was terrified of aging, and became convinced that bathing in blood (and perhaps consuming it) was the secret to maintaining a youthful appearance". Because of this belief she tortured and killed hundreds of people, mostly young women. She was convicted of these crimes, and was imprisoned in a small room in her castle. She later died in imprisonment.

Scientists, as well as a variety of specialists, have a lot of theories as to how people came to believe in vampires, and how the vampire legends were created. One theory revolves around a rare disease known as porphyria. Basically, porphyria is when the production of heme (an iron-rich pigment in blood) is irregular. In severe cases, people with the disease can be highly sensitive to sunlight, have severe abdominal pain, and could suffer from acute delirium. Porphyria can cause someone to have reddish mouth and teeth. It is also hereditary, which could mean a large number of people with porphyria could be found within an area (a possible vampire family, perhaps?). Some believe that in the past, a possible treatment for the disease was to drink blood, but this has yet to be proven. It is also believed that Elizabeth Bathory may have suffered from this condition.

Catalepsy could be another disease (though technically catalepsy is a physical condition) that inspired vampirism. Catalepsy is associated with epilepsy and schizophrenia; disorders that affect the central nervous system. A person who has a cataleptic episode can "freeze up". Their body becomes still, and the heart rate and respiration slow down. It's possible that someone could mistake a cataleptic person for a corpse, especially since a cataleptic episode can last for hours, or even days. It's possible in the past that a person suffering from the condition could have been buried, only to wake up and have to dig themselves out of their own grave. Not only that, but if the person had something similar to schizophrenia, their odd behavior could be associated with vampires.

We can't be entirely sure of how the notion of vampires was created. Unfortunately, we don't have a time machine that could take us back in time, and even if we did, vampires could have been created due to a variety of oddities over several hundreds of years. Who knows, maybe vampires started as an ancient horror story by an older brother or sister, in order to scare their little siblings.

However the idea of vampires started, it still fascinates us, and I highly doubt that the obsession with them will die out any time soon.

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