Outbreaks of Vampirism: Fiction Versus Folklore
What does the continued relevance of vampire stories say about humans’ natural inclination to ostracize the ‘other?’ How have modern vampire tales changed this narrative? Could this evolution of thought be representative of an evolved human condition? What do vampire tales say about our fear of the dead, or mass hysteria associated with things we do not understand?
Vampires are a thing of intrigue and mystery since time immemorial with many different stories about them in dissimilar parts of the world.
As a phenomenon, vampires have flooded pop culture since the Victorian Age. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was the first text on vampires to gain worldwide popularity, but even before Stoker penned his novel, a long history of vampire mythology frightened and fascinated people across the world. A commonality exists in that all vampire folklore tales describe a supernatural, undead creature who sucks blood of the human beings around them.
The following comparison describes the similarities and differences of physical attributes, behavior patterns, and portrayed images of vampires that exist in fiction to vampires that exit in folklore. Three stories from the folklore of Eastern Europe including Peter Plogojowitz, The Shoemaker of Silesia, and Visum et Repertum will be compared with two fictional works, the Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer, and Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett.
Vampire Folk Stories
Peter Plogojowitz is one of the first recorded vampire folk stories to be published. It tells of a man named Peter Plogojowitz who died and, within a week, nine people died after suffering from a 24-hour illness.
According to Barber, these people on their death bed had complained that “Plogojowitz, who had died ten weeks earlier, had come to them in their sleep, laid himself on them, and throttled them, so that they would have to give up the ghost.” His wife also claimed that Peter came to her after his death, asking for his shoes and left saying he’s going to another town. To put an end to this misery, the townspeople approached the narrator of the story, who was the ‘Imperial Provisor’ of the ‘Gradisk District’ asking for permission to exhume the body, which they did. The narrator says:
I did not detect the slightest odor that is otherwise characteristic of the dead, and the body, except for the nose, which was somewhat fallen away, was completely fresh.
The hair and beard — even the nails, of which the old ones had fallen away — had grown on him; the old skin, which was somewhat whitish, had peeled away, and a new fresh one had emerged under it. The face, hands, and feet, and the whole body were so constituted, that they could not have been more complete in his lifetime. Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him.
The corpse was then destroyed to extinguish the remains. They “sharpened a stake — in order to pierce the corpse of the deceased with it — and put this at his heart, whereupon, as he was pierced, not only did much blood, completely fresh, flow also through his ears and mouth, but still other wild signs (which I pass by out of high respect) took place. Finally, according to their usual practice, they burned the often-mentioned body, in hoc casu, to ashes.”
The second story, The Shoemaker of Silesia, describes a shoemaker who had committed suicide, but his wife covered it up so that he could get a proper, Christian burial. He was interred properly, but soon, there were rumors about the way he had died.
…a ghost appeared now and again, in just such a form as the shoemaker had in his lifetime, and during the day as well as at night. It scared many people through its very form, awakened others with noises, oppressed others, and others it vexed in other ways, so that early in the morning one heard talk everywhere about the ghost.
But when the rumors got worse, the matter was taken to the authorities on maligning the reputation of an honorable man.
…the state of haunting became even worse. For the ghost was there right after sundown, and since no one was free of it, everyone looked around constantly for it. The ones most bothered were those who wanted to rest after heavy work; often it came to their bed, often it actually lay down in it and was like to smother the people. Indeed, it squeezed them so hard that — not without astonishment — people could see the marks left by its fingers, so that one could easily judge the so-called stroke [that the shoemaker was alleged to have died from.
Finally, the corpse was viewed, and “they found the body complete and undamaged by decay, but blown up like a drum, except that nothing was changed and the limbs all still hung together.
They were — which was remarkable — not stiffened, like those of other dead people, but one could move them easily. On his feet the skin had peeled away, and another had grown, much purer and stronger than the first, and as almost all sorcerers are marked in an out-of-the-way place, so that one does not notice it easily, so did he have on his big toe a mole like a rose. No one knew the meaning of this. There was also no stench to be noticed, except that the cloths in which he was wrapped had a repulsive smell. The wound in his throat gaped open and was reddish and not changed in the slightest.”
