40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires

Tim Flight - October 24, 2019

Ah, vampires. You can’t move without bumping into a handsome, fanged aristocrat these days. But despite their self-professed ancient lineage, the vampire as we know it isn’t all that old. That said, fears of the dead rising and harming the living have a truly ancient pedigree. Vampires, or vampire-like beasts, were once the last thing you’d dream of falling in love with. We’ll trace these old tales and beliefs across the world, then see how the modern vampire evolved. Best keep the lights on, and grab a crucifix…

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Bela Lugosi plays the famous Count in the 1931 film of Dracula. Pinterest

40. The idea of the walking dead probably came from people not understanding how bodies decompose

Contrary to popular opinion, bodies don’t rot overnight. After you die, your body goes into rigor mortis, but then weirder things start to happen. As the skin shrinks back, teeth and nails can appear longer. Gases build up as the internal organs decompose, bloating the body. Simultaneously, bloody foam leaks from the mouth. After this, the body takes on a reddish hue. Taken together, we have a bloated, bloody-mouthed, rosy-cheeked dead body with long nails and teeth: remind you of anything? Some historians think people’s unfamiliarity with the stages of decomposition led to myths of the cannibalistic walking dead.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz, 1854. Wikimedia Commons

39. Or burying coma victims alive…

These days, when someone slips into a coma, they’re put on life-support in the hope that they’ll wake up. But we know how to check for vital signs: not many people did until pretty recently. In the ancient world, it’s reasonable to assume that lots of people were buried alive, presumed dead. Historians also suggest the sound of people waking up in a coffin, frantically scratching the lid, and shouting for help, may have also led to the vampire myth. Indeed, only last year, a Brazilian woman was dug up alive after people heard scratches coming from her fresh grave…

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Theodor Kittlesen, the Norwegian artist, characterizes the Black Death as a ghoulish old woman in this 1896 piece. Wikimedia Commons

38. Evidence of vampires often came from plague victims

A final possible cause of the vampire myth is plague. During plague outbreaks from at least the 16th century onwards, vampires often got blamed. This, again, stands to reason. Before people understood disease, what else would thousands of people dying slowly, covered with wounds, suggest? Their progressively weaker state perhaps suggested they were being drained of life by someone… or something. The bubonic plague, for example, can also cause delirium, so some people doubtless imagined monsters attacking them. Intriguingly, the Plague of Justinian broke out in the Eastern Roman Empire in 541-42 AD, where the first proper vampire legends developed…

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
RF Burton’s 1870 depiction of the vetala, a vampire-like creature from Hindu legend. Wikimedia Commons

37. Seeds of the vampire legend are found in many ancient cultures around the world

Strange bodily decomposition, comas, and plague have been around since the dawn of time. Thus it’s no surprise that myths of the walking, murderous dead are present in ancient mythologies. In old Hindu myths, the vetala is a corpse reanimated by an evil spirit which sometimes feeds on the living. Various African tribes have possibly ancient beliefs about the dead walking the earth and causing sickness. Away from the walking dead specifically, blood-sucking demons are recorded in the myths of Ancient Mesopotamia and Persia, and Hebrew texts. These elements all later converged into the vampire we know and love.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The Vampire by Philip Burne-Jones, 1897. Wikimedia Commons

36. The Aztecs had their own vampire-like beasts

An intriguing vampiric legend developed independently in the ancient Mexican Aztec tradition. Ciutateos or Ciuapipiltin (‘honourable mothers’) are the spirits of women who died in childbirth. Like witches, they held sabbats at crossroads and rode broomsticks. But most interesting for our vampire history is their habit of drinking the blood of children. Like European vampires, they only came out at night, too. Unfortunately, while there’s no reason to doubt the Aztecs believed in something vampiric, this legend comes with a caveat. The Ciuapipiltin stories were written down by Europeans, whose (mis)translations were mediated through their own knowledge and experiences.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Battle between Scythians and Slavs by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, 1870. Wikimedia Commons

