Vampire folklore within the British Isles is surprisingly scarce, this is mainly due to the fact that the contemporary image of a vampire (a charismatic bloodsucker with a black cape, a mesmerising stare, and a penchant for nubile young women; plus an aversion to holy water, garlic and crosses.) is relatively recent, being the result of Hollywood portrayals of vampires, and the gothic Hammer House Horror productions of the 1960’s. The word vampire only came into the English language in 1732, its image developing in fictional works culminating in Bram Stoker’s powerful novel Dracula. The main focus of vampire lore comes from Eastern Europe although variants of the vampire are found throughout the world. The real roots of the vampire are based on a mixture of early beliefs and folklore concerning death, the dead and disease.
Traditions and Folklore important to the Vampire Myth
In many ancient societies there are dark traditions associated with the dead and with corpses, which have their reflection in vampire beliefs. The return of a phantom from beyond the grave is a common motif in most cultures, but folklore also tells of animated corpses returning in the small hours, and spreading disease to the living population. In many of these stories the dead person has committed some cardinal sin and is unrepentant on their deathbed. Some tales even mention that the corpse had fed on the blood of the local population, an echo passed right through to the modern vampire myth.
The bodies of those driven to suicide, or those who had died on the gallows were thought to be vulnerable to such nocturnal meanderings, and were often buried at crossroads to confuse their restless souls. Some burials have even been discovered pinned to the ground with stakes. Other people at risk of returning from the dead were those accused of witchcraft, those under a curse, and those who had been attacked by suspected vampires. The short period before a corpses burial was also deemed dangerous, for it was believed that if a cat jumped over the corpse, or the full moon shone upon it through a window, then it would return from the grave.
Protections against vampires were numerous, and have their echoes in other folklore. Iron was thought to repel them, just as it was thought to repel many supernatural creatures. Garlic was also thought to be useful deterrent, probably because it was thought to have medicinal properties (it was also used during plague outbreaks) and was also a repellent for other denizens of the otherworld.
The drinking of blood is an important part of vampire folklore, and is a substance that is subject to taboos and superstition through out the world. It was believed that blood held the life force of a creature. To drink it was to absorb that life force and sometimes the attributes of the unwilling donor. This has obvious parallels with a vampire drinking the blood of the living to gain continued life.
Some British Folktales
There are a number of British folktales recorded by medieval chroniclers (recorded as factual at the time), which have a very vampiric flavour. William of Newburgh, a monk and chronicler who wrote in the twelfth century, describes an incident in the county of Buckinghamshire, where a recently deceased man returned from beyond the grave. He came in the form of a spectre appearing before his widow and other relatives; to combat this they stayed up during the night and made noises to frighten him away. This only made matters worse, as he began walk in the daylight hours. The Bishop of Lincoln became involved, and seeking advice on how to stop it was told that the body of the man would have to be burned. The bishop ordered the body to be exhumed, whereupon it was found to be as fresh as the day he had been buried. After the body had been cremated the haunting ceased.
A similar tale is told of Berwick, which has became known as the ‘Vampire of Berwick’ (obviously after 1732) although the vampire in this case bears no resemblance to the modern concept. The vampire was the ghost of a local wealthy man with a bad reputation who had died sinful, probably of the plague, which periodically flared in the towns and villages of Britain in the Middle Ages. He was buried in un-consecrated ground, and was soon spotted roaming the town as a pale phantom, accompanied by a pack of spectral hounds. The townsfolk became so alarmed at the disease-spreading spectre, that a small group of volunteers were directed to exhume the body, cut it into pieces and then burn it, which we can assume put the peoples minds at rest. At Melrose Abbey in Scotland another corpse of a nightwalker, who had been a priest with a penchant for hunting was burned to stop his nocturnal meanderings.
Other British folklore suggests belief in creatures that are very vampire like: In Highland tradition some of the remote glens were thought to be haunted by a particularly dangerous female spirit called the Boabhan Sith (A similar root to the Banshee of Ireland). One story tells how a group of young men were attacked while staying at a remote bothan, the similarity with this and the image of a more modern vampire being obvious.
