The History of Vampires, from Egypt to Transylvania to ‘Twilight’

Say the word "vampire," and any number of images may pop into mind: A Halloween costume with plastic fangs and a cape, perhaps, or your favorite fanged pop culture character from movies or TV shows (Buffy and Angel 4ever). From Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published in 1897, to the glittery Cullen clan of Twilight series fame, there's centuries' worth of stories to draw upon. And, like a seemingly-young-yet actually-undead bloodsucker, the history of vampire folklore dates back far more years than you probably think.

Up until the 20th century, many people believed vampire stories were true. Across cultures and continents, the powers of vampire-like ghouls were blamed for phenomena that there weren't yet medical explanations for, such as the spread of disease during the Middle Ages or what happens to the human body after death.

But by the end of the 1800s, authors like Stokerwho gave us one of the most famous vampires in historycreated a sexier alternate narrative. Now vampires weren't serpentine predators, but tortured romantics who never age, often wealthy and attractive to boot. As folklorist Michael E. Bell wrote in his book Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires, "Could any figure serve so well as a metaphor for human nature? What better food for the imagination than a creature that incorporates sex, blood violence, shape-shifting, superhuman power, and eternal life?"

Here's a brief history of vampires and why they tap our perpetual fascination with blood's relationship to lifeplus some stories about real vampire hunters (or, people who they thought that they were).

The image of the seductive night walkers we think of today was majorly shaped by pop culture dating back to the 1800s. But seeds of the modern concept have appeared in mythologies since the beginning of recorded history.

The story of Sekhmet, the Egyptian feline warrior goddess associated with both plague and healing, is considered by some to be one of the oldest vampire tales. Legend holds that the sun god, Ra, sent his daughter Sekhmet down to punish humankind for their disobedience. But after Sekhmet couldn't stop drinking blood amid her slaughter, Ra quelled her planet-draining thirst by dyeing a bunch of beer red (basically, she guzzled it all and slept for three days).

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Lilith, a 4000-year-old figure in Jewish folklore who, in some stories, was Adam's wife before Eve, had a monstrous rep in ancient Babylonia (her name derives from a Sumerian word for female demons or wind spirits, lilitu). According to scholar J. A. Scurlock via the Jewish Women's Archive, the Babylonians believed the lilitu "were hungry for victims because they had once been human," and "slipped through windows into peoples houses looking for victims to take the place of husbands and wives whom they themselves never had." While the image of Lilith as a deadly, hungry temptress has endured for centuries (Lilith was the First Vampire in True Blood, for example), a subsection of self-identified feminists have embraced her as the First Misunderstood Feisty Lady (inspiring the Jewish-American magazine of the same name).

Many cultures have some equivalent of a life-draining creature. In the Philippines, for example, there's the manananggal, who some believe can shape shift into a woman and sucks blood from the bellies of pregnant women and...hates garlic.

In the Middle Ages, variations on early vampire mythology proliferated across Europe, with the nefarious monsters often used to explain plagues and other diseases. As Scientific American notes, cases of a rare blood disorder called porphyria in eastern Europe may be the root of certain physical characteristics attributed to vampires. Porphyria symptoms include sensitivity to light (resulting in blistered skin or burns when exposed), hallucinations, and receded gums that give the impression of elongated teeth.

"And the effects of sensitivity to light can be so severe that sufferers lose their ears and nosesa physiognomy echoed in the looks of vampires such as Nosferatu," the BBC reported.

A strigoi as portrayed on FX series The Strain.

We've long associated vampires with Transylvania, an historic region of Romania, in large part because it's where the fictional Dracula originally hailed from. And that was an intentional choice on Bram Stoker's part, due to the area's superstitions. In Romania, fears of the strigoi, once-human monsters who need blood to survive, have circulated for hundreds of years.

In fact, in 2005, The Guardian covered a vampire-slaying ritual in a Romanian village, performed after deceased laborer Petra Toma's family decided he'd become a strigoi in 2003. Six men exhumed the body, staked it, sprinkled it with garlic, and opened Toma's ribcage with a pitchfork. "They took out his heart, burnt it and drank the ashes in a glass of water," a neighbor of Toma's told the outlet.