35. The vampire as we know it comes from ancient Slavic folklore

The word ‘vampire’ comes from the Serbian vampyr, with good reason. Vampyr comes from the Slavic upir, first recorded in the 10th century but certainly far older. The vampire proper developed in Slavic folklore around 1500 years ago. The early Slavic tribes traveled far and wide, encountering many different religious beliefs. Scholars suggest they embraced heretical Christian doctrines circulating in Eastern Europe which claimed the body belonged to Satan. In turn, this led to beliefs about the dead physically returning to harm the living. This belief perhaps influenced the Slavs to cremate rather than bury their dead.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
A female upyr depicted in a dictionary of Slavic folklore of 1996. Wikimedia Commons

34. The ancient Slavs might have worshipped vampires

Despite how little we know about Slavic paganism, the practice of worshipping ancestors is widely attested. It seems that this often involved sacrifice and the spilling of blood. Moreover, worshipping ancestors works on the assumption that the dead are still alive and can make things happen on earth. Did this also include vampires, perhaps to prevent them from physically harming the living? Intriguingly, a manuscript from Sofia Cathedral, Bulgaria, has a 15th-century insertion which makes just such a stunning claim. ‘The Slavs made sacrifices to Rod [God of Fate]… previously, however, they made sacrifices to the Vampires’.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Medieval gravesite. Wikimedia.

33. Many medieval graves in Western Europe suggest a fear of the dead rising again

Away from the Slavic nations, fear of the dead rising again is clear from numerous medieval burials. Numerous excavations have uncovered skeletons with implements stuck in them. The one above, for example, from 8th-century Ireland, contains a metal rod once shoved through the person’s heart. Others have skeletons weighed down with big rocks and slabs or with bricks lodged in their mouths. Archaeologists believe these are measures to stop the cadavers from rising up to harm the living. Though not of vampires specifically, these graves show how widely medieval people believed in the evil walking dead.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
A seafaring draugr by Theodor Kittelsen, late 19th-early 20th century. Reddit

32. The Vikings believed in a proto-vampire known as the draugr

The pre-Christian Vikings had their own version of the vampire. They believed in the draugr, a corpse that rose up to guard its burial mound. Once awake, the draugr roamed the earth, molesting (and no doubt terrifying) people and cattle. They also woke up tormented by hunger, and sometimes fed on the living. The draugr envied the living and could shape-shift into animal form. The Draugr was most dangerous around Yuletide (Christmas), when it raised mists and used them to sneak up on prey. The Draugr‘s skin was deathly pale, and quite clearly belonged to a cadaver.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Medieval graverobbers, England, 14th century. Folklore Thursday

31. Walter Map made one of the first mentions of a vampiric creature in England in the 12th century

Vampire graves in England, like those from Wharram Percy, have corroboration from the 12th-century writer Walter Map. In De nugis curialium (‘of courtiers’ trifles’, ie. court gossip), Map records several very early English vampire stories. One story concerns a knight whose newborn children always died with their throats cut. One day, a stranger offers to stay in the fourth baby’s room and captures a woman in the act. The knight brands her with a church key, and she flies off wailing. It turns out that this ‘woman’ was actually a demon in the form of a respected local woman.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires

30. His contemporary William of Newburgh had similar tales to tell

A few years before Map, the English historian William of Newburgh recorded his own vampiric tales in Historia regum Anglicarum. Around 1196, a man from Buckinghamshire died, and several nights in a row returned and tried to smother his sleeping widow. When she took measures to scare the ghoul away, he simply repeated the trick on his brothers. After scaring men and livestock every night, the corpse soon started to appear in daylight, too. Eventually, the local archdeacon opened the man’s tomb, and gave him absolution for his sins over his perfectly-preserved body. The vampiric man never walked again.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Melrose Abbey, Scotland, once home to a vampire. Awesome Stories

