The Evolution of the Meaning of the Word Vampire

Written by: Vyrdolak
Link to original: http://sanguinarius.org/articles/vampdef.shtml
(Originally posted on The Vampiric Community Message Board, Sun., 9 July, 2000.)

Darkestone writes:

I was just wondering through out my studies about vampires I have come across many, many different definitions for this word. Why is this? Why I would think that there would be a more simple definition so the people out there that are not sure if they are a REAL vamp or not could find out. But with the way it is right now just about anyone can call themselves a vamp and get away with it even if they are not TRULY vamps. Why is this?

Part I:

There is, in fact, a good answer to your question, Darkestone! But it's NOT a simple one (or a brief one!). I'll try to keep it as clear and concise as I can, but I suggest you find a comfortable seat, because this is going to take a little while.

Where did the English word "vampire" come from, and how did it come to have so many different meanings that it's almost meaning-less?

The answer to this starts back in the middle of the 17th century (the 1600's).

At that time, there began to be a number of localized "panics" in Eastern Europe and Greece, in which people in various towns and villages went more-or-less berserk and became convinced that they were being haunted, harassed and sometimes, killed by something that resembled a person who had recently been buried. Contrary to what you may have read, these "panics" were not caused by a failure to understand how bodies normally decay, or ignorance about diseases, or anything like that. These "panics" almost all happened in places where the religion was (or was very influenced by) Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Orthodox Christianity had very specific teachings about the relationship of the soul to the body after death, its connection to the physical body, and the immense importance of correct funeral rituals and the condition of the soul when the person died. These are the factors that allowed the belief in "vampires" to develop.

The "panics" happened after the community started to experience waves of unexplained paranormal phenomena. (These waves happen constantly, everywhere, and have taken on different contexts in different cultures and times.) The events almost never involved people actually thinking something bit them and drank their blood. "Vampire" hauntings included poltergeist-like phenomena (dishes smashed, noises, furniture thrown around -- including people being dumped out of bed onto the floor -- food being eaten or destroyed, etc), apparitions (people saw the recently deceased skulking around); night-hag phenomena (people waking up with a sense of a heavy weight on their chest, a sensation of smothering, terror, sometimes seeing a dark shape); incubus/succubus visitations ("vampires" seemed to love sex!) and sometimes, further deaths (either a known disease or mysterious wasting away).

When the community had grown terrified enough, it would run around digging up graves (strictly forbidden in Orthodox Christianity), starting with the person whose apparition had been seen. In some cases, hysteria was so high that the local people convinced themselves that the body was in a state that was "unnatural" (basically, undecayed) although objective witnesses who were not Eastern Orthodox Christians and not affected by the hysteria reported that the body seemed pretty seriously decayed to them. One of the reasons for this delusion by hysterical witnesses is that in Eastern Christianity, it was believed that the body would stay undecayed if the soul was restless, excommunicated, or otherwise not in a state of Grace. Since the person who'd been exhumed was walking around and making trouble, the victims expected the body to correspond with the obvious state of the soul, and that's what they saw, so matter what their noses and eyes told them. Western Christianity did NOT teach this about lost souls and their bodies, and in fact, it was saints and the very holy who remained "incorrupt" after death in Western tradition. There was no "vampire" belief in countries where Roman-Catholicism was the predominant religion, because of this. Anyway, these "vampire" panics continued intermittently for about a century and then seemed to die down and recede. In the meantime, they were observed and written about by a number of academics, clerics, authorities and travelers, all of whom were bemused by what they saw.

Although there were many words for these revenants, "vampire" is the one that got into English and stuck there. Why, and where this word really came from, is a matter of great disagreement, and I recommend an essay in Alan Dundes' The Vampire: A Casebook if you're really interested. Anyway, whatever this bogeyman was called in the local language, it was usually one of numerous related words derived from Slavic and that often had some relationship to words meaning "werewolf".

What did people think these "vampires" did? Did they drink blood?

