In today’s world of fictional vampires, the overwhelming image is that of a creature which looks like a Goth rock-star or an underweight supermodel. Anemic-looking skin, black clothes, and sunken cheeks are very much the order of the day. But, it wasn’t always like that. Centuries ago, vampires were far more monstrous than anything that the world of Hollywood prefers to get its teeth into – pardon the pun. And, similarly, while movie-makers might occasionally still present a vampire shapeshifting into a bat, according to legend, the vampire could take on the disguise of numerous animals. For the vast majority of people, vampires are nothing but fictional monsters designed to entertain and thrill. But, long before the fictional vampire became all-dominating, there was the real monster. Both ancient reality and modern fantasy have one thing in common: namely, the belief that vampires thrive and survive on blood, predominantly human blood, but also that of animals, too – a process called hematophagy. But, that is just about where the parallels start and finish.
It was in the early part of the 19th century when the vampire went from being a fairly obscure eastern European legend to a near-iconic piece of Gothic literature. No, we are not talking about Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula. Although it is widely perceived and acknowledged as the definitive vampire novel, Dracula was somewhat of a Johnny-come-lately: it was published in 1897. It was, however, in 1819 that the genre really began. That was the year in which John Polidori’s novel, The Vampyre, surfaced. And to great acclaim, too. What Polidori did, and that Stoker expanded on, was to cast the vampire in a totally new light. This begs the question: what was that light? Well, it sure as hell wasn’t the likes of Twilight and True Blood.
A careful study of ancient vampire lore and legend shows that tales of blood-drinking monsters date back millennia: they can be found in the stories and history of ancient Greece, of China, and of Japan. There’s also no doubt that Babylonian Lilith, a hideous and dangerous creature with a predilection for invading homes in the dead of night, was what, today, very few would hesitate to call a vampire: for her, however, it was male sperm, rather than blood, which she craved. Over millennia, they have had numerous names: Strigoi, Vrykolakas, Empusae, Lamiae, and Shtriga.
It was, however, the deadly creature of Eastern Europe, and specifically of the Middle Ages onward, that led to the development of what ultimately became today’s vampire. And, certainly, “vampire” is the term that has, for at least the last few centuries, really struck a chord – a term used to describe the terrifying blood-sucker in a 1734 publication, Travels of Three English Gentlemen. This is not surprising: history has shown that from the second decade of the 18th century onward, tales of blood-draining – and blood-drinking – monsters proliferated throughout Austria and Serbia, and with additional accounts coming out of Russia, Croatia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Western Europe soon fell victim to beliefs in vampires, too.
Dark tales told of frightened villagers digging up freshly-buried corpses in the dead of night. Wooden stakes were plunged into hearts that no longer beat, and garlic and crosses quickly became the key tools to thwarting the deadly and bloody reign of the undead. The vampires of the past were a grim and gruesome bunch, to be sure. Forget the rock-star look: centuries ago, the blood-drinkers were easily identified by their swollen, reddish-purple faces and their overweight bodies – appearances which were attributed to the vast amounts of human blood ingested during the average attack on an unfortunate victim or several. And there was not a mouthful of large incisors anywhere in sight.
The bat is the animal that most people – whether they believe in the existence of real vampires or not – associate with the vampire, when it comes to the matter of body-morphing. Hollywood has done a very good job of emphasizing that aspect of the controversy, above all others. But, if one takes a look at what was afoot in Eastern Europe in the 1700s, one sees a very different situation. It is a situation in which the vampire has the ability to take on the form of a veritable menagerie of creatures. The bat aside, a supernatural wolf was the vampire’s most favored form of creature to transform into – something which, to a degree, blurs the lines between the vampire and the shapeshifting werewolf, which was also a monster that plagued and terrified the people of Europe centuries ago. The ancient vampire was a creature very partial to the night sky: not only would it take to a star-filled sky in the guise of a bat, it could also control the minds of both moths and owls.
Cats, foxes, rats, and sometimes a large black dog, were all on the list when it came time for a vampire to change its appearance and to harness minds. The vampire was also able to increase its size and body-mass, effectively turning itself into a blood-drinking Goliath. Strangest of all, was the ability of the vampire to shift into a form of fog – usually a localized, but always dense and thick, fog. In view of this latter belief, it is not at all surprising that, hundreds of years ago, when the landscape became filled with mist and fog, fears that bands of vampires lurked within the inky depths abounded. Or, literally were the fearsome fog.
Today, the vampire is near-exclusively perceived as a creature of entertainment. Way back when, however, it was a monster of terrifying proportions – one which could change its shape as easily and as quickly as we might blink an eye.