Vampire Fact #11 – Physical Appearance

Time for another vampire fact! This month, physical appearance won the poll on my Patreon, so let’s get right into it.

What did vampires actually look like – in folklore? Everyone knows their variety of appearances in pop culture, but what about what people actually believed?

As always, a quick disclaimer in that this fact will not cover every single possibility in terms of vampire folklore. Vampire folklore, like most folklore but perhaps especially with vampires, is vast and complicated. In this post, I’ll just be covering the most common appearances for vampires to have in legend.

One of the most common uniting aspects of vampire legends is very simple: red eyes. Sometimes these were demonic and otherworldly red eyes – very red, sometimes even glowing. Sometimes they were red because they were bloodshot, because the vampire was so bloated with blood. Either way, red eyes are very much a symbol of the vampire. Now, there are also some tales that say blue eyes are also a sign of a vampire, as well as red hair being a sign of vampirism – most of these concepts come from ancient Egypt and a few from ancient Greece. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem that common at all and I personally have a few doubts about the idea (Egypt clearly didn’t burn all red-haired people at the stake or anything given other accounts we have), but Montague Summers insists it was a thing, so I figured it might as well bear a mention.

As for red eyes, however: red glowing eyes often appeared in the form of a dark “shape” or dark “mist.” Vampires in legend turned into mist fairly frequently (and this is why we have the “vampiric mist” enemy in Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes this mist was white, or grey, or even black, or just described as “mist” or “shadow,” sometimes in the shape of a man. Similarly, vampires in some legends could send their spirits – in the form of mist or light or even a projection of what they looked like in life – out from their bodies that may have been buried or else were simply dead somewhere.

Many vampires, however, take the form of a corpse that appears red and bloated with blood when it returns to its grave after feasting at night. When they are awake, vampires may look like normal people or may very often be offputtingly pale or strange, with “large” eyes that are “glittering” and disturbing, wrong somehow. Conversely, though, some stories have vampires with dead, dark pits for eyes.

Some, however, seem to have no real difference from their ordinary appearances. Legends do not note anything particularly unique about the way they look when they are walking free from their graves – it’s only when the vampire’s corpse is exhumed that we see the body red and bloated with blood, the face often looking fresh and life-like after the vampire has fed.

Others are a bit more specific, calling vampires very gaunt, with pale or even no skin, and very “thin.”

Not all vampires appear that way, either, though. Sometimes they are exhumed and they look entirely dead – except they haven’t decomposed at all. Sometimes their eyes will be open: a telltale sign of vampirism in a buried body.

Many legends scholars now group as “vampire legends” are not of course about “vampires” (this is a category retroactively put upon them by scholars; again, this happens a lot in folklore, same with werewolves) but are about various evil spirits, demons, and undead, that now fall in line with and/or were inspirations for our modern day takes on vampires.

This is not to say, of course, that all vampires looked like these. But, certainly, these are some of the most common vampire appearances to find in folklore.

My main sources for this post were From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford and Vampires and Vampirism by Montague Summers, but I have read many, many books on vampire folklore over the years, so my knowledge isn’t always precisely cited in my blog posts. You’ll have to wait for me to publish a book on vampire folklore to see all that! (And I probably will someday.)

Until next time! Be sure to check out the rest of my blog – werewolves, vampires, folklore, and even fiction and worldbuilding!

( If you like my blog, be sure to follow me here and elsewhere for more folklore and fiction, including books, especially on werewolves! And please consider donating and/or supporting me on Patreon – not only will you help me keep this blog running, but patrons get cool stuff and rewards in return!

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Vampire Fact #9 – Can vampirism be cured?

Welcome back to vampire facts, this time with a very burning question…

In folklore, can vampirism be cured?

Firstly, I will give the very simple answer to the cure question…

No, in folklore, vampirism cannot really be cured.

If you want to “cure” a vampire, you kill them. How do you kill them? I covered a few possibilities in my post on Weaknesses, so check that for more info.

So why can’t it be cured, per se? Because, in folklore, being a vampire isn’t really an “infection.” Much like werewolves didn’t start out as a “disease” and lycanthropy only became thought of as such much later (I have so many posts on that; see the Werewolf Fact Masterlist), vampirism also has a different tale. Unlike werewolves, however, many vampires are no longer even considered human, to the point that they aren’t always really considered “cursed.” Not in the fashion of “we must lift the curse, so the person will be okay.” Lifting the curse of the vampire in folklore is, simply, destroying the vampire, so that the people the vampire was terrorizing will be okay.

This boils down to something I have mentioned before: in folklore, many vampires are not considered in any way “human” or the person they were before (if they were ever a person).

There are, generally speaking, two “types” of vampires: “living” and “unliving” vampires. This is what folklore scholars will tell you. But to get into all that in a lot of detail, we would have to get into a whole lot more, some of which I discussed in this post.

Basically, there are “undead human”/revenant vampires (or “dead vampires” in folklore studies) and the demon vampires (or “living vampires” in folklore studies).

The first category, the “dead vampires,” are those vampires that were once human and rose from their graves to haunt the living. These vampires were people once, then they fell victim to the vampire curse.

The second category, the “living vampires,” were never human. They are called “living vampires” because they aren’t undead – they are living because they are demons that are alive, instead of people who died and came back as vampires. They were never people. They are, indeed, demons – through and through. These are pure demons that come to haunt mortals, hunt them, and cause them pain and suffering, feeding off blood or vitality or something else humans have (generally something that’s integral to life). Believe it or not, the majority of legends that scholars now group as “vampire legends” actually fall into this category of demons.

There are a few vampires in folklore that stray outside of these two categories scholars have created, but it is true that many of them do fall into one camp or the other, generally speaking. This is especially true of Eastern European vampire folklore, which, of course, is one of our primary inspirations for our modern pop culture vampires, thanks to Bram Stoker writing Dracula.

The vampire types are something I really need to do a separate post about…

I feel the need to point out yet again, as an aside, that folklore is never a clean bill of what is and isn’t a legend about a “vampire” or “werewolf” or “dragon” or whatever else. Most all folklore study looks back on sets of folklore and legends that have no simplistic D&D-style monster systems. This is why many scholars (such as myself) will argue some things shouldn’t be considered a werewolf legend, for instance. In a lot of legends, the exact term we think of is never actually used. And this is also how sometimes the line between werewolf and vampire legends can become blurred, like with the vrykolakas. Nothing in folklore is clean-cut like modern fantasy books with their magic systems or something.

Anyway!

So, when we see “dead type” vampires, we are dealing with someone who died, was probably buried (maybe even for days), and then hauntings occurred to their family and loved ones. The vampire rose from their grave physically or spiritually – and, more often than not, this type of vampire will also return to their grave or else they never physically left it.

But these vampires cannot be “cured,” because they are dead. You can’t “cure” what is dead. The only way to “cure” a human vampire in folklore is to kill them, to destroy them, and thus end the curse’s existence altogether. Given the person in question has already died, that’s the only means of lifting the curse.

With the “living type” vampires, the demons, they are different creatures altogether – and you can’t “cure” a demon of being a demon. That’s what they are. So also with those kinds of vampires, you cannot cure them, and if you want to put an end to their evil, they must simply be destroyed. These were never human.

Folklore didn’t really draw many shades of grey with vampires very often, especially in the most popular of legends. I will, of course, provide lots of more specific examples and situations of various legends in different posts, but as far as a general overview is concerned… yeah, in folklore, you can’t cure the vampire. The vampire is simply something that needs to be destroyed.

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