Well, yes and no. The weird thing is, in actual panics, where people thought the "vampire" was right there and active, there are almost no stories about blooddrinking. "Vampires" were the hungry dead. They came back to eat, and they ate and drank all kinds of things, both normal food and noxious substances like excrement. It was assumed that they would drink the blood of both animals and people, especially babies and children. If their visitations resulted in weakness, illness, or death, it was usually assumed that the vampire was drinking blood. The stories about them filled in that detail, and some local words were coined in later centuries that indicated this (for example blut-sauger in German, sugnwrgwaed in Welsh, both meaning "bloodsucker"). But the really scary things about "vampires" was that they came back from the dead at all, that they could physically affect people and things (ghosts usually could not), that they were malevolent, and that they were hungry.

Were these "vampires" thought to be immortal?

Not really. "Vampires" hardly ever "haunted" for very long after their deaths. Unlike ghosts, who could go on appearing for century after century, "vampires" were usually detected and stopped very quickly. In some cultures, they were actually thought to have a "lifespan" after which they'd cease to be a problem. In only a few cultures did "vampires" continue appearing for long periods of time. In a couple of cultures, the vampire was thought capable of wandering from village to village indefinitely, appearing just like a normal human being, marrying and raising children and then moving on. These stories, however, relate more to a belief in "living vampires", which is entirely separate, and which I'll get into sometime else.

Were "vampires" believed to actually be walking corpses?

Well, yes and no. People in the grip of a "panic" weren't too sure, themselves, and their statements are contradictory. On the one hand, "vampires" weren't just ghosts -- they were able to physically affect the material world too easily. On the other hand, they got inside locked and closed buildings like a wraith, appeared and disappeared without explanation, and then there was that little problem of how they got in and out of a sealed grave. So, the most general explanation was that "vampires" were souls that could project themselves out of their body, materialize to a certain degree, get what they wanted and then return to the body, which meanwhile stayed right in its grave. But people were a little confused about this.

Anyway, once the "panics" died back and stopped happening, "vampires" shifted from being a directly-observed, paranormal phenomenon to pure folklore. The stories about them now become fairy-tales, rather than first-person paranormal accounts, and the characteristics of the "vampire" became stylized. You can see this change in any of the anthologies of "vampire" folklore -- such as McNally's A Clutch of Vampires. There's two main categories of "vampire" folklore; one of them consists of reported observations during panics, and one consists of fairy-tales, which are stylized and often embellished and retold long after anyone believed there was such a thing as a "vampire" in reality. It's like the difference between the accusations made during witchcraft persecutions, by people who truly believed in witches and believed that what they were saying was actually happening, to them, right now -- and the witches who appear as villains in a Grimm's fairy-tale, told centuries after nobody believed in witches at all.

Okay, so that was people in Eastern Europe 300 years ago. Let's get back to us.

English speaking cultures -- like almost everyone else outside of Eastern Orthodox Christian lands -- had no true "vampire" belief, although they certainly had ghosts and revenants. The word "vampire" was used in reports and skeptical analyses of the Eastern European panics, and it seems to have gotten into English from such reports, around 1650. It first appears in writing in 1734. But this was well into the Enlightenment, so the idea of the walking dead was seen as highly superstitious. By the 1740's, "vampire" in English was already being used as a metaphor. "Vampire" took on an analogous meaning: something that was evil, grasping, greedy, and that lived on the lives and blood of other people -- such as a lawyer or a landlord, for example. *wry smile*

And this is where the story gets very complicated, because once "vampire" was a metaphor, and nothing else, it was free game for anyone to play with. Poets and writers got hold of it, and began to imbue the concept of "vampire" with all kinds of allegorical subtexts, frequently related to sex and sexuality. The whole dynamic of having power over another, of using another's vital resources and energy, of dominating and submitting sexually, of extending one's own existence at the expense of others...all of this began to be woven into the literary concept of a "vampire". "Vampires" became immortal -- because if you can die and return to earth, neither alive nor dead, and remain undecayed indefinitely, then obviously you're beyond the process of aging and illness that afflict living mortals. And gradually, "vampires" were seen as living exclusively on blood, because the whole mystique of blood in Western Christian traditions was tied into the idea of a magic elixir that was the source of life and could keep the dead alive. The hungry dead who consumed anything they could get became fastidious immortals who drank only blood -- forbidden in the Old Testament, said to give immortality by Christ in the New. By 1897 when Stoker published Dracula, the literary vampire was something those terrified Eastern Europeans 150 years earlier would never have recognized. Stoker, from his dramatic Irish imagination (he was a theatre agent, after all) and Roman Catholicism, actually invented several of the vampire characteristics that immediately became "vampire rules" in English literature. These include vampires not having a reflection, a vampire's having to be invited into a house before it could enter, the vampire's great strength, vampire mind-control powers, and the vampire needing special soil or earth to sleep in -- all pure inventions by Stoker. (So few people seem to understand that!)