In neighboring Bulgaria, a 700-year-old skeleton discovered in 2012 points to the region's own vampire-slaying custom. Pinned down with a rock to keep the dead from rising, it had also been stabbed through the chest with an iron rod, and his teeth had been removed (so he couldn't bite). Meanwhile, in a mass grave of 16th-century of plague victims unearthed by archeologists in Italy in 2006, a brick was wedged into one female skeleton's jaw"an exorcism technique used on suspected vampires in Europe at the time," according to National Geographic. While other researchers have since posited that the brick simply fell into the skull's mouth while in the grave, anti-vampire rituals were a reality in both Europe and eventually, the United States.


In the 1800s, residents of rural New England would disinter, desecrate, and rebury the bodies of their neighbors (according to Bell's Food for the Dead book, this happened at least 60 times). It was another case of vampires taking the blame for a widespread contagious disease, historians say: tuberculosis, otherwise known as consumption.

The most famous instance is that of Mercy Lena Brown, a 19-year-old woman in Exeter, Rhode Island. In 1892, Brown was exhumed alongside her mother and sister. Alarmed that his son appeared to be ill with the same mysterious illness that had taken his wife and daughters, Mercy's father George Brown reluctantly agreed with others' concern that a malevolent force might be preying upon his farm. He consented to an examination of their remains.

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The Case of Mercy Brown and the Vampire Panic of New England

While her mother and sister were just bones, according to, Mercy's body lay on its side and was far less decomposed with hair and nail growth. By Bell's account, a local physician insisted this was normal given that she'd only passed eight weeks prior. But the townsfolk weren't swayed by medical expertise, because so many people had helplessly died from what we now know is tuberculosis, so they removed and burned her heart on a rock pyre. The ashes were mixed into a potion as an elixir for the sick, a common New England anti-vampire practice (others included rearranging bones and posthumous beheading, as well as flipping a corpse upside down in its coffin).

By the time Exeter residents burned poor Mercy Lena Brown's heart, provincial fear of vampirism was already bumping up against modern, science-aligned thinking. The desecrated-grave rituals had also rankled the Catholic church; in the late 1700s, Pope Benedict XIV proclaimed that vampires were "fallacious fictions of human fantasy."

Over the following century, a growing number of creative works would offer a fresh fantasy, giving vampires a major image makeover. Stories like 1819's The Vampyre by John Polidori (written as part of an infamous creative challenge that would also beget his friend Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), Carmilla, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's 1872 serial about a female vampire, and Dracula captivated audiences with romantic tales of gothic horror and charming, often well-heeled monsters. Varney the Vampire, another popular Victorian-era serial, first popularized the concept of the intimate vampire's kiss: "With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth."

An illustration from Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood.

All of these stories drew inspiration from eastern and central European folkloreDracula perhaps most of all, as Stoker researched Transylvanian culture to write it. Count Dracula is widely believed to be inspired in part by the real Vlad III Dracula, popularly known as Vlad the Impaler. A 15th-century Romanian warrior prince, Vlad is infamous for his barbaric torture method on the battlefield: As the name suggests, he'd impale foes on stakes and leave them to bleed out by the thousands.

Germanic illustration of Vlad the Impaler enjoying the carnage while eating lunch (NOT blood).

It's been over one hundred years since the first vampire story craze of the 1800s, and the myth's have been taken in every direction imaginable since. Vamps go to high school (Vampire Academy, the Marked book series). They might be a superhero in a leather duster (Blade). Or, they live an average-Joe life rooming together out on Staten Island (What We Do in the Shadows). Today, most stories offer iterations of either the coldblooded parasite archetype or the more human version, with their own internal struggles and feelingsoften, feelings for a human, from Buffy to Bella Swan.

A lack of knowledge about the (very gross) things that happen to the human body certainly stoked the notion. "As a corpses skin shrinks, its teeth and fingernails can appear to have grown longer," National Geographic points out. "And as internal organs break down, a dark 'purge fluid' can leak out of the nose and mouth." When a body suspected of vampirism was dug up, the appearance of that purge fluid could be mistaken for blood, giving the impression the deceased had consumed something (when they were actually expelling it).

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Senior Staff Writer

Samantha Vincenty is the former senior staff writer at Oprah Daily.

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The History of Vampires, from Egypt to Transylvania to 'Twilight'

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