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A vampire is a mythical or folkloric creature said to subsist on human and/or animal blood often having magical powers and the ability to transform. Usually the vampire is the corpse of a dead person, reanimated or made undead by one means or another. Some cultures have myths of non-human vampires, such as demons or animals like bats, dogs, and spiders. Vampires are often described as having a wide variety of additional powers and character traits, extremely variable in different traditions, and are a frequent subject of folklore, cinema, and contemporary fiction.

Vampirism is the practice of drinking blood. In folklore and popular culture the term generally refers to a belief that one can gain supernatural powers by drinking human blood. The historical practice of vampirism can generally be considered a more specific and less commonly-occurring form of cannibalism. The consumption of another's blood has been used as a tactic of psychological warfare intended to terrorize the enemy, and it can be used to reflect various spiritual beliefs.

In zoology the term vampirism is used to refer to leeches, mosquitos, mistletoe, vampire bats, and other organisms that prey upon the bodily fluids of other creatures. This term also applies to mythic animals of the same nature, including the chupacabra.


Vampires in history and culture

Tales of the dead craving blood are ancient. In Homer's Odyssey, for example, the shades that Odysseus meets on his journey to the underworld are lured to the blood of freshly sacrificed rams, a fact which Odysseus uses to his advantage to summon the shade of Tiresias. Roman fables describe the strix, a nocturnal bird that fed on human flesh and blood. The Roman strix is the source of the Romanian vampire, the Strigoi, which was also influenced by the Slavic vampire, and the Albanian Shtriga.

In early Slavic folklore, a vampire drank blood, was afraid of (but could not be killed by) silver, and could be destroyed by cutting off its head and putting it between the corpse's legs, or by putting a wooden stake into its heart.

Medieval historians and chroniclers Walter Map and William of Newburgh recorded the earliest English stories of vampires in the 12th century.

In popular western culture, vampires are depicted as unaging, intelligent, and mystically endowed in many ways. The vampire typically has a variety of notable abilities. These include great strength and immunity to any lasting effect of any injury by mundane means, with specific exceptions. Vampires can also change into a mist, wolf, or bat; and some can control the minds of others. They typically have extended canines or fangs.

It is believed that vampires have no reflection, as traditionally it was thought that mirrors reflected your soul and creatures of evil have no soul. Fiction has extended this belief to an actual aversion to mirrors, as depicted in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula when the vampire casts Harker's shaving mirror out of the window.

Destroying and avoiding vampires

A western vampire (which is not alive in the classical sense, and therefore referred to as undead) can be destroyed using several methods, which vary among "species" of vampires and between mythologies:

  • Ramming a wooden stake through a vampire's heart. Traditionally the stake is made from ash or hawthorn and the vampire should be impaled with a single blow. In some traditions, a red-hot iron was preferred. In many western stories and films, impalement with a wooden stake only subdues a vampire and further measures must be taken to destroy the body, otherwise the monster will quickly recover once the stake is removed. This can be done by decapitating the body and burying the head separately, burning, burying the body at a crossroads or moving the body so it would be exposed to sunlight. Some stories extend the idea with vampire hunters using arrows or crossbow bolts made completely of wood to attempt to strike the monster's heart from a distance. If you ram a wooden stake into a vampire's heart three times, the vampire is said to return to the state it was in before it died. Sometimes it doesn't work as said in Interview with the Vampire by Louis and in Van Helsing by Count Vladislaus Dragulia himself.
  • Beheading - basically as above, but without first using a stake.
  • Exposing a vampire to sunlight. This varies from culture to culture. Vampires that are active from sunset to sunrise often avoid sunlight as they can be weakened or sometimes destroyed by it. Many species of vampires are active from noon to midnight, and consequently sunlight is harmless. The idea of western vampires being vulnerable to sunlight began with the 1922 film Nosferatu, and has come to be seen as the absolute surest way to completely destroy a vampire. Previously western vampires could go out in the sunlight like in Bram Stoker's Dracula or Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla; in Dracula the vampire could go out but had none of his vampiric powers. He must remain in the form he was in at dawn, and cannot dematerialise or slip through small spaces.
  • Removing internal organs and burning them.
  • Pouring boiling water into a hole beside the vampire's grave.