Along with the literary vampire, the vampire metaphor had also been borrowed by 19th century occultists to describe a different idea. Occultists began to write about something called a "psychic vampire", an entity that stole pure "life force" from its victims. At first, "psychic vampires" were believed to be low-level "astral entities" with no relationship to human beings. Over time, this changed, and human beings began to be seen as sometimes acting as "psychic vampires". Some occultists theorized that human beings became "psychic vampires" when one of those pesky astral entities became attached to them. In the early 20th century, the potential for human beings to be "psychic vampires" without any help was seen, and there were a few short stories exploring this notion (for example, "Good Lady Ducayne"). However, until the turn of the century, "psychic vampires" were a concept mostly known in occult circles, and the word "vampire" had a very specific core meaning: a human being, who had died, who was now supernaturally animate and couldn't be "killed" except by certain methods, and who drank blood as nourishment.

So how did that change? How did "Vampire" suddenly come to have so many meanings?

Blame the folklorists for that, and a tendency among late-19th century and early 20th century scholars to try to "unify" diverse information into connected theories or concepts. In 1896, folklorist George R. Stetson penned "The Animistic Vampire in New England" for the journal, The American Anthropologist. (You can read his article on my website.) A few decades later, the granddaddy of the vampirologists, Montague Summers, had written his works, The Vampire in Europe and The Vampire: His Kith and Kin. These writers, and others, established the notion that "every culture has a form of vampire belief", that "vampires" were a universal, even archetypal human superstition, and that they were found world- and history-wide, buried in every body of myth, hidden in every holy book, lurking behind every fairy-tale.

And of course, they were quite wrong!!! The folklorists managed this feat by taking each separate element of the vampire metaphor and using it to qualify as a "type of vampire" absolutely anything whatsoever that fitted even one aspect of the definition. Was it a supernatural being that drank blood? Then it's a "type of vampire"! Was it something that came back from the grave? Then it's a "type of vampire"! Was it an entity or revenant that was "hungry" or that pestered the living for sex? Then it's a "type of vampire"! Never mind that the individual cultures concerned had complex histories and belief systems to which these "types of vampire" really belonged. They all got lumped together, and suddenly the word "vampire" included at least half of the myths, legends, and folklore ever known on the planet. Child-killing demons, blood-drinking gods, hungry ancestor spirits, cannibalistic demons, fierce animal ghosts, night-hag entities, incubi/succubi, the restless dead, plague demons...these and many other very culture-specific beliefs, all with their own context and history, suddenly became part of the definition of "vampire".

Wrong or not, the arguments of the folklorists appealed to the imagination of English-speaking people. We already had the Vampire Metaphor, now over a century old and rich with psychological wish-fulfillment: immortality, eternal youth, power, sexuality, the thrill of the forbidden. Now we suddenly had educated scholars telling us that everyone the world over and to the dawn of time had believed in vampires. Inherent in that (supposedly) Historical Fact was a subtle suggestion: "if all human beings everywhere believed in vampires...then maybe, just maybe...there might be something to it. Maybe it's really true. Maybe it's possible to be immortal. After all, could all those people have been wrong?" And so the notion that "all cultures had a vampire belief" was embraced not only intellectually but emotionally, and is now part of the Canon of Conventional Wisdom. It has rarely been attacked critically by any writer since Summers -- his books are the basic references for every compendium of vampire folklore right up to Gordon Melton, and they all copy his basic format.

