As I strolled through Wal-Mart the other day trying to find a Halloween costume that my 8-year-old son would like and that his school and I would approve of, I began to contemplate: why do we (the general public) believe in vampires? Why are they associated with Halloween? In an earlier article I wrote on Environmental Graffiti about pumpkins and Halloween I discovered that the Celts brought Halloween to the world with their ancient celebration of the dead on November 1st. Then the Irish picked up the tradition and made it artistic by carving turnips and later pumpkins. Nowhere was it mentioned that vampires come crawling out of pumpkins or that pumpkins were put on graves of those not quite dead (though this would make an interesting news story!). Here are some facts I picked up along the way in my quest for knowledge.
Stabbed in the Heart with a Stake
This piece of vampire folklore brought the most interest to me. It originates from Christianity, believe it or not. In the Bible, certain types of wood were used to symbolize many things – from plagues, to sores, to sacrifice, to joy or happiness.
Additionally, as discussed in many of my previous articles, the bloating of a corpse leads to eventual escape of trapped gases from a corpse. The moment these gases escape, the air will also come through the esophogus and rattle the vocal chords. This is why staked vampires groan. They aren't really alive; they are simply being deflated much like a balloon.
It was believed in ancient times that by preventing the corpse from completely bloating, and making the gases escape through staking, it wouldn't become a revenant. Many religions, particularly those of Latin decent, believe that corpses can come back from the grave. Revenants came back to harass the living relatives, especially if they had a 'bone to pick'.
Pretty soon, these ideas of those in Middle Ages gave way to subsequent notions of revenants sucking blood from living people to continue living (in a parallel universe sort of way).
Blood Sucking and Biting
Perhaps those who lived in the Middle Ages were sex depraved or had too much time on their hands because the blood sucking scare became very strong and epidemic at this time in history. Many people, even those schooled in medicine, didn't understand many medical marvels and conditions. One of them was Porphyria ("Vampire's Disease").
Porphyria causes the following symptoms:
- Acute abdominal pain
- Purple urine and poop
- Photosensitivity (blistering skin conditions when in light)
- Neuropathy (muscle weakness)
- Tachycardia (fast heart rate)
Now that you know a little about porphyria, you can imagine how ignorant people may fear someone who is in livid pain, unable to poop (and when they do, it's purple), who can't be around light, moves uncontrollably, and who is demented. While this might make for an excellent Michael Jackson music video, it was frowned upon in the Middle Ages. Those who suffered from this disease needed lots of blood transfusions because of poor hemoglobin creation in the blood (which is why sufferers and their excrement turn purple). Hence, vampires seeking blood were really people suffering from porphyria.
For the reasons just explained, there are many people who can't be exposed to light. They instantly get boils and blisters. The itchiness and skin allergies that stem from such a debilitating disease are comparable to the symptoms of someone who is severely allergic to pollen or cats. However, no one sees anything odd or evil about being allergic to flowers or cats. But, throughout the ages, even before recorded history, surely most religions have had an element of equating light with goodness. So, if one is allergic to light, they must be evil, right?
Porphyria can also explain the receding gum lines that make the eye teeth become more prominent. Without proper amounts of hemoglobin in the blood, the gums simply shrivel up. It is said that many people in early European history suffered from porphyria and exposed eye teeth due to the intermarrying of European nobility (another good reason not to marry your sister). If one was born with these teeth, as some babies are, then they were automatically labeled as a vampire. This kid was probably popular only during Halloween. Even in modern times you will find this myth alive and well, particularly in Latin countries.
If one had "fangs", chances were that dad, mom, or weird uncle Al had them. After burying one of them, no one wanted to be reminded of their constipated, purplish, fanged dead relatives. So, those with the disease often did not have mirrors in their house. Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes.
This one has Christian roots too. The fleeing Jews apparently missed garlic during the Biblical Great Exodus. Garlic also exacerbates porphyria's skin ailments. The potency of garlic can also dissolve blood clots and stop a heart attack. Again, there is a comparison to blood and blood abnormalities.
Bats and Other Creepy Flying Things
Romanian folklore had a lot to say about race, eternity, and other naturally occurring events. They said that we were all once black, like the clay God is supposed to have created us from. But, when the Biblical Cain and Able committed the first crime (murder) they believed that their skin was bleached ("a se îngălbeni de frică" or to go yellow with fear).
As for things that were winged and creepy, they believed the devil would ascend from the Underworld during the End Times and take the souls of what is his (as God would do with the "good souls"). Somehow bats got mixed in with this because some types of bats suck blood and all are associated with the night. They are also photosensitive.
So, if you must dress your little ghoul in a frightening vampire costume this holiday season, here's the take away message. The reason why we believe in vampires is because of Christian origins of wooden symbols, garlic and winged demons taking us to hell during the Apocalypse. Royalty intermarried in early European history making people have exposed eyes, teeth, sores, and purple poop. Since blood transfusions hadn't been invented yet, many people had bizarre symptoms that made them look possessed. And people didn't know about decomposition in the pre-modern era, so they came up with their own creative and horrific explanations.
But, of course, it's much more romantic and appealing to watch The Vampire Diaries and get lost in folklore!