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What is a Vampire ?

Over the years I have worked my way through hundreds of dictionaries and other books trying to find one good all-comprehensive definition of the word "vampire". Sadly, so far I have never managed to find one. Certainly, I have found plenty of definitions and they all describe some kind of vampire. But none of them defines the vampire.

The reason for this is obvious. Ask a hundred people to tell you what a vampire is, and you will end up with a hundred different answers. It's not surprising. By this day and age the word vampire has grown into an ill-defined label that is used to indicate all sorts of phenomena in a rather indiscriminate manner.

In most of the things that are called "vampire" we can find one or more of the following elements: a reanimated corpse, life beyond death, the living dead, immortality, longevity, blood-drinking, stealing the life-force, exploitation of others, parasitism.

Originally the word "vampire" was used exclusively to indicate the traditional reanimated corpse. Precise as this may seem, even then the word was used as a general name for various types of the undead. Some vampires were said to drink blood. Other vampires killed their victims in a different manner. Some of them could be destroyed with a hammer and stake. Others were immune to such treatment. Some of them were thought to be the person itself, come back from the grave. Others were said to be corpses inhabited by a demon. The only thing that all these vampires appear to have in common is the fact that they are all "living corpses".

In the early 19th Century the fictional vampire made its entrance into literature. About a hundred years later, the vampire theme was picked up by the cinema. It's another hundred years later now. In the meantime, thousands of authors have been inventing new types of fictional vampires.

Back to reality. Certain species of bats are called vampires. Some of them drink blood, some of them don't. What else is there? I have heard tales about vampire Gods and Goddesses. Tales of alien vampires from out of space. Almost every place on earth has its own belief in vampirical creatures. They may be human vampires, living or dead, vampire cats, vampire snakes, vampire frogs, vampire trees, vampire crystals, etc., etc. They all have their own peculiarities and most of them are as different as day and night.

As if things weren't confusing enough, the word vampire has also been used to indicate bloodthirsty killers. Undoubtedly you have read tales about "Countess Dracula" (Elizabeth Bathory), "the Vampire of Hannover" (Fritz Haarmann), "the Vampire of Düsseldorf" (Peter Kürten), or - a little more recent - "the Vampire of Sacramento" (Richard Chase). There are dozens and dozens of criminals who have misbehaved in such a bloodthirsty manner that it has earned them the title of "vampire".

To add to the general confusion, the French have decided to use the word "vampire" to indicate necrophiliacs as well. Which is the reason why a ghoulish grave-robbing character called Victor Ardisson has gone down into history as "the Vampire of Muy".

Like I said, early last century the vampire first made its way into literature. By now it seems that we have gone full circle. Strange as it may seem to some, the fictional vampire has made its way back into reality. Recently we have witnessed the birth of another kind of vampire. Inspired by the works of Anne Rice and others, a number of people have started to identify themselves with the vampire to such an extent that some of them have actually started behaving like vampires. They have been labelled "pseudo-vampires" and "vampiroids" by the outside world. It doesn't seem to bother them, for they consider themselves to be true vampires. And - since there are so many different things that are all called "vampire" - why shouldn't they?

© 2009 by Rob Brautigam - NL - Last changes 28 July 2009
Photo "Fairground Skull" © 2005 by Rob Brautigam

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