*Note: for the sake of time (and because this class is on Russian folklore), I’ll focus on the Russian “upyr,” but given the universality of vampire/vampire-like creatures, I think most of this could be stretched to apply to vampires from many different cultures.
There are all kinds of stories from just about everywhere in the world describing vampires, or vampire-like creatures. There is the “bruja” from Spain and central American; the German “nachzehrer;” the “strigoi” from Romania;” the “asanbosam” of West Africa; the Philippines’ “manananggal;” the Russian “upyr,” as well as various tales about ghouls and incubi and succubi. The list goes on and on. From what I’ve read, most of these things seem to share many common characteristics, namely that they are ‘undead,’ often died unusual/unnatural deaths, and harm the living. (A lot of times they also seem to have this bizarre association with sex – apparently it wasn’t just a Twilight thing – but that’s a story for another day) In this day and age, we generally regard the vampire as entirely fictional. But is that so? Could something so widely believed have really ever been entirely fictional?
Let’s start with what a vampire is. A vampire…
• is “undead”
• has a victim (who they derive sustenance from and weaken)
Of course, usually, this “sustenance” takes the form of blood, but theoretically it could be emotional in nature, too. (I’ll mostly be focusing on the blood variety here.) More specifically, “sorcerers, witches, werewolves, excommunicates,” and zalozhnye (the Russian word for those who died unnatural deaths, like in the case of suicides, alcohol poisoning, accidents, and other sudden deaths) “become vampires at their deaths.” (Oinas, 48) However, sometimes people are born doomed to become vampires. This includes people who were born of unnatural unions (of a werewolf or the devil and a witch), born with cauls over their heads, born with their teeth showing, or born with contiguous eyebrows. There are supposed to be antidotes for some of these signs, although not all. Terrible sinners and those who did not confess before their deaths can also become vampires. Even those who led good lives and died natural deaths can become “upyr” after death if their grave is disrespected – i.e., something unclean steps or flies over their grave.
Okay, so let’s say there’s this guy “Bob” – or hmm, what’s the Russian equivalent of “Bob?” Probably “Ivan” or something. Alright, so we’ve got this guy Ivan. Maybe he was a sorcerer or a hermit, or maybe he was a drunkard and somehow managed to drink the Russian equivalent of ‘too much vodka,’ and he died. Whatever. Point is, Ivan’s a pretty good candidate for vampirism, and since he’s Russian, he becomes more specifically an “upyr.” So Ivan wakes up in his grave and wants out. If he’s the usual type of vampire, he claws his way out of the grave and visits one of his loved ones late at night, slowly draining the person’s life force. He may also just attack a few different people in the village on different nights. The crowing of the rooster sends him back to his grave; he cannot be out during the day.
Another, more violent kind of Russian legend says that Ivan might be even more bloodthirsty than what was described above. In this, around midnight, Ivan wakes up and chews on himself for a while before clawing or chewing his way out of the grave. After this, he seeks out his wife and the rest of his immediate family and begins drinking their blood. Once he’s killed them, he seeks out his more distant relatives and does the same thing to them. If he’s got no blood relatives left in the village, he finds his way to the belfry and rings the bell. Everyone who hears it is doomed to die.
There are different versions of this, of course. Depending on the legend, after waking up Ivan may…
“gnaw his hands and feet, and as he gnaws, first his relatives, and then his neighbours, sicken and die. When he has finished his own store of flesh, he rises at midnight and destroys cattle or climbs a belfry and sounds the bell. All who hear the ill-omened tones will soon die.” (Wright, 109-110)
In another potential scenario, after climbing out of the grave Ivan “first destroys the babies he finds in a house, and afterwards the older inmates.” (Wright, 109)
It is interesting to see how these stories parallel an outbreak of disease. For instance, when bad sicknesses break out, they often start with young children. Little kids haven’t been exposed to as many things as the rest of us, and they get into all kinds of things. A disease would take the very young people first, and then, if it’s bad enough, older people, too, just as described above. In the belfry situations, the first victims of the vampire are their immediate family, and then their more distant relatives. Again, in the instance of disease, whomever caught it first or had the worst strain likely died first, and likely infected the people closest to them – marital partners, immediate family, etc. They probably saw their more distant relative more frequently than they would most people in life, and even if not, the more distant relatives were almost certainly coming by directly following the person’s death for funerals, prayer, to provide consolation, etc., and in this way they would have been infected by the said vampire’s immediate family. The belfry provides an explanation for the seemingly random nature of infection after a disease has really taken hold outside of one family. Many members of a certain village would die, but not all, those who didn’t being the ones who supposedly didn’t hear the bell ring. In cases like these, the vampire legends were likely supernatural explanations for natural phenomena people at this time did not understand.
