The Bloody History of Vampires Bill Knell

I. It Started With Blood

The Vampire persona has evolved from many true and untrue facts, legends and myths. At various times vampires, real and imagined, have been considered fiends, supernatural beings, shape-shifters, mentally-disturbed deviants, satanic servants and fetish followers. But, it all began and still revolves around a taste for blood!

Contrary to the popular belief that Vampire history, stories and legends began with Vlad the Impaler, they go back much further than that. Many ancient societies worshipped blood thirty gods. This caused people to begin to associate blood with divinity, leading to the development of the early vampire cults. Regardless of the spiritual value, some people have always had a desire to drink blood and the reasons are as varied as the practitioners. In some societies the practice was accepted, as in ancient Egypt. But in others, vampirism was considered deviant behavior and condemned.

In Africa, most civilizations and tribes greatly feared vampirism. The fear was eventually turned into legend as people began to believe vampires were evil spirits that would come in the night to drink blood, kill livestock and steal children. Archeological evidence shows that fetishes, in the form of doll-house sized huts, were built as a protection against them. Some modern African tribal medicine men still hold to this belief and continue to build the fetishes in the same way that their ancestors did.

During the glory days of Rome, vampire cults abounded. Roman citizens, mostly females, began to believe in the concept delivered to them by captured peoples that drinking the blood of fertile females would cure the infertile. Likewise, for males, blood drinking was a way to become more potent. It wasn"t long before blood drinking cult members started to get sick and spread their sicknesses to others. Though it"s doubtful that these people understood much of anything about the diseases transmitted through blood, Roman physicians did see a connection between blood drinking and the spread of sickness. Eventually, the Roman government moved against the cults and outlawed the practice.

Some members of vampire cults refused to stop drinking each otherís blood and continued to meet in secret, despite the physical dangers and threats of severe punishment. When this was discovered and sickness continued to spread, the Roman government dispatched paid assassins to hunt down and kill the renegade blood drinkers. Because they were paid by the number of cult members they killed, these early vampire hunters became legendary. Seeking to get rich from their trade, there is no doubt that these "pay per kill" assassins took the lives of as many innocent people as they did cult members.

The weapon of choice for the Roman vampire hunters was a small, easily hidden dagger. This allowed them to infiltrate the secret cult meetings and then attack without warning. The daggers were highly ornate leaving the Roman public with the impression that the assassins were on a divine mission. The handles were in the shape of a cross and looked very much like any ornate, modern crucifix! In an attempt to scare off the government sanctioned assassins, cult members began to spread stories designed to frighten their trackers. They claimed that drinking blood gave them the ability to change into fierce animals and devour any attackers.

Thanks to the meticulous records kept by Romans and Egyptians, as well as the traditions passed orally by the Africans, vampire legends were well known on local and international levels by the arrival of the middle ages. Had it not been for the proliferation of plague and other pestilences during that time, vampirism probably would have re-emerged as a popular fad. Even so, some drawings in religious books of the period seem to suggest that blood drinking cults continued to exist. Devils, demons and human servants of Satan were often portrayed as committing unspeakable acts, including the sucking of blood from other humans and animals. One may assume that these portrayals were not just shadows of the past or complete figments of over zealous imaginations.

As explorers from the Old World began to visit the New World, the vampire legend took on a new and frightening form. Spanish explorers traveled to the Americas in search of gold and other treasures. Although dreaded by the native peoples living there, the Conquistadors themselves began to fall prey to an unknown and terrifying enemy.

In an attempt to escape the pervasive heat, humidity, bugs, snakes, hostile peoples and monsoon-like rains of the South American jungles and rain forests, the Spaniards would take refuge in caves at night whenever these could be found. It wasn"t long before a strange disease began to claim the sanity and lives of the conquering army. The only thing noticed about those who became ill was that they had strange bite marks on their bodies.

