Where do vampires come from?

Long-time National Geographic staff historian Mark Jenkins’ new book, Vampire Forensics, is the basis for a new National Geographic Explorer television special premiering in the U.S. Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel. It’s not quite an interview with the vampire, but Jenkins shares some of what he learned on the trail of Dracula and his kin.

By Ford Cochran
for Nat Geo News Watch

Where did the belief in vampires originate?

Fear of the walking dead is old. Sucking blood isn’t always part of it–sometimes they eat you, sometimes they just beat you up. There’s some sort of deep layer of belief that crops up here and there, possibly something shared once in the Indo-European past that survived when the tribes became separate nations.


In twelfth-century England, William of Newburgh, a fairly good historian, wrote about prodigies, oddities well beyond the natural course of events. When you read his stories, they’re pretty much about vampires and related characters–people who die in sin and come back as nasty monsters, like what we would call zombies today, spreading disease with them through the town.

In China, in particular, there’s a living corpse that resembles a European vampire. One is tempted to say there might be a Silk Road connection, but it’s too hard to prove it. The Chinese version doesn’t swoop down on you: He can only hop. But he’s a pretty nasty vampire–not one of the aristocrats, like Dracula, in a cape and evening attire. That’s the work of 19th-century Romanticism. The Chinese vampire is based in the sort of gritty peasant superstition that was condemned by the pope in Europe in the 18th century.

India’s also full of blood-sucking demons, possibly related to vampires. Many are the deformed spirits of people who weren’t properly cremated, some no larger than your thumb. If you swallow one, it lodges in your intestines and banquets on what’s down there. Sound like cholera? Possibly, as with the European vampire’s connection to plague. Cholera is a deeply feared disease that came about by drinking water infected with human feces, and outbreaks were devastating in India.

In Europe, Greece could be the home of the vampire–the Balkans and Greece. Santorini became especially fertile ground for vampire beliefs, because the volcanic soil preserves bodies, slowing decomposition. Originally, when the dead came back, they weren’t really malicious. There’s a story of a shoemaker who came back and helped his family out by making shoes. Other dead people who were thought to have returned from the grave were seen out in the fields eating beans. Vegetarians, the gentle dead! But those are ancient-vintage legends, before the evil Slavic vampire overwrote them.


The video above is an excerpt from National Geographic Explorer “Vampire Forensics”. The documentary premieres in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel, February 23, 2010, 10.m. ET/PT. 

Why do you think people in so many different places came to believe in vampires?

Several things certainly contributed.

First, there were wasting diseases. Vampires weren’t something you worried about every night, but when an epidemic came through, such as the plague. No one really understood how it was transmitted. Back in Venice they were getting close. They set up quarantines, burned clothes and linens, killed cats and dogs thinking it might have something to do with their pelts. But they didn’t get the idea it was the rider on the pelts of the rats–the fleas–spreading the disease.

Six Ways to Stop a Vampire
Garlic, mirrors, holy water, a stake through the heart. Read Ford Cochran’s BlogWild for details of the traditional methods to fend off blood-sucking fiends.

In the 19th century, tuberculosis in New England was of epidemic proportions, wiping out entire families. One guy would go down, then his sister or his brother. Then they’d go down like flies. It was called “galloping consumption.” A tubercular person would be pale, losing weight, wasting away.

The folk theory emerged that if that was happening, you had to dig up the body of the most recent relative who died. If their heart or lungs looked fairly fresh, you had to tear them out and burn the corpse–or even take them out and eat them. (Not a great way to avoid contracting tuberculosis.) Somehow, people believed, by some mysterious process, the dead were absorbing the health and vitality of their next of kin. Thoreau mentioned it in one of his journal entries. These people had probably never even heard the word vampire!

Then there was the process of natural decay. After several weeks or months underground, corpses don’t look like they did when you buried them. They’re bloated, with nasty things coming from their mouths. “Bloated like a tick.” That was actually fairly normal before widespread embalming. If you reopened a mass grave and found a strange looking carcass, perhaps that was evidence of a vampire. You don’t find vampire stories in places where cremation was practiced.