The other vampire stories, the tales of vampires selecting a loved one to visit and feed on after their death, bear striking similarities to normal processes of grief. According to my instructor, there’s a folk belief in Russia regarding not crying too much after a loved one has died. They believed that if you cried too much, a fiery serpent would visit you in the night and suck your life force, often in the disguise of the deceased loved one. I don’t think this is directly supposed to pertain to vampires, but there is an interesting link here, particularly the bit about the dead loved one – that sounds a lot like a vampire to me. Actually, it sounds like the definition of a vampire. Even if one doesn’t cry too much, there are other normal symptoms of grief like depression, loss of energy, disturbed sleep, weight loss, and otherwise poor health/weakened immune systems that really do drain the life out of you, so to speak. Before there was more collective understanding as to what grief looked like, these symptoms, in conjunction with other things, would seem to be undeniable evidence of a vampire. The other symptoms would mainly be sleep hallucinations and/or vivid dreams. Sleep hallucinations are like any other hallucinations in that under the right conditions, they can appear to anyone. Those of us lucky enough to be gifted with sleep disorders get them much more often than the average individual, but even normal people can get them if their sleep is disturbed enough, as it could be during times of extreme emotional turmoil. Common hallucinations include feeling the presence of an inherently “good” being, or of something intrinsically “evil,” or feeling something press down upon you. People can also see shadowy figures, or even people they know. They can hear things, too. Sleep hallucinations can encompass a wide range of things, and they always seem very, very real to the person they appear to – even today, we get all kinds of stories about alien abductions, messages from the divine, evil presences, etc. (not to say that those are ALL hokey, just that most of them probably are) If so many people don’t realize what a hallucination is when they experience it in this day and age, just imagine what it would have been like before science was this developed. Normal instances of grief could easily be construed into the supernatural.
However, while nighttime visits from vampires may be easily explained, the physical signs of a vampire that can be observed upon opening his grave at first look might seem either undeniable or entirely fictitious. According to various accounts, you’ll know for sure you’ve got a vampire once you open their grave, “in which he will be found resting with rosy cheek and gory mouth.” (Wright, 109) Felix Oinas says in East European Vampires:
“If the grave is opened, the presence of a vampire can be recognized by finding the body in a state of disorder, with red cheeks, tense skin, charged blood vessels, warm blood and growing hair and nails; in some cases the grave itself is bespattered with blood, doubtless from the latest victim.” (Oinas, 48)
In Forensic Science last year, I learned that these signs are actually a natural part of the decomposition process. They’re consistent with the putrefaction stage of decomposition, where the blood is pushed to the surface of the body by gases, causing the red cheeks, tense skin, and charged blood vessels described above. The blood can be warmed by these gases, which also often force blood out of various orifices of the body, especially the mouth. The gases are sometimes pressurized enough that they can cause blood to actually spurt out of the body. Either way, it can result in a blood-spattered grave. Hair and nails don’t really grow after death, but the retraction of skin along the nail and chin can make nails look longer and stubble more prominent. Basically, people described what they actually saw back when they thought these things were signs of vampirism. Without proper scientific understanding, this could very well look like a “vampire.”
Which brings me to my conclusion: vampire legends didn’t just arise out of nothing; they were just peoples’ way of describing what they didn’t understand. What I kind of like about it is that they’re simultaneously true and false – false because they weren’t literally true, but true in a sort of metaphorical way. Things like disease and grief can’t really be blamed for things in the way a human being could; the “upyr” was a sort of outlet for peoples’ feelings of blame and guilt and helplessness. If those things took the form of something like a vampire, people actually had a chance of combatting it, were the proper measures taken to dispose of it (eg. placing poplar crosses in the coffin, beheading the body, burning the body and scattering the ashes, etc.). In a way, it may also have been a sort of unconscious defense mechanism – when someone you love dies, you miss them; it’s natural to wish they’d come back. The vampire stories were sort of like “You may want them to come back, but you wouldn’t like it if they did!”
*Note – this is kind of unrelated to the post, but Netflix has done a pretty interesting show called “Hemlock Grove” that does some relatively non-cliche stuff with vampires and werewolves, if you like that kind of stuff. The vampires in that show are called “upyr.”
Dundes, Alan. “East European Vampires.” The Vampire: A Casebook. Madison: U of Wisconsin, 1998. 47-55. Print.
Wright, Dudley. Vampires and Vampirism: Legends from Around the World. Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2001. Print.