Full of Blood: an Essay on Vampirism
by Brian A. Hopkins

          In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli
          Bodies of holy men and women exude
          Miraculous oil, odor of violet.

          But under heavy loads of trampled clay
          Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood;
          Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.

                         -- W.B. Yeats, "Oil and Blood"

     Of all the nasty creatures conjured and maintained by
mythology, folklore, film and literature, the vampire is
inarguably the most popular.  He's perhaps best characterized by
Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, and Bela Lugosi's 1931
film portrayal of the same.  Bela Lugosi remains the
quintessential image of the modern vampire: thick East European
accent, oiled black hair, pale complexion, prominent fangs, and
long fingernails.  Note my use of the word "modern."  The vampire
of myth and folklore was another chap altogether.
     If you were to welcome a vampire of Slavic folklore into
your home, he wouldn't look much like Stoker's renowned villain. 
Stoker's Dracula was not Slavic.  He lived in Transylvania and
was loosely based on Vlad Tepes, a figure in Rumanian history who
was a prince, not a count, ruled in Walachia, not Transylvania,
and was never viewed by the local populace as a vampire.  The
real Dracula was born Vlad, son of Vlad, around 1431 in
Sighisoara, Transylvania.  Shortly thereafter, Vlad the father
was given the Order of the Dragon by Emperor Sigismund of
Nuremberg.  The emblem of the order was a dragon (dracul)
with spread wings, hanging on a cross.  Because of his connection
with this symbol, Vlad the father was later nicknamed Dracul. 
The nickname Dracula, son of Dracul, was given to his son.  The
real story of Dracula is an interesting one, ending in 1476 when
he was killed in battle by the Turks, but it never occurred to
anyone that he was a vampire until the Irishman Bram Stoker came
     The vampire of folklore is a particular type of Slavic
revenant.  Far from elegant, the folkloric vampire appears plump
and ruddy, his hair awry, his eyes vacant and lost; in short, a
disheveled Slavic peasant.  He's apt to be wrapped in a linen
shroud, clotted with dirt, and accompanied by an awful stench. 
Where the fictional vampire sucks blood from the neck of his
victim, the folkloric vampire attacks primarily the chest or the
extremities.  He spends his days not in a noble castle, but in
the graveyard wherein he was buried.
     According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word
vampire entered the English language in 1734, at a time when
Europeans showed a great deal of interest in the subject. 
Unremarkably, the word comes from that part of the world most
famous in history and literature as the home of the vampire:
Transylvania.  The Hungarian word is Vampyr, but there are
many variations: Russian, upyr; Turkish, obour;
Greek, vrykolakas; and so on.  The first known use of the
word is in a travel book published in London in 1734, The
Travels of Three English Gentlemen.  The authors state that
vampyrs are the "bodies of deceased persons, animated by
evil spirits, which come out of the grave in the night-time, suck
the blood of many of the living and thereby destroy them." 
Following publication of the book, use of the word spread, but
the concept, if not the word, was already centuries old in
England, as it was everywhere.  One reason for all the excitement
at the time was the Peace of Passarowitz (1718), by which parts
of Serbia and Walachia were turned over to Austria.  Thereupon,
the occupying forces began to notice and file reports on a
peculiar local practice: that of exhuming bodies and "killing"
     The vampire may have originated in the Indus River Valley
(which includes portions of India, Nepal, and Tibet) where wall
paintings and carved figures depicting vampire-type gods date
back to 3000 B.C.  These pictures show creatures with green
faces, pale blue bodies, and prominent fangs.  The partaking of
blood is featured in at least one of these: the Nepalese Lord of
Death holds a skull cup filled with blood and stands on a hill of
skeletons in a sea of blood.  Delhousie University professor
Devendra P. Varma, a recognized vampire expert, in her book
The Vampire in Legend, Lore, and Literature, has gone so
far as to state, "The origins of the vampire myth lie in the
mystery cults of oriental civilizations . . . the Nepalese Lord
of Death, the Tibetan Devil, and the Mongolian God of Time."
     Indian vampires include the ancient rakshasas
(literally, "destroyers"), documented in the Vedas in 1500 B.C.,
and the langsuir, a beautiful woman who sucks the blood of
babies.  Malaysians believe in the penanggalen, an
intestine trailing, bodiless head that feeds on children.  West
European vampire traditions can be traced back to the Greek and
Roman lamia, Strigoi, or vrykolakas.  The Arabs had
their ghoul, a female demon who fed upon dead bodies and
wandered in cemeteries at night to suck dry the dead in their
graves.  The ancient Greeks had their empusa, a vampire
demonic spirit that could enter the body.  The Chinese vampire
was the xiang shi, a deceased who keeps from decaying by
preying on other corpses or the living.  There are similar
vampiric creatures in nearly every culture.
     The Catholic Church officially recognized the existence of