The skull and brick from the Vampire of Venice. In the summer of 2006, on the Venetian island of Lazaretto Nuovo, Matteo Borrini and his team were excavating a mass grave dating from the plague of the 16th Century. They found a skeleton with a brick between the jaws of its skull. A brick was placed in the mouth of the corpse to kill a vampire. Read the National Geographic News story “Vampire” Picture: Exorcism Skull Found in Italy

Photo © National Geographic Television 

Sometimes thoughts of vampires arose when a particularly hated character died. They left a lasting impression on everybody. People would see them in their dreams. Psychologically, people were more susceptible to thinking “I saw him on the street the other night. Horses in the barn were uneasy all night long.”

It fed into the madness of crowds, hysteria. Someone might say, “He hit me–I’m black and blue!” Finally, they would just dig up the grave, sort of like the old horror movies, where the villagers would get their pitchforks. They’d dig up the body, burn it, and send the remains down the river.

The further back you go, the more it becomes just a general fear of the dead, which seems to be universal. It may manifest itself in ghosts, disembodied dead people. The further back you go, the less of a distinction seems to exist between haunting spirits with bodies and those without. 

Have people always associated vampires with bats?

The notion of demonic shape-shifting dates way back. There were Paleolithic shamans, and animal cults are probably as old as humanity. Put on a wolf pelt and you become the wolf. In parts of the Balkans and Greece, vrykolakas–a word later used for vampires—had its origins with a wolf cult in which pelts were worn to transform the wearers into werewolves. The creatures got all mixed up. Each little tribe and village had a slightly different take on everything, but a common culture of vampires arose in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The association with bats primarily comes from Bram Stoker and the book Dracula. But the bat has always been a symbol of darkness and evil, emerging from caves. And of course, the vampire bat does drink blood.


NGS stock photo of vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) by Bruce Dale 

What about the vampire’s cloak?

That was a stage prop! When Dracula was on stage in the first theatrical productions, they had a disappearing pit for him. He had to turn his back on the audience, spread a cloak and slip down a trapdoor and out of there. That’s the origin of the cloak. It carried over to film with the actor Béla Legusi, then it became de rigueur: Dracula couldn’t show up without his evening clothes and cloak. They buried Béla Lugosi in his Dracula cloak.

Jenkins, Mark Collins. Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the origins of an enduring legend. Washington: National Geographic, 2010. 303pp.

Ford-Cochran.jpgFord Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

More posts by Ford Cochran





Confessions of a Science Librarian
John Dupuis, head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library, York University, Toronto, Canada, reviews Mark Jenkins’ book on ScienceBlogs. Read his commentary.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • sanjog siwakoti

    i dont belife there will be vampires……………all these things are fake..no one can proof there is vampire……….

  • sanjog siwakoti

    vampire means a death person she/he cant be vampire all these story is in book ….if there will be vampire …then what are the proof,,

  • sanjog siwakoti

    all these things are imaginary…………..if therweis a vampire where are they………………no one can catch vampire

  • mike shea

    the vampires story is a map story.

  • lizzy1995

    No one can catch one because they’re supposedly fast, just because books that are fiction have them in it doesn’t make it all fiction. For all you know it is very possible for vampires to exist and you never know about it.

  • bloodklok

    very good possibilty but ghost are more real than vampires to my knowledge ive expereceed spiritual experences including ghosts but not vampires so i believe/know in may paranormal creatures but vampires are still on my list!

  • sraboni

    i really don’t know that vampires exist in the world or not. but i t
    think that every vampires is bad maybe there are some good
    vampire’s.i wanted to meet and friendship with vampires.if
    really vampires exists please think that i am your friend.please
    friendship with me.

  • Chaz benson

    I’ve always wanted to be a vampire but I’ve always wanted to know if there real. It would be a dream come true to meet an to become one!!!! Living forever isn’t bad thing!

  • Alex sarns

    I think vampires are amazing

  • Nilma Xavier

    to assume that something so universal and specific among so many cultures is nothing more then penny whistle whimsies comes off as childish and/or reactionary. For centuries we saw the imaginings of dragons in the realm of superstition and ignorance of the greatest magnitude then we stumble upon the bones of great reptilian beast reminiscent of said flights of fancy. we just named the bones dinosaurs instead.
    I love science yet I do believe in the supernatural based on very personal events. some have told me I’m being contrary believing in both, others try to prove what happened to me didn’t or I misinterpretation what happened was something more mundane, while that I’m a simpleton who deserves ridicule for believing in something greater.
    we can stand here as say that ‘yeah, vampires don’t exist. what kind of moron would believe that!?’ but remember, people said the exact same thing about the platypus.