The exhumation of the body did not help since the hauntings grew even as the corpse was observed each day for 14 days, so “the body had grown much fuller of flesh.” Then, finally, “on the seventh, the council had the hangman take the corpse out of the other grave. Then its head was cut off, its hands and feet dismembered, after which the back was cut open and the heart taken out, which looked as good as that of a freshly slaughtered calf. Everything together was burned on a pyre built up of seven klafters of wood and of many pitch rings. But so that no one would gather the ashes or the bones and keep them for sorcery, as tends to happen otherwise, the guards were not allowed to let anyone near. Early in the morning, when the stack of wood had burned up, the ashes, in a sack, were thrown into the flowing water, whereupon, through God’s help, the ghost stayed away and was never seen again.”
The final story, Visum et Repertum, is the story of Arnold Paole, who fell from a great height while working on the farm, and was brought, unconscious, back to his home. He must have sustained internal injuries from the fall, for within a few days, Paole died and was buried in the town cemetery.
A month after he died, there were several reports of sightings from people around the township who had seen Paole. A few had even seen him in their own home, although these reports do not clearly state what he did while in these homes. For the most part, however, there was little panic stemming from these reports until a short time later. Several weeks after the initial reports, most of the people who had claimed Paole had visited their home turned up dead for inexplicable reasons, and a group was assembled to exhume the body of Arnold Paole.
The group consisted of two military officers, two army surgeons, and a priest from the local church. When the group exhumed the body, they found a fresh corpse displaying no decomposition of the body whatsoever, and in fact, the old skin and nails had fallen off, and new ones had grown to take their place! The final affront was the fresh blood that rested on the lips of the deceased Paole. When one member of the group staked the body, it cried out and fresh blood spilled from the wound. The group then scattered garlic around the remains, and did the same to each of the graves of Paole’s victims.
All was quiet in Meduegna for several years until 1732, when there was another spate of inexplicable deaths. This time, the town took no chances and immediately sent out a group to the graveyard to investigate. The resultant report is recorded in many history books.
It was signed by three renowned army surgeons and cosigned by a lieutenant-colonel and a sub-lieutenant. Of all the bodies they disinterred during the investigation, they found no less than 11 corpses which displayed the same marked traits as Paole’s corpse, which included no decomposition, (although many had been interred several months previous to their inquiry), fresh skin grown and fresh blood in the arteries and in the heart. The complete medical report of their findings is available in many modern vampire histories. No explanation has been given for the later outbreak of vampirism, although one theory holds that Paole had feasted on local cattle as well as people during his vampiric reign. Then, the theory states, as time passed and the cows were killed for their meat, the vampire qualities were passed on to anyone who ate the meat.
Modern Vampire Fiction Novels
The first fiction novel series was the popular Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer, which has been read by thousands around the globe.
The story revolves around a human girl named Bella Swan who falls in love with a vampire. Essentially, this love story describes Bella living in a vampire’s world where her life is in constant danger. Meyer adds Jacob, a werewolf, to the folklore mix, who is also in love with Bella. The series ends with Bella becoming a vampire, which became necessary after the child she gave birth to nearly killed her during pregnancy.
The second is a single novel by Terry Pratchett called Carpe Jugulum. The vampires in the story are the Magpyr family who are cape-wearing, pale vampires and a Draculaesque image. However, there is a certain reversal of the original Dracula image: they are ‘modern’ vampires who wear brighter clothes, drink wine, and stay up until noon (a play at late-night partying).
How Do We Compare?
The comparison between the vampires in folklore and the vampires in fiction begins with the physical attributes of vampires. The vampires in the folktales are not shown in action but are seen in coffins. They do not soon move, but there is mention of them moving about like ghosts; they are described as human corpses.
There are several signs given in each of the three folklore tales that designates them as vampires. First, blood comes out of their mouths and/or ears. Second, a bloated body suggests fattening due to blood consumption as well as a halted decomposition of the body due to the fresh blood the body consumes every day. Third, the growing of new skin, hair, and nails designates these folklore characters as vampires.
In comparison, vampires in modern fiction have human bodies with pointed teeth which may or may not be retractable. They have the ability to move so fast that a human eye cannot see them, and have super human strength as is seen in the Twilight saga vampire characters. In both of the fiction novel cases, the vampires are pale. In Twilight, the vampire’s skin is said to shine like diamonds when exposed to the sun’s rays, though in Carpe Jugulum, the skin is said to burn the vampire into ashes. In contrast, in the folklore tales, they are described as ruddy from blood drinking.
