Vampires -or Vampyres- have fascinated us mortals since prehistoric times. Though our reaction through the ages has swung from terror to curiosity to outright adoration, their presence as part of our shared consciousness is undeniable. In every culture on earth, Vampire tales have abounded from the beginning of time, and that trend shows no sign of fading-indeed, it’s getting stronger every day.
From Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) to Anne Rice’s enormously successful Interview with a Vampire in the 90s; from John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) to the much-anticipated release of Twilight, New Moon, brainchild of author Stephanie Meyer, it’s clear that vampirism has been a pet theme of entertainers and storytellers for centuries-and with good reason. We’ve devoured the books, we flock in droves to the movie theaters, and we invite vampires into every corner of our life with toys, decorative items, “bloody” recipes, clothing styles and vampire jewelry. Oh, how we love our dangerous undead.
Descended from the Ekimmu
Vampires weren’t always so suave, sexy, and intriguing, however. The earliest known reference to vampires is Sumerian and dates to 4,000 BC. The Ekimmu were spirits or demons who were not buried properly and vengefully returned to suck the life out of the living. These and similar precursors to our modern vampire myths predominated in ancient cultures such as the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. The entity which we’re familiar with today crystallized in early 18th Century South-eastern Europe, when verbal folklore from various ethnic groups was compiled, recorded, and published, roughing in the character sketch with details about blood-sucking fangs, coffins, bats, and an affinity for the night.
Even so, the vampires of the 18th century bear little resemblance to Bela Lugosi or Tom Cruise. Stoker’s original Dracula describes him as on old man with white hair, bushy eyebrows, long fingernails, a heavy mustache-and bad breath. And Stoker actually cleaned them up considerably-folklore holds that vampires initially appear as shapeless bags of blood that only take on human form after they’ve survived their first 40 days. Before Hollywood made vampires so darned likeable, they were horrific creatures, loathed and feared to the point of irrationality.
The terror that vampires inspired has led to some strange footnotes to history. The ancient standing stones that “guard” some graves in Northeast Europe are suspected to be early anti-vampire measures. In the more recent past, vampires were often blamed when plague or pestilence wiped out a community. Just this year, archaeologists discovered a 16th century female skull with a rock wedged into her mouth, buried near the remains of a group of plague victims. The rock or brick shoved into the mouth was a common vampire-deterrent in that time period, as it was believed to prevent feeding. Suspects were sometimes buried face-down, as well, so that when they woke and began digging out, they would end up lost in the earth.
Public executions of supposed vampires were common, and corpse mutilation to “kill” suspects got so out of hand that some European rulers created grave-robbing laws. Even in the American Northeast, vampire hysteria gained widespread ground in the 18 and 1900s. Many families reportedly disinterred loved ones and removed their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness or death in the family. The most famous and recent case involved a nineteen-year-old girl of Rhode Island, who died in 1892. Convinced that she was one of the undead, her father and the family physician removed her from her tomb two months after her death, cut out her heart, and burned it to ashes.
From There to Here
Clearly, we’ve come a long way in our appreciation of vampirism. Who among us would even consider resisting, if confronted by such polished vampires as Robert Pattinson (Twilight), David Boreanaz (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Wesley Snipes (the Blade trilogy), or Aaliyah (Queen of the Damned)? Cutting out hearts and burning them to ashes doesn’t even cross our minds. With Hollywood driving the hysteria these days, vampires are in more danger from eager fans wanting autographs than from someone stalking around with a stake and a necklace of garlic.
And why not? Vampires are fascinating, and by elevating them to mass media superhero status, we remove the fear and hatred that plagued their early history, which makes our nightmares a little less scary, and our world a little less threatening. We’ve turned our perennial fear of death into an entertaining diversion, and thrown in a little urbane wit and physical attraction for good measure.
So, go on! Adore whichever vampire you choose, and be proud. Adorn yourself with some truly delicious vampire jewelry from Peter Stone and show the world that you, too, love our undead friends.