29. The vampiric Hundeprest haunted Melrose Abbey in the 12th century

Newburgh tells another interesting story about the undead from Scotland. A noblewoman’s chaplain died, and she buried him at Melrose Abbey. In his life, he’d spent more time hunting than praying, so people nicknamed him Hundeprest (‘the dog-priest’). Almost immediately, Hundeprest rose again, tried to break into the abbey, and visited his former mistress. One night, a brave monk lay in wait for the ghoul. When Hundeprest ran at him, the monk cleaved his head with a battle-axe and chased him back to the grave. The next day, the monks burned the intact, axe-wounded corpse to ashes. Hundeprest never returned.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (bowing in this 12th-century illustration) didn’t rot, but certainly wasn’t a vampire. Wikimedia Commons

28. Not all corpses that didn’t decompose belonged to vampires…

Hundeprest and the man from Buckinghamshire couldn’t rot because of their sins. They only found rest once given absolution or chucked in a burning fire (the usual punishment for medieval heretics). But it’s interesting to note that someone’s body failing to decompose could mean the very opposite. Several medieval saints are famous for their stubborn refusal to rot. In the late 7th century, for example, monks exhumed the remains of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (above) to put them in a reliquary. Astonishingly, Cuthbert’s body hadn’t changed one iota in the intervening 9 years, and everyone called it a miracle.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Coffin. Flickr.

27. In German folklore, Nachzehrer chewed on their burial shrouds

A Nachzehrer (‘night-waster’) is a vampiric creature from Germany. Legend has it that a Nachzehrer is created when a coin is not placed in a dead person’s mouth. Other explanations say a Nachzehrer is the first victim of a plague. The creature remains undead, chewing its burial shroud and sending its spirit out to harm the living. When the shroud is consumed, the Nachzehrer‘s family dies. They sometimes leave the grave physically to eat the dead bodies surrounding them. Vampire shroud-eating is grounded in reality. Mouth bacteria often decayed the burial shroud, which thus looked like the corpse had nibbled it.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The Danse Macabre on a woodcut by Michael Wolgemut, 1493. WordPress

26. The Greeks had their own vampire tradition of the vrykolakas

In Greek folklore, the closest entity to a vampire is the vrykolakas. The vrykolakas is a dead body that returns to scourge the living. A vrykolakas is created when someone dies excommunicated or after committing a serious crime. Their attacks on the living include vandalism, threatening behavior, and spreading plague. Like the draugr, the vrykolakas is not a pretty sight. Witnesses described pale skin pulled taught over the body, like a drum. In the 17th century, Leo Allatius reported that people on the Greek island of Chios never answered the door on the first knock, in fear of a vrykolakas.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Vlad Tepes, 16th-century Austrian copy of mid-15th-century original from Hungary. Wikimedia Commons

25. Dracula was real, but he wasn’t a vampire

Vlad Tepes (‘the impaler’, 1428-c.77) is a Romanian national hero. Ruling Wallachia in the 15th century, his brutal scare tactics saved Europe from a full-scale Ottoman invasion. His nickname, Dracula, means ‘son of the dragon’, but this isn’t a reference to the devil, as sometimes assumed. His father, Vlad, was nicknamed ‘Dracul’ (‘the dragon’) because he belonged to the Order of the Dragon, an eminent chivalric society. Although Tepes’s enemies, the Transylvanian Saxons, said he dipped bread in human blood, he wasn’t called a vampire. Dracula existed alright, but gives only his name and military background to his fictional namesake.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Bran Castle, Transylvania, is erroneously called ‘Dracula’s Castle’. G Adventures

24. There were still plenty of vampires in Romanian folklore

Romanian folklore is however rich in vampires, usually called Strigoi. The real Dracula’s home, Wallachia, called its vampires murony. An illegitimate child of illegitimate parents inevitably became a murony, as did anyone killed by the creature. A murony drank the blood of the living, often in the form of a wild beast. The Wallachians lived in great fear of the murony. When a sudden death occurred, Wallachians summoned a skilled midwife to nail the body’s forehead and smear it with pork fat. A wild rose made sure the murony‘s clothes caught on the thorns if it tried to leave its coffin.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The grisly late 14th-century tomb of French doctor Guillaume de Harcigny shows him as a decomposing corpse. Atlas Obscura

