According to J. Gordon Melton, “The vampire figure in folklore emerged as an answer to otherwise unsolvable problems within culture. It was seen as the cause of certain unexplainable evils, accounted for the appearance of some extraordinary occurrences within the society, and was often cited as the end product of immoral behaviour” (445).
The traditional association of evil with vampires began in the ancient tales spread through oral storytelling. The villainous acts of vampires were typically linked to some form of deviant behaviour. Melton points out, “The eastern European vampire existed in a village culture as a symbol warning residents of the dangerous and devilish life outside the boundaries of approved village life” (447).
The folklore stories thus represent the Otherness that the vampire embodies as harmful and threatening to the human cultures in which the tales originated. Beginning with these ancient stories, the vampire was viewed as the scapegoat for what society was not willing to accept or understand. According to Matthew Beresford:
“Fear is an important factor in the survival of the vampire because, although the vampire has taken various forms in history, it is difficult to pinpoint one dominant form; fear is the main unifying feature, and therefore can be said to provide the key to the vampire’s existence. One might say that fear of the vampire’s existence is more important than its actual existence; Whether or not the demonic creature of our worst fears existed in fact, if we only looked into ourselves –and into our society- we should find the demon already there.” (10-11)
Human communities have emphasized the importance of assimilating into the social norms of each region throughout the world, and the vampire came to represent fear of those who refused to assimilate, symbolizing a host of societal anxieties about sexual, religious, and cultural nonconformity.
Most commonly, ancient folklore associated vampires with recent unusual deaths, including close relatives and suicides, who were believed to have violated Church teachings about the sanctity of life. Vampires have also been linked to deaths in childbirth, gender-related anxieties, and fears of sexual difference.
In many vampire legends, sexual deviance was another key component of a person’s disposition to becoming a part of the vampire world. Vampire legends were likewise popular in war-torn communities threatened with invasion by other cultures. Behaviours perceived as immoral, sinful, or socially deviant were assumed to influence the individual’s soul and afterlife. This belief held by many communities led them to assume that vampires were contagious and the disease of vampirism could be easily spread as both a physical and moral infection.
The vampire legend differed among communities of the ancient world contingent on the region where the stories were passed down through oral storytelling.
Matthew Beresford notes,
“It is important to understand that there are two types of beings widely denoted as vampires; firstly, the supernatural, inhuman being such as demons or spectres; and secondly the revenant, a human who returns to the world of the living after death” (22).
Revenant vampires came to be associated with stories of religious deviance, but the most ancient vampire type, the demon vampire, appeared most frequently in vampire lore that expressed fears of female sexuality.
For instance, vampire tales in Greece first appeared as early as AD 40-120, describing demons that assume the body of a female (Beresford 20).
The Empusa, as this creature was first known, was described as a “fine bride,” one “of those beings whom the many regard as Lamias or Hobgoblins” (20).
The characteristics of the ancient Empusa and Lamia ensnared young men into temptation, most notably through sexual advances, exemplifying them as demons or spectres because of their deviant female behaviour. These creatures represent a form of sexual deviance related to cultural norms of female sexuality, especially since Beresford describes the vampires as demon brides.
The Empusa symbolizes cultural fears of the woman who violates the domestic codes of a patriarchal society, assuming power through sex and marriage instead of accepting the normally subordinate role of wife. This vampire is one of the earliest examples of how the vampire legend was used to demonize female sexuality in male-dominated cultures dating back thousands of years.
Asian and Eastern European communities had similar vampire legends that expressed anxieties about female sexual difference.
The Langsuyar, the primary vampire figure in Malaysia, is connected with problems in childbirth. This vampire legend originates from the story of a beautiful young woman who had given birth to a stillborn child. While the Empusa symbolized fear of female deviance from the role of the submissive wife, this vampire represented Otherness as a threat to the domestic ideal of motherhood, for the woman could not successfully fulfil her role as a mother and therefore became a threat to the families of her community.