The sick moved quickly towards death and a terrible fear settled in among the Spaniards. The source of the bite was finally discovered when those on late night guard duty watched in horror as bats gently attached themselves to members of the sleeping army. With no real understanding of rabies or how it was spread, the Spaniards just assumed that loss of blood was the cause of death. They believed that the bats were killing the men by feeding on the same subjects night after night until they were drained of blood! Though staying out of caves stopped most of the attacks, some were still bitten.

II. Dracula

By the time Vlad the Impaler came along, the vampire legend had already been well established. His contribution to the history of vampires was largely due to Bram Stoker"s fictional story of Dracula. Already known as a rabid, blood thirsty killer, Dracula suddenly became a virtually unstoppable, supernatural force of evil.

Bram Stoker"s 1897 book, Dracula, was inspired by existing vampire legends and the brutal acts of a legendary tyrant. Stoker found the name Dracula in a book on the history of Wallachia. The name was associated with a 15th century Transylvanian despot known as Vlad the Impaler, also called "Vlad Dracul," which means "the devil" in Romanian. Impaling was the gruesome practice of forcing a long wooden spear through the body until the victim gradually dies. Dracula favored impaling as a form of execution and a scare tactic used to instill fear in his enemies. Vlad hated non-Christians, making it a policy to kill any non-practicing residents under his authority. Fearing for their lives, his subjects placed crosses on their front lawns and doorways to keep Dracula at bay.

Transylvanian traditions were also a source of great inspiration for Bram Stoker. They believed in what were called "strigoi" (the undead) who would walk the earth because they were improperly buried or had lived an evil life. Like vampires, they would stalk and kill humans. Stopping them meant driving a stake through their heart. They would then be placed in a coffin where the same stake was driven through the coffin and into the ground. That was the only procedure known to keep the undead in the ground where they belonged.

Although the marriage of fact, fiction and folktales that came together in Bram Stokerís Dracula forever changed and deluded original traditions and beliefs about vampires, it also created a huge amount of interest in them. More then a few people read the novel believing it to be a true story, thus adding to the legend. Younger readers were especially susceptible to the suspense and fear created by the main character. Many would place crosses all over their rooms and nail windows shut!

III. Vampires As Entertainment

Several attempts were made to turn the novel into a stage play, but none were financially successful until Bela Lugosi entered the picture. Though legend has it that Bela initially wanted nothing to do with the project, Dracula became the role of his lifetime. Each night an ambulance was parked outside the Broadway theater where Dracula was performed, and this wasn"t just for publicity purposes! People would faint or get trampled as audience members tried to run out of the performance with the appearance of Bela on the stage as Dracula.

With reactions like that to the book and Broadway Play, the story was a natural for early film makers. While it is unclear who actually tried to bring Dracula to the screen first, it"s certain that the 1922 silent film Nosferatu was one of the first uses of a vampire as a major character in a motion picture. In this German film, the vampire is a blood sucking fiend with no redeeming values. Realistic make-up and great special effects make Nosferatu still worth watching on video.

If Nosferatu secured the vampire"s reputation as a fiend with movie audiences, it was the 1931 American film DRACULA that gave a slightly more human face to all creatures of the night! In Dracula, Bela Lugosi brought his stunning stage performance to the big screen. The pace was slow allowing each moment of suspense and terror to be fully felt and appreciated by the audience. Rather then being just a predatory monster as in Nosferatu, Bela played the Master Vampire as a royal, dark and manipulative force using the few human attributes he had left to build an army of the undead that existed to serve his needs.

The 1940s brought the movie character of Dracula into contact with other well-known monsters like The Werewolf and Frankenstein. During that time, a string of reasonably well made "B" Movies forced gothic horror purists to endure watching their favorite characters mixed with everyone from mad scientists to Abbot and Costello. During the 1950s and 1960s, movie vampires faced new friends and foes in the form of atomic monsters and space aliens. If you want to see what may be the stupidest vampire movie of all time, buy a copy of 1967ís Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck by Roman Polanski on video. The 1960s also brought an unusual soap opera to TV.

