A Guide to Victorian Vampires

The vampires we know in the English-speaking world are based on a few European legends. But what did Victorian writers "know" about vampires?

What’s in a Name?

There are many different terms for vampires (also spelled vampyre in English), such as vyrkolakas (Greek), Bulgarian and Macedonian вампир (vampir), Bosnian: lampir, Croatian vampir, Czech and Slovak upír, Polish wąpierz, and (perhaps East Slavic-influenced) upiór, Ukrainian упир (upyr), Russian упырь (upyr‍ ’​), Belarusian упыр (upyr). However, “nosferatu” was not actually a term in any language for vampire until it appeared in a travelogue. Most likely, this word came from a misattribution of a word the loosely means “devil” or “demon” in old Romanian. It actually referred specifically to the illegitimate offspring of illegitimate parents. Not exactly what we think of as vampires, so let’s take a look at how we came to our current understanding.

Death in Every Day Life

Unlike today, it was not uncommon for people in the 18th-19th centuries to see dead bodies. This could occur directly after death or after they were dug up to make more room in over-crowded cemeteries. People treated public executions and other punishments, as well as dissections, like carnival attractions. But, even though there was more exposure to the dead, the nature of decomposition was poorly understood. Sometimes corpses just refused to look the way people thought they would. It could be due to the amount of moisture or acid in the soil, the depth of burial, or some other factor. This lead to supernatural explanations for totally natural phenomena.

Vampires as the Victorians Knew Them

The vampire as we know it in the English-speaking world is largely based on the same handful of European legends, and aspects of these stories have become canon. The Victorian era was the first time many of these stories were first recorded. This is what writers in the 1800s “knew” about vampires:

  • They are dead. Or, undead to be more precise.
  • They are cold, on account of said dead-ness.
  • They have bad breath.
  • They drink blood. Vamps don’t seem to do so maliciously, rather they are trying to prolong their existences. (Though of course, certain individuals, who were probably jerks in their regular lives, prove to enjoy mind games in addition to supper.)
  • In these stories, there is a first-person narrator but it is never the vampire. A survivor tells a tale to others, be it around the fire at Christmas or just to record it for posterity. This gives the stories the feeling of a warning or morality tale, not unlike ghost stories of this time.

 

Bram Stoker’s Influence

Then there are the things that we all think we know about how vampires work, but only became established later. Films like Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931) had a huge influence on modern perceptions of this monster. Both of these movies were both more or less based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. He added many details that we now think of as essential to “real” vampires (as opposed to Twilight and other variations), but hadn’t been part of previous tales in English. Here are some examples:

  • Vampires hate Christian stuff such as crucifixes and communion wafers. Despite being one of the first things a person will say if you ask them to describe a vampire, I didn’t find many references to this particular phobia in my research. This appears to be a totally Victorian era addition to the lore. It may have had something to do with the belief that the bodies of heretics do not in fact decompose.
  • Dracula could turn into other things, like bats, wolves, or mist. Not so for other vampires. They may have power over animals in older stories, but this seems to be more like a large predator scaring away smaller ones rather than some sort of magical ability.
  • They need to return to their coffins (or at least to the soil in which they were buried) in order to sustain themselves. Blood alone is not enough. Though many vampires rest in their coffins, this seems to have more to do with safety than any real need.
  • Vampires hate garlic. This is from the Slavic vampire tradition, from which Stoker drew for his material. People in this part of the world believed that garlic was effective against a number of supernatural evils, including witches. If one was suspected of cavorting with the supernatural, they were given garlic either raw or cooked into a dish. This practice continued as late the 1970s in some churches in the Slavic region, as well as stuffing the mouths of the deceased with garlic to keep evil spirits from inhabiting the body.
  • They sleep all day and only come out at night. And, when it is their nap time, vamps don’t put up much of a fight.

 

Variations on a Theme

Then, of course, there are things that are true for some tales and not for others. The earliest vampire stories and myths that influenced the Victorian era were from places like Hungary and, of course, Romania. Each culture has a slightly different take on vampire detection and habits. For instance:

  • Hungarian vampires only feed on family members. In small, rural villages this could mean that an entire settlement can become infected with vampirism due to the shallowness of the gene pool. This type are mostly concerned with making more vampires, while the majority are only eating folks to keep themselves “alive.”
  • Some vampires are at total liberty to move as they please, day or night.
  • Many vampires have been imprisoned for centuries, only to awaken because of a disturbance of their tombs. This is an interesting parallel to another fan favorite of the Victorian era, stories of a mummy’s curse.
  • There were a variety of ways to kill vampires, including prayer.
  • As convenient as it is for vampire turn to dust after they’re staked, this isn’t always the case in the lore. This seems to only happen if the vampire is extremely old, where new vampires just look like corpses once slain.
  • Some feel really bad about what they are doing to their victims. Most of this type go out of their way to make what is left of their lives pleasant.
  • Some possess hypnotic powers which can be used to seduce their victims or to make witnesses keep a vow of secrecy.
  • You should never speak the name of a deceased person whom you suspect could rise as a vampire, or it will come to pass.
  • Invitations aren’t necessary for vampire to enter your home.
  • Living a “sacrilegious life” in Greece is enough to become a vampire. This includes such small infractions as drinking too much.
  • Slavic people should also be on the lookout for people who are excessively happy.
  • In the 1700’s in Moravia, it was not uncommon for dead people to show up at a party and point out the next to die, who will repeat the performance for the next victim unless precautions are taken.

Vampire-Killing-Kit

Vampire Stories and Their Scribes

varney-coverMen and women penned vampire tales for periodicals, short story collections and even recorded myths in their travelogues. I recently finished a fantastic collection of these stories published in 2010 called Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories edited by Michael Sims. (The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, Arsene Lupi, Gentleman Thief). The following is a list of vampire stories based on his selections. While many are old enough to be in the public domain, they can be hard to track down on their own.

A Mystery of the Campagna, Anne Crawford

A True Story of a Vampire, Eric, Count Stenbock

And the Creature Came in, Augustus Hare

Good Lady Ducayne, Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Let Loose, Mary Cholmondeley

The End of My Journey, George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Family of the Vourdalak, Aleksei Tolstoy

The Mysterious Stranger, Anonymous

The Tomb of Sarah, F. G. Loring

The Vampyre, John Polidori

Varney the Vampire, James Malcom Rymer

Wake Not the Dead, Theophile Gautier

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One Comment
  • David Lee Summers
    15 October 2017 at 9:03 pm

    Another good vampire story of the period is the 1871 novella “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu.

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