23. Vampires in Slavic folklore are really gross

If you met a vampire from Slavic folklore, you’d have no doubt you were talking to a walking corpse. A Strigoi or vampyr looked about as different from Robert Pattinson in Twilight as you can imagine. Slavic vampires were simply corpses that couldn’t decompose properly and had no time to dress well or comb their hair. Accounts of vampires being exhumed always echo the description of a corpse in early decomposition we saw earlier. Bloated, their mouths bloodied, skin taut, with long fingernails and savage teeth, it’s no wonder people feared these vampires.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires

22. Venice seems to have blamed a vampire for its plague of 1576

In 1576, a terrible plague ravaged Venice. Famous victims, such Titian, got elaborate memorials, but normal people were chucked in a big pit together. On Lazzaretto Nuovo, a tiny island used as quarantine, archaeologists found the skeleton of an old woman with a brick shoved between her jaws. Historians posit someone found her bloated corpse, decided she must be a vampire, and blamed her for the plague. 16th-century Italians thought vampires spread plague, and fed on the corpses by eating their burial shrouds like the Nachzehrer. The brick was meant to prevent shroud-munching and thus stop the plague.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Countess Elizabeth Bathory aged about 25, contemporary copy of a 1585 Hungarian original. Wikimedia Commons

21. Elizabeth Bathory probably didn’t bathe in blood, and no one thought she was a vampire until recently

You’ve heard of the Blood Countess, right? The one who bathed in the blood of virgins every night? Well, have you heard of the wealthy Hungarian widow slandered by her male relatives to steal her property and money? Indeed, there is no real evidence that Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) ever killed anyone, let alone bathed in their blood. But the legend of a mad woman trying to achieve eternal beauty in her mighty castle soon entered folklore. And that’s precisely where writers of vampire fiction in the 19th century found it. Until then, no one ever called her a vampire.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
18th-century engraving of soldiers finding a freshly-staked corpse. CBC

20. Jure Grando’s career as a vampire lasted 16 years

In 1656, Jure Grando died in Istria (modern Croatia). He lived his life quietly and won the respect of his neighbors, but that all changed when he died. For Grando didn’t stay resting for long. The night after his burial, Grando began roaming the village and terrorizing the locals. Grando knocked on doors, and soon afterwards one of the inhabitants would die. After 16 years, locals finally found the courage to put a stop to this. Disinterring the corpse, they found Grando’s smiling body bloated, ruddy, and fully intact. After saying a prayer, they beheaded him. Grando never came back.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Victorian illustration from Varney the Vampire, a serial discussed below. Blogspot

19. When the great European witch panic ended, the vampire one soon replaced it in the Habsburg Empire

Every society needs its scapegoat. During the witchcraft hysteria of early modern Europe, people blamed witches for all manner of ludicrous things. Witches caused livestock deaths, crop failure, child mortality, unfaithful spouses, and epilepsy in their heyday. But after a century or so, people noticed the innate stupidity of witch trials, and prosecutions tailed off. So who could you blame for everything bad? In the Habsburg Empire, another monster quite literally stood knocking at the door: the vampire. Vampire folklore had circulated in Slavic countries for centuries, but in the early 18th century aristocrats started listening. Vampire mania had arrived.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
C’mon, with places like Ksiaz Castle, there must have been a few vampires knocking about… CNN

18. Silesia provided a home for loads of vampires

Forget Transylvania, Silesia was the place to be for a vampire in the 18th century. In fact, the region had long been home to vampires. The first recorded instance of a vampire in Silesia dates to 1599, and concerns the Shoemaker of Breslau. This cobbler committed suicide, then prowled Breslau tormenting the living and sucking the life from them. Eventually, locals decapitated the corpse, removed the heart and limbs, and burned it on fire. 18th-century Silesia became notorious for vampires and grave desecrations. One Silesian vampire slaying was so gross the Habsburgs passed laws against all anti-vampire measures.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Princess Eleonore von Schwarzenberg, depicted by Maximilian Hannel in 1771, was a suspected vampire. Wikimedia Commons