Dark Shadows, the parent of all other vampire TV Shows, was a daytime soap opera that began in the 1960s and ran through part of the 1970s. Although set in modern times, the show drifted across the centuries to tell the story of the ill-fated Collins Family and the vampire curse that hounded them. This was modern gothic horror at its best! The show"s primary character, a vampire named Barnabus Collins (played by the scary Jonathan Frid), became wildly popular and made the soap a massive success. Dark Shadows gave birth to fans clubs, books, magazines, several major films and a short-lived revival series which lacked the punch the original had.

Most 1970ís theatrical releases with a vampire theme were merely color remakes of earlier films or ideas. Many were cheap exploitation pieces made to fill time at a buck fifty a carload Drive-Ins. There were a few exceptions. Andy Warhol"s 1974 film, Andy Warhol"s DRACULA, was well received and became a good companion to his highly acclaimed Andy Warhol"s FRANKENSTEIN. 1979"s Dracula featuring Frank Langella and Sir Lawrence Olivier gave the master vampire a more sophisticated sexual identity which went over well with even the most devoted gothic horror fans. Vampires on TV faired better then those on the big screen in the 1970s.

1972 brought us a made for TV horror film called The Night Stalker. The vampire was a centuries old killer discovered and tracked by an annoying and slightly washed up reporter named Carl Kolchak, played by veteran character actor Darren McGavin. The Night Stalker spawned another film and a Television Series which still airs in reruns today. The 1979 made for television mini-series, Salemís Lot, was based on a Stephen King story and featured David Soul (of Starsky and Hutch) and master actor James Mason in one of his last performances. It is a classic and can still be seen in a shortened or full length version on cable television. Itís also been released on DVD.

The only other big screen vampire movies of the 60s and 70s that gothic horror fans enjoyed were those starring Christopher Lee. His portrayal of the Dracula character was sincere and compelling. Though most of his vampire films were exploitation pieces designed for matinee audiences, Lee"s performances in those movies gave them class amid weak story lines. While most laugh at it, another 1970ís exploitation film, Blackula is oddly addicting and joins the ranks of Love At First Bite, with George Hamilton and Arte Johnson, and the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show as films many vamp fans like to revisit. Each of these movies contain elements of horror, suspense and comedy that mix well and do no real harm to the vampire legend.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, the vampire theme had been covered so much on film that little was offered apart from comedies and cheap exploitation flicks. One notable exception was Joel Schumacher"s 1987 film The Lost Boys. This movie offered us an updated version of the vampire look as seen by comic books of the time. As scary as it was interesting, The Lost Boys has become a gothic horror and vamp fan favorite. Almost invisible in theaters, the1985 comedy Once Bitten starring Lauren Hutton and Jim Carrey became a cable television standard after Carrey hit the big time in the 90ís. The 1988 teen comedy flick, My Best Friend Is A Vampire, also made it bigger on video and cable then on the big screen.

The 1990s brought us some quality vampire flicks. Francis Ford Coppola"s BRAM STOKER"S DRACULA told us more about the traditional Transylvanian character then previous films and remained faithful to the original novel. The 1992 film based on the comic book character, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, has become a cult favorite. The comic book character also turned into a successful television series with the same title a few years later. The 1994 box office hit, Interview With The Vampire, was based on the Anne Rice book. The film brought Anneís popular characters to a much larger audience and featured a young cast that hit a home run with most vamp fans. Eddie Murphyís 1995, A Vampire In Brooklyn, was both funny and frightening and should not be missed. 1998ís Blade starring Wesley Snipes hit a home run as a an action film with a total update of vampires and those who hunt them. Another 1998 film, John Carpenterís Vampires hit a home run with a lot of vamp fans, but didnít make much of a mark at the box office. Some felt that the western setting and motif hurt the film, but I thought it was original and fun.1999 brought us the start of Angel, a dramatic television series with a touch of humor based on the vampire character introduced in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV show.

