. Between the elegant or feral horror and the near perfect metaphor
(often heavy-handed), one would be surprised to find little so evocative or archetypal in the folklore
everything you think you know is wrong
What we all "know" about vampires is largely a creation of the last few hundred years at the hands of writers, dramatists, poets, artists, and filmmakers. There is a myth of the vampire, but the myth as it is "known" and embraced by culture (especially popular culture and certain subcultural elements in society) is one that was created largely by our culture over the last couple centuries.
The idea of the coming back to life or continuing beyond death is common to cultures and societies all over the world and is evinced by their folklore and myths. Popularity of these themes in literature or other arts shows how it has a hold on our imagination and speaks to our philosophies and spirituality. That is held in common with the folkloric vampire as well as the one set forth as legend today.
One of the interesting things to be found is that the vampire of folklore is a very diverse character, details and explanations varying and even contradictory, depending on the cultural source. So what do we "know" about vampires (based on the present cultural myth)? Before examining these, one must understand that the primary basis (aside from superstition) of the folkloric vampire's characteristics can be explained by various characteristics and "events" in the way a body decomposes after death. These are well-known to contemporary forensic pathologists but would be unknown to people or even many doctors living in the middle ages or before.
(Much is being left out like needing to be asked to enter a house, can't cross running water, "the mirror effect," et cetera, due the length that would be involved)
1. A coffin, often stashed away that must be returned to each day and surrounded by earth from the vampire's homeland.
The coffin makes sense because the vampire was generally someone who was recently deceased. The idea of a hidden coffin or needing to remain in contact with his/her native soil is not found in folklore. Usually the coffin's "hiding place" in simply in the grave where the body was buried. Also, not all vampires even "physically" leave their coffins. Sometimes an "invisible self" does while the body remains.
2. Thin and pale, often aristocratic.
Vampires in the Balkans (among others) were hardly pale and thin. In fact, one of the "signs" that a corpse was a vampire (upon exhumation) was a non-dessicated "healthy" appearance with "ruddy" skin (from blood consumption). They are often described as being "swollen" with blood and having a complexion to match. The appearance of "new skin" (known as "skin slippage," where the epidermis "flakes" away from the dermis) or hair and nails continuing to grow after death were considered further "signs." (The continued growth of hair or nails on any corpse is a myth believed by many today; it is only an appearence of lengthening due to the "shrinking" and drying of the skin.)
Almost anything that appeared as "evidence" for a lack of decomposition could be seen as a "sign." The vampires of folklore are almost universally "of the people": peasants, townsfolk. Of course, when it comes time to put the idea into literature, one needs cast a more Romantic/Gothic figure to make the story exciting.
3. Bites the neck and sucks blood with exaggerated canines.
Not all vampires had hemotophagy as their raison d'etre. Some didn't feed on blood at all. The thing about the teeth works well in the literature and especially onscreen, but is conspicuously absent in most folkloric descriptions. Some don't even use teeth: one Russian vampire uses a sharp tongue for exsanguinary purposes. When teeth are mentioned in reference to the vampire, it is the belief that children born with teeth may become vampires. When biting is done (some strangle or smother), it's generally about the chest area (near the heart), not the neck.
4. Creates an army of the undead by draining the blood of victims, causing them to become vampires.
The vampire of folklore has no desire for minions and is a solitary creature. When one does bite a victim, they will usually become a vampire, though. Of course there are numerous other ways to become one (not a comprehensive list): being born with teeth or a caul, having an extra nipple, various other deformities, persons who had their "shadow stolen," suicides, murder or drowning victims, victims of stroke, first to die in an epidemic (usually becoming the "cause" of the epidemic), unbaptized children, being cursed, and in common with " ghosts," the idea of dying with "things left undone."
So what are some things that a vampire does? A list of things attributed to vampires (from South Russian folklore): "can kill people and even eat them alive; bring into being, or remove, various sicknesses and epidemics, storms, rain, hail and such; he casts spells on the cows and their milk, the crops and husbandry generally." Interesting to note that most of these sort of things were once attributed to "the gods." Many vampires' ability to become invisible seems to suggest a "vampire of the gaps" argument for existence.