When the young mother learned of her baby’s fate, she clapped her hands, flew away into the trees, and later died, becoming a demon soon afterwards. After this event, she attacked children and sucked their blood, becoming one of the female vampires of early vampire lore (Melton 357).
This female vampire was said to have a unique physical appearance. She wore a vibrant green robe and possessed long, tapering nails with flowing black hair that concealed a feeding hole in the back of her neck. This feeding hole was how the vampire sucked the blood of her victims.
However, the Langsuyar was able to return to her village after becoming a vampire and lead a relatively normal life. It was only during the night that the female would attack her victims. Malaysians had numerous defensive tactics to ward off the evil being. If needles were placed in the vampire’s hands, the woman would be unable to grab a victim before the needles were driven further into her skin. Cutting the hair and nails, then stuffing them into the feeding hole on her neck most commonly defeated the Langsuyar. This act allowed the vampire to become domesticated once again and become involved in normal human culture (Melton 357).
These characteristics of the female vampire indicate that the Langsuyar symbolizes deviation from traditional feminine gender roles. Once the failed mother becomes a vampire, she victimizes children, suggesting she is a threat to the maternal ideal, the traditional gender paradigm in patriarchal cultures that defines women as valuable only as mothers and nurturers.
The fact that the Langsuyar can disguise herself as a domestic woman while secretly destroying families in the darkness of the night seems to suggest cultural fears of the subversive female desires that may lurk beneath the compliant façade of the domestic woman.
The need to transform the Langsuyar back to the domestic norm, which is accomplished by cutting the sexually symbolic hair and subduing the female demon with the domestic needle, suggests the society’s need to control female desire and force it into domestic paradigms.
Women who deviate from those paradigms are considered monstrous and become a threat to the entire community. Furthermore, the female vampire appears in the folklore of other cultures (such as the Jewish legend of Lilith, Adam’s first wife) and will reappear in later vampire literature as a symbol of female deviance from normative social concepts of femininity.
The sexual symbolism of vampire folklore is also prominent in the vampire legends of the medieval European communities and villages. Whereas the victims of the Malaysian female vampires were often children or previous family members that had wronged the deceased individual, in Croatia, powerful female vampires specifically chose male victims.
These female vampires were given the name “Mora,” which translated to “she-vampire.” These females were believed to have lived an impious life, predisposing them to the possibility of vampirism. At night, the female creatures would attack their male victims, leaving them distraught and exhausted in the morning. If the Mora were given the opportunity to complete an attack, the Mora’s victim usually died (Melton 540).
The ensuing terror would spread throughout the communities, unless the Mora was killed with a knife or sharp instrument (540). Although the Mora’s vampirism is depicted as a punishment for sexual deviance, this vampire suggests a paradoxical cultural attitude towards women that later reappears in vampire literature.
This new outlook comes from the idea that Croatian female vampires are in love with their male victims (540).
This female vampire gains power through selecting a man she loves to become her undead mate, foreshadowing the females of millennial vampire fiction, who transform vampirism from a monstrous punishment to an ideal of sexual fulfilment through happy and empowering vampire relationships.
The vampires of medieval and early modern European folklore also symbolized other threats to cherished domestic norms. A dominant Eastern European belief linked the beginning of vampirism to the death of a loved one. According to European legends, these vampires would return from the grave to visit and then attack spouses, immediate family members, or even friendly acquaintances. Some symptoms of the vampire attacks point to the grieving process and include nightmares, apparitions of the dead individual, or even the death of a person close to the recently deceased by a disease.
The vampire’s actions indicate a type of unfinished business (usually emotional) as the reason for the attacks on the living, such as failure to perform funeral and burial rites to a precision (Beresford 26).
With the rise of Christianity, the ancient belief that vampires were meant to disturb the living also became apparent in legends of revenant vampires, who were often associated with religious nonconformity.
On the island of Mykonos, a well-known vampire superstition was the belief that the commission of many sins during one’s life causes vampirism (Avdikos 310).
According to Evangelos Avdikos, inhabitants of Mykonos believed that “[t]hose who committed plenty of sin in their life do not rest after they die. Instead, they leave their grave and return to the places where they used to spend their time, when they were alive” (310).
