Blood has been a symbol of life since very ancient
times. The blood in our veins has always been iconic of our continuing life. To
lose too much blood is to lose consciousness, breath, and eventually, our very
lives. If a person or animal is already dead and is cut open, blood does not
flow. Only the living have blood that flows. Blood has been used throughout the
ages as a ceremonial sacrifice. In pagan times our forefathers worshipped their
gods with blood sacrifice. And today, indeed, we are not so different. Even in
modern times, in our churches, there are those taking communion or the
Eucharist, and drinking of the wine that symbolizes Christ's blood.
It seems appropriate, then, that this creature who is an antithesis of both death and life should gain his strength from feeding from the life's blood of humans. For the vampire, the drinking of blood is its life, its sustenance, and the single thing that makes it identifiable all around the world, regardless of the culture in which you were raised or the language you speak.
As the scientific nature of man progressed, he began to abandon his God in favour of logic and reason. In this the vampire tale was no different. As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century approached, reason began to enter vampire literature. Scientific reasoning was applied in an attempt to justify the vampiric need for blood. In many literary instances it was linked to anemia, and blood loss. In Bram Stoker's Dracula, Van Helsing prescribed a blood transfusion for Lucy, in an attempt to divest her of the vampire blood in her body.
Most vampires (although not necessarily all, depending
on whom you ask) require blood to survive. Fangs, it is commonly thought in the
animal kingdom, make it easier for mammals to tear open the flesh of their prey.
In terms of the vampire, it would make feeding far easier. Yet not all folkloric
or even fictional vampires are fanged. Historic accounts of vampires rarely
mention fangs, and even Bela Lugosi's portrayal of Dracula in 1931 was done sans
As cinematic prowess increased and the movie industry was able to do more with special effects, a new vampyric ability evolved. In movies today it is common to see the vampire with retractable canine fangs. This allows him to circulate with humans more easily; with the fangs retracted, he is more easily perceived as human. In the Canadian television series Forever Knight, the main vampire character, Nick, has fangs that only protrude when his dark, vampyric nature is unleashed.
In European and Slavic history, fingernails were
thought to be one of the tell-tale signs that a corpse was a vampire. Vampires
were thought to lose their old nails and grow new ones upon their entry to the
vampiric world. An exhumed body that lacked nails or had grown new ones was
summarily staked, and very often burned or reburied with garlic to seal the
corpse within the ground.
In modern literature, many vampire novels have mentioned fingernails specifically. Two of the most common of these are Dracula and Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. In Dracula, Jonathan Harker notices that Dracula's "nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point." When Dracula later opened a wound on his chest for Mina Murray to drink his blood, he did so with these sharp, pointed nails. In Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, Louis and Lestat both mention the glassy appearance of their fingernails, so different from that of humans. Many times it was something that they take care to hide.
The histories of both European and Slavic vampire hunts
also show hair growth as a sign of vampirism, although this sign was generally
not found unless the corpse also displayed many other traits thought to be
associated with a vampire.
Modern cinema tends not to deal with the subject of hair, as a rule. One notable exception is Interview With the Vampire. The vampire child Claudia shears off all her hair in a rage, only to find that it grows back in seconds.
The term Dhampir in modern folklore refers to the
offspring of a vampire and a human mate, traditionally a male vampire mating
with a human female. This offspring was normally male. The dhampir was thought
to have special qualities. He could sense where vampires hid themselves from the
world, and therefore he had the ability to be a superb vampire hunter. These
qualities would be passed down genetically to his offspring, and it was thought
to last many generations.
As well, the terms incubus and succubus refer to vampires who perform a sexual attack upon their intended victims, and it was likely these types of vampires who produced offspring. However, references to exactly how (!) this was accomplished is very scarce.
In modern literature, a vampire's sense of vision is
thought to be very acute. This is largely due to the fact that they are a
nocturnal creature, and therefore must be able to adapt to their environment. It
also explains why sunlight is thought to be so painful to their eye. Their
eyesight has often been attributed to a residue from their ability to change
into bats (see Shape Changing).
Many treatments of the topic also state that hearing can be heightened in a vampire body. This allows them to hear mortals from a great distance (far greater than human ears could pick up) and also to discern when another vampire draws near. This is evident in the Canadian television program Forever Knight; Nick can hear over great distances, and this allows him to capture the criminals he chases. Their acute sense of hearing may also be attributed to their nocturnal nature; as night hunters, the ability to hunt quietly and hear well would be invaluable.
Although there was a small link between shape-changing
and vampires for hundreds of years, it was not until Dracula that the true
connection was made. In the novel, Stoker described Dracula as able to change
into a rat, a bat, or the very mist itself.
Vampire bats became by far the most common of these shapes a vampire could command at will. This could be because vampire bats, by their nature, are closely related to the vampire itself. They are nocturnal, and feed exclusively off the blood of various mammals and other vertebrates. They have very sharp teeth which they use to pierce the victim's skin, and then they lap up the blood as it flows. It has also been known as an emerging problem; it is a proficient carrier of rabies (not unlike the definition of Nosferatu, which itself mean plague-carrier).
The ability to transform at will into mist has brought many advantages to the vampire, allowing him to escape vampire hunters and other dangers quickly. In addition, mist (in some cases) has allowed the vampire to move great distances at one time.
Historically, vampire skin was dark instead of the
alabaster skin we see today in film. Paul Barber, author of "Vampires,
Burial and Death", suggests that this is becuase suspected
"vampires" were actually corpses decomposing in their graves. Skin
naturally turns darker and sloughs off the bone as the body decomposes. This may
account for many reports in medieval Europe of vampires "growing new
Today, vampire skin is by nature very white and smooth. This is likely due to the fact that these creatures are nocturnal, and never get to see the sun. Their skin therefore gets bleached over time. Also, the vampire is an undead creature, and unless he has recently fed, there is a lack of colour-giving blood in his body.
In The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice describes the vampire skin as nearly transparent when the vampire is starved for blood. After feeding, they attain a healthier, more human skin tone, but this is a temporary change. Lestat mentions on several occasions having to powder his skin to pass for human.
The vampire came by its supernatural strength through modern film and literature. Vampires, historically, were not know for their great strength; they normally attacked only "weaker" victims, such as children or the elderly. They never attacked a group of people for fear of being overcome. However, the modern view of vampires have allowed them a certain arrogance, knowing that no mere mortal could overpower them. Many of the personality traits that we have come to so adore in the vampire today are a result of this arrogance, knowing that they are truly immortal but for a few weaknesses.