5. Can turn into bat.
While there are numerous animals that vampires can "change into" in the folklore (examples: "wolf, horse, donkey, goat, dog, cat, pullet, frog, butterfly"), one animal that is almost never mentioned is the bat. There is a Romanian legend that a bat flying over a corpse can cause it to become a vampire (this is a common cause of vampirism: various animals leaping or flying over the corpse). That is about the only reference to bats in the folklore. Because a few species of the mammal were called by the common name "vampire bat" (due to blood-drinking), the connection was sealed and elaborated upon when Bram Stoker incorporated it into his novel (further, there was no known "vampire connection" to Vlad Tepes prior to the novel). The idea of wolves and dogs is probably due to the animals sometimes hanging around graveyards, often attempting to "disturb" (whether digging up or even consuming) the bodies.
6. Repulsed by Holy Objects and garlic.
There is little to suggest that the folkloric vampire is particularly averse to holy objects of any kind (though there are some legends of crosses over your door or crossing yourself in a graveyard to ward them off). They do seem to be afraid of sharp objects. Surprisingly, the garlic thing is found in folklore, but there is nothing special about garlic, itself. Any very pungent item in the general vicinity seems to work as a deterrent. This is interesting since one of the signs of a vampire is a terrible odor (as decaying corpses tend to have).
7. The main way to kill one is a wooden stake through the heart.
Most ways a normal human can be killed often work for the vampire. A stake is found in some of the stories. And not only in the heart but sometimes the stomach or the mouth. Other ways include throwing in water, cremation, decapitation, reburial (often in conjunction with other methods), or mutilation. It should be noted that most of these and other methods of destruction were also used as ways to prevent corpses from becoming the living dead. ( Other methods.)
8. The disorder porphyria is a scientific explanation for vampire legends.
(Straight factual information combined with some suggestions by the proponent of the theory, biochemist David Dolphin.) It's a (rare) group of disorders in which the body produces too much porphyrin (used to make heme, part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in blood). When the body makes too much, it gets excreted and not enough heme is made for the blood. Victims are extremely photosensitive, which can cause skin problems such as blisters and swelling (often resulting in the victim to prefer a more nocturnal existence). Facial skin can even scar and gums recede, giving the teeth the appearance of "fangs." Since it can be treated today through injections of blood products, it is thought that in the past victims may have self-medicated by ingesting blood. It is also found that garlic contains a substance that can make symptoms worse.
Sounds good, but it doesn't hold up. Problems include the rarity of porphyria. For a widespread belief, such as vampirism, one would need a condition far more common. Only the rarest form causes the skin disfigurement and only 200 or so cases have been diagnosed. Also, as noted above, the pale, thin vampire isn't the vampire of folklore, anyway. And daylight being dangerous to the vampire isn't really found in the legends. Victims of the disorder don't have cravings for blood and there is no historical evidence they were ever known to (one wonders how someone in the middle ages or earlier would come to realize that blood consumption would alleviate symptoms: trial and error?).
In fact, it is doubtful that any of the blood product would survive digestion. Since the cause is genetic, rather than infectious, the idea of "creating more" via bite is a tenuous supposition, at best. And even if garlic might worsen symptoms, it hasn't been clinically shown to do so. The person responsible for the theory never published any sort of formal paper. Another interesting note is that this has also been used to attempt to explain the "werewolf phenomena."
All that said, I'm not trying to denigrate the current Romanticized mythology of the vampire. I love a good vampire flick or story as much as the next person. But I do think it is important to acknowledge that the "grand and ancient history of the vampire" we often hear about is not a reflection of the actual folkloric sources for this creature of legend.
(Sources: Paul Barber's exceptional 1988 book Vampires, Burial, and Death, a nice intro to the topic by the author can be found in the March 1996 Skeptical Inquirer and can be seen online at www.csicop.org/si/9603/staking.html; some of the porphyria stuff was found in Cecil Adams' retraction of an earlier Straight Dope column at www.straightdope.com/columns/990507.html)