Ah, the eternal dilemma: How to stop the fiend that is (in Dracula author Bram Stoker’s words) “The Undead”?
If you’re an entranced Bella Swan in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, you might not want to—at least not when the vampire in question is Edward Cullen. For the rest of us, here’s a guide to some of the strategies believed, and actually employed, to ward off vampires throughout the ages.
What follows is not for the squeamish. Friends, please don’t try these techniques at home!
(The source for the list: long-time National Geographic historian Mark Jenkins. Mark’s new book, Vampire Forensics, and the work of National Geographic grantee Matteo Borrini in the cemeteries of Venice are the subject of an Explorer special premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. Read more of my interview with Mark, including his thoughts on the origins of vampires, on the Nat Geo News Watch blog.)
Garlic: The traditional belief that garlic’s odor deters vampires may have originated with the disease rabies. “In 1998,” writes Mark, “Spanish neurologist Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso made a correlation between reports of rabies outbreaks in and around the Balkans—especially a devastating one in dogs, wolves, and other animals that plagued Hungary from 1721 to 1728—and the ‘vampire epidemics’ that erupted shortly thereafter. Wolves and bats, if rabid, have the same snarling, slobbering look about them that folklore ascribed to vampires—as would a human being suffering from rabies. Various other symptoms support the rabies-vampire link: Dr. Gomez-Alonso found that nearly 25 percent of rabid men have a tendency to bite other people. That almost guarantees transmission, as the virus is carried in saliva. Rabies can even help explain the supposed aversion of vampires to garlic. Infected people display a hypersensitive response to any pronounced olfactory stimulation, which would naturally include the pungent smell of garlic.”
Mirrors and Sunlight: “Rabies may also harbor the roots of the vampiric fear of mirrors,” Mark writes. “Strong odors or visual stimuli trigger spasms of the face and vocal muscles of those with rabies, and this in turn induces hoarse groans, bared teeth, and a bloody frothing at the mouth. What rabies sufferer would not shrink from such a reflection?” Daylight might only make self-contemplation in a mirror worse. At least one scholar has proposed that the genetic red blood cell deficiency porphyria, which (once activated) renders its sufferers pallid and hypersensitive to light, could also have inspired vampire legends.
Crucifix and Holy Water: “Any sort of religious symbol might deter a vampire,” Mark told me in an interview. “Magic circles. Churchyards. Holy ground. And the literary folks have really played this up in their stories of vampires.”
A Stake Through the Heart: Buffy’s famous wooden slayer stakes follow ancient practice. “The stake of hawthorn or ash—that’s how they did it in Serbia,” Mark relates. He tells the story of unfortunate Arnold Paole, who returned to his hometown of Medvegia near Kosovo in 1727, convinced he’d fallen prey to a vampire. He ate dirt from his believed assailant’s grave to stave off the attacks, but died in a fall from a hay wagon several weeks later. After neighbors complained that Paole was leaving his grave to throttle them at night, villagers dug him up and put a stake through his heart. Oh, and if you happen to be short of wood, you could also just stab a vampire with whatever else is sharp and handy. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula gets a buoy knife in the heart and his head chopped off,” says Mark. Which brings us to
Decapitate and Burn: “Chop off the head and burn the body seems the most universal way of stopping a vampire. Bereft of a body, you don’t have a vampire anymore, since technically it’s a reanimated corpse. There are constant historical anecdotes where people behead and burn suspected vampires. It’s analogous to how people would kill witches and other sorts of malefactors they didn’t want coming back to haunt them later.” While you’re lopping off the corpse’s head, you might want to tear out the heart and lungs for good measure, too, as late 19th-century New Englanders did with “vampires” suspected of spreading tuberculosis.
A Brick, Stone, or Vine Between the Teeth: For insights on this method, we turn to forensic anthropologist Matteo Borrini, Venice during the plague years, and an excavated skull labeled ID6. When the Black Death first passed through Europe in the 14th century, the lethal scourge killed fully 75 percent of Venice’s population. Subsequent outbreaks—including one in 1576 and 1577 that likely killed ID6—ravaged the city again over the two centuries that followed. Brought to horrific Lazzaretto Nuovo with thousands of other plague-struck citizens, she (the bones were probably a woman’s) died there and was buried in a mass grave. Perhaps six weeks after burial, she was exhumed and a brick placed carefully between her teeth. Borrini’s Robert Langdon-worthy search for a plausible explanation led him to a 1679 tract by Philip Rohr titled De Masticatione Mortuorum: “On the Chewing Dead.” “This volume described the Nachzehrer—German for ‘after-devourer’,” Mark writes, “a kind of mindless, vampirelike corpse that chews its shroud in the grave before consuming its own fingers. As it nibbles away, by some occult process, it also slowly kills the surviving members of its family. It may then begin gobbling corpses in neighboring graves.” Quarantine didn’t prevent the spread of plague, and it would be centuries before folks learned that rat-borne fleas were the primary culprit. Absent that, some held the Nachzehrer responsible for the disease’s spread. And so the brick between ID6’s jaws “may be the first archaeological evidence of what we know from the books was a fairly widespread belief.”
The legends, novels, and films have inspired more than a few unstable people to ‘go vampire’ over the years, consuming the blood and flesh of victims in vain hopes of achieving immortality in this world. But the real vampires—blood gorging, infectious-disease bearing ticks, mosquitoes, and rat fleas—remain with us too, taking human blood and sometimes spreading death with a single bite.
Feast on more vampire stories with Vampire Forensics in bookstores…
… and on the National Geographic Channel …
… and with this story on Borrini’s macabre Venetian discovery from National Geographic News.
Image of Venetian vampire skull and brick and historical vampire illustration courtesy the National Geographic Channel