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What image flashes through the mind of the human being when he/she hears the word 'vampire'? A tall, pale, night creature with two long fangs, neither living, nor dead, with a taste for human blood, perhaps? And what if we hear the name 'Count Dracula'? The image inevitably gets more concrete; we can see Him - the lord of all vampires - dressed in an elegant dark cloak, a true gentleman with exquisite manners, good taste, and a maddeningly hard to place exotic accent. One can't help but remember the old warning: 'Beware the kindly stranger!' but is nevertheless strongly attracted to him.
Most people would shrug and say that they are not interested in this supernatural rubbish, that vampires do not exist, and neither do werewolves, or fairies. But they would be wrong because vampires do exist in a special niche in the cultural reality of most civilised peoples. The question is where does the notion of the vampire come from and how does it move along the plane of this cultural reality?
This is an attempt to follow the 'journey of the vampire' from the Balkan ethnic cultures to Britain and the USA and then back again and to show how this image has changed, even superimposing itself on the contemporary urban mind in Bulgaria.
The traditional image of the vampire in Balkan folklore in general and in Bulgarian folklore in particular is that of a supernatural being, which is created from the soul of an unholy dead person (one who died by unnatural causes like suicide, a stroke of lightning, murder, etc., babies who died before being christened, etc). The vampire in our mythology can appear as a disembodied invisible spirit, a shadow, a bag full of blood rolling down the road at night, a boneless person with bloodshot eyes without a nose and with metal teeth. He usually gets out of the grave through a small hole and goes to terrorize his relatives by means very similar to those of the poltergeist in Western Europe. But there are also differences - he throttles his relatives in their sleep, rides the horses, and drinks the blood of the cattle. The vampire is afraid of light and he must get into his grave before sunrise. If the sunrays touch him, he bursts and turns into a bloody spot on the ground. He must be killed before the 40th day of his death elapses, or else he takes on flesh and is able to live and reproduce just like any normal human being.
But how did the legend of the blood-drinking vampire begin in Europe? The story first reached Europe soon after 1718, when Charles VI, Emperor of Austria, drove the Turks out of Eastern Europe, which they had dominated for the past four centuries. Accounts of vampires began to reach Western Europe. One known account is the Visum et Repertum (Seen and Discovered)1 which dates from 1732 and was witnessed by no less than five Austrian officers. It deals with a panic, which sprang in Medvegia, a village near Belgrade. The officers were sent to investigate a case where 'so-called vampires had killed some people by sucking their blood'. The cases were very much alike and developed more or less along the following lines:
A dead person rises from the grave and kills some of his fellow-villagers by sucking their blood;
The villagers open the grave 40 days after the person's death and find the body 'complete and undecayed';
The villagers drive a stake through the heart of the body 'whereupon he gives an audible groan and bleeds copiously';
The villagers cut off the alleged vampire's head, throw it in the river and burn the body to ashes.
Earlier Predatory Ghosts
Of course, there are much earlier accounts of the nosferatu, the undead. Reports about Lamias, or predatory ghosts, date back to ancient Greece. The French expert on vampires, Jean Marigny2 states that:
Well before the 18th Century, the epoch when the word 'vampire' first appeared, people believed in Europe that the dead were able to rise from their graves to suck the blood of the living. ... The oldest of these chronicles date from the 12th and 13th Centuries, and, contrary to what one might expect, are not set in remote parts of Europe, but in England and Scotland'.
But the cases he cites are mostly about how dead people haunt the living, get into bed with them and drain their energy. And when the bodies are disinterred they are not decomposed. In the majority of the cases there is no blood sucking.
The Genesis Of The 20th-Century Dracula Image
According to Elizabeth Miller:
Interest in the English-speaking world can be traced back to 1732, when the word 'vampyre' first appeared in our language. The occasion was a rash of vampire sightings reported and documented in several parts of Eastern Europe and eventually reported in the British press. These were so widespread that in some countries government officials became directly involved, as did the academic community including the biblical scholar Dom Augustin Calmet and such leading figures of the Enlightenment as Diderot and Voltaire.
The first appearance of Count Dracula is in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula (1897). But Stoker did not invent the name Dracula. He wanted to name his hero Count Wampyr but later on changed it to Count Dracula. Dracula was a historical voivode. His real name was Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), King of Wallachia (1456-77). There has been considerable debate among scholars concerning the meaning of the name 'Dracula'. The name is clearly related to Dracula's father's nickname Dracul. In Romanian Dracul literally means 'devil' (or dragon from the Latin 'draco'). The 'ulea' ending in Romanian indicates relation to a family. Under this interpretation Vlad Dracula becomes Vlad, son of the devil. Vlad was a man of sadistic temperament who impaled his enemies on pointed stakes. It is estimated that Dracula had about 100,000 people impaled during the course of his lifetime.
Bram Stoker's Dracula
There is information that Stoker was interested in Transylvanian vampire beliefs and had some knowledge about vampire literature written in English during the 19th Century. But he also used his imagination to give birth to the image of the vampire, which has imprinted itself upon the consciousness of contemporary people. The interesting point here is that the Count in the novel is kept most of the time outside the story. We see him in the first four chapters and then we have only glimpses of him, here and there, in the remaining three hundred or so pages of the book.
This is not the case with...
The Film Industry
... which practically fetishises the vampire as a main character. The interest towards the image of the blood-sucking monster starts with the success of the first movie called Nosferatu (Germany 1922, subtitled A Symphony of Horror, starring Max Schreck as Nosferatu). But the immortality of Dracula was sealed in 1931 (Dracula. USA 1931, Directed by Tod Browning, starring Bela Lugosi as Dracula) when the appearance and accent of Bela Lugosi completed the image of the Count for the 20th-Century public. The result was a whole vampire film industry, which continues to thrive to this very moment(for more information check 'Dracula' - the Hammer film adaptation). Since then we have witnessed innumerable variations on the theme, even several porno versions, (Dracula Exotica,USA 1981 - Porn starring Vanessa Del Rio, Jamie Gillis, Samantha Fox). Movies about Dracula are made all over the world - from Portugal (A Filha de Dracula, aka Dracula's Daughter) to Japan (Chi O Suu Bara, aka The Evil of Dracula) and the Phillipines (Batman Fights Dracula, 1967), etc.
During the last two decades young people in Bulgaria have had access to the latest versions of the vampire movies. A survey involving 24 young people aged between 18 and 20 was made to show the drastic change, which the concept of the vampire has undergone in the contemporary urban Bulgarian mind, compared to the traditional folklore of the land. When asked to describe a vampire, the image they visualize inevitably has the following features:
- Has a deathly pale countenance;
- Has two large sharp fangs;
- Has long black hair, long nails, frightening bloodshot eyes, and pointed ears;
- Wears a long dark cloak;
- Feeds on human blood;
- Appears only at night;
Let's compare these features to the popular West European idea of the appearance of a vampire. According to Elizabeth Miller's exhaustive definition:
The vampire is of an old, aristocratic (and usually foreign) family; the vampire is tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black; the vampire possesses sharp fangs which leave two bite marks on the victim.
Bearing in mind the description of the vampire in the Balkan folklore, it can safely be stated that the literary and motion picture developed image has been changing, or even substituting, the ancient and long established ethnic mythological pattern, imbedded in the traditional thinking of Bulgarians.
The 'journey of the vampire' from the Balkan ethnic cultures through Britain to the West mediated by literature (Bram Stoker's 'Dracula') and back again by the agency of the film industry follows the journey of Count Dracula from his castle in Transylvania, through the port of Varna (Bulgaria) to Great Britain and back again, only to die by the hands of his British adversaries.