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Vampires Never Die: No one's been able to drive a stake through the heart of vampire legend, professor says

If Jonathan Harker, the character in Bram Stoker’s famous novel “Dracula,” had set out for Castle Dracula in the late 1980s, his journey might have looked a lot like the one Dr. Thomas Garza undertook at the time. Garza boarded a rickety bus out of Budapest headed for the area known as Transylvania near the Hungarian/Romanian border. After the bus began its climb into the Carpathian Mountains, it deposited Garza and his companions on a narrow road. They then climbed onto donkeys to complete the trip up the steep incline.

Dr. Thomas Garza stands in front of a still from the movie Nosferatu
Dr. Thomas Garza has found that the study of vampire legend provides the perfect tool for introducing students to Slavic culture and history.

“The landscape is gorgeous there,” says Garza, who directs the Center for Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, “and the mountains are steep and high. Suddenly it appears—the ruins of Castle Dracula. It’s an amazingly stunning area, and when I actually stood on the castle grounds I got a real feeling of not just history, but of significant historical events that took place there. I was hooked.”

Thus began Garza’s fascination with vampire stories, a fascination he shares each fall with more than 100 students in his popular class Introduction to Slavic Civilizations: The Vampire in Slavic Cultures. Students flock to the class—there is always a waiting list—with images of the vampire from popular culture unspooling in their heads.

America’s ongoing captivation with vampires is clear from television shows such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Anne Rice novels and the popularity of movies from “Nosferatu” to the recent “Underworld.” And vampire lore abounds: vampires have fangs, go for the neck, morph into bats. They can be repelled by garlic, halted by sunlight, fended off with a cross and killed with a stake in the heart. Garza’s class teaches students that most of such lore is a relatively recent invention and that the real story of the vampire is inseparable from the history of eastern Europe.

“For Slavs, the vampire and the stories around the vampire are part of their cultural heritage,” says Garza.

As such, Garza approaches the class as a cultural anthropologist might. Students read travelogues, religious texts and literary texts by masters such as Pushkin and Alexey Tolstoy. They learn how the migration of the Greeks and the Romanis from India both influenced the Balkans and enriched their vampire stories.

Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler star in the 1931 movie Dracula
The 1931 movie “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler, is the source for much of the vampire lore in American culture.
Photo: © Universal Pictures

And they study vampire films. Films inspire the vampire images most common to Americans. When trick-or-treaters don black capes and fake fangs they are offering a send-up to Bela Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula—but vampire legends predate celluloid by a millennia.

If fangs do not a vampire make, what does it mean to be a vampire?

“There are about as many definitions of the vampire as there are stories associated with him/her/it,” says Garza. “The core definition that unifies all the stories is that the vampire is a reanimated corpse that draws its sustenance from a living creature.”

Vampire legends exist the world over, though much of what has made it to our culture comes from the Slavic region. Belief in vampires is part of the fabric of life there. There are many things that can cause one to become a vampire, some that indicate a breach of community ideals (heresy, divorce, suicide in the family), some that are more folkloric in nature (being born the seventh child of the same sex, having a cat jump over your dead body). There are tests to determine whether any man is a vampire. And the fear of the undead necessitates taking precautions such as putting garlic in the mouth of a corpse and binding coffins with trailers of wild roses.

Historical Dracula's real castle, the ruins at Poenari
The historical Dracula’s real castle, the ruins at Poenari, is perched in the Carpathian Mountains.
Photo: Don Linke

Garza points out that historical events only fueled the belief. For example, during periods of both the 15th and 17th centuries, minor plagues moved through Europe that caused their victims to seem to be dead when they weren’t. There are many documented cases of people being buried alive. When they came back to life underground, people walking near or in a cemetery would swear they heard howls and yells.

“This, of course, became part of the lore of cemeteries being haunted,” says Garza. “You’d hear these howls. Then we move from the horrible to the really horrible. People began digging up coffins because of the conviction that howls were being heard, and sure enough, upon opening the coffin—the person would by this time be dead—they would find fingernail marks on the lid of the coffin, showing that the person did indeed come back to life.”

