Interestingly, the quintessential defense against vampires does not, as many people believe, have its roots in Christianity. Accounts of crossed sticks being used to ward off vampire attacks pre-date the Crucifixion by many hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. In pre-historic times, it was impossible for constantly migrating tribes of hunter-gatherers to carry their dead along with them. As a matter of practicality, deceased tribe members were buried, or exposed to scavengers and the elements in some cultures, fairly close to the spot where they died. However, once humans discovered agriculture and began settling into fixed locations, people had the newfound luxury of keeping their deceased relatives close.
Yet they did not want the bodies to be located too close.
Our predecessors may not have known precisely why sharing space with a corpse often led to disease but, through observation, they knew that it did. Moreover, because evolution has genetically programmed homo sapiens to have an aversion for cadaverine and putrescene, the gases produced by mortal decay, the stench from a decaying corpse would have rendered the home uninhabitable. Most early cemeteries, therefore, were located on the outskirts of towns, able to be reached easily but far enough away to protect nearby villagers from unpleasant smells and the sheer grossness of having to watch a relative decay in close proximity.
They were generally not so far away, however, to prevent the returning dead from seeking out their surviving family members and preying on them, or so the common thinking held. Though the distance might be short, it was direct; the vampire need only rise from his grave and follow the road to his former home. How could this be prevented?
Early agricultural societies came up with an elegant, if naive, solution. They simply made sure that there was always a crossroads located between the population center and the burial grounds. Their reasoning was simple. When the vampire rose from his grave, lusting for the blood of his surviving relatives, he would reach the crossroads and become confused as to which way to go. Torn with indecision, he would most likely return, frustrated, to his grave. More determined fiends would still only have a one-in-three chance of choosing the proper root. Our ancestors seemed to feel that any increase in protection, even a one-third chance, was better than none at all.
But what of the unlucky traveler who encountered a hungry vampire with no crossroads in sight? Here, principles of sympathetic magic come into play, the primitive belief that a representation of an object was the functional equivalent of the object itself, possessing the same properties and having the same effect. Absent a handily located crossroads, people began to rely on the symbol of the crossroads for protection against the undead, specifically two crossed sticks tied together. With the advent of Christianity, it was inevitable that the crucifix replaced the simpler cross, and an element of Divine protection entered into the equation.
The final apotropaic, and the one modern movie-going audiences are most familiar with, is the coming of dawn. Sunlight, Hollywood tells us, is the sure-fire, best way to destroy the vampire forever. Unfortunately, from an anthropological point of view, those who might rely on the coming of dawn to protect them against the foul bloodsucking fiend would be sorely disappointed. Prior to the Twentieth Century, there is little support in the relevant folklore than sunlight has any deleterious effect on vampires whatsoever. How, then, did sunlight as the ultimate atropopaic become so firmly ingrained in modern vampire lore?
Even as late as Stoker’s Dracula in 1897, the Count is able to walk the streets of London in broad daylight. But by 1922, with Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized film of the Stoker novel, everything changed. The images Murnau created were so powerful, and resonated so deeply with audiences, that his addition to the legend instantly became part of the vampire canon.
Murnau’s film illustrates a fascinating wrinkle on the nature of folklore itself. In earlier times, legends had their roots in people’s beliefs, in their observations of the world around them and their struggle to understand it better. But, with the advent of film, and with the proliferation of mass media in general, a different phenomenon began to emerge. For the first time in history, it became possible for pervasive legends to be created instantly, out of whole cloth, springing without precedent from the creativity of screen writers and other artists.
Culturally, folklore has moved away from what used to pass as primitive science to whatever Hollywood film-makers want it to be. The Slender Man, the zombie as an eater-of-brains, the silver bullet that dispatches werewolves: each of these is a creation which sprang fully fleshed from movie screens or the contrivances of the internet. None have any foundation in traditional folklore.
Thus will the fiction of today become the folklore of tomorrow. We can expect to see rapid changes to the vampire trope that will quickly become virtually inseparable from the classic mythology in the popular mind. So ingrained will these new ideas become that it is quite possible that our great grandchildren will dismiss, as quaint and obsolete, any vampire who does not sparkle!
Hal Bodner is an active member of Horror Writers Association (HWA) where he is a multiple time Bram Stoker Award Nominee. He is also a member of International Thriller Writers (ITW),
Mystery Writers of America (MWA), and
The Authors’ Guild.