A corpse-pale hand parts the balcony curtains and a sinister figure creeps toward the canopied bed. Blazing red eyes fix on the virgin in her white gown. Bloody drool drips from bared fangs as the horrid creature inexorably approaches. The maiden’s eyes flutter open, but before she can scream, the horror is upon her. His fangs pierce the tender flesh of her throat and it is too late. The dreaded vampire has claimed another victim.
The scenario is a common one, common enough to have become a cliche. Yet vampires, whether they be foul creatures risen from the grave, irresistibly attractive aristocrats in tuxedos and capes, or bloodless barely pubescent teens who sparkle, continue to fascinate us. Where did this blood-sucking creature originate? Why are we so transfixed by stories of the undead, risen from the grave to prey on us when we are most vulnerable?
Many experts consider John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) to be the first full-length work of prose on the subject. But that was far from the vampire’s first appearance in literature. In the century and a half prior to Polidori’s novel, the undead had been the subject of poetry by such renowned writers as Goethe (Die Braut von Korinth) and Coleridge (Christobel). In fact, the vampire made cameo appearances in longer works of fiction as far back as Homer’s The Odyssey, where Odysseus summons the dead prophet Teiresias back to a semblance of life by offering him a few sips of fresh blood. Even early Judeo-Christian mythology tells of a vampire in the form of Lilith, a Sumerian demon who drank the blood of children.
Obviously then, the vampire is old; just how old is uncertain. We know only that a creature returning from death to steal some essence from living folk is one of the earliest supernatural archetypes in folklore. Only ghost stories, in which some element of a person’s essence lingers after death, predate it. Scholars have found traces of the bloodsucking fiend in 4,000 year old cuneiform writings of Ancient Assyria, and there is evidence of its existence even earlier in oral folk tradition.
If figuring out when the vampire originated is difficult, determining whyhumanity felt the need to create it is even trickier. Some folklorists follow mythologist Joseph Campbell and believe it is an archetype that is irrevocably fixed within the human psyche. Others speculate that the legends are unsophisticated attempts to describe illnesses like porphyria, rabies or anemia. In recent years, however, modern scholars have begun to marry the already closely related fields of anthropology and biohistory to help search for the vampire’s origins, and to better understand its development in folklore.
Though most people are already acquainted with anthropology, the nature of the biohistorians work may require some explanation. Put simply, biohistory is an analysis of the past from a biological perspective. For example, a biohistorian might explore how the Great Plague triggered the end of feudalism, or why Europeans arriving in the Americas brought with them diseases that wiped out the existing civilizations, and why it didn’t happen the other way around. Many anthropologists and biohistorians believe that the vampire emerged from the struggle of early human societies to understand some of the complex processes surrounding death, specifically decomposition and transmission of disease.
To fully appreciate how the vampire legend might have come into being, we must understand that, not only did our ancestors lack the benefits of modern scientific knowledge, but their very thought processes differed wildly from ours. We need to adjust our perception to see the world in the same ways our distant predecessors saw it, a world full of magic and spirits. At least temporarily, we must engage in a simplistic way of thinking that may seem illogical and alien to the 21st Century mentality.
Most people who lived prior to the industrial age lacked the fundamental capacity to understand their environment in a global sense. Today, for example, we know that excessive rainfall in the mountains can cause rivers to rise. But to someone who expected to live out their lives within a few miles of their birthplace, the world seemed much smaller. It was inconceivable to them that events on a distant mountain could affect local conditions, largely because their minds could not grasp any causative events happening beyond their immediate geographic sphere.