Part II:

So, what does "vampire" mean in English now? Answer: just about anything you darn well want! And after the 1930's, fiction writers were eager to get away from cobwebby old "cliches" and invent fresh speculations about vampires. The Vampire Metaphor grew, and changed, and grew some more, having been completely freed from the old definitions. Vampires as aliens. Vampires as bacteriological plague. Vampires free of the old restrictions, but burdened with new ones. Filmmakers, in need of vivid visual imagery, gave us some of them. F. W. Murnau made up the previously unknown idea that vampires would melt in sunlight for his 1922 film "Nosferatu". It was such a dramatic image, and so psychologically charged, it almost instantly became vampire canon. The fictional vampire, even more than the folklore vampire, could literally be anything -- anything at all. Certain things were constants -- blooddrinking and some kind of supernatural nature being the two main ones. But even those weren't rules. Science-fiction vampires (aliens, "vampire diseases") and fictional "energy vampires" were accepted.

So how does this relate to "real vampires" and what they say they are?

Well...this depends somewhat on who is doing the labeling.

Up until very recently -- say, the 1970's or so -- being equated with a "vampire" was not a flattering thing. Psychological literature used the "vampire" label to refer to very disturbed individuals who drank blood or practiced cannibalism. Usually these individuals were serial killers, rapists, or other brutal criminals, but sometimes they were simply pathetic people who craved blood so much they'd gnaw on themselves or cut partners during sex. In addition to this, there had been various stories for centuries about anti-social groups that allegedly drank blood in rituals (Medieval Jews were accused of this as well as 20th century Satanists -- among many others), usually that of babies and children. But these people were rarely called "vampires", and their blooddrinking was just one of many unfriendly things they were accused of doing. As books about "real vampires" began to be published in the 1960's or so, they usually combined folklore compendiums drawn from Summers with accounts of historical figures or well-known criminals who were accused of, or claimed to, drink human blood. These were the people called "real vampires" at first.

Around 1970 or so, it began to gradually come out that some people -- not criminals, not emotionally disturbed, although usually somewhat eccentric -- living outwardly ordinary lives, had a craving to drink blood. These people began to be written about, or to talk about themselves more openly, and slowly the idea grew that there might be "real vampires" -- living human beings who needed to drink blood for some reason.

Just as this idea began to percolate around, the fictional Vampire Metaphor took a shift that had not been seen before. The fictional vampire began to take on a new form: that of a sympathetic hero instead of a villain. At this point, the vampire began to be seen as something with advantages, something one might like to be, and a very appealing image for those who felt unusual or out of place. This led to a new phenomenon: identification with the fictional vampire (without being a highly disturbed person identifying with a destructive, evil image, like the little boy in Richard Matheson's short story "Drink My Blood"). Vampire-identifiers ranged from people who just wrote fiction and fantasized, to people who role-played vampires, to full-blown Lifestylers -- people who believed that by imitating the vampire, they might actually manifest some of the desired traits. Meanwhile, blooddrinkers, who had previously been forced to see themselves as bizarre and "evil", had a whole new paradigm for what they might be.

But who was the "real vampire"? Those who consciously adopted vampiric traits, or those who had to drink blood, for whatever reason and whatever they called themselves?

And was blood even necessary? By the end of the 1980's, the idea of a "psychic vampire" had also gone through some changes. Formerly seen as occult villains of the worst sort (what could be lower and viler than someone who steals the very life force from another person?) or clinging, selfish, using manipulators (as outlined in LaVey's The Satanic Bible), "psychic vampires" gained a new dignity. Suddenly they were people who needed extra energy because there was something wrong with them, and they weren't "evil" but afflicted. And some "psychic vampires" began to see themselves as the "true vampires", people who didn't just call themselves that because they liked to drink blood, but who were genuinely different.

So, who was the "real vampire" now? (Careful. Your answer could lead to a flamewar!)

And that's the situation we all find ourselves in right now, in the year 2000. We have:

  • A word that has been extended to include so many folkloric traditions that it has almost lost any meaning at all;
  • A Vampire Metaphor that is now so complex and so flexible that it lends itself to almost any creative variation, speculation, invention or addition, provided only that it make at least some logical sense;
  • An image of "vampires" that is sympathetic and positive enough to allow non-pathological people to identify with it, and that contains powerful wish-fulfillment elements such as invulnerability, beauty, power, sexuality unrestrained by consequences, freedom from death, pain and illness, and the potential for wisdom;
  • And a nascent "real vampire" subculture that contains everything from blooddrinkers to occultists, from BDSM practitioners and blood fetishists to natural psychics and mediums who think they're "psivamps", from occultists and mystics to role-players and Lifestylers...

