Before Twilight, before Dracula, vampires were common in folklore. Many of the traits known today are based on true stories of the supposed undead.
Vampires used to be accepted as real in many parts of Europe, so much so that people commonly dug up the bodies of supposed vampires and staked, decapitated, or otherwise “killed” them. According to Paul Barber’s book Vampires, Burial, and Death, what people found in these graves gave rise to many of the vampire myths we’re familiar with today.
Vampires Drink Blood
When a vampire was known to be causing trouble – unexplained deaths, sickness – his neighbours would dig up the grave of the likeliest suspect. What they usually found was not a pale corpse resting quietly in the embrace of death, but a plump, ruddy-faced figure, often with blood on his lips. Their natural conclusion: the dead man had been leaving his grave and gorging himself on the blood of his victims.
Surprisingly, these would-be Van Helsings weren’t wrong about what they saw, only about what it meant. It is quite normal for a corpse to appear flushed, to be swollen, and even to have blood on its lips some time after its death. Discolouration of the skin (in a variety of gruesome hues) is a common part of decomposition, as is the bloating of the body from gases produced by the action of microorganisms that live in the gut. As for the blood on the lips, a corpse’s blood is often forced out of its mouth and nose by pressure from these gases.
Though blood usually coagulates after death, it can sometimes re-liquify, which is why suspected vampires would sometimes bleed when cut, supporting the theory that they were gorging themselves on fresh blood. Along with their swollen appearance, this led some folklore traditions to conceive of vampires as essentially bags of blood.
Vampires Live After Death
The vampire’s investigators sometimes found that the body had changed position during its time in the grave, and it might even be warm to the touch. What people didn’t know then was that rigor mortis passes after a time, so that limbs set neatly at burial might rearrange themselves when loosened, under nothing more sinister than the force of gravity. The action of microorganisms might also make the body slightly warm to the touch, or at least warmer than the cold hands of the nervous vampire-killers.
Vampires Climb out of Their Graves
Another reason for people to suspect a vampire in their midst was the sight of disturbed earth around a grave. Holes, moved earth, and even noises might be seen and heard by anyone unfortunate enough to pass by the accursed spot where the vampire was buried.
Of course earth that has been dug up takes time to settle no matter how carefully it has been packed down, and this accounts for some of the disturbed-looking ground. Other causes come from the body itself. During decomposition, pressure from internal gases eventually bursts open the corpse’s abdominal cavity. This expanding and shrinking can disturb the earth around the body, and the eruption of the corpse is sometimes audible to those above. Finally, scavenging animals like dogs, wolves, and bears might dig holes to reach the body, holes which were interpreted in the light of day as the work of the body itself.
Vampires Are Sex Fiends
One thing you don’t expect to see when you dig up a corpse is a state of postmortem sexual excitement – what one 18th-century witness described tactfully as “wild signs”. In fact, the same pressure that swells the rest of the corpse can cause an apparent erection in the dead. This is probably why the folkloric vampire was known to have insatiable sexual appetites, and was said to exhaust his widow to death with his attentions. Hollywood and HBO may have expanded on the vampire’s lustful qualities, but they didn’t invent them.
Vampires Hate Werewolves (and Vice Versa)
Wolves or werewolves were sometimes said to guard graveyards and attack the undead as they emerged from the ground. Other legends held that vampires themselves could turn into wolves. The presence of wolves at a graveyard is unsurprising: like other scavengers, they were probably there to feed on the bodies. Since they’re nocturnal, this behaviour would have only been witnessed at night, and the sight of a wolf in a graveyard at night would be enough to spook anyone, especially if they already had vampires on the brain.
Stakes, Garlic, and Vampire Juice
Once a corpse was identified as a vampire, it might be staked, decapitated, or burned. Witnesses of stakings reported that the vampires emitted spurts of blood, foul winds, and even screams. This is because when pierced, the swollen body released gases and other grisly matter, along with noises that might be interpreted as cries of rage from the dying fiend.
At a time when illnesses were believed to travel on foul odours, anything strong-smelling was considered protection against vampires. This included garlic, as well as incense and (less appetizingly) cow dung. The most alarming prophylactic against vampires was the blood of the vampire itself. There is evidence that people actually drank the blood of corpses to immunize themselves against illness and death.
The Immortal Dead
Stories are one thing, but why would people actually believe in and carry out such strange and gruesome rituals? Consider how frightening death would have been with no understanding of the causes of diseases and how they’re spread, or of the mechanism of a stroke or a heart attack. Belief in vampires gave people something they could understand and fight. The present insatiable appetite for vampire stories shows that people are still fascinated with and repulsed by the dead. As long as death is terrifying and mysterious, vampires will always be a part of human folklore.