Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Hope Spot #4: The Bare Bones of the Vampire Myth, Part One

This post originally appeared in the September issue of Sanitarium Magazine


So you want to build a vampire, do you?

A few months ago I put together Brother G's Cyclopedia of Comparative Mythology, a sort of TV Tropes of mythology that compiled more than 380 building blocks, or "mythemes," into a single, easily-referenced body. The idea was that while there's nothing wrong with playing a trope straight, if that's what you want to do, it's impossible to consciously decide whether to subvert something or not, and how to do it, if you don't know what you're handling in the first place. If you don't know what's going on behind the scenes of mythology, then you'll be left playing out the same run-down cliches without knowing why they're stale or how to make them fresh.

Similarly, if you want to deal with vampires then you should first take a look behind the curtain before you decide how to treat them in your work. Otherwise all your efforts may amount to nothing more than rearranging the chairs in your kitchen.

Along the way we'll create a new kind of vampire using the mythemes that we're discussing. It's going to be lengthy, so we'll have to break it up into two sections.

The Circle of (un)Life)

Vampires can be turned by other vampires, born as vampires or "pre-vampires" that are destined to turn after death, or be turned (either in life or after death) as a result of certain actions.

Especially in post-mortem turnings, vampires may start in one form and only later become a full vampire, which may occur after a certain amount of time (usually forty days) or after feeding enough. There are generally only two stages but there are exceptions: the South Slavic vampire, for example, the typical "insubstantial shadow" vampire first becomes a gelatinous being without bones before it becomes a full vampire.

In the first stage the vampire may be akin to a poltergeist, and it may inhabit its original body or grow a new one (either in the first stage or later on) from shadows, waste, or some other material. The vampire's feeding methods may change from stage to stage, or it may be entirely unable to feed in the first stage.

Vampires may be born because of vampire ancestry or simply because the stars, so to speak, were misaligned. Immoral acts may curse one to vampirism or, especially in the case of incest, lay the curse on one's family line. Peculiarities at birth, such as a caul, teeth, or certain birthmarks, may mark one as a pre-vampire. Witches and others given over to the practice of magic may become vampires upon death.

Improper burial or some other disrespect to the dead may result in a corpse returning as a vampire. The dead may also return if a dog, cat, or other ill-omened animal (or simply ominous) animal jumps over the corpse. 

In Practice: Jellypires

Can we call them that for now? Yeah, let's go with that.

Alright, so I like this "multiple stages" thing so we'll pick that up first of all, going from shadow to jelly to humanoid. We'll make the trigger incest; I'm thinking "not-Earth dark fantasy setting," something with noble houses intermarrying with each other generation after generation, as noble houses are wont to do. Assuming that at least a few important people know what's up, you'll have these houses employing genealogists for the purpose of making sure that a proposed marriage won't bring together a pair of too-close bloodlines.

Sometimes, though, the genealogists get things wrong. The line between "kind of weird, but... nobles gonna noble" and "well now, that's too far" is a little hazy, you see. And you get a pre-vampire.

After the pre-vampire dies you get the shadow form, and its job is simply to hang around for forty days until it coalesces into jelliness. If it feeds on anything in the first stage it's a purely passive thing, like vampire photosynthesis or something, just soaking up the... whatever it's feeding on. It has to feed in order to transition from the second to the third and final stage, but we'll figure out the details later. 

Oh, and let's make them capable of multiplying, just not by the traditional methods. Fully-developed vampires will produce more Stage One versions of themselves, like undead fungus demons or something. These shadow-fragment-whatsits will develop normally, and look like copies, or at least like very close relatives, of the original vampire.


First off, folkloric vampires generally don't have fangs. Sometimes they just bite, other times they use a knife or a literally sharp tongue or simply don't do anything to the body itself. One kind of vampire would fill a bucket with someone's blood and drink from the bucket, not the person directly.

They don't always drink blood, though. Vampires may feed on hair, fecal matter, toenails, hearts, or the flesh of corpses. The unifying theme is that vampires feed on life, sometimes in one particular form and sometimes in any form. Even seeds are useful, if inefficient, for which reason some vampires had an obsession with counting seeds (they weren't just OCD, they were planning to eat it later and were apparently of the "a pouch of seeds in the hand is better than a bloodbag in the house" persuasion). Usually, though, it needs to be a human byproduct; vampires only rarely feed on animals.

Nor, for that matter, do they always feed from the jugular even when they do drink blood. Drinking from the heart or the arm are other popular options.

Vampires don't always feed on something physical. Sometimes it's just a withering effect and the vampire doesn't actively do anything, but is just there. Xir victims may fall ill randomly or according to a particular order (most often a vampire will go after its family members first, which was probably meant to explain the spread of disease).

They may also feed and kill simply by calling out a person's name or by giving xem the evil eye. There is an emphasis on the ability of the vampire to evade your defenses, and this is the great power of the vampire in folklore. Some vampires kill remotely, others change their shape in order to avoid your notice. In Bram Stoker's Dracula, even sequestering Lucy is not enough, for circumstances still ensure that the vampire will gain access to her.

Vampires, in a word, are Inevitability.

No matter how you do it, people just... die around vampires. That's the main thing, and the vampire doesn't even need to be an active agent.

In Practice: Jellypires continued

Do they sound too ridiculous with that placeholder name? Ah well. 

We'll have shadow-y proto-vampires feed on death, but only passively. They go to places where people are dying and sit around and hide, and that's basically it. They enter the second stage in forty days no matter what, but a well-fed vampire will be tougher than one that had only slim pickings (wars and plagues are very bad and predictably lead to Vampire Problems, and proto-vampires are also common in the deepest slums and wherever else that life is cheap). It has another consequence as well, which we'll get to in just a moment.

Stage Two vampires are like ghouls. They eat the corpses of the dead, the deader the better, and the only issue is that a body has to age for a little bit before it's fit for eating. That doesn't mean they can't kill someone and let the body sit. In a severe pinch a vampire can just barely subsist on animals, but this requires a huge amount of flesh, is sustainable for only so long, and will not move the vampire forward to the third stage. 

The true vampire eats the heart, which must be recovered from a freshly-killed human being. It usually accomplishes this by the use of its razor-sharp tongue (which the jellies also have). A true vampire is also able to derive sustenance from their progeny like the cap on an undead pyramid scheme, but this puts a heavier demand on the younger vampires, who are forced to find more and better sources of food.

This means that true vampires have a vested interested in spreading wars, plagues, famines, and other causes of widespread death. This not only makes its progeny stronger but lets it make use of food sources that it otherwise couldn't exploit.

Unfortunately this can get way out of hand. True vampires have ways of limiting their numbers (they can simply choose to slow down or, for a time, even halt the "budding" process, or destroy their progeny) but don't always have a reason to do so, and the best feeding conditions for a true vampire are the same as will lead to its progeny becoming true vampires themselves, and in a matter of months.

Next month we'll finish up with a discussion on how vampires typically appeared in folklore and some of the ways they were dealt with.

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