Clarissa Johal: Vampires

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Due to a recent rash (nest?) of self-professed vampire followers on my Twitter, I thought I would write this week on vampires.

Personally, I worry the entertainment industry is past the point of saturation on vampires but I could be wrong. It used to be that these creatures were scary and could seriously, oh I don’t know, kill you. In the past fifty years, however, vampires have been simultaneously sexualized and emasculated. There's a new list of traits they share in literature and on film. They no longer terrify but instead; their spit heals wounds, their fangs grow in response to sexual desire, they worry over moral choices, fall in love and have babies. We’re not going to even talk about vampires that sparkle.

So here is comes…my definition:

Vampires: mythological or folkloric creatures who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures, regardless of whether they are undead or a living person/being. Belief in such legends became so rife that in some cultures it caused mass hysteria and even public executions of people believed to be vampires.

In European folklore, vampires were usually reported as bloated in appearance with skin that was ruddy, purplish, or dark in color. In the coffin, they would be clad in the shroud they had been buried in and their teeth, hair, and nails would continue to grow. Blood was seen seeping from the mouth and nose and their left eye was often open. In general, however, fangs were not a feature. 
The origins of these physical attributes can be attributed to what we now know of forensic pathology: remaining bacteria in the body cause it to swell; which in turn, cause blood vessels to rupture and ooze blood out of the mouth, skin and gums shrivel; which in turn cause the hair, nails and teeth to look like they’ve grown, etc.  The process of decomposition.

Dead sexy.
But not very romantic.

Vampiric entities exist in many cultures and go back as far as prehistoric times. These blood-drinking, flesh-eating entities were associated with demons or evil spirits. The term vampire was not popularized until the early 18th century.

Ancient Greek mythology contains several precursors to modern vampires. Empusa, the daughter of the goddess Hecate, was described as a demon with flaming hair, a serpentine tail and one leg of brass and the other of a donkey. She would transform into a beautiful woman and seduce men as they slept...before drinking their blood and eating their flesh.

Aztec mythology described tales of the cihuateteo; skeletal-faced spirits of women who died in childbirth. Childbirth was looked on as a battle in Aztec culture, and those that died in the process were honored as fallen warriors. The spirits of these women were said to haunt crossroads at night; stealing children, seducing men and causing sickness, seizures and madness.

Various regions of Africa share folkloric tales of beings with vampiric abilities. The Ashanti of southern Ghana tell of the sasabonsam, or forest vampires. They are said to be hairy and man-sized with short stubby arms, a wingspan of 20 feet, blood-shot eyes and teeth made of iron. They hang from trees utilizing hooks on their feet, making it easy for them to swoop down on their prey from above and drain their blood.

Vetàla are vampiric entities from Indian Hindu mythology. Inhabiting the zone between life and afterlife, they are the hostile spirits of the dead whose children neglected to perform funerary rites in their memory. The vetàla can move from corpse to corpse, stopping decay and existing indefinitely. Victims reanimated by a vetàla would always have their hands and feet pointed backwards. They can haunt the living, kill children, cause miscarriages, and drive people insane.

In China, it is the jiāng shī, also known as a “hopping vampire” or reanimated corpse. The jiāng shī are said to have long, white hair, greenish-white skin, (due to rotting and mold) and a stiff gait. In the daytime, they hide in dark places, but at night, they move, arms outstretched, by hopping. To kill living creatures, they must absorb their qi (life energy).

So why are we not scrambling to read about getting down-and-dirty with these kinds of vampires? Vampires are, after all, the new aphrodisiac. Sadly, romance with something leaking fluid and hopping about just isn't sexy. It would be the ultimate hurdle to overcome for an unfortunate couple, however. Live Girl falls in love with Dead Boy. Their romance is ill-fated because Dead Boy can't seem to stop himself from doing what vampires do. On their second date, Dead Boy rips Live Girl apart, drains her dry and eats her.
The End.