vampires in 1215 during the Fourth Lateran Council of Catholic
Church Leaders in Rome.  Typical of the time period and the
Church's political motivations, the Church established itself as
the only authority strong enough to eliminate vampires.  The
church saw vampirism as a means of extending its power, and thus
let the beliefs bloom so that priests could exorcise the demons
and save the people.  In 1489, Catholic priests James Sprenger
and Henry Kramer wrote Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for
use in the Inquisition witch trials (another ploy to ensure
church control over the populace).  Some of the activities in
Malleus Maleficarum relate to vampirism.
     This endorsement kept the church incredibly busy in the
middle of the fourteenth century.  From 1347 to 1350
approximately 25 million people died of bubonic plague.  Lacking
modern medicine's understanding of germs and bacteria,
supernatural causes were blamed.  Vampires, in particular, were
thought to be a major culprit during the Black Death.  Plague
victims who wasted away were thought to have been visited by a
dead relative.  The relative would be disinterred and staked,
beheaded, or burned.  It wasn't until the invention of the
microscope around 1600 that germs and bacteria were discovered. 
Until that time, vampires were thought to take revenge on the
living by inflicting diseases.
     The church's involvement had at least one positive side to
it: numerous vampire cases were explicitly documented.  Of those
records which still exist, most notable are the writings of
William of Newburgh and Dom Augustin Calmet.  By studying these
and other accounts, it's possible to identify the classic
characteristics of vampire encounters:
  • Vampirism characteristically occurs as an epidemic with the
    first person who died held responsible for the deaths that
    followed.  Vampirism often causes a lingering death.
  • When the vampire is ambulatory, he appears before the victim
    in the night and either strangles him or sucks blood.
  • When disinterred, the vampire's body is said to be fresh, but
    it is not completely unchanged: the nose has fallen somewhat; the
    hair, beard, and nails have grown; and new skin has formed under
    the old.  His limbs are supple and pliable, without worms or
    decay, but not without great stench.  He's plump and warm to the
  • The vampire often has fresh blood in his mouth.  Moreover,
    his own blood is fresh, not coagulated as might be expected.
  • When staked -- the most common method for disposing of him --
    the vampire bleeds profusely.  Some vampires scream or groan when
    pierced by the stake.
  • The vampire often has an erection.
The first of these characteristics we've already attributed
to medical ignorance.  Until the seventeenth century there was no
understanding of how diseases were spread.  Lacking scientific
explanations for epidemics, the populace turned to supernatural
     To find scientific rationale for the other characteristics,
it's necessary that we draw some corollaries between what happens
to a body after death and the aforementioned vampire motifs.  The
faint of heart and weak of stomach are hereby forewarned,
decomposition is not for sissies:
  • Greenish coloration extends over the abdomen and other parts
    of the body.  Discoloration and swelling of the face and scrotum
  • The abdomen distends with gases.
  • Brownish coloration of the surface veins yields an
    arborescent pattern on the skin.
  • Blisters of varying sizes develop on the skin.
  • Bursting of blisters occurs, along with denudation of large
    irregular surfaces due to the shedding of epidermis.
  • Blood-stained fluid escapes from mouth and nostrils.
  • Liquification of the eyeballs occurs.
  • Discoloration of the body continues, along with progressive
    abdominal distension.
  • There is the presence of maggots.
  • Facial features become unrecognizable.
  • Tissues are converted into a semi-fluid mass.
  • The abdominal and thoracic cavities burst open.
  • Progressive dissolution of the body continues.
Already, we can see how several of the vampire motifs are
directly related to the normal process of decomposition.  The
vampire is believed to drink blood because the corpse has blood
in its mouth, is bloated, bleeds when cut, and its shroud is
often bloody.  All these conditions are attributable to the
normal putrefactive process.
     Bloating occurs because the microorganisms of decomposition
produce gas, mostly methane, and this gas, lacking an escape
route, collects both in the tissues and in the body cavities.  In
some cases, the gas causes the body to expand to three times its
normal size.  (Incidentally, it's virtually impossible to dispose
of a corpse in water unless it's first thoroughly gutted.  The
expansion of gases within the corpse will lift several times the
weight of the corpse to the surface.)  This bloating gives the
vampire his plump appearance.  Decomposition produces heat, hence
the warm feel of the vampire's skin.  Bloating of the penis and
scrotum may be mistaken for an erection.  Such misconceptions
probably gave rise (no pun intended) to the eroticism in vampire
     Many accounts describe sounds from the grave.  These sounds
are most likely the bursting of the abdominal wall distended by
gas.  Likewise, when the abdomen explodes, the corpse's shroud is