Since vampires were said to leave their graves during night time, this signifies the vampire’s relationship with the supernatural world as a sort of ghost or revenant.
The vampire, as revenant, is viewed as the evil that will not die, representing “sinful” qualities communities tried to repress but could not eradicate entirely from human nature. Here, the vampire is literally an undead being or resurrected corpse. The undead being as a symbol of sin was evident in its horrifying characterization.
These immortals were said to have large feet and lips, swollen belly, red nails, and long red hair (Avdikos 312). These vampires were described as animal-like in appearance, but were given the ability to transform this beastly appearance into human attributes that were grotesquely exaggerated from the norm.
This Greek vampire represents Otherness as a threat to religious and cultural stability. Vampirism was seen as a punishment for deviation from religious codes. The sinful individual punished with vampirism could, in turn, infect the rest of the community with behaviours and ideologies perceived as evil.
Another widespread belief about the cause of vampirism was the deliberate rejection of the Church’s authority in one’s life. Because Greece eventually became a Christian country, heresy, which could cause a person to be excommunicated from the Church, became a common cause of vampirism in Greek folklore.
This rejection of normative religious practices could result in death, leaving the person to forever stalk in the nighttime like the vampire. The human who was excommunicated and transformed into a vampire would then take vengeance on the Greek community due to rejection by the Church.
According to Evangelos Avdikos,
“The dead often leave their grave shrouded. They walk up and down the roads at night, enter houses and break whatever they find” (311).
These excommunicated vampires were said to disturb private and public places by indulging in antisocial and abnormal societal behaviour. The disruptions caused were often loud knocking on doors, shouting, beating, and intimidating any individuals the vampires would encounter while on their nightly prowl. In addition, the vampires would return to their relative’s homes and devour the food and beverages (311).
These disturbances caused terror throughout the Greek villages and communities because of the inability to fend off these monsters. This form of vampirism reflected the community’s horror at the existence of individuals who defied their society’s standards to the extent of being outcast from the Church, damning their own souls and endangering the souls of others.
Vampirism, as a punishment for heresy, relates to the folkloric vampire’s function as a symbol for the Otherness of religious deviance, because religion was a key component of ancient societies. Individuals were expected to abide by the religious standards set for the community by the Church and not drift from these norms.
In Eastern European folklore, accidental or traumatic deaths were often characterized as punishments for deviant behaviour and were also associated with the ability of a person to become a vampire. For instance, an individual’s chances of vampirism rose if he or she committed suicide. Judas Iscariot, the infamous Biblical suicide, is often referred to as the immediate link between vampirism and Christianity through the betrayal of Christ (Beresford 42).
The Disciple’s disloyalty was viewed as the ultimate act of antagonism to the Christian religion. Judas eventually hanged himself due to the consequences of his actions, leading to another cause for vampirism. As a violation of Christian teachings regarding the sanctity of human life, suicide was considered an immensely evil act among the European communities. Thus, in Eastern European lore, as well as in the vampire legends of Greece, deviance from religion significantly heightened one’s likeliness of vampirism (Beresford 23).
The most commonly known vampire folklore is that of the Slavic region in Eastern Europe. The inhabitants of this region believed vampirism was largely due to immoral behaviour or involvement in witchcraft.
Slavic communities believed that some individuals had the ability to possess two souls. People who were involved in witchcraft had the ability to leave their bodies in the night and engage in the typical evil activities of the vampire (Melton 560-61).
These people were considered living vampires because of their ability to live a normal life, yet secretly indulge in the vampire world. Another terrifying characteristic of the Slavic vampires was their physical appearance. The Slavic vampire appeared extremely normal, for the vampire looked like the typical peasant and could easily resemble any other member of the community.
Tracing back to the fear factor proposed by Beresford, the vampire who exhibits normative social behaviours by day while practising destructive vampire behaviours by night reflects the alarm that a “normal” appearance could hide social deviance.
This horrifying suspicion that each human being could potentially be naturally deviant was an enormous threat to the function of society.