By Shambhavi Saxena:
Edward Cullen, Nosferatu, Lestat, Count Dracula – just some of the names your brain probably jumped to when you read the word “vampire“.
The vampire is, as Churchill said of Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” Interestingly, the legend of the vampire comes almost exclusively from Russian and Slavic regions, during the eighteenth century (notwithstanding equally creepy legends from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece). From the same region – the Balkans – comes the historical figure Vlad the Impaler, notorious throughout history for his atrocities, the basis for Bram Stoker’s novel.
The vampire legend had already existed in English, French, German and Italian literature for some time, but it was really Stoker’s character that pushed it into the mainstream. The uber-polished, morally grey and extra appealing Cullens and Salvatores we see today come at the end of a long line of literary, artistic and film evolutions. Far from “[sparkling] like Bowie in the morning sun,” to use ‘My Chemical Romance’s’ word, the original vampires were not conduits for teen sexual angst. But whatever image of vampires you’ve been feeding on all these years is probably nothing more than a market strategy.
A vampire’s most identifiable trait is hematophagy – from Greek, meaning the practice of feeding on warm blood, or, in supernatural parlance, “life-essence“. Hematophagy is not the preserve of vampires, but common to bedbugs, mosquitos, leeches, vampire finches and vampire bats as well. The chemical composition of their saliva prevents clotting, allowing them to feed at length – this is when you realize Mina Harker was playing Capri-Sun pack to Count Dracula. But it’s not just animals and fictional (?) creatures. Many human societies have ritualized blood drinking, like Scythian warriors who drank the blood of a first-slain enemy, or the mixture or milk and cow’s blood drunk by the Maasai, and even the symbolic drinking of Christ’s blood (wine) at Eucharist.
It’s easy to see the vampire myth as a combination of the natural world and rituals with human anxieties about mortality, uncontrollable forces of evil and sexual appetite (Stephanie Meyer got this part right, at least). But do vampires exist? Do they exist in the way we envision them? Cold, mostly dead, immortal masters of hypnosis with questionable fashion choices? Probably not. We know that at most vampire bats and other blood sucking animals exist, and usually bug spray and nets do the trick, as opposed to garlic and stakes.
But if they did exist in the information age, they’d have to have kept an incredibly low profile, because nothing escapes snapchatters and instagrammers.