Real-Life Horror: Vampires Actually Do Exist
I am a child of the macabre
One of my earliest movie memories is of the film, The Omega Man, starring Charleton Heston, as Robert Neville, an Army doctor, who is immune to a virus that has killed off the entire human race. Because of his otherness in this new, infected world, Neville is hunted by the former-human turned night-dwelling zombie-like creatures. Interestingly, the movie is based on the novella, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, and is actually about a vampire virus that infects the human race. In Matheson's novella, the last man is ultimately captured by the vampires and is given the opportunity to join them, or die. Living as a human is not an option, apparently, but since he is immune, things don't bode well.
I didn't realize how much vampires and vampire legends have been woven into my life through popular culture. There was Werner Herzog's terrifying 1979 vampire classic, Nosferatu juxtaposed nicely with the comedy parody Love at First Bite, which came out the same year. One of my absolute favorite vampire films is the cult classic, Lost Boys, starring the inimitable 1980s heart-throb, bad boy, Keifer Sutherland.
Years before Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt brought Lestat and Louis to the big screen in Interview with a Vampire, I would read Ann Rice's Vampire Lestat trilogy, and I would be equally mesmerized and repulsed by Lestat. In the books, he is an enigmatic character who is more human than most humans. His vampire nature amplifies both the best and worst of us, and I loved him, but I was also terrified of him.
When Stephanie Meyer added her two cents to the vampire genre with the best-selling Twilight series, I was actually offended. Vampires are given the gift (or curse, depending on how one views it) of super-human strength, irresistible sex-appeal, and immortality, and with those gifts, there must be a sacrifice. The usual sacrifices are that vampires have some vulnerabilities. They can't be touched by sunlight (the fact that S.A.D., seasonal affective disorder, exists in humans speaks to how great a sacrifice not being able to see the sun would be), and they must feed on blood, preferably human, but any animal blood will do. While Stephanie's vampires did require a blood-meal, the fact that they were able to enjoy sunlight was an affront to those of us who grew up with the night-stalker vampire variety.
Books, movies, songs, cartoon features, comic books, and even a Broadway musical have made vampires an industry all it's own. We are continually fascinated by the phenomenon and have even gone to great lengths to prove that the undead, blood-thirsty, charismatic vampires actually exist.
In folklore, the origin of the vampire myth is usually attributed to Vlad, the Impaler, a 13th Century Romanian leader who was particularly brutal in his treatment of his enemies. The name, Dracula, was originally used by his father, Vlad Dracul, which translates into Vlad the Dragon in Medieval Romanian. The sobriquet was adopted by Vlad, the Impaler, who often added “Dragulya” when signing documents. The first connection between Vlad and vampires was made by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, Dracula, which tells the story of a blood-thirsting Romanian Count (be sure to check out Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder in the movie remake. The musical score is deliciously dark and brooding).
While Vlad is often attributed to being the original vampire, the belief in actual vampires was perpetuated by a number of observations, the explanations of which during those very superstitious times could only be otherworldly. In particular, exhumed bodies frequently had bloody mouths, which seemed to indicate an undead thirst for blood, but which actually is a naturally occurring “purging”, in which fluid is leaked during the decomposition process.
Another all too human malady often attributed to vampires is the sensitivity to sunlight. Porphyria, while not common, is an actual disease that causes blisters to erupt on the affected when exposed to sunlight. In those days, this disorder could result in a wooden stake to the heart.
There is also the unfortunate incidence of vivisepulture, or live burial. While burial of human remains is a practice that dates back more than 130,000 years, the process through which a cadaver was prepped for the grave has varied greatly throughout cultures and history. The Egyptians were fairly thorough in their embalming practices, and it's unlikely that their not-quite-dead walked around the tombs looking for an exit. In those societies where humans were buried with very minimal preparation for the grave, there was a chance that the person might still be alive when interred. The specter of a loved one rising from the grave would have been horrifying in all of its implications, and so the phenomenon was given a supernatural cause, i.e. vampirism.
If Shakespeare had been writing a few hundred years later than he did, Juliet might have been a vampire rather than a love-struck teenager who impales herself with a dagger.
While we all very much love our fiction, vampires do, in fact, live among us. According to this article, there are approximately 5000 blood-feeding individuals living in the United States. These individuals are inflicted with a condition, called Haematomania, that compels them to consume blood products for energy. While they are not sneaking through windows at night to pierce the jugular veins of unwilling victims, they are forming and joining support organizations such as Atlanta's Vampire Alliance.
Whether real or fiction, vampires are very much a part of our popular culture and our world. We can love them or hate them, or we can simply learn to accept and adapt. As the grandpa in Lost Boys laments, “One thing about living in Santa Carla I never could stomach, all the damn vampires.”