A Few Thoughts on Vampires

As with lycanthropy, vampirism has a corresponding psychiatric disorder, clinical vampirism, in which a person has an erotic obsession with drinking blood. It is related to Renfield’s Syndrome or Renfield Syndrome, which is an obsession with eating living creatures such as insects. Renfield’s syndrome is named after the character Renfield in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, who had an obsession with eating insects. However, neitherclinical vampirism nor Renfield’s syndrome is a valid medical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disordersproduced by the American Psychiatric Association.

That said, in legend and mythology and not including those found in literature or in cinema, there are probably thousands of species (for lack of a better term) of vampire. Each culture seems to have had its own variant. In the X-files episode “Bad Blood”, Mulder gives a quick rundown of the many types of vampires in legend and mythology.

Vampires in traditional folklore are much different from the modern conception of a vampire as an immortal, erotic figure that can come out into the open only at night and that feeds on the blood of the living. In bygone days, a vampire was most likely someone cursed, or who had committed a grave sin or crime, who rose from the grave to plague the living, most likely the vampire’s relatives or someone who knew the vampire in life. To keep someone someone with the potential to be a vampire from returning from the dead, various peoples used various preventive measures. One of the most common was to drive a stake through the vampire and into his/her coffin, theoretically pinning them down. Sometimes the body was decapitated or its legs cut off. I don’t recall offhand the use of garlic and crucifixes to repel vampires in legend, but it’s not impossible. To my mind, they are most likely inventions of Hollywood, just as werewolves transforming under a full moon or a silver bullet being necessary to kill them are inventions of Hollywood.

John William Polidori (1795-1821) Date of portrait unknown.

The modern concept of a vampire as a cultured, sexually attractive individual became most popular with Dracula. However, before Dracula (1897) was Carmilla (1872) , by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and The Vampyre (1819) by John William Polidori. These models probably led to vampires being imagined as attractive, seductive aristocrats in the films of the 1970’s and 1980’s. From there the titillating sexual aspect gained greater importance over time to where it is today, probably more as a way to attract a larger audience or readership than for any other reason.

Illustration from Carmilla
Illustration from Joseph Sheridan leFanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla

Vampires have mostly been one-dimensional characters until the last few decades when writers like Anne Rice gave them considerable depth.

I have no real impulse to write anything about vampires. Though I will occasionally watch a movie or read a story involving vampires, they (or at least the modern stereotype) haven’t yet interested me enough to take the time and effort to write about one. If I were to write about one, it would most likely be to resurrect (no pun intended) the original concept of a vampire as a cursed person, most likely a peasant, who rises from the grave to plague the living. There would be a lot of psychological angles to use in forming the backstory of the characters and revealing their depth, the inner workings of their minds and emotions.

Assume the father of a family dies and they, for whatever reason, believe he might rise again as a vampire., but they poo-poo the idea only to have neighbors report than they saw the father walking about the village or killing someone. How would each member of the family feel? Would the mother, who used to quarrel frequently with her husband, readily believe the reports? Would the children be in denial? Maybe vice versa. Who goes out to see if the reports are true? What do they feel? What do they feel on seeing the father? Is it actually him or someone who looks like him? How can they be sure? Does the father attack one of them? How do the rest feel about that? Do they feel the killing or any killing is justified or at random? Maybe the children who are abused by the mother set her up to be killed. Maybe the mother sets up the children or uses them as bait to trap the father. Taking another tack, maybe the mother was so passionately in love with the father that she decides to join him in death. Does she try to bring the children along against their wishes? There is a lot that can be done without resorting to clichés of the supernatural and the erotic to make the story interesting. Everyone these days is writing about super sexy vampires with super powers. It’s take to approach this subject from another angle.

Writing about a serial killer who revels in blood, a realistic vampire rooted in reality, fascinates me considerably. Then I would b able to explore vicariously through a fictional character the psychology of someone like Bela Kiss, the Hungarian serial killer of the early twentieth century; Peter Kuerten, the “Vampire of Duesseldorf”, who terrorized Duesseldorf, Germany in 1929; or Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who is said to have killed hundreds of young girls in central Europe in the early seventeenth century. Some say that Countess Bathory killed the girls to bathe in their blood and thereby remain youthful, but others say that element of the legend wasn’t concocted until decades after her death. In any event, that does make for an interesting psychological aspect in a work of fiction.

Peter Kuerten, April 1931
Mugshot of Peter Kuerten, April 1931

In fact, I started a story involving Countess Bathory some years ago. I have yet to finish yet, but only because my imagination for magic and the supernatural was weak and hit a bout of writer’s block crossing the cerebral highway. If I sit down and focus, I may be able to come up with some interesting ideas. In fact, this article is helping spur some ideas.

My recommendation to my readers is to find some reliable sources and read up on Bathory (what I am writing here are just notes off the top of my head based on research I did several years ago). The countess becomes more fascinating the more you find out about her actual life. Describing her simply as a psychotic, bloodthirsty villainess is specious. The historical Elizabeth is exceptionally complex. The accepted story is that she bathed in the blood of young girls to preserve her beauty. This facet of Elizabeth’s story is quite likely false. However, if we were to assume it was true, then we have to ask ourselves, why was maintaining her beauty of such importance? Vanity would be the obvious explanation, but why was she vain? Was it a matter of insecurity? Why?

Elizabeth_Bathory_Portrait 1585
Elizabeth, Countess Bathory (1560-1614) Portrait 1585. a late sixteenth century copy of the only portrait (now lost) known to have been painted of her in her lifetime.

From what I have read, my theory is that she loved her husband passionately and wanted to always be attractive to him. This is not a streak of closet chauvinism in yours truly. In my admittedly spurious readings, history supports this theory.

Alternately, if we decide to avoid this angle of a search for eternal beauty, then why did she torture all those girls? Accounts state that she killed at least eighty and maybe as many as 650. Was it a twisted power trip as with modern serial killers or was it something else? One source I read said that her husband taught her how to torture people. So was this like a hobby they shared? From what I have read, Elizabeth’s rampage against young girls increased after her husband’s death. Apparently, her husband exerted enough control over her (or maybe he had a calming influence) that she was able to control her urges toward violence. That would explain why she threw herself into her macabre pastime after his death.

Maybe her violence was rooted in jealousy. When Elizabeth married her husband, she was about the same age as the girls she would later torture.

Maybe Elizabeth had Intermittent Explosive Disorder, a mental disorder in which a person is susceptible to sporadic urges to violence.

Maybe the sight or taste of blood was erotic to her, for reasons that can only be speculated. This would be clinical vampirism and would put an interesting spin on the currently prevalent image of vampires in pop culture.

As you can see, a historical vampire can be a considerably more intriguing character than someone who is all superpowers and sex.

Anyway, that is my post for now. I have to attend to other matters.

Thoughts? Comments?

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