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The legend of the vampires: the immortal bloodsuckers between truth and invention

Vampires have a millennial tradition, traces of them are found from the dawn of history until today and have always terrified human beings: but how much of what we know is reality and how much is invention?

In 1816 the medical writer John William Polidori participated in a picturesque creative competition that had a truly exceptional group as competitors. At Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, Dr. Polidori, the great Lord Byron, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley together with a young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and her friend Claire Calairmont challenged each other to invent ghost stories.

The most famous result of that strange race will come from the pen of Mary Godwin (who will marry Percy Shelley and later become ⤑Mary Shelley) and which will be published in 1818 with the title of Frankenstein, i.e. the Modern Prometheus. But another story will come to life in the rooms of Villa Diodati and will do so precisely drawing from the imagination of John Polidori. A story that tells of a mysterious man, Lord Ruthven, of a young Englishman named Aubrey and of their trip to Europe. The work will be published in 1819 with the title Il Vampiro and it is from that short story that the most modern conception of the contemporary vampire will originate. But the bloodsucking undead have far more ancient origins.

The origins of the legend

One of the greatest enigmas that have always tormented man is that of death. The end of life, the doubt of what lies ahead, why sometimes we simply stop living. It is also from these profound questions that the myth of the vampire was born in ancient times. The ancient Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamian cultures and all the civilizations of the past had mythologies related to ghosts and demons.
In ancient Mesopotamia, for example, there was a large patheon of evil spirits with many different characteristics. Some of these were able to suck the life force of plants and animals, and were associated with a kind of evil wind that anticipated their appearance (the Ekimu). Others were capable of infecting or injuring human beings with their gaze (the Uruku or Utukku) and among the demons of ancient Babylon we remember Lilith (in the Hebrew Bible the first wife of Adam), a corrupting half-divinity as powerful as it is lethal. Ancient Greece also had creatures of the night, the vryolakas, who came out of their graves to knock on doors, at night: responding to their touch meant certain death.

Different powers, different entities, varied demons: the vampire as we know it has many of these characteristics. Before we discover them, let’s see how the Old Continent deals with the mythology of the bloodsucking demon.

Vampires of the Old Continent

Although vampires find their birthplace among the oldest folds in history (even in ancient China there are legends that can remember modern vampires, as well as in Africa or in the vodoo of the Caribbean islands), it is in Europe that they are reviewed and married in their modern form. If Dr. Polidori with his Lord Ruthven had begun to outline the western vampire, it is Bram Stoker with his Dracula (1897) to define its coordinates more concretely. But both authors drew on a rich national mythology made up of names and images.

The strigoi (in addition to being the protagonists of the vampiric TV series StraThe Strain and the novels from which it is taken) are the vampires of Romanian mythology, spirits of the dead who rise from the graves but also living devoted to the magical arts. Strigoi are capable of transforming themselves into animals, they can become invisible and steal vitality from victims through blood. It is from the strigoi that Stoker took inspiration for his Dracula, it is the fear of the strigoi at the origin of a violent collective hysteria in Europe a few centuries ago.

The vrykolakas (or brucolachi) are the vampires of Greek folklore and according to tradition they are cursed people for various reasons, the most picturesque is for having eaten the meat of a sheep killed by a werewolf. They kill infants, children or pregnant women: they do not suck blood in a literal sense, but drain vital energy and this binds them to the legend of the classic vampire.

Then there are the Bulgarian nosferatu (how can we forget Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 film with Max Schreck as Count Orlok), the Albanian sampir, the Russian mjertovjec (children of a werewolf and a witch): each nation has its vampire shape. But all share some characteristics.

Features and powers

Given the deep roots in many cultures and given the multiple mythologies that the vampire legend draws from, it is not easy to circumscribe the characteristics and powers of the undead but there are some common features that can help define its coordinates. The vampire is a pale, red-eyed creature, often wrapped in a shroud and armed with long, sharp teeth. It feeds on blood (or life energy in any other form) and has a sinister relationship with the coffins and the land of its country of origin. According to some cultures his image is not reflected in the mirrors because death and damnation deprived him of the soul.

Vampires are virtually immortal, have the power to transform into creatures of the night (bats, wolves and other creatures), possess superhuman strength, have the ability to impose their will on ordinary human beings with just one look and have a lethal repulsion for the sunlight. Crosses and garlic are their sworn enemies but killing them is not easy: an ash stake in the heart or beheading are some of the methods to definitively destroy a vampire. The only other defense: according to some, the undead must be invited to enter the homes of others.

Do vampires exist? Trials and sightings

In addition to the natural tendency of man to explain the inexplicable, to his will to define the why of death and the why of decomposition using the creations of dark mythologies such as that of the vampire, there is also a decidedly more concrete motivation that can have driven to conceive a creature as the undead bloodsucker. This motivation is called erythropoietic porphyria. Porphyria sufferers develop severe intolerance to sunlight, are pale, sick-looking, and require frequent blood transfusions. In some cases, very aggressive variants of porphyria can lead to serious psychosis which, combined with the above symptoms, in less enlightened historical moments, may have transformed sick people into dangerous uncontrollable and bloodthirsty creatures.

Recent history is dotted with serial killers who, due to terrible and very macabre rituals, can recall the mythological figure of the vampire (Peter Kurten, the Düsseldorf vampire or Nicolas Claux, the Paris vampire or the Englishman John George Haigh) but it is only psychosis that leads to the extreme explode in the worst ways. Are there documented and far more mysterious cases than real vampire sightings?