Other typical weaknesses of the vampire include:

  • Garlic or holy water, which repel or injure vampires.
  • Objects made of silver preferably silver nitrate, which can keep a vampire away or harm them if they are in physical contact. A popular American addition to the folklore is the idea of fashioning bullets made of silver so mortal vampire hunters can use firearms against the monster. Silver bullets are more commonly associated with werewolves.
  • Such small items as rice, poppy seeds or salt, which can be strewn in a vampire's path. The hanging of many cloves of garlic or the scattering of small objects is said to cause the vampire to have to spend much time counting the exact number of spilled (or hung) objects before moving on, hopefully keeping them out of mischief until morning. This is possibly the origin of Sesame Street's Count von Count. This aspect of vampire mythology varies by tradition, and is possibly inspired by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Running water, which vampires cannot cross. This varies by tradition with some stories having vampires simply turning into a bat and flying over when faced with this obstacle. In Dracula, the vampire could cross only at the tide's ebb.
  • Crosses and Bibles, which can keep vampires away. One simply holds the object in question in front of the vampire and the monster is kept at distance. Other stories have established that any religious symbol used by a sincere believer is effective. For example, in some stories, a Jew can use the Star of David to ward off a vampire. However in many stories, the monster can use its mind control powers to force the wielder to put down the object.
  • Requiring an invitation to enter a home: Western vampires are thought to be unable to enter a residence unless they are invited inside. After that invitation, they can enter the location freely.
  • Stealing of the left sock: Gypsy vampires can be killed if their left sock is stolen, filled with garlic or a stone, and tossed into a river. In theory, the vampire will leap into the river to retrieve it and will drown.

According to the belief of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the predominant Christian denomination in Eastern Europe, the soul is not given its permanent place in Heaven or Hell until 40 days after it has been buried. Accordingly, in some places, bodies were often disinterred between 3 to 7 days after burial and examined: If there was no sign of decomposition, a stake was driven through the heart of the corpse.

Types of beliefs in vampires

It seems that until the 19th century, vampires in Europe were thought to be hideous monsters rather than the debonair vampire made popular by later fictional treatments. They were usually believed to rise from the bodies of suicide victims, criminals, or evil magicians, though in some cases an initial vampire thus 'born of sin' could pass on his vampirism onto his innocent victims. In other cases, however, a victim of an untimely or cruel death was susceptible of becoming a vampire.

In Moravia, vampires were fond of throwing off their shrouds and attacking their victims in the nude.

In Albania, a type of vampire known as the Liogat was suppossed to be the reanimated corpse of Albanians of Turkish descent. It was covered in a shroud and wore high heeled shoes. The only way to vanquish it was to have a wolf bite its legs off so it would never rise again from its grave.

In Bulgaria, a vampire had only one nostril and slept with his left eye open and his thumbs linked. It was held responsible for cattle plagues.

In Aztec mythology, the Civatateo was a sort of vampire, created when a noblewoman died in childbirth.

In Australian aboriginal mythology, the "Yara-Ma-Yha-Who" [1] ( was a vampire with suckers on his fingers that lurked in fig trees.

In Malaysian folklore, the Penanggalan was a vampire whose head could separate from its body, with its entrails dangling from the base of its neck. The Pontianak was a female vampire that sucked the blood of newborn babies and sometimes that of young children or pregnant women.

In Philippine folklore, the Manananggal was a female vampire whose entire upper body could separate from her lower body and who could fly using wings. She sucked the blood of fetuses. The Aswang was believed to always be a female of considerable beauty by day and, by night, a fearsome flying fiend. She lived in a house, could marry and have children, and was a seemingly normal human during the daylight hours.

Gypsy tradition in the Balkans is said to have held that melons and pumpkins may become vampires; see the article on vampire watermelons.

In the Caribbean, vampires known as Soucoyant in Trinidad and Tobago, Ol' Higue in Jamaica, and Loogaroo in Grenada, take the form of old women during the day, and at night shed their skin to become flying balls of flame who seek blood. They were said to be notoriously obsessive compulsive, and could be thwarted by sprinkling salt or rice at entrances, crossroads and near beds. The vampire would feel compelled to pick up every grain. They could also be killed by rubbing salt into their discarded skin, which would burn them upon returning to it before morning.

