The bleeding truth about vampires, soucouyants and the undead

Vampires are an elusive, transfixing and terrifying piece of folklore. Their human characteristics and affinity for blood make them even more fearsome. Vampires appear in cultural traditions all across the globe and are becoming more prominent in popular culture today – think Vampire Diaries and the shimmery beauty of Edward Cullen.

We asked a couple of our expert faculty members to help us discover the bleeding truth about vampires, their history and cultural impact.

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Ani Kokobobo, assistant professor of Slavic languages & literatures, teaching SLAV 230 Vampires in Literature, Film and Television in Spring 2015

What is a vampire and how did the legend develop in Eastern Europe?

The vampire is a type of undead creature – either a living corpse or a soulless body – that emerges from its burial site to have sexual relations with, kill, or drink the blood of the living.  There is great variation on what the undead actually do once they come out of their graves.

What we know about the early history of the vampire in Eastern Europe tends to revolve around the word itself.  The word has its roots in the Russian word upyr’, which appears in the 11th century in the Russian Primary Chronicle. Most commonly, it was believed that sorcerers, witches, werewolves, heretics, and those who died any kind of unclean or unnatural death (such as suicides) could turn into vampires when they died.

Why is the vampire so fascinating and why is it so scary?

This is a very interesting question, and one that does not have a single, satisfying answer.  Perhaps the best, most open-ended answer I can give is that unlike other “monsters,” the vampire is most similar to humans.  The vampire as we envision him or her in recent years is a wily, sophisticated, and alluring creature.  So in many ways what makes the vampire scary is precisely his or her identity as an alter-ego to humans and a projection of our collective fears as a culture.  For instance, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula you see an innocent young woman, Lucy, transformed by Dracula into a hyper-sexual, terrifying vampire, which touches on Victorian anxieties about female sexuality.  In recent years, Scholar Nina Auerbach in her study Our Vampires, Ourselves has made the very interesting point that the vampire’s enduring appeal relates to the mutability of the figure.  Vampires become what we fear most at any given time, including fears of liberated eroticism, the AIDS epidemic, the decline of society, and so on and so forth.

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Most Americans think of Dracula as a traditional vampire. How did Dracula originate and how did this traditional image of vampires evolve to the contemporary variations?

It has been suggested that Bram Stoker, the author of the Dracula (1897), got his vampire from two historical Eastern European figures.  The first is Vlad the Impaler who lived in Walachia (Romania) in the 15th century.  Vlad the Impaler was a member of a knightly order known as the Order of the Dragon, which resulted in his surname Dracul (from the Romanian word for dragon, “drac”).  Beyond the name, which was what appealed most to Stoker, Vlad the Impaler does not bear any meaningful similarities to vampires.  He liked to have his enemies impaled, which is terribly grizzly but also a fairly common practice in medieval times and not vampiric per se.  Most likely, Stoker’s vision of Dracula was also influenced by Elizabeth Báthory of Hungary, or the Blood Countess, who lived in the early 17th century and is said to have tortured and killed nearly 650 women.  The Blood Countess, who was much more directly interested in blood, was probably a more useful model for Stoker.  According to legend, she believed that bathing in the blood of young girls would keep her skin supple and young, so she drained many girls for this purpose.  Her example presents overtly sadistic and fetishistic violence as well as blood draining, which are directly relevant to Stoker’s work.

As far as our contemporary image of the vampire goes, that has been shaped by Stoker’s Gothic novel Dracula rather than these historical figures.  In fact, it was the film and stage adaptations of Stoker’s novel that popularized the story and eventually brought it to the attention of Hollywood in the 20th century.  Stoker himself died poor and did not get the attention or credit he deserved for his novel; it was the silver screen that made his Dracula our favorite villain.

In your spring course on vampires, what do you think is one of the most surprising thing students will learn?

I imagine there will be many surprising things that students will come across as we study vampires in SLAV 230.  One of the oddest things I’ve read recently is that people believed that even though vampires could walk around, they technically had no bones and therefore could squeeze through literally anything, including…peepholes.  So vampires are these blood-sucking pliable creatures that can squeeze through any kind of opening and therefore permeate any space!  Now that is very different from contemporary treatments of vampires like in Alan Ball’s True Blood where one has to explicitly invite a vampire inside one’s residence in order for them to be able to enter.


Giselle Anatol, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of English, and author of “The Things that Fly in the Night: Female Vampires in Literature of the Circum-Caribbean and African Diaspora” 

Growing up in a Caribbean family, what were some of the vampire folktales you heard most often? 

I was told stories about the soucouyant. She seemed to be an ordinary old woman by day, but each night she shed her skin, transformed herself into a ball of fire, flew about the community, and sucked the blood of her unsuspecting neighbors. Afterward, she would return home and slip back into her skin; the repeated practice often made her human form very wrinkled. She could not re-apply her skin if someone had discovered its secret hiding place and salted or peppered it; this would cause the soucouyant to perish in a frenzy of itching and burning. She could also be destroyed by scattering salt or rice on the doorsteps and windowsills of one’s house: she might be able to enter the premises to satisfy her thirst for blood, but she was obligated to count each grain before leaving. At dawn, if neighbors caught her in the midst of this task, they would beat her to death or drop her into a vat of boiling tar or oil; some storytellers alleged that the rising sun would destroy the skinless incarnation of this creature.

Why is it important to look at ideas of vampires beyond the prevalent European-style?vampirebook200

The idea that the only “real” vampires are European (or Euro-American) reinforces a racist hierarchy in which authority is only granted to white subjects. For too long, we have been taught only one way of seeing the world – one perspective, one cultural viewpoint, one form of history. For a better understanding of each other in an increasingly diverse and globalized world, it is important to explore the stories and histories of people whose experiences and forms of expression have been unheard and sometimes discredited.

How do these tales affect things like gender, age and race in Caribbean culture?

As I began my graduate work and started thinking about the stories of my childhood again, my curiosity about the soucouyant figure intensified. What did it mean that this fearsome creature of the night was consistently female? How did a “neutral” – if not sought-after – characteristic like living a long life come to be the source of suspicion for women? This tendency is not exclusive to the Caribbean, of course – stories of wicked old hags and witches can be found in cultures around the world. But in the case of my cultural heritage, I began to wonder what other messages were conveyed by the story. Were the tales meant to train young girls to be content with staying at home instead of roaming their communities like men? Did they teach young boys to expect and demand this domestic imprisonment from their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters? Was the fear generated by the soucouyant’s preying on her neighbors centered around the act of drinking blood, anxieties about having one’s blood unknowingly and involuntarily taken, the fact that she was unrecognizable while travelling abroad as a ball of flame, or something else altogether? And what was to be made of the removable skin?

One of the conclusions I reached was that during the slave era, and in memories of this time, the slow and tortuous draining of enslaved people’s blood through brutal beatings, and the depletion of their “life-blood” – their essence, or soul – through the agonizing and humiliating experience of slavery, would have been readily incorporated into vampire folklore.