...and they ALL can present equally valid reasons for claiming to be the "real vampires", thanks to the fact that "vampire" can be and has been used to mean so many different things. No matter which group uses the word, anyone who tries to pronounce themselves a "real vampire" or "TRUE vampire" or whatever is just going to get accused of trying to appropriate the word for themselves, or of "being more vampire than thou", and a fight will ensue. The whole complicated concept of "vampire" is way, way too powerful to relinquish without a fight -- and way, way too amorphous and all-inclusive to win a fight over. And so, people reluctantly grab onto a piece of it, and grudgingly allow others to have their piece of it, while privately telling themselves that they're the REAL "vampire", no matter what everyone else says.

And THAT, Darkestone, is the answer to your question! (*whew!*)

Part III:

Darkstone writes:

I still don't understand how come the vampire community doesn't come together and form a more simple definition so:

  1. those out there that are having a hard time of it finding out if they are truly vampires or not can find out a lot easier;
  2. those that are not truly vampires don't have such an easy time of it calling themselves vampire.

Well, finish reading the second part of my reply and see if you're still puzzled. To answer these specific questions, however:

First of all, the "vampire community", which really isn't one, has trouble "coming together" and agreeing on anything at all. We have no centralized form of communication -- there are a great many self-defined "real vampires" who aren't even on the Internet, and of those who are, some ONLY read messageboards, some ONLY frequent the chat channels, some ONLY subscribe to e-mail lists, some do two of the above and a minority do all three of the above. AND, various messageboards, lists and channels have their own regulars who form a little "community" of their own and don't overlap with anyone else's. Which of these groups is the real "vampire community" and authorized to hammer out a "definition"? And if any of them does, why should all the rest agree with it -- having not been part of the process?

Supposing (in a wildly hypothetical and idealistic fantasy) that all these varied people, non-Internet vampires included, could all be gotten together to figure out a definition -- how could they possibly agree when they're all so varied? A definition is by nature exclusive. That's exactly what you're proposing: a "more narrow" definition that would only include "true vampires". Well ,-- who is going to "agree" to exclude themselves from that definition? Who is going to voluntarily admit that they're not "true vampires", after all? It will come down to a "realer vampire than thou" knock-down-drag-out. Are psivamps more "genuine" than Lifestylers? Blooddrinkers more "genuine" than psivamps? "Extreme sanguinarians" more "genuine" than mere blooddrinkers? And how will the claims of all these people be tested for objective veracity, anyway? How do you know that anyone in these pseudonymous Internet forums is what they claim to be -- that a self-professed blooddrinker ever has tasted a drop, that a self-professed psivamp is really sucking down energy, that "extreme sanguinarians" will really die if they don't chug down a couple of pints a day? Do we believe them just because they say so? And if we do, how can we accuse anybody of not being a "true vampire" if they state with total confidence that they are?

And if you're thinking that only the "true vampires" should assemble to agree on this definition -- who are the "true vampires"? And if you already know that, why is the definition necessary?

And finally, what authority will validate the claims of any one faction to be the real "true vampires"? All of them can present arguments from various historical, psychological, folklore, magickal, and other sources to "prove" that they deserve to be the REAL "true vampires". What we'll end up with is a whole bunch of very different subgroups who are ALL claiming that they're the REAL "true vampires" and that the rest of the groups are nothing but a bunch of wannabees, role-players, delusionals and fakes. (Oh, wait, that's right, we've already got that! *wry look*)

Bottom line is, any attempt to create an arbitrary "definition" that excludes a majority of people in the "community" will boil down to some people feeling that they can call other people a bunch of liars. That may be something you feel perfectly justified doing, Darkestone -- frankly, I don't even want to go there!


"I'm a vampire, she's a vampire, he's a vampire, they're all vampires. Wouldn't you like to be a vampire too?"