The next question that arises is, How is a vampire made? In the folklore tales, vampires are made by a variety of circumstances. Any person who dies of an unexplained illness, such as from an epidemic, can become a vampire as in the case of Peter Plogojowitz. Also, as in the case of The Shoemaker of Silesia, suicide can contribute to the person becoming a vampire. In the case of Arnold Paole, he became a vampire because he was haunted by a vampire during his lifetime, although there is no record in the text whether he was ever bitten, which is one of the causes of becoming a vampire.
In the fiction novels, in both cases, a human is made into a vampire by being bitten by another vampire. In Carpe Jugulum, a person can be born a vampire like Vlad de Magpyr and Lacrimosa de Magpyr. In Twilight, it is a bit more complicated regarding how one becomes a vampire: a vampire can only be created if a male vampire and female human conceive a child, but since vampire bodies do not grow, there is no space for a baby to grow inside a female vampire’s body. Edward Cullen and Bella Swan do have a child, however, but it is a species of its own — a mixture of human and vampire, with a vampire-like appetite for blood, but can also survive on human food and has an accelerated growth rate.
The vampires in fiction have other identifying features, other than super speed and super human strength. In the Twilight story, certain vampires have extra abilities, such as Edward having the power to know what anyone is thinking at that particular time, Alice seeing the future, Aro touching a person’s hand and coming to know all their thoughts in their entire lifetime. In Carpe Jugulum, any vampire can control a human’s thoughts and can even turn themselves into a pack of magpies and fly. There is no mention of any such powers in the folktales.
The mode of killing for vampires is different in folktales and in fiction. The vampires in the folklore tales, such as in the Plogojowitz story, are killed by a 24 -hour illness after complaining of Plogojowitz choking them in a dream. In the shoemaker story, the vampire is said to have smothered them to death because the people who died of vampirism complained of a heavy weight pressing hard down on them. In contrast, modern vampire fiction depicts the mode of killing as being bitten on the neck and being drained of their blood.
Another comparison point is how a vampire is killed. In folklore, the vampire’s corpse needs to have the heart pierced with a wooden stake, beheaded, and burnt to ashes. But in the case of the shoemaker (a rampant, stubborn case), the ashes that are produced from burning the corpse should be sprinkled into the flowing water of a river. By contrast in fiction, such as in Carpe Jugulum, a vampire cannot ever be truly killed: it can be staked and burnt to ashes, but if a single drop of blood is poured on the ashes, the vampire can be reborn. In Twilight, a vampire can be killed by beheading and burning them.
The blood that a vampire drinks is human, but in both the fiction pieces reviewed in this essay, the vampires can survive on animal blood. In Carpe Jugulum, vampires are said to have low hemoglobin levels, which is why they tend to drink blood; however, there is no need to drink every day and though animal blood is fine, human blood is preferable. In Twilight, the majority of vampires drink human blood. The Cullen coven and another coven in Denali are the only two in the world that practice ‘vegetarianism,’ that is, cosuming animal (and not human) blood.
There is one major area of contrast: In modern fiction, a vampire is looked at as multidimensional with personality traits, while in folklore, a vampire is completely one dimensional in its conception and is viewed as an evil creature needing to be eradicated. In folklore, a vampire serves as a scapegoat for any phenomenon, such as unknown or unexplainable illness, and blame is placed on them. This is not the case in modern vampire fiction, and this distinction is made apparent in the Twilight series, where vampires are viewed in a good light by the narrator of the story.
In all folklore tales mentioned, none of the narrators stated that they saw vampires standing or moving; instead, vampires are merely corpses in coffins. The narrator simply retells the story from what others have revealed. In modern vampire fiction stories, actual vampire characters engage with the plot. For instance, in the Twilight series, a third person account is given from Bella’s perspective, who interacts with the Cullen vampire family. In all works, vampires are seen as fundamentally different from human beings.
In conclusion, modern fictional vampires have little in common with folklore vampires other than their blood-drinking habit. The images that both of them carry are extremely different: folkloric vampires carry an extremely raw, animalistic aura, which is surrounded by horror, while modern fiction vampires carry a suave, sexual aura comprised of horror and thrill. Though both iterations of vampirism are figments of human imagination, their continued relevance across disparate cultures and throughout human history illuminates both the dangers of mass hysteria targeting the ‘other,’ and the simple, naive desire for escapism.
Sheeba Mammen works as an editor, but writes and doodles to remain sane in this spinning-out-of-control world. Her inspiration comes from the people around her. Her perennial interests lie in understanding feminism, intersectionality, body positivity, mental health, and how the concept of the “Other” works in real life. She is an avid Potterhead.