Wes Cravenís Dracula 2000 was a very scary treat and a great way to usher in the Millennium, from a supernatural perspective. In 2001 John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe starred in Shadow of the Vampire, a movie which presented the fictional idea that a real vampire was used for the filming of Nosferatu. Although itís kind of an arts film, the slow pace is equaled out by some very frightening moments. 2002ís Queen of the Damned was a less successful adaptation of an Anne Rice story that lacked the star power and humor that Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater and a very young Kirsten Dunst brought to Interview With the Vampire.

A non-stop selection of cable documentaries about Dracula, his castle and vampires seems to indicate that people have yet to get their fill of these creatures of the night. More films are planned and, unless they cancel Halloween, we are likely to be informed and entertained by vampire stories on the large and small screens, as well as online, for years to come.

IV. Motivated By A Thirst For Blood

Most people labeled as Vampires after being accused or convicted of a terrible crime may have had an unusual thirst or need for blood. Hungarian Countess Erzebet Bathory who lived in Vienna in the early 1600s, beat and tortured her servants and may have bathed in their blood believing it would restore her youth. Another Hungarian, Bela Kiss, murdered his wife, neighbor and up to twenty young girls in Budapest before he died while at war in 1914. The bodies were later discovered stored in metal drums, with bite marks on their necks and completely drained of blood. In 1996 a sixteen year old boy named Roderick Ferrell organized a group of Kentucky Teens into a Vampire Cult. They were all fans of the role-playing game, Vampire: The Masquerade. The group went to Florida and murdered the parents of a former girlfriend. Ferrell was later arrested, convicted and sentenced to execution.

Not all vampire incidents are as easy to explain as the crimes committed by wannabe vampires who end up dead or arrested. One of the most puzzling of all factual vampire-related crimes and incidents is the case of the High Gate Cemetery Vampire of England. Oddly enough, it was the western section of that British Cemetery that inspired Bram Stoker in his depiction of some settings for the tale of Dracula.

During the late 1960s, several British children found a shortcut to their school through the western section of High Gate Cemetery in London. As they started using the shortcut on a daily basis in the early morning, some strange things happened. Several of the children became sick and were diagnosed as having experienced a significant loss of blood, along with unusual bite marks on their necks. At the same time, residents of the area began reporting their dogs missing.

Dog carcasses began to turn up inside and near the cemetery. Most died of blood loss and also had strange bite marks on their bodies. A number of credible witnesses reported seeing hooded figures hunched over the dogs as they were dying. An occult group dedicated to the eradication of vampires started patrolling the area, adding to the confusion and weirdness. They actually went around digging up bodies and sticking them with stakes! Needless to say, the group quickly wore out their welcome and had problems with local law enforcement. By the early 1970s, things quieted down as children stopped taking the shortcut through the cemetery and most people kept their pets indoors at night. Although the case remains unsolved, one event put a cap on the whole thing.

A British Policeman on patrol just outside High Gate Cemetery one evening noticed a hooded figure bent over the body of a dog. The animal seemed to be in great distress. As the Officer approached the hooded figure, it turned to look at him. The Officer could clearly see that the hooded figure had no face! It then turned and vanished before his eyes. The dog died of a loss of blood and this is the how the Officer reported the incident. Like so many unexplained events, the case was quietly filed away.

V. The Gothic Lifestyle

For years people have dressed up as Vampires for Halloween and other special occasions. But some never stopped! Over the past forty years more then a few people have spent a good part their lives living like vampires. For most, just dressing the part is enough. Others feel a need to actually drink or suck blood. Although dangerous in a day when blood born diseases pose such a threat to humanity, most involved in the blood drinking or sucking only participate in the fetish with one person or an exclusive group of people.

Today, people who dress like vampires as politely referred to as participating in the Gothic Lifestyle. Itís an umbrella term that covers everyone including those with a blood drinking or sucking fetish. The mere fact that people are still emulating what was laid down as vampire characteristics, dress and behavior in the Dracula novel and films after so many years, indicates the strong appeal and enduring quality of the legend. Since itís publication in 1897, Dracula has never been out of print!

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