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!
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