17. People suspected Eleonore von Schwarzenberg of being a vampire and gave her a vampire burial

‘Eccentric’ is the best word to describe Princess Eleonore von Schwarzenberg (1682-1741). She kept wolves as pets, and drank their milk, believing wolf milk made her fertile. It worked – well, she gave birth to two children – but later in life, Eleonore suffered from cervical cancer. With no proper treatment, she gradually wasted away, becoming pale and thin. And it seems this made people think her a vampire. No one attended her night-time funeral in Český Krumlov and, in an unusual event for the time, a surgeon performed an autopsy. Oh, and someone placed a massive stone slab over her coffin…

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
19th-century engraving of Vampire Bats feeding on a human victim. Fine Art America

16. The vampire Petar Blagojevich allegedly killed 9 people

In 1725, Petar Blagojević died in Kisilova. In the 10 weeks following his death, 9 other people fell ill, and died within 24 hours. On their deathbeds, all swore that Petar had come to their bedroom and lay on top of them. Eventually, people threatened to abandon Kisilova altogether if their Austrian overlords didn’t get rid of Petar. Reluctantly, a state representative took a priest with him to supervise the disinterment. Peter’s body hadn’t decayed and exhibited wilde zeichen (‘wild signs’, probably blood around the mouth and sexual arousal). The locals staked the corpse and burned it.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Professor Van Helsing wards off Dracula with a crucifix in the 1931 film. Town News

15. An account of a vampire slaying in Serbia became a bestseller in 1732

The pamphlet Visum et Repertum Est (‘as seen and reported’) described attempts to kill a vampire in Medvedija, Serbia. In the report, the villages exhumed Arnold Paole 40 days after his death, and drove a stake through his heart. The corpse, which had killed 4 people and also drank the blood of livestock, shrieked. Villagers feared people who ate cattle he’d sucked dry were also now vampires, and thus 8 other corpses were burned. The report came from an Austrian army surgeon, and was thus thought credible. A month after its publication in 1732, copies were printed all over Europe…

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, Germany, c.1818. English travelers on the continent brought the word ‘vampire’ back with them. Wikimedia Commons

14. The word ‘vampire’ first entered the English language around this time

With Visum et Repertum Est, the Slavic vampire crawled from the Habsburg Empire all over Europe. Within 2 years, the pamphlet seems to have taught the English a new word. In 1734, the word ‘vampire’ appeared in English for the first time. Up to that point, texts written in England didn’t have a proper catch-all term for the hungry dead. This first appearance came in The Travels of Three Gentlemen. This narrative described three men’s experiences traveling around Europe. At Laubach, Germany, the men heard tales of ‘the Vampyres, said to infest some Parts of this Country’.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Not a vampire in sight! British Heart Foundation

13. There’s very little historical evidence that vampires don’t like garlic

If there’s one thing most modern mythologies agree upon, it’s that vampires hate garlic. However, this is largely a myth created by Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula. Although in parts of Romanian folklore there are references to garlic shoved in the mouth of a suspected vampire to stop it rising, garlic doesn’t seem to have been a popular deterrent elsewhere. Far more common in Slavic accounts are rosemary, roses, and mustard seeds. All are pretty fragrant plant matter, though, so garlic isn’t exactly an illogical choice. It’s more accurate to say that vampires hate smelly plants.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Vampire by Edvard Munch, 1895. Wikimedia Commons

12. Much European folklore links vampirism to suicide

Suicide is still a cultural taboo today, despite our greater understanding of mental health issues. Centuries ago, people weren’t as empathetic. Suicide is a Christian sin, and older Christianity explicitly states that people committing suicide go to hell. Thus it isn’t surprising that in much vampire folklore people who commit suicide return as vampires. After all, the vampire in these legends nearly always has an axe to grind or sins preventing them from rotting. It’s little wonder therefore that people feared those who committed suicide would come back to wreak havoc on earth.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The grave of Mercy L. Brown, a suspected vampire, on Rhode Island. New England

