Bird of Death: An exploration of vampiric folklore and legend.

Perhaps one of the most influential horror films of all time is F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, an expressionist horror film released in 1922. It was an unauthorized adaption of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stoker’s heirs sued Murnau, ordering that all copies of the film be destroyed. A copy slipped under the radar and Nosferatu still lives on today with a ravenous cult following, but the same can be said of Vampire folklore. There’s a reason why Nosferatu holds the spot for third-best reviewed horror film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. People are still watching, enthralled by the cinematography of a silent, black and white film that first premiered in America seven years after its release in Germany.

Since the release of Nosferatu, vampire legend has been at the forefront of popular culture. From Fright Night (1985) and Van Helsing (2004), to Leslie Nielsen’s vampire comedy Dead and Loving It (1995) and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), the story of the vampire and the struggles that one without a pulse might face enthrall us. They captivate us and make the small hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Well, aside from the Leslie Nielsen movie, anyway.

But vampire folklore isn’t always about entertainment and celebrating characters that embody the truly tortured spirit of the creature of the night. Vampire legends have existed for millennia: the Mesopotamians, Hebrews, ancient Greeks, and Romans all shared cultural folklore tales of demonic entities bent on drinking the blood of the living. In fact, beliefs regarding these legends were so strong that they created mass hysteria and led to executions.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many believed that those who suffered from tuberculosis were actually vampires in disguise. Individuals with TB experienced loss of muscle mass, exhaustion, lack of appetite, a chronic cough that produced blood, redness (swelling) around the eyes causing light sensitivity, low body temperature, chills, and malaise and, when one member of the family came down with TB, often the whole family would be affected. When a family member passed, they would be buried for a short time, then dug up and their corpse examined. Blood in the mouth, paleness of the skin with no general decomposition, or bloating of the corpse were all signs that their family member was actually a vampire, feeding on them nightly and stealing their health. Now, we understand that bloating is a natural part of decomposition and TB is often accompanied by a chronic cough that produces bloody sputum, but early on in many cultures around the world, the fear of having a loved one turn into a vampire was very real.

Rabies was also often linked to outbreaks of vampirism, which would cause the afflicted to become senile, be light sensitive as well as to garlic, and there’s that nasty propensity to bite people.

Rabies and tuberculosis were often mistaken for vampirism, but according to folklore tales from Greece, Romania, England, and Japan, a person can become a vampire not only by being bitten, but also if they:

  • Ate of a sheep that had been killed by a wolf.
  • Were the child of a woman who was once looked at by someone who was a vampire.
  • Were a nun who stepped over a body that had been exhumed or had not been buried.
  • Had teeth when they were born or stillborn.
  • Practiced sorcery.
  • Were an illegitimate child or their parents were illegitimate.
  • Died before being baptized.
  • Were excommunicated from the church.
  • Were the seventh son of the seventh son.
  • Had red hair.
  • Were suddenly killed or committed suicide.
  • Renounced their religion.

In order to free oneself from the vampire curse, the afflicted would have to do one of the following:

  • Dig up the corpse of the suspected vampire, cut out its heart and burn it on a sacred stone. The ashes would then be mixed with water or wine and drank.
  • Burn and grind the bones of a vampire and blend with flour. Make bread. Eat of the bread.

Neither of those suggestions seem particularly appealing to me…

There were also ways to protect yourself against vampire attack. Some vampire folklore states that a small bag of salt should be carried at all times. According to vampire legends, if salt is spilled on the ground, the vampire will have no choice but to stop and count each individual grain. In a pinch, birdseed can be substituted. It is also said that “sealing” your home with salt can protect against creatures of the night or against those who might bring harm. Sprinkling salt around door and window frames will keep vampires and other demonic creatures at bay so long as they are not explicitly invited to enter. In Romania, it is believed that a young boy dressed all in white and sent into a cemetery on a white horse can find vampires beneath the earth. If the horse stops atop a grave, you’ve found a vampire.

In Slavic society, it is believed that the spirit lingers forty days after death. In southwest Romania, in the small village of Craiova, in February of 2004, police investigated a case of grave robbing. Recently deceased villager, Petre Toma, had been dug up and impaled. According to his family, he had become a vampire. They believed that Toma was returning from the grave each night and drinking their blood because family members felt ill and tired, feelings they were unable to shake. Six weeks after his funeral, his corpse was dug up and, upon examination, they found that his hands were no longer clasped, rather they were at his sides, and his mouth was full of blood. The villagers did what their beliefs dictated. They used a pitchfork to remove Toma’s heart and, finding there was also blood in that, they burnt the heart and mixed the ashes with water, sharing the mixture among themselves. Instantly, they felt better and the family was no longer plagued by nightly visits from Toma.

This case is not unique in and of itself. There were many people of many different cultures throughout history who believed that vampires were real and, because they were a real threat, certain precautions were taken when preparing a body for burial. Those with birth defects such as cleft pallets or other deformities might be singled out. In this case, the body is pierced through the heart or “trunk of the body” using an iron stake. It is said that iron is a natural ward against evil and will pin the vampire to the earth, preventing him from rising from the grave. In other cases, bricks or stones were forced into the corpse’s mouth, effectively breaking the jaw and preventing the vampire from feeding. A more familiar practice to modern day vampire aficionados will likely be the use of garlic as protection. Vampires are said to despise garlic and, in many instances, the mouth of a corpse might also be filled with garlic.

Today, there are people who claim to be vampires, there are people who drink the blood of the living, but they’re not the real deal. Popular authors like Stephen King and Anne Rice have written about these blood drinking creatures of the night, but a story is just that.  In the case of vampirism, I think we can drive a stake through it and put it to rest. Just in case, I think I’ll sprinkle a little salt before I go to bed tonight.

Sweet dreams!

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

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