Another famous story is that of the Croglin Vampire, collected by Augustus Hare in the 19th century at a wedding party. There is a distinct possibility that the story was fabricated at the time to impress the guests, but recent research suggests that the story may be older.
An Austrian Tale
Some of the aforementioned British stories echo the more famous tale of Arnold Paole from Austria, which was recorded in an Austrian Army Officers account from the 1700’s, and is one of the earliest stories about a supposed vampire. Arnold was attacked by a vampire while walking through a graveyard in the dead of night; he managed to track the vampire to its grave, cut its head off with a spade, and ate some of the grave dirt in an attempt to ward off the vampires curse, namely that he would become a vampire himself.
When he returned to his village all was well for a few years until Arnold broke his neck in a fall from a hay cart. After his interment strange things began to happen, people spoke of seeing Arnold wandering the village in the dark hours, and some of the villagers were discovered dead in the mornings after these sightings, apparently drained of all blood. These incidents could only lead to the speculation that Arnold had succumbed to the vampires curse. The rumours came to the ears of the Austrian army, who were sent to investigate. Arnold body was exhumed and found to be un-decayed, fresh blood was found to be flowing from the mouth, eyes and nose, and fresh skin and nails had grown. They quickly set to the grim task of destroying what they believed to be an undead, and drove a stake through the heart of the corpse, which let out and audible groan and bled from the wound as though it were alive.
Disease and Natural Effects
In the past when little was known about the mechanisms of diseases, especially infectious diseases and those that strike without warning, it was easy to blame them on some supernatural entity, which could become the focus for everyone’s grief. Also in stressful and dangerous times such as plague outbreaks, superstition and strange beliefs must have held a strong sway over fearful minds.
Many of the attributes looked for in a vampire grave: bloated well-fed bodies with long nails and blood red skin, are related to the natural effects of decomposition. Gases build up in the body causing it to become bloated, the blood breaks down to give a deep red appearance, and skin shrinks back to make nails, teeth and hair appear longer than in life. Driving a stake through a body would lead to the rupture of gases and gore as though the body were still alive, the noise perhaps being mistaken for a groan or death sigh, especially with the hysteria that would be produced during such a supposed epidemic.
The Vampire in Literature
The strongest tradition about vampires exists in central Europe, where the first printed accounts of vampires appeared from the 17th century onwards, indeed the vampires of Eastern Europe were thought to have run amok during the 18th century, which has a parallel with the witch mania of Western Europe.
The real emergence of the vampire into common knowledge came with its appearance in the pages of fiction. The 1819 novel Vampyre – by Doctor John Polidori – Lord Byron’s physician – was the first vampire of British fiction, then came Varney the Vampire written by Thomas Pecket Prest in 1847, as a series of Penny Dreadfuls, and then Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897. Dracula – originally entitled The Undead – was based on the bloodthirsty Vlad VI, known as ‘Vlad the Impaler’ for his gruesome penchant of impaling his enemies on sharpened spikes. Vlad ruled in Transylvania during the 15th century.
Stoker brought together many seperate strands of folklore for his book, and is responsible for defining the image of the vampire, which remains to this day. A few places in Britain will now forever be associated with Dracula, especially Whitby with its gothic abbey ruins, the place where Dracula came ashore as a black hound. Stoker had probably heard about the black dog that was supposed to haunt the cliffs of Whitby and utilised the legend for his novel.
Today the popularity of the vampire in fictional portrayal is greater than ever before, there is a long list of recent films about their nocturnal exploits, and the cult series Buffy has done much to bring the myth into contemporary focus. In some ways these portrayals may add to the myth, although if Buffy is anything to go by modern vampires are best subdued with a stunning roundhouse kick to the head. Of course Buffy is all in fun but there is also a dark side, with some recent murders having been linked with people delving into dark vampiric tendencies and preoccupations.