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Vampires: The Facts and Fiction

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, battled Hollywood's version of Vampires, which are much different that those of legend (Photo by Warner Bros.)

After Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood and Vampire Diaries, you might think you know all there is to know about vampires.

You would be wrong.

Sandra Garvie-Lok, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, is an aficionado of the real thing. Her interest began during a dig on the Greek island of Lesbos. Garvie-Lok, an expert in reconstructing the diets and diseases of the dead from bones, was part of a team excavating a cemetery from the Ottoman era. One day, the dig director pulled her aside and asked: can you take a look at our vampire?

Once she got over the shock, Garvie-Lok agreed. She was taken to a ruined section of old Roman wall in which someone had buried a body after driving iron spikes into the corpse. Examining the site and searching the archeological archives for clues sparked her interest in historical vampirism. She eventually did a survey of historical vampire folklore and continues to follows developments in the field.

Here’s the story on “real” vampires and how they differ from pop culture's version.

1: Vampires were not immortal

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is hundreds of years old. As a vampire, he retains the memories and manners he accumulated in life. Not so for the historical vampire, who was more puppet than puppet-master.

“The vampire from ancient folklore was a corpse that had been animated by a demon,” says Garvie-Lok. “It’s not the actual person that survived death. It’s a demonic force that is moving their body around.”

2: Vampires were not supervillains

Vampires in pop culture have superhuman abilities and sometimes plot to wipe out or enslave humanity. The vampires who haunted the collective imaginations of villages from Turkey to Poland generally aimed a little lower.

The folkloric vampire could attack you and drink your blood, sure, but more often vampires were really big nuisances,“The folkloric vampire could attack you and drink your blood, sure, but more often vampires were really big nuisances,” says Garvie-Lok. “They might torment livestock and make their milk run dry, or make people in the village sick.”

“Really, they were a way of explaining a village’s bad luck. The world is a scary and random place. Vampires gave people something to blame.”

3: Anyone could become a vampire

The vampires we know and love often were villains before they stalked the night. Lots of vampire fiction cites the Old Testament’s Cain as the first vampire, cursed by God to forever walk the Earth as an amateur phlebotomist as punishment for killing Abel.

This is halfway in line with historic vampires, says Garvie-Lok. Immoral behaviour in life could make someone a vampire after death in the minds of medieval villagers. So could someone goofing up the lines in a funeral ritual or a cat jumping over the corpse. But there was another route: plain old misfortune.

“Often the person who would become a vampire hadn’t done anything. People might suspect that there was a vampire in their area if the town just had a run of bad luck.”

4: Vampires were not sexy

Pop culture vampires, whether plotting to steal our blood or our hearts, tend to be a comely bunch. But in reality, when suspected vampires were exhumed, the results were not pretty.

“No one used embalming in this period” says Garvie-Lok, “so the fauna of the gut would have started digesting the body.” This produced gas, making bodies swell like balloons and discoloring the skin. Of course, this happened to everyone buried without embalming. But since only suspected vampires were dug up a few weeks after interment, no one realized that such swelling was not a sign of demonic possession.

“This is a really clear case of people’s expectations being confirmed,” says Garvie-Lok. “You find a decaying corpse, but what you see is a vampire.”

5: Vampires could not stomach a good stake

Many of the historic methods of dispatching a dug-up vampire line up with what we see in pop culture: decapitation, dismemberment or staking. But the vampires of folklore were not always staked in the heart.

The most common location for a stake or a spike in the body of a vampire suspect was the stomach. Another popular choice was to drive a spike through the ankles. The vampire Garvie-Lok examined in Greece was spiked in three places: the stomach, between the ankles and through the neck.

6: Vampires predate Christianity

The vampires we know and love are famously allergic to Christianity, able to be warded off or killed with a cross or perhaps some holy water. But while a village in Eastern Europe might turn to a priest for help with a vampire problem, belief in vampires likely predates Christ, according to Garvie-Lok.

“There are scattered references to something that sounds a lot like a vampire way back in pre-Christian Greece,” she says. “It’s a very, very old belief.”

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