     What one sees in the mouth is not fresh blood, but frothy,
liquified tissue and decomposing blood forced out by the
expanding pressures inside the body.  Also, any disease that
causes disintegration of the lung tissue can cause blood to
appear at the lips.  Both pneumonic plague and tuberculosis are
known to do this.
     As for the presence of "fresh" blood in the corpse, blood
does coagulate after death, but then, depending on how death
occurred, it may liquify again.  Blood tends to reliquify when
death has been sudden, as from concussion, suffocation,
electrocution, or following an attack of angina pectoris.  The
determinant is the sudden removal of oxygen, characteristic of
death by smothering or a sudden end to the functions of either
the heart or central nervous system.  In addition, uncoagulated
blood is normally present in the limb vessels and heart of any
healthy person who died from almost any cause.  It should be
expected that a corpse would bleed when staked through the heart. 
The liquification of the blood of persons who died suddenly ties
succinctly with the folkloric belief that vampires were typically
murder victims, suicides, and those struck by lightning.  Also,
note the correlation to the superstitious belief that a corpse
will bleed in the presence of its murderer.
     Hypostasis (the gravitating of blood into the dependent
parts of the body) gives the corpse its ruddy color.  And the
vampire's limbs are supple because we now know that rigor mortis
is a temporary condition.  The rate at which it arrives and
departs is subject to variation, but typically it passes within
36 hours (except under certain conditions like extreme cold).
     What seems to be a continued growth of hair or nails -- or,
in some cases, teeth -- is really just the natural shrinking back
of skin and gums which causes the teeth, hair, and nails to
appear longer than they actually are.  This sloughing away of the
outer layer of skin is known as "skin slippage."  What is
revealed underneath looks like new skin, but isn't.  The same is
true of the nails.  (Egyptian embalmers were aware of this and
either tied the nails on or placed metal thimbles over the tip of
each finger and toe.)
     Even the vampire's shriek can be explained.  This is the
noise made when the pent-up gases inside the corpse are forced
out past the vocal cords.
     The other common arguments used to explain the vampire
phenomenon are premature burial and porphyria.  Comas and
catalepsy are the reasons typically cited for premature burials. 
Statistics from as late as the early half of this century record
as many as fifty known cases of premature burial each year.  It's
conceivable that someone buried alive might be heard, exhumed,
and killed out of fear.  Just imagine the poor wretch's
appearance after having spent some time buried alive. 
Unfortunately, this explanation doesn't fit most of the well-
documented vampire cases where the vampire was known to have been
accompanied by a great stench and had spent weeks -- in some
cases, months -- in the grave.
     Porphyria has been offered as a medical explanation for both
vampires and werewolves.  Porphyria is a rare hereditary blood
disease characterized by the inability of the body to produce
heme, a compound of hemoglobin, which is a major component in new
blood.  Today there are effective treatments for porphyria. 
Without treatment, however, the porphyria sufferer must endure
conditions such as extreme sensitivity to sunlight, excessive
hairiness, skin sores, and disfigurement.  In severe cases the
fingers and nose sometimes fall off.  The skin of the gums and
lips might tighten and stretch, causing the teeth to appear very
prominent and fang-like.  Oddly enough, garlic, which stimulates
heme production in healthy people, contains a chemical that
worsens the painful symptoms of porphyria.
     While porphyria holds some merit as an explanation for
vampirism (it is conceivable that a porphyria sufferer might
attempt to obtain the heme his body needed by drinking the blood
of others), it fails to explain the werewolf, where the theory
was, in fact, first applied.  Just as the fictional vampire
hardly resembles his historical counterpart, the folkloric
werewolf cannot be judged by such fictional portrayals as that of
Lon Chaney.  In folklore the werewolf usually looks like a real
wolf and not a porphyria victim at all.
     Folk tales are like the game children play wherein something
is whispered from one child to the next until what is being said
no longer resembles the original statement.  Start with an
innocuous event, the unearthing of a body, and the story quickly
takes shape.  We know that corpses bloat and bleed from the mouth
as a result of natural decomposition, but an uneducated man,
shaped by the superstitions of his time, might think the corpse
had sucked the blood from the living.  In all likelihood, from
such a beginning sprang the vampire.
     That modern man has become so enamored with the vampire is
not so surprising.  Margaret Carter, in her forward to the
classic novel Varney the Vampire (1847), put it best when
she said, "The vampire is the night-prowling symbol of man's
hunger for -- and fear of -- everlasting life . . . The mixture
of attraction and repulsion . . . is the essence of the vampire


Copyright 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-30 19:50, www.bahwolf.com