Vampires didn’t always exist – at least, not in Christendom. Then they did, but only for 99 years.
I always love a good vampire story, and this one is true.
Legends about vampires are ancient, but for the first millennium of Christianity, the Church tried to ignore or deny them. The only true supernatural world was the Christian one, with Heaven, Hell, angels, the Devil, and saints. Vampires, like other pagan beliefs such as witches, amounted to ignorant superstition. Vampires didn’t – couldn’t – exist.
As often happens, though, official doctrine had limited effect on popular belief. Charlemagne, during his reign as Holy Roman Emperor (800 – 814 A.D.), made it illegal to promote a belief in witches or vampires that caused someone to be attacked and killed.
Meanwhile, the world kept changing, especially after about the year 1300. Technology uprooted lives, then the Plague disturbed social and religious structures. Some historians say that the stress inspired a search for scapegoats. In any event, the Church began the Inquisition, and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII redefined paganism as Satanism and witchcraft. Witch hunts followed.
If witches existed, then why not other supernatural demons? A century later, that question began to be taken seriously, and in 1645, Roman Catholic Father Leo Allatius in Greece determined that vampires were yet another work of Satan on Earth. Previously, the Church had taught that if you saw a dead person roaming at night looking to do harm, it was a delusion promulgated by the Devil. But Allatius reasoned that just as Satan made witches, he could make vampires, and with them, he could harm innocent people.
Help was at hand, though. Since vampires were alienated from the things of God, they could be repelled with a crucifix, eucharistic wafer, or holy water, in addition to a variety of traditional methods, and destroyed by a wooden stake through the heart.
Vampire hunts followed, especially in eastern Europe. Many corpses were disinterred and mutilated. Archbishops and Biblical scholars debated the reality of vampires – and in 1744, Pope Benedict XIV sided with the skeptics. People who believed in vampires were deemed in need of pastoral counseling.
But common people and parish priests kept believing. Secular authorities finally stepped in. During an epidemic of suspected vampires in Austria, Empress Maria Theresa took the authority for handling vampire cases out of the hands of the church in 1755. Staking and burning the corpses of suspected vampires was outlawed.
By then, the world had changed again. Enlightenment had begun to take hold, and philosophers derided the whole idea of vampires. Demons of all sorts returned to the status of legend and folk tale.
Soon, undead nocturnal bloodsuckers became the property of popular fiction, where they have thrived. The vampire is the monster who can be grotesque or beautiful, abhorrent or seductive, terrifying or glamorous – and under the proper circumstances, even you or I can be changed into one. What could offer greater narrative possibilities? Goethe, Lord Byron, and Sheridan Le Fanu wrote landmark works about vampires.
The big break for the literary vampire came in 1897 when Bram Stoker, using imperfect historical sources, merged Vlad Dracul (1390? – 1447) and his son, Vlad the Impaler (1431? – 1476). They had been minor figures in Transylvanian history and not associated with vampires, but together, they became the basis of the fictional Count Dracula.