In India (especially in the southern state of Kerala) vampires (known as Yakshis) were beautiful women who seduced men in order to kill or eat them. They are said to be averse to iron objects in addition to other religious symbols, and could be killed by driving an iron nail through the head. They could also be imprisoned in trees using blessed objects. India is also home to the vetala, a wraithly vampire that can leave its host body to feed.

In the modern folklore of Latin America, the chupacabra is a vampiric creature that feeds upon domesticated animals.

Other vampire types:

Contemporary belief in vampires

Belief in vampires still persists across the globe. During January of 2003, mobs in Malawi stoned to death one individual and attacked four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, due to a belief that the government is colluding with vampires.

In January 2005, it was reported that an attacker had bitten a number of people in Birmingham, England, fuelling concerns about a vampire roaming the streets. However, local police stated that no such crimes had been reported to them, and this case appears to be an urban legend.

Natural phenomena that propagate the vampire myth

Pathology and vampirism

Some people argue that vampire stories might have been influenced by a rare illness called porphyria. The disease disrupts the production of heme. People with extreme cases of this hereditary disease can be so sensitive to sunlight that they can get a sunburn through heavy cloud cover, causing them to be nocturnal and avoid all light. People with porphyria can also have red eyes and teeth, resulting from buildup of red heme intermediates (porphyrins). Certain forms of porphyria are also associated with neurological symptoms, which can create psychiatric disorders. However, the hypotheses that porphyria sufferers "crave" the heme in human blood, or that the consumption of blood might ease the symptoms of porphyria, are based in ignorance.

Others argue that there is a relationship between vampirism and rabies. The legend of vampirism is known to have existed in the 19th century Eastern Europe, where there were massive rabies outbreaks. Rabies causes high fever, loss of appetite, and fatigue as initial symptoms. In later stages, patients try to avoid the sunlight and prefer walking at night. Strong light and mirrors can cause episodes characterized by violent and animal-like behaviors and a tendency to attack people and bite them. Concomitant facial spasms might give the patient an animal-like (or a vampire-like) expression. In a furious form of the disease, patients might have an increased urgency for sexual activity or occasionally vomit blood. Rabies is contagious.

Fountain of blood when staked

As a body decomposes, the internal organs rot first because the food that is fermenting there continues fermenting and gases produced cannot get out. As a result, a body can swell like a balloon. Put pressure on this and the pressure seeks a way to escape.

Finding vampires in graves

When the coffin of an alleged vampire was opened, people sometimes found the cadaver in a "healthy state" and beautiful, meaning that the corpse was a well-fed vampire. Folkloric accounts almost universally represent the vampire as having ruddy or dark skin, not the pale skin of vampires in literature and film. Reasons for this appearance include:

  • In the past, people were often malnourished and therefore thin in life. Corpses swell as gases from decomposition accumulate in the torso. The implication was that the corpse was not famished and, because blood was sometimes found in the corners of the mouth, it was assumed that the "vampire" had been drinking blood.
  • Natural processes of decomposition, absent embalming, tend to darken the skin of a corpse--hence the black, blue, or red complexion of the folkloric vampire.</p>

Drinking blood

There have been a number of murderers who performed this seemingly vampiric ritual upon their victims. Serial killers Peter Kurten and Richard Trenton Chase were both called "vampires" in the tabloids after they were discovered drinking the blood of the people they murdered, for example. Legends that Erzs�bet B�thory, a medieval Hungarian aristocrat, murdered hundreds of women in bizarre rituals involving blood, helped mold contemporary vampire legends. Some psychologists in modern times recognize a disorder called clinical vampirism (or Renfield's syndrome, from Dracula's insect-eating henchman in the novel by Bram Stoker), where the victim is obsessed with drinking blood, either from animals or humans.

Vampire bats

The three species of vampire bat are all endemic to Latin America, and there is no evidence to suggest that they had any Old World relatives within human memory. It is therefore unlikely that the folkloric vampire represents a distorted presentation or memory of the bat. The bats were named after the folkloric vampire rather than vice versa; the Oxford English Dictionary records the folkloric use in English from 1734 and the zoological not until 1774. However, once the vampire bats became known in western culture, their existence certainly reinforced and shaped the vampire legend, and it is common for vampires to be represented as bat-like in one way or another and have the ability to transform into one when desired which in turns grants the ability to fly.


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