Hungary: the Black Countess

We are at the end of the sixteenth century: Elizabeth Batory, noble and powerful countess, bleeds the victims and takes a bath with their vital fluid and also seems to eat human flesh. She doesn’t want to grow old and is willing to do anything to stay young forever: perhaps not a real vampire, but certainly a behavior very similar to that of the undead.

Serbia: the story of Arnold Paole

In 1727 the Serbian soldier Arnold Paole returns home after a conflict but has changed, suffering from a pallor that war alone does not justify. Paole says he was attacked by a vampire who then chased and killed but also confesses a terrible doubt: he believes he has been contaminated. Shortly afterwards Paole dies but some people say they still see him wandering the country. The body is exhumed: it seems that a new layer of skin has started to grow under the dead one. Paole is hit with a stake in the heart and reacts moaning in pain: he will then be beheaded and burned.

Exeter: the story of Mercy Brown

In 1892, young Mercy Brown, a girl from Exeter in Rhode Island, died of an unknown disease. A few days later the citizens of Exeter report seeing Mercy wandering the streets of the small town and the exhumation of the corpse is arranged: the blood taken from the body of the girl turns out to be that of a person still alive. Legend has it that Mercy’s heart will be taken away to keep her from wandering the streets of Exeter again. Side note: Mercy is also the name of one of the most witches in the TV series alemSalem who had a particular fondness for blood.

St. Petersburg: the case of Anastasie Dieudonne

In 1927 Anastasie Dieudonne, a young Haitian woman, confesses that she has repeatedly drunk her granddaughter’s blood distilling it thanks to incisions between the girl’s toes. The woman claims to have made this horrible gesture driven by an uncontrollable urgency: perhaps not a classic vampire, but certainly a serial blood drinker.

London: the vampire of the Highgate cemetery

The construction of the Highgate cemetery dates back to 1839 (almost sixty years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula came to life, or rather undead) and its main purpose was to house the dead of London noblemen. The first sightings of a strange red-eyed figure who wandered among the tombstones date back to more than a hundred years later, in 1960. It was 1971 when a girl was attacked by a figure who responded to the vampire’s description: tall, dark, with red eyes.

United States: the vampire of Mineral Point

In 1981 in Mineral Point, Wiscounsin, a vampire figure was sighted near the Graceland cemetery. A policeman rushes to the scene and stops a tall, thin, pale man wrapped in a cloak. This escapes and manages to vanish into thin air, leaving no trace, not even on the snow that whitened Mineral Point at that time. In 2004 a new sighting, same pale and tall man, same dynamic. This time the escape is interrupted by making the tracks disappear at the end of a dead end. 2008: a young couple is fishing when the same disturbing figure emerges from the waters of Lake Ludden. The two run away chased and when the police join them, there is no trace of the pale man.

Guyana: the killing of the vampire woman

In 2007, in a Guyana village, an elderly woman was lynched and killed by the crowd because she was accused of feeding on the blood of children and being a higue. According to local beliefs that have their roots in the Obeah religion, higos are evil spirits who break through locks into homes and take the form of older women.

Renfield’s syndrome

RM Renfield is one of the characters of Bram Stoker’s ⤑Dracula (masterfully interpreted in the cinema, among others, also by the great Tom Waits) who develops a very strange attachment to blood as a form of sustenance, as a means not to grow old, to allow to the soul to persist. Renfield, locked up in an asylum and entrusted to the care of the capable doctor John Seward, is convinced that sucking the souls of lower beings (flies, spiders, birds) will allow his not to be consumed. This morbid addiction was defined by the psychiatrist Richard Noll Renfield syndrome, and the diagnosis of Noll draws inspiration precisely from the character of Stoker.

The syndrome mainly affects male patients (although over time the females suffering from it are increasing) and is triggered by severe childhood trauma: the ultimate manifestation of this disorder leads those affected by it to the consumption of human blood. There are many factors related to the syndrome: desire for domination and unresolved sexual tensions first of all. Those who manifest Renfield syndrome have suffered, as a rule, trauma associated with painless but rather pleasant bleeding that leads them to see blood as a source of psychological and physical well-being.

Renfield’s syndrome, if taken to the extreme and if it does not find its natural solution in the stability that normally accompanies growth, risks leading to disturbing and violent deviations such as those of the serial killers we mentioned earlier. It is a serious pathology, accompanied by the compulsive and uncontrolled desire to drink blood that has little to do with contemporary cultural vampires, people fascinated by the figure of the vampire who choose to emulate some deeds in full and total autonomy.

Energy vampires

Another type of vampirism, not literally linked to the intake of human blood but equally debilitating for those who suffer it, is energy. Forget pale, magnetic-eyed figures who move at night and have strange habits: energy vampires are everywhere and unexpected. They are deeply insecure people but also victims of an excess of narcissism, they are profoundly negative, devastated by a sense of constant victimization and unable to transmit enthusiasm, energy or even give back only part of the time that is dedicated to them.

If garlic is enough to drive away a vampire, you don’t have the same luck with energy vampires. They settle in the lives of their victims, seeking constant support for some, followed by an equally constant desire for reassurance or being the center of attention. They are not physically dangerous and they have very little to do with the threat of bleeding (or worse), but they are capable of profoundly affecting our lives. Attending them leads to an exhaustion that really resembles what follows the aggression of a real bloodsucker and little by little they end up filling all the spaces of our day.

How to recognize them? The only way is to listen to your feelings. If a relationship is difficult, if it does not convey joy, if at the end of an evening you feel as if someone has literally dried up, run away. There is no Professor Van Helsing who can save you.

And have you ever seen a vampire?

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