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What is a Vampire?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A vampire is a mythical creature which sustains itself by drinking the blood of living animals. Most vampire myths center around the reanimation of human corpses, with the corpse preying on other humans for the blood it needs. Vampire mythology is ancient, with most cultures having some version of the vampire in their folklore, perhaps reflecting a universal desire to explore the ideas of death and dying. In the modern era, the vampire has become almost a pop culture figure, thanks largely to Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, which features an aristocratic, mesmerizing vampire.

Modern ideas about vampires originate primarily from myths which have their roots in Eastern Europe, but the origins of the vampire are much older. Ancient Rome, Greece, China, and Egypt all had stories about creatures which closely resemble the modern vampire, and vampire myths were also present in many other regions of the world, in some form or another.

The common thread in all vampire stories is that the creature must feed on human blood to survive, and typically it is created by being bitten by another vampire. In many myths, vampires are also described as immortal, and feats of great strength are often required to kill vampires; beheading, burning, exposure to sunlight, staking through the heart, and dismemberment are all presented as possible ways to kill a vampire in various myths. Typically vampires are described as nocturnal, using the cover of night to conceal their activities and avoiding the sunlight, which is often described as harmful to vampires.

A plethora of myths surround vampires. According to some tales, vampires sleep in coffins, often coffins filled with earth. In other stories, vampires cannot cross running water, or enter a home without an invitation. Vampires may also be sensitive to garlic, crosses, and holy water in some stories, and they classically prey on young, beautiful men and women. Some vampires can supposedly change into bats, wolves, and other animals in some stories, while others possess the power of flight, or are able to turn into vapor.

For the bulk of history, vampires have been described as dark, bloated corpses. In the 19th century, however, the popular mythology surrounding vampires began to shift, and they came to be described as cadaverously thin, extremely pale individuals, perhaps reflecting an increase of tuberculosis, a disease which sometimes caused people to resemble vampires, as they grew thin and pale and coughed up blood. In many modern stories, vampires are devastatingly attractive, using their beauty to lure their victims, and they are often portrayed as wealthy or aristocratic.

The universality of the vampire myth is rather intriguing to many anthropologists and historians. Researchers have suggested that the pervasiveness of certain aspects of the vampire myth may be related to a lack of understanding about the process of death and decomposition. Historically, “corpses” sometimes did reanimate, because they weren't actually dead, but no one realized this, due to shortcomings of the medical profession. Furthermore, bodies often appeared to shift in their tombs as they settled during the decomposition process, also becoming dark and bloated. Grave robbing would also have contributed to the illusion that bodies had gotten out of their graves overnight.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon339640 — On Jun 25, 2013

It's better to call a man, woman or child a rat any day, rather than open them up to the world as vampires. It's a fact in name calling, so scientists believe. And they all suck blood.

By anon90375 — On Jun 15, 2010

What a surprise. You are from Afghanistan and vampires are women.

So let's see this fabulous description of her: she is dirty and she smells! Maybe she wanted to borrow a bar of soap, and what do you do? Pull a knife and set a pack of wild dogs on a defenseless woman.

You should be in jail.

By anon87438 — On May 30, 2010

i don't know what to say about this but i have to be agree with you due to the stories in my country of Afghanistan.

My late father was saying that he has seen vampires many time but they were women. once a day i was on a work field where we had to build new buildings for farmers and was ill and had a bad fever. when i came out from my room in the night and was returning to my room, i saw a dirty woman is waiting for me on the stairs. She said to me, "Stop i was waiting for you." I told her to let me go she said stop and attacked me. we fought for long time and i injured her and she ran away from me.

when i went to the room my friend saw me and asked why are you all covered with blood? i said i had a fight with vampire.

The other night i was on the way from my friend's home and i smelled a bad woman coming from behind me and following me. i told her to stop but she was coming to me. she was also very dirty. Finally i took out my knife when she saw the knife she stopped. i ran and she again started running behind me.

When i got close to my home i called our dogs and when the dogs came she ran away and the dogs were barking and running after her.

There are stories here that they were opening the graves which was new or fresh dead bodies. If these are vampires then it's OK, but i don't have any information about the power of them and changing of body to other animals. thanks hadi

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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