Vampires and the Undying Importance of Monsters

TTU associate professor Erin Collopy discusses the evolution of the vampire from its roots in Slavic folklore.

 

Painting of Slavic vampireFor centuries, stories of monsters have sent shivers down spines and caused their fair share of nightmares. Each culture has its own version of creatures that go bump in the night, but there's one monster that remains top of the favorite monster charts today: the vampire.

When most people think of vampires, they either envision the classic romantic villain sporting both a long black cape and pointed widow's peak or his more modern sparkling counterparts. However, according to Texas Tech Associate Professor and Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures Department Chair Erin Collopy, these portrayals differ exceptionally from their roots in Slavic folklore.

Unlike the vampire of contemporary literature and film, the Slavic folkloric vampire was a member of the community who recently died and did not possess special abilities like those we've come to know today.

"In Slavic communities, every human being was important because you couldn't survive without the community, so becoming a vampire was seen as really bad," Collopy said. "Vampirism was used as a scapegoat to explain epidemics or anything bad that happened to the community. It was also used as a means of social control to ensure that every member of society did what they were supposed to do."

Fearing the spread of vampirism among the community, villagers would "cure" the body of the person believed to be a vampire. The cure, Collopy explains, was usually a stake to the heart or decapitation. The ideal method, however, was cremation, but was forbidden by the Catholic and Orthodox Church.

Because the Slavic folkloric vampire was void any powerful, attractive or positive traits and only brought death and destruction, the vampire's rise to its romanticized position in literature and film would seem unprecedented. The explanation, however, is far simpler.

"Vampires are viewed as more malleable, they're more humanlike," Collopy said. "They're appealing to a lot of people. Some people like the idea of someone who is immortal, has superpowers and is sexually attractive."

Collopy adds that vampires also exist as a metaphor that reflect the cultures they are created in. People learn about themselves by understanding what they fear or desire most, whether this be death or sexuality or immortality.

From the beautiful to the deadly to the good to the evil, vampires have morphed and changed significantly from their Slavic roots. Bram Stoker's "Dracula" set the foundation for the vampire of popular culture, inspiring countless adaptations through cinema, stage, literary fiction and beyond. Movie franchises such as "The Twilight Saga" and "Underworld" have given rise to vast fan bases for this once feared mythological creature.

In essence, Collopy describes the vampire as being the perfect monster because of its lasting importance throughout history.

"It's obviously an important monster for humans," Collopy said. "Why is it important? What is its function? Vampires don't exist anywhere but in our imaginations. They occupy a big part of our culture and cultures around the world so it's fascinating from a human perspective."

If you'd like to learn more about vampires and you're a Texas Tech student, you can take Collopy's SLAV 2301 The Vampire in East European and Western Culture class. If you're not a student and would like to learn more, you can visit the Texas Tech Museum's "In the Blood" exhibit.