Robert Todd Carroll
Vampires are mythical creatures who overcome death by sucking the blood from living humans. The most common variation of the myth portrays the vampire as a dead person who rises from the grave at night to seek his victim from the realm of the sleeping. The vampire is a popular theme of film makers who have started with Bram Stokers's novel (Dracula) and added a number of variations to the theme, e.g., the ability to fly (like the vampire bat); a lust for beautiful women as victims who then become vampires upon being bitten; fear of the symbol of the Christian cross; repelled by garlic or garlic flowers; and death by sunlight or by a special stake driven through the heart (a fitting death for a character based on the 15th century warrior, Vlad the Impaler).
Legends of bloodsucking creatures are found in many cultures throughout history. One of the more popular bloodsuckers of our age is the chupacabra. The vampire is also a popular literary subject. Hence, there are numerous descriptions of the origin, nature, powers, etc. of vampires. What seems to be universal about vampire myths is their connection with the fear of death and the desire for immortality. The ritual drinking of blood to overcome death has been practiced by many peoples. The Aztecs and other Native Americans, for example, ate the hearts and drank the blood of captives in ritual ceremonies most likely to satisfy the appetite of their gods and gain for themselves fertility and immortality. Also typical were the rites of Dionysus and Mithras, where the drinking of animal blood was required in the quest for immortality. Even today, some Christians believe that their priests perform a magical transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ to be eaten and drunk in the quest to join God in eternal life.
We might say we've made progress in our ritualistic quest to overcome death. First, we sacrificed humans and drank their blood to keep the gods alive and happy, or to join them in overcoming death. We later came to substitute bulls or other animals for humans to achieve our goal. Finally, we progressed to a vegetarian menu. Even so, the basic truth is depressing: for anything to live, something or someone else must die. Whether this truth sets you free or not depends, I suppose, on your place at or on the dinner table. Since we are deep into metaphors, we may as well note here that the vampire has become a metaphor for those who define and create themselves by destroying others. People whose lives center on destroying other people's lives by disempowering them, who reduce their victims to dependent subjects to be lorded over, have been called spiritual vampires. Some of the therapists, ministers and gurus I've written about elsewhere in the Dictionary could be called spiritual vampires, very aptly.
This cultural link between vampirism and the quest for immortality seems to have been subordinated in literature and film, where other themes, such as blood for blood's sake, fear for fear's sake, or entrance into the realm of the occult, seem to dominate. One sign of the cultural deterioration of our ancestor's noble quest for immortality can be seen in the modern secondary meaning of 'vampire': a woman who exploits and ruins her lover. Another example of deterioration can be seen in the numerous WWW sites on vampires which appeal to occult or New Age interests such as entering the so-called dark side of reality, gaining power, establishing a unique identity as a special person or selling commercial products and games.
Apparently, role playing and masquerading as vampires is not enough to satisfy the bloodlust of some people, and covens or cults of "vampires" have emerged among some occultists. They seek blood to give them power, a sexual rush, or to establish a unique and special fictional persona based on creating fear and mystery in others. Unlike our ancient ancestors, their power is not sought because of fear based on an ignorance and misunderstanding of nature, but on an ignorance and misunderstanding of themselves. Like other occult cults these vampire covens are attractive to the young and the weak.* Those who seek instant and effortless strength and knowledge, hoping their new powers will lead them to a position of dominance, are drawn by the allure of the dark. Just a few years ago, such "vampyres" would have been considered ill or evil. Today, they are said to have an "alternative lifestyle."
* "5 vampire cultists nabbbed in killings," reads the headline of a story in the Sacramento Bee (November 29, 1996, p. A28). The five are all teenagers from a self-described "Vampire Clan" in Kentucky. They're wanted for the murders of Richard and Naomi Wendorf of Eustis, Florida. The 15-year-old daughter of the victims is one of the suspects, along with her boyfriend who was described by schoolmates as having boasted of immortality as a vampire.
Anscombe, Roderick. The Secret Life of Laszlo, Count Dracula, (New York : Hyperion, 1994).
Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988).
Clark, Stephen. How to Live Forever (Routledge, Inc.: New York, 1995).
Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire (London: Routledge, 1994).
Smith, Homer W. Man and His Gods (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1953).
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 10/24/98|