11. There are records of 60 known anti-vampire rituals in 19th-century America

Between 1883 and 1891, several members of the Brown family of Rhode Island were sickened and died. Doctors diagnosed them with consumption, but locals thought otherwise. They convinced George Brown to exhume his dead family to check for signs of vampirism in 1892. They found that George’s daughter, Mercy, who’d been dead some time, hadn’t decomposed. The superstitious Rhode Islanders cut out Mercy’s heart and liver and burned them. They used the ashes to make a tonic for her sick brother, who died 2 months later despite drinking it. Amazingly, we know of 59 other similar incidents from 19th-century America.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Illustration of John Williams’s corpse being driven through London, shortly before the staking, from a London newspaper reporting the event in 1811. Wikimedia Commons

10. In 1811, an angry mob staked a dead murderer through the heart of London

In December 1811, someone bludgeoned 7 people to death in London in 2 separate incidents. Police arrested a shady character called John Williams, but before he could be tried for murder, Williams committed suicide. A cart carried his body to be buried at a crossroads near where the first murders took place. Fearful that he would rise from the grave, locals hammered a stake through his heart. For years, the end of the stake could be seen above ground on the street. Fear of the restless undead clearly affected the English as much as their Eastern European cousins.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
If you hate Twilight, you’ve got this man to thank. John Polidori, painted by F.G. Gainsford, c.1822. Wikimedia Commons

9. The image of the modern vampire came from John Polidori’s The Vampyre

In 1816, the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron vacationed in Switzerland. With their companions, including Percy’s wife, Mary, they passed one stormy night near Lake Geneva telling scary stories. That night, not only Frankenstein but also the modern vampire were born. Byron’s physician, John Polidori, quickly wrote down notes on the famous poet’s vampire story. 3 years later Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre, appeared in print. Polidori’s vampire hero, Lord Ruthven, is clearly modeled on Byron: handsome, aristocratic, mysterious, and irresistible to women. Ruthless, sexy, and tragic, Lord Ruthven is the model for all subsequent vampires.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Cover of the original Penny Dreadful version of Varney the Vampire, London, c.1845. Wikimedia Commons

8. Varney the Vampire ran for two years in British newspapers and is one of the most influential versions of the vampire legend

Polidori’s tale proved an instant hit, and soon a market for vampire fiction developed in England. But before Dracula, the most famous vampire in England went by the name of Varney. Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood ran for 2 years as a weekly penny dreadful. Most penny dreadful were soon forgotten by their mostly lower-class audiences. However, people loved Varney so much that it appeared as a lengthy, bestselling book for the genteel classes in 1847. Hugely influential, Varney depicted another aristocratic vampire and established many familiar vampiric tropes, such as long teeth and puncture wounds.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
63-year-old shepherd Mircea Mitrica, a Romanian man who got a suspended sentence for digging up a suspected vampire’s grave and consuming the heart. Black Sea

7. And soon after that, the Croglin Grange Vampire rose from the grave in England

According to Augustus Hare, writing in 1896, a vampire plagued Croglin Grange in Cumbria in the 1870s. One night, a female tenant awoke to see a figure coming towards her from the nearby graveyard. It broke through the window, and before she could escape, clamped down on her neck, leaving her bloodied. Hearing their sister’s screams, the brothers chased it off. The vampire returned a few months later, but this time the brothers managed to wound it before it fed. They tracked it to a crypt, dragged it outside, and burned it. Did they read Varney, by any chance?

