To a lot of us now, vampires make you think of something that your nerdy cousin was into in 2007. The truth is, though they've experience a resurgence in the last decade, they've been around almost as long as written history has, if not longer. In ancient Mesopotamia, they told stories of the Ekimmu, which while not exactly like our modern conception of vampires, are pants shittingly terrifying in their own right. Described as "evil wind gusts, Ekimmu were the spirits of the dead who were either improperly buried or died the wrong way. They wandered the Earth and draining people of their aura, and it was said that if they arrived at your doorstep, you and your entire family would be dead in days. Everything about them makes our version of the vampire seem like a raging pussy, which is just another reason that I'm glad I didn't grow up in ancient Sumeria.
Ekimmu weren't the only Babylonians had their version of the vampire as well, and they were a demon called Lilu. If that sounds familiar to you, it might be because the legends of Lilu would for the basis for what would become the story of Lilith. (Well, either that or you're thinking of Milla Jovovich's character in The Fifth Element.)
For those of you who don't know, Lilith is said to be Adam's first wife before Eve came along. She was said to be created from the same dust as Adam, and as such she demanded to be treated equally to him. For this....um...crime (?) Lilith was cast out of Eden and replaced with Eve, who was made from one of Adam's ribs to signify his dominance over her. (Adam presumably had to remove that rib because he was a dick who refused to treat his wife equally and was thus forced to pull a Marilyn Manson.) Because she was treated like yesterday's garbage, Lilith did what most people wish they could after a breakup and transformed into a vampiric demon who attacked the offspring of her ex-husband. If a baby died suddenly, it was said to be the work of Lilith taking her revenge and to prevent such attacks, new parents would dress their baby in special amulets and sing them songs to ward off the spurned demon. Some believe that the term "Lullabye" even comes from the Hebrew term "Lilith-Abi" which means "Lilith begone." This is all to say that, not only have legends of vampires been around since early man, but, according to legends, vampires themselves have been around since the very first person to walk the Earth.
If aura-sucking wind ghosts and feminist demons aren't enough for you, then you're in luck. There are more variations on the vampire myth from around the world than even your greedy ass can handle. In China they have Jiangshi, in India they have Bantu, the ancient Greeks had the Empusa, and this is barely even scratching the surface. The truth of the matter is just about every culture has their version of a vampiric creature that feasts on the lifeforce of the living and some of them....are batshit insane. (Vampire puns)
If I were to go into all of them, we'd be here until we were undead in the ground, so I'll just tell you about one particularly strange iteration, the Pennagalan from Southeast Asia. According to legend, Pennangalan were exceptionally beautiful woman who acquired their beauty by essentially selling their soul and transforming themselves into a horrible bloodsucking monster, just like most people in Hollywood. They seem like a totally normal, totally hot woman by the day, but by the night they literally detach their own head, which then goes around and causes some serious shit to go down.
Not so beautiful now, are ya Penanggalan?
These demon heads were said to float around attacking innocent mothers and children, using an invisible tongue to drain them of their blood. If that weren't insane enough, the creature was said to have intestines hanging out of its neck that it controlled like tentacles, and which sparkled like fireflies, if fireflies were horrific nightmare fuel. The thing is basically what everyone sees when they have the worst acid trip ever, and they put our western vampire to shame.
Speaking of the western vampire, let's talk about that now, shall we? The perennial Halloween favorite has a lot of very well known characteristics, and most of those can be directly traced back to Bram Stoker's iconic novel, Dracula. That said, though Dracula cemented most of what we think of vampires, it was not the first vampire story by any stretch of the imagination. One story that came before was called The Vampyre, and it so heavily inspired Stoker that without it we might have never had the cape wearing, garlic fearing, Dracula influenced vampire we have today....Oh, and that story just happened to be written at the same place and time as Frankenstein...Seriously.
1816 was known as "The Year Without a Summer" because the climate was so fucked up that it was cold and dreary all year long. This forced a lot of people to stay in their houses instead of frolicking in a meadow as was the usual custom at the time, and some of those people were Lord Byron and his physician John William Polidori. Lord Byron decided to invite some people to come stay with him for three days and two of those people were Mary and Percy Shelley, which would have been the 19th century version of when Taylor Swift instagrams herself hanging out in her beach house with Emma Stone and the Hadid Twins. Unlike those instagram videos however, the outdoors was a nightmarish hellscape of rain and cold, so to entertain themselves they decided to have some sort of weird, literary horror writing contest. It is during this fun game that Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein, while John William Polidori came up with his idea for the Polidori. Basically, two of the most iconic characters in the history of fiction are the direct result of some old nerds trying to figure out how to spend a rainy weekend. Kinda makes you feel bad about all those storms you spent watching Netflix, huh?
The Vampyre wasn't the only place that Stoker drew inspiration from. In fact, long before they were the thing of fictional nightmare, they were the stuff of real nightmares. To southeastern Europeans (and later, strangely enough, New Englanders) vampires were a very real concern to the point that vampire hunts were a very real thing. These hunts sprung up around times when communities were undergoing some sort of hardship and they didn't have a witch around to burn so they decided to desecrate some graves as well. Keep in mind these people weren't as sophisticated as us modern folks so they hadn't yet figured out how to scapegoat all their problems on immigrants.
The vampire hunt probably sprung up because these old timey Europeans were surrounded by a lot of deaths and a lot of hardships, so they came to the conclusion that one lead to the other. This assumption was likely perpetuated by the fact that they didn't understand how the human body decomposed very well, so when they dug up the corpses to desecrate them, they were actually met by something that did look like a monster.
Basically, our bodies don't just die when we do. They go through a whole long process that ain't pretty. Rates at which our bodies decompose vary depending on a variety of different factors. Hair and fingernails remain intact as skin decomposes around them, giving the appearance that they're still growing. Blood blood can collect in your belly or drip out the sides of your mouth. Gasses collect and escape creating rumbling noises and simulating bodily functions normally associated with the living. Imagine you're some Serbian farmer from back in the day. You hear a loud fart coming from a coffin, so you dig it up and pry it open. Inside, you see a body with fresh looking skin, longer hair than it had when it was buried, and blood running down its face. Wouldn't you turn to the supernatural to explain it? They sure as shit did, and they did not take it lying down.
These southeastern Europeans had a lot of ways they dealt with the corpses they suspected of vampirism, most of which would be considered class three felonies today. Bodies were burned, heads were cut off....lemons were placed in dead people's mouths for some reason. People did whatever they could to prevent the fresh corpse of their nana's from getting up and walking around at night. One of their solutions was surprisingly simple (as far as corpse desecration goes, anyway) and it explains one of the best known pieces of vampire lore.
Because these angry villagers were worried about dead bodies moving, they did the logical thing and took measures to make sure they could move. They immobilized corpses in a number of ways, but one of the most popular was to literally pin them to their coffins by driving a stake through the bodies' chest like they were hammering two by four into the wall. This is where we get the trope of stabbing a vampire through its heart to kill it, serving as one of many reminders that the scariest part of the vampire is the truth behind the legend.