Elizabeth Bathory
The bloodthirsty Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory is believed to have bathed in the blood of her young victims in an effort to retain her youthful appearance.
Photo courtesy
Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

These events only added to the conviction that vampires exist, Garza explains. And they led to bizarre innovations in burial practices. People created contraptions, like ones that can still be found in some villages around the former Yugoslavia. In some cases, when you were buried, there was a tube inserted down into the coffin with a string that ran up above the surface with a bell attached to it. That way, if you came back to life and realized you were buried, you could ring the bell to alert people you were still alive.

The first written record of the word vampire—in Russian in 1047—was used to describe a particularly bloodthirsty military leader. Vampirism has long been linked to those who do particularly bloody things. There are historical figures who became vampires by legend.

“We get these unusual, cruel people who make us think about what it is in human nature that makes us behave that way against other human beings,” Garza says.

Vlad the Impaler
The stories of Vlad the Impaler’s cruelty were known all over Europe and inspired the Bram Stoker novel “Dracula.”

One such person is Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian countess who tortured and murdered more than 600 young women. Her sadistic acts—which included executing victims by having them stripped, led out into the snow and doused with water until they were frozen—caused her to be known as one of the true vampires in history.

That reputation was fueled by testimony at her 1611 trial that said that on occasion she bit the flesh of the girls while torturing them. It became legend that Bathory believed that she could retain her youthful beauty by bathing in the blood of her young victims. The court records at the time were sealed because her activities were so scandalous for the Hungarian ruling community, so the truth will never be known. But Bathory entered vampire legend.

Romanian wooden cross
Romanian wooden cross resembling the cross on which Vlad Tepes renounced God.

The greatest of vampire legends is, however, built around Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Tepes Dracula. The real Dracula was a Christian crusader who ruled Wallachia, now southern Romania, in the 15th century. Tales of the ruler’s cruelty were legion. He had the bodies of his enemies impaled on stakes across the countryside, and legend is he liked to dine among the impaled bodies. And he didn’t discriminate when choosing whom to torture—he burned noblemen alive and when a group of orthodox priests came to his house and didn’t remove their caps, he had the caps nailed to their heads.

Dracula is said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 40,000 people, though he ruled for just six years in an area with a population of only half a million, making him responsible for the largest number of deaths of a single ruler until modern times.

He was believed to be a vampire because of one famous statement. In an act of psychological warfare, a letter saying that Dracula had been captured was sent to Dracula’s wife while Dracula himself was off fighting the Turks. Believing her husband dead, she killed herself. When the church refused her a Christian burial, Dracula denounced the church.

Scene from Francis Ford Coppola's movie Dracula, Dracula kissing Mina Murray
Image from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” The 20th century vampire is portrayed as suave and sophisticated and inhabits a lush, sumptuous world.

Scribes recorded that Dracula drew a sword, stabbed it into a crucifix and renounced God. He said, “I will live my life for blood because the blood is the life.”

“That line has been interpreted, reinterpreted and misinterpreted,” says Garza. “It’s where we get the notion of Dracula as blood lust. There’s no historical proof that Dracula actually consumed blood. We know he did a lot of bloody things. He killed a lot of people in horrible, gruesome ways. But that he ever drank blood, we don’t know.”

Dracula’s story made its way to the Anglo-Irish writer Stoker through travelogues, and his imaginative novel “Dracula” was published in 1897. It has never gone out of print. The image of the vampire in popular culture grows from it, and it has spawned everything from rock operas to Sesame Street’s Count von Count.

Vampire stories are perhaps more popular in our culture today than they have ever been. This might seem surprising, given that we have autopsies that confirm death, live in a secular society where charges of heresy aren’t possible and are more likely to cruise cyberspace than cemeteries. But vampires tap into the most primary elements of human experience: life, death, blood, hunger, immortality. They are connected to the questions that will always preoccupy us.

“The reason we live out our lives the way we do is that there is supposed to be something after it. Isn’t there? That ‘isn’t there?’ is never really answered for us,” says Garza. “One of the biggest gambles we all take in life is the assumption, or presumption, that something’s coming afterwards. The vampire story allows the option, the possibility, of answering that question for certain. Because if I were a vampire, I wouldn’t worry about the afterlife, because I won’t get there. I’m living it.”

Vivé Griffith

Image of Bela Lugosi as Dracula on banner: © Universal Pictures

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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