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Whitby Abbey, an essential stop on any Dracula tour. Flickr

6. This wouldn’t be a history of vampires without mentioning Bram Stoker

In 1897, the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre published the definitive vampire story. Bram Stoker said he came up with Dracula after having a nightmare caused by bad crab meat. He then spent years researching Slavic folklore and travelogues, especially Emily Gerard’s essay, ‘Transylvania Superstitions’. He also drew heavily on novels such as The Vampyre, Varney the Vampire, and Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla. Although he never visited Transylvania, Stoker did spend his holidays in Whitby (above), which features prominently in the novel. Far from original, and far from perfect, Dracula is still a very entertaining and oft-terrifying novel.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The church in Golo, Slovenia, where a vampire supposedly rests. Wikimedia Commons

5. The nicest vampire in history lived in Slovenia

There’s an unusual vampire tale from the region of Ig in modern-day Slovenia. After dying in the 1830s, Zirovec rose again from the grave. Locals called him a vedomec, a dialect word for vampire, but he was actually pretty nice, as vampires go. Zirovec talked to people while they worked, tried and failed to put on socks, and visited his wife. But people feared he might turn into a bloodsucker, and the parish priest took action. He dug up Zirovec, and drove a stake through his heart. ‘Now you have caught me!’ shrieked Zirovec, who never returned.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 movie is for many people the definitive image of the vampire. International Policy Digest

4. Early cinema helped keep vampires popular

Almost as soon as the technology developed, vampires appeared on film. The first vampire film, Le Manoir Du Diable (‘The Devil’s Mansion’), came out in 1896. The most famous silent vampire film is F.W. Murnau’s chilling Nosferatu of 1922, an unofficial adaptation of Dracula. Vampires translated well to the big screen and, for many people, the definitive vampire movie is the 1931 Dracula. The Hungarian star, Bela Lugosi, is how most people visualize Count Dracula. Unable to speak English, he learned his lines phonetically, giving them an eerie, undead cadence. Vampire movies have been big-business throughout cinema history.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
Max Schreck in Nosferatu. Bloody Disgusting

3. Max Schreck did such a good job in Nosferatu, some people thought he must be a vampire

Legal action from Stoker’s family delayed the release of Nosferatu and forced the destruction of most copies. However, Nosferatu survived, and is still hailed as a classic horror film. The cadaverous Count Orlok is a world away from handsome Bela Lugosi, and so convincing that sinister rumors spread. Some people feared the actor playing Count Orlok, Max Schreck, was a real vampire, paid in the cast members’ blood! His eccentric personality didn’t help. Schreck was a method actor, keeping character between takes. Preferring his own company, Schreck also had a dark sense of humor. He died in 1936.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
A newspaper reports on the latest Highgate Vampire lunacy, 1970. Vampedia

2. A vampire panic in 1970s London saw numerous arrests and a body burned

In 1970, David Farrant told a local newspaper he’d seen a tall, grey figure in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Other people wrote in saying they’d seen similar ghosts in the same place. One correspondent, a self-proclaimed vampire hunter and (alleged) bishop, Sean Manchester, said it was a vampire. In the lunacy that followed, a mob of vampire hunters broke into Highgate despite the police’s best efforts. A charred and headless corpse turned up one morning. Police later arrested Farrant, armed with a crucifix and wooden stake, at Highgate. Don’t worry, though: ‘Bishop’ Manchester exorcised the vampire the same year. Phew.

40 Fang-tastic Facts about the History of Vampires
The Irish Vampire, from Punch Magazine, 1884, depicts the new National League as a monstrous vampire about to bleed Ireland dry. Wikimedia Commons

1. Vampires are the metaphor that will never die

1500 or so years after the first vampires appeared in Slavic folklore, they show no signs of going away. Ever since the outbreak in the Habsburg Empire, vampires have stalked popular culture and folk belief around the world. Today, vampires are not just monsters but metaphors. The creature’s burning desire for blood has come to represent all manner of things: sexual desire, profound love, substance addiction. The parasitic nature of the vampire also equates to contagious disease and big businesses draining nations of financial resources. One thing’s for sure: vampires may not exist, but they’re certainly immortal.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Murphy, Eileen M., ed. Deviant Burial in the Archaeological Record. Oxford: Oxbow, 2008.

Sugg, Richard. The Real Vampires, A Century of Ghost Stories. Stroud: Amberley, 2019.

Summers, Montague. The Vampire. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1995.

Thorne, Tony. Children of the Night: Of Vampires and Vampirism. London: Indigo, 2000.