Few authors and novels hold onto the idea of truly scary vampires. Stephen King's Salem's Lot, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and the classic Dracula by Bram Stoker are ones that come to mind. Stephen King even goes so far as to state, "Here's what vampires shouldn't be: pallid detectives who drink Bloody Marys and work only at night; lovelorn southern gentlemen; anorexic teenage girls; boy-toys with big dewy eyes. What should they be? Killers, honey. Stone killers who never get enough of that tasty Type-A...Those vamps got hijacked by a lot of soft-focus romance."

The concept of vampires obviously polarize readers and writers both.

Personally, I prefer my vampires just plain scary. Handsome and sexy vampires are fun, don’t get me wrong. John Mitchell from BBCs Being Human, Eric Northman from Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series (HBOs True Blood) and Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are some of my favorites. But there's something to be said for delving into folklore and mythology and tapping into what terrifies us. 

What are your thoughts?


wtsrudi said...

I could not agree more... there was a time when I clasp to the edge of my seat or twitch a lot when watching VAMPIRE SHOWS or MOVIES... not anymore.... in these shows of late, Vampires are eye candies - creatures to fall for, and not to fear...

sign of the times, sign of the times...

Clarissa Johal said...

Sign of the times, yes. (Eye-candy vamps,lol.) Maybe society needs to be able to control what scares us too. Vampires that have the capability of falling in love aren't "monsters" anymore. Thanks for commenting/stopping by, Rudi!

Derek said...

That's a great overview of vampires in various cultures. So, what happened? Well, unless Joss Whedon was the first person to spot a niche with the - let's face it - darn good Buffy series, I'd say someone saw vampires as a metaphor for the angst ridden teen market. And before you could say 'ker-ching', a phenomenon was born.

And the next trend, in my opinion? Angels of all varieties. In which case let's hear it for Kevin Smith's film Dogma for raising the bar at the outset!

Clarissa Johal said...

It's interesting, isn't it? Aside from being a metaphor for blood-born pathogens, virginity, etc., it's definitely lost its bite in the past 50 years, haha. Thanks for stopping by, Derek (: (And yes, Buffy rocks. She needs to slay Edward)

Ann Montclair said...

I love bad, scary, pale and petrifying vampires. The Twilight series didn't do it for me. I liked Rice's vampires okay. Now Stoker did it right: dark, dangerous, amoral, and threatening.

Sharon Ledwith said...

And this is why I'm on Team Jacob! That was a fascinating history on those darn vamps! BTW - if you dream of a vampire, it symbolizes someone (could even be the dreamer) who is draining energy from you, and acts as a warning that you are being drained either pysically, mentally, emotionally or all of these. Just saying! Shared this gem of a post!

Rhea Rhodan said...

Always love reading your anthropological viewpoint, Clarissa! Brahm Stoker's Dracula is my favorite horror movie. He's creepy and scary, but his soul is redeemed by love in the end (a beloved theme of mine). After becoming so enraptured by Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, I found myself unable to read vampire fiction written by anyone else for many years. I've finally relented, to find some fluffier and/or sexier than others, some more enjoyable than others. Musa has a truly scary vampire book I enjoyed and think you would too, Clarissa: Nightfire, by Alyson Burdette. One final thought on vampires. They do walk among us, and they don't suck blood. They suck energy. I know you've met them, everyone has. Beware inviting them into your home/life :>).

Clarissa Johal said...

I agree, Ann. Twilight was about right for the YA crowd, though. Vampire men who weren't threatening. Sharon--lol! I agree, if you have to pick a team... I don't dream of vampires, I do have recurring werewolf dreams that are terrifying though. I'll wake with so much adrenaline pumping, I'll literally be in pain. No idea what that means except they are the one thing (besides butterflies, don't ask) that I'm afraid of. Childhood fear, I guess. Rhea--thank you! I'll have to add Nightfire to my now humongous reading list, lol. I do know the type of "vampires" you speak of--and yes, there have been several in my life I've had to distance myself from. Thanks for stopping by, ladies!