By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
The vampire we know today, the variety that most commonly inhabits our cinemas, is a creature of disease. A metaphor for STDs, or infection in general, it transmits its condition via direct blood contact. Sometimes, there is even a scientific explanation for the vampires, such as in Daybreakers (a bat creates a pandemic). Most cinematic vampires, whether supernatural or closer to natural, belong in this category. A few examples exist of vampires who are born vampires (Underworld and Blade have both born vampires and created ones). However, one category of vampire that seems absent in films is the vampire who is the product of a curse.
Eastern European stories of vampires contain numerous explanations and traits of vampires. However, one common way to become a vampire seems to be to act as a terrible person in life. Bad (or simply not very religious) people come back to life as restless corpses to feed off the living; this is their curse for their terrible behaviour.
The Vampire: A Casebook by Alan Dundes (1988) lists several ways someone can become a vampire in Romanian folklore, explaining that bad people and “women who have had to do with the Evil One and with spells and incantations” may become vampires and “when a child dies before it is baptized, it becomes a vampire at seven years of age.” There are differences between “live” vampires (such as witches), who can walk around during the daylight but whose power may increase during certain phases of the moon, and “dead” vampires (reanimated corpses), who must return to their graves when the rooster crows.
This idea of the bad soul unable to lie peacefully in the tomb has been used in literature several times. In the early-19th-century book Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a couple of dead thieves, as well as two Muslim sisters, seem to have vampiric connections. They are both prime suspects for harbouring evil due to their past deeds or different religion. The short story “Viy” by Nikolai Gogol, published in 1835, also features vampirism that seems to stem from past misdeeds. A woman, who secretly practiced withcraft and drank people’s blood, dies and a young man must read psalms for three nights as he watches over her corpse. The woman, of course, comes back to life and conjures several demons, eventually succeeding in murdering the young fellow. The connection with vampires and witches seems a natural development in “Viy”, since so many stories connect one to the other, with witches often becoming vampires after their deaths or sucking the blood of the living, even as they are alive. The poem “The Giaour” by Lord Byron mentions vampires, explaining that as a punishment for killing someone, one of the characters shall emerge from its tomb as a vampire, doomed to suck the blood of his family.
Films, however, more enamoured with the idea of vampiric origins due to infection, have seldom explored the idea of vampirism as a consequence of a person’s deeds. There are a few exceptions. Bram Stoker’s Dracula includes a brief prologue set in 15th-century Romania. Real-life historical figure Vlad the Impaler returns to his fortress to find that his wife has committed suicide, thinking he had been killed in battle. Furious, he renounces God. Thus, he becomes a vampire and eventually encounters his wife’s reincarnation in 19th-century London. While Dracula can create vampires, his origins are rooted in the old idea of the bad person who cannot remain in the grave.
This concept is repeated in Dracula 2000 where, once again, Dracula’s origins are connected to his deeds and religion. In this movie, Dracula did not die in the 19th century after facing Van Helsing and his friends. Instead, he has been kept in a crypt, safely away from the rest of the world. When he is released, he immediately runs through London, pursuing a young woman that is somehow connected to him. Eventually, both the connection and Dracula’s origins are revealed: Dracula is Judas Iscariot, who hanged himself and has been cursed to wander around as a vampire. Thus, several elements of vampire mythos can be explained, including an aversion to the crucifix or silver.
Also of note is Black Sunday (1960), which includes a vampire-witch. An evil woman is put to death, only to be reanimated some centuries later when blood drips onto her face. She immediately starts plotting her revenge on the family that killed her. The witch fears the crucifix, drinks blood and can create vampires.
And, of course, let’s not forget Barnabas Collins from the soap opera Dark Shadows, who became a vampire after a witch summoned a bat (literally out of hell) which attacked and killed him. Here, too, we find the witch-and-vampire connection, with a diabolical curse explaining the vampire’s affliction.
There is another type of vampire that seldom gets mentioned: the vampire who returns to the world of the living due to having lived an unfulfilled life. For example, a person that dies too young or out of wedlock. We can find a perfect example in “The Bride of Corith”, a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. A young man who has gone to fetch his intended bride discovers that death is no impediment to sexual consummation when the dead woman rises from the grave. The bride is immune to priests’ chants, “water, salt, are vain”, but otherwise embodies the vampire of old legends (pale, cold, no heartbeat, drinks blood, and drives the man to the grave).
It is understandable why contemporary authors have ignored these vampire origin stories in the construction of their own mythologies. Missing church and hence becoming a vampire would seem an extreme and ridiculous punishment for most readers nowadays, and willing yourself out of the grave seems far-fetched for most readers who seek more rational explanations. However, it is interesting to read some of the 19th century stories that have used this theme, or to reach even farther into the legends that might have inspired them. They offer a distinct, even alien experience, for those who have grown tired of the common bloodsucker and wish to taste some of the odder vampires roaming the night.