Before you go all horror-fiction-freakout on me, I am not here to confirm or deny the existence of vampires. Not my place to tell you what to believe – this article is designed to address the formerly popular belief that vampires were a real danger, attribute them to possible mostly unheard of medical conditions of the time (by way of possible explanation) and discuss the ways and practices of dealing with a vampire in the past. Whether you like it or not, vampires were a very real fear to our ancestors, and there are still some, by historical comparison, civilized countries who still hold those beliefs even today. Every dispirit culture in the world had it’s own version of the vampire, similar to almost every country in the world had it’s own version of the dragon (yeah, I’ll get to that one another time). Whether it fed on the blood, flesh, or vital essence of the living, it was a great fear to the superstitious and largely ignorant people of our not-too-distant past. Monarchs, popes, and soothsayers alike believed in the threat the undead posed and it’s only been within the last 100 years that modern science has peeled away the veil of uncertainty to reveal the possible truths behind the existence of vampires.
Our ancestors were taught to fear dead bodies, and with some good reason. Beyond the fact that they so resembled the living but were not (which is quite off-putting) and any other superstition, bodies carried hitherto unknown diseases that could infect a living person as it decomposed. Various gaseous buildups could cause limbs to twitch and, in some extreme cases, cavities to explode. Frankly, being around a slowly decaying body is just plain ooky (technical term). Thanks to Brom Stoker we all know the weaknesses of the vampire – running water, has to sleep in a coffin within his native soil, stake to the heart, beheading, silver, and to a much lesser degree than modern fiction would have you believe, sunlight. And no, Dracula did not now, nor will he ever… SPARKLE.
A stake through the heart comes from an eastern European tendency to nail a corpse at risk of rising from the grave to the coffin.
The running water origin requires a bit more explanation. The notion that running water is pure comes from a basic scientific principle that if water is moving, it does not stagnate and grow the various algae and bacteria that, if consumed, could cause some very uncomfortable digestive conditions. So running water is considered pure and purifying. Thus baptisms take place in streams and slow-moving rivers, or better yet, in a lake. Never in a pond or a stagnate river salient. So the idea that a vampire cannot cross or will drown in running water comes from that belief. There are a number of islands off the coastlines of various lakes, seas, and oceans that are said to house the burial grounds of suspected vampires.
Silver is more esoteric. Remember that, at the time we are discussing, silver was a rarity. I mean, it still is, but it much more prevalent now than ever it was then. People held silver and gold in the same reverence as one nowadays might hold, say, a diamond the size of your fist. Sure, someone in the world has access to such things, but I sure as heck don’t and find it unlikely that I ever will.
The idea of “casting no reflection” also stems from a fundamental belief that the soul is holy and the lack of soul is the opposite. Only one so ensouled casts a reflection, therefore a vampire, void of soul, does not.
In lieu of any of these practices, however, sometimes a burial contingent will get creative. Twisting a body into strange ways to make it difficult to maneuver and wend it’s way out of a coffin, filling the mouth with pebbles or a large rock so it cannot feed, lashing it’s neck to it’s feet, placing heavy stones atop the coffin… sometimes you just go with what you got.
Many people have attributed the notion of vampirism to the rare disease called porphyria, a deficiency in the chemicals that carry oxygen to your blood. A non-acute case causes severe sensitivity to light and will cause lesion-like burns on the skin in a matter of minutes.
The other big disease is tuberculosis. The rapidly ailing health, tendency to cough up blood, this simply played into the idea that someone was descending into undeath and that they would return as something… unnatural.
Am I saying the vampire exist? Well, actually… yes. Yes they do. But not in sense of coming back from the dead. There is a psychological disorder literally called Vampire Personality Disorder or colloquially “Renfield’s Syndrome”. Yeah, this is a thing – people BELIEVE they gain some kind of mystical power from the consumption of blood. You can go check it out for yourself in this most reputable magazine: Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…/vampire-personality-disor…).
So while vampires are very much a myth, the BELIEF in vampires is very much a reality, and no matter what your belief system or personal creed, there was a time when more than just common man believed in such things.