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The origin of the species: Vampires

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  • The origin of the species: Vampires

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    These days, vampires are a massively important part of the pop culture landscape. Not only are they a staple in horror and fantasy fiction, but they are, perhaps unarguably, the sexiest of all monsters. Even if you’re a furry and are super, aggressively onboard with werewolves, you can’t sit there and tell me that you wouldn’t prefer a profoundly hirsute vampire. Thing is, as overwhelmingly sexy as vampires tend to be in 2016, they weren’t always that way. They used to be, in fact, pretty damn gross.

    Vampiric entities – by which I mean monsters or undead that suck their victims’ blood or life-force – appear in pretty much every culture, across every continent. It’s one of those common tropes that crops up all over the place, even if the vampire name is one very much rooted in the Slavic cultures. As such, we’re going to restrict our focus specifically on the European vampires, as those are the ones that evolved into the sexy beasts we so love today.
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    That name – vampire – is of uncertain etymology, though there are no shortage of theories as to where the word actually comes from. What isn’t up for debate is what it means: The term, whether used in the original Slavic languages, or in English, where it began appearing in the 18th century, is used to refer to folkloric, undead or reanimated corpses that feed off the blood of the living.

    Depending on which culture you’re investigating – and even the time period – the methods for creating vampires vary wildly. Vampires could arise from something as simple as a dog leaping over a corpse or due to a transgression against the church. Options for fighting vampires also run the gamut, everything from the familiar garlic and holy water to methods that appear unusual to our modern eyes, such as leaving out seeds or grains that the monster would be compelled to count. But perhaps most interesting is a tactic for preventing a corpse from rising as a vampire: The bereaved would oftentimes place some type of sharp object, like a scythe or a sickle, inside the coffin, so that the vampire would be popped and deflated when its body turned dark and began to bloat.

    You didn’t misread that! While the vampires of today are typically seen as pale, lithe, sexual figures, the original Slavic vampires were said to be fleshier than their living counterparts and possessed ruddy skin. This belief is actually what led to the “stake solution,” as early vampire hunters reasoned that the best way to defeat this bloated blood monster was to simply pop it and allow it to deflate. Easy-peasy.
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    While vampires existed as a concept for many, many years prior, as a large, decidedly unsexy part of Slavic myth and folklore, business really started to pick up in the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment, many folkloric beliefs fell by the wayside and receded into myth, but the exact opposite happened with vampires, as a type of panic swept through eastern Europe, resulting in numerous alleged vampire attacks and countless instances of people digging up corpses to shove a stake in them.

    There are many factors that led to vampires refusing to give up their hold on the public imagination, but the biggest one was this: A general misunderstanding around the nature of death. While the Age of Enlightenment was rather effective at say, explaining the nature of the heavens above, it had little to say about what it is that separates life from death, which led to the general public remaining very much in the dark about how bodies decompose.

    Without getting into a full-on coroner’s report, the basic gist of how bodies decompose is this: As the body breaks down, gases start to build up within the body, which causes not only a bloating effect, but a forcing outward of the blood. This is what accounts for the larger, plumper, redder appearance of the corpse, as well as the tell-tale traces of blood that often appear around the mouths of corpses left to decompose on their own. Thus, when a mob of panicked villagers would crack open a coffin, they would find exactly what they were looking for: A dark, bloated figure with evidence of their grisly meal still staining their faces.
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    There’s still not too much sexy about vampires when described in this way, right? Well, that starts to change once you begin to examine not just the real world origins of the monster, but what they have to say about the mental state of those who propagate tales of vampires. Psychoanalyst Ernest Jones wrote about vampires in 1931 and posited that much of a vampire’s motivation has a sexual basis, evidenced both in the vampire’s frequently seen urge to return to his/her spouse, as well as the symbolism built into the act of bloodsucking and its sadistic connotations.

    Those sexual aspects of the bloated, ruddy blood monsters were likely always present to one degree or another, but during the Victorian period they began to move from subtext to text, as poets and authors made increasingly liberal use of vampires in Gothic and Romantic fiction. Though vampires appeared in poems prior, the first notable appearance of the monster in literature was in John Polidori’s The Vampyre in 1819, a short story about the vampire Lord Ruthven, which was based upon Lord Byron and for a time, even mistakenly attributed to him instead of Polidori, who was Byron’s traveling doctor.

    Not surprising given the period, Lord Ruthven was, rather than a bloated, ruddy blood monster, a proper nobleman with a place in British society and, notably, a taste – pun very much intended – for women. Ruthven is a decidedly charming creature and likely did much to promote the idea of a sexual vampire, one that was picked up and elaborated on by Bram Stoker in his seminal work, Dracula. It was during this period that what we know as a vampire was codified by not only Stoker’s work, but also F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist masterpiece, the film Nosferatu.
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    And Nosferatu, with its bald, leering, hideous antagonist, was, despite being a massive contributor to the vampire’s growing popularity, can be seen as a type of last stand of the older, original depiction of the creature as a horrible, disgusting monster. Following Stoker’s lead, vampires became almost universally sexual, and as they evolved from outright villains to tragic and romantic ones, all the way to tragic heroes, they steadily became sexy in and of themselves.

    This is how we got from the bloated, ruddy blood monsters of Slavic myth to the offensively good-looking Eric Northman that we all know and love today.


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