  • Ayesha

    I like Vampires

  • mimmi

    The first vampires were created by the original witch they were her children she created them to procrect them from werewolves in that time they were Vikings there name were Finnick the oldest Elijah Niklaus Kol Rebecca and the youngest one was said to be the first vampire they turned her name was Victoria although she had gotten staked she was an original vampire she didn’t die they haven’t been spitted in 16 years rumor says the brother Niklaus had child which is impossible till they found out he was hybrid I came in counter with the youngest one Victoria over three years ago she is stuck at age 13 forever two of the brothers died from the white oak stake Kol and Finnick both died there whole line of vampires they created died with them Rebecca lies daggerd in a coffin Victoria is the USA in Forks Washington Niklaus is in New Orleans with Rebecca and Elijah is in Europe Those are the first vampires known to history

  • MD. Amaan Baksh

    I think there is some vampires in our planet , but I there is no ghost in our planet.

  • Ishita Nambiar

    this are all bullshit….about people talking about vampire…vampire do not exit…..i litrally do not believe that there is a vampire all over the world

  • Edmund William Callahan

    Being emprires Elaine and father king isreal earth born son from vizcaya castle grandmother queen Hellenic Fitzgerald knighted name emprie Fitzgerald Edmund William Callahan of Norwegian of Wales true girl her true mates and holyspirit and fire of true with in

  • Ankur Stan

    The blog you find me in a good . Please give me the real story of the vampire in this blog Post .

  • ankita

    As I believe in science ,so I believed that vampires exist on the earth. and I truly wants to meet them

  • Lisa

    Dragons are real. Komodo dragons and bearded dragons. Dragon flies… and someone mentioned the storyline and characters of The originals and Twilight. Lol this is all funny

  • sid

    I would like to be a vampire

  • Phelan K.C.

    I came here looking for any indication or fossils discovered that may have shown the early beliefs of the undead date back to the paleolithic age (preferably middle). Though I didn’t get what I originally want this article does shed some light about some vampire myths, like how vampires drain energy from people closest to them (when in reality it’s just a plague!). Thanks a lot; I hope I’ll have the chance to catch up on the show if they were to show it in NatGeo Asia.

  • Kate

    And why almost 90% of people here cannot speak English…?
    I’m not an English professor but, wow…
    A lot of people want to be vampires because they think it’s cool, and based on the lifestyle TV movies portray… Well, don’t you think there is a reason why they are called “damned”? If true, they cannot die, I think that is the worst punishment ever. Also, let’s say that everything is true, vampires, ghosts, werewolves, demons, angels… If it’s all real, then Heaven and Hell is real, right? That means, we suppose to die so we can go to Heaven for an INTERNAL life there, not here! Has anyone thought of that? Why would you want to be a miserable vampire sucking human blood if you can have an internal life in God’s Heaven with all your family and friends?

  • Gayatri

    I think it’s true always that vampire are exist in earth.

  • Denmark Diva

    is it true? how can you say about that?

  • john paul palo cornelio

    is vampires real

  • Khime

    Vampires are true. I want to meet one. I want to be a vampire. Where can i find them? I Love Vampires

  • Khime

    Can you give me clues or what? I really love to meet and bacame one of them. How can i turn? I want you to find me and make me a vampire

  • AYO


  • jim


  • dominika

    Maybe its real may be not ..just savour the history…

  • Ayramie

    Can someone please tell me how the theory of vampires was created please

  • gemma

    I dont know about vampires being real or not, but think of this.. If u happen to meet one, ur not someone special and they r surely not going to be like Edward or bella. Their going to look at u as food or a normal, ordinary human. Why dont u be happy for what u have n not what u dont.

  • vampire

    Do you want to become a vampire,are you tired of human being,having talented brain turning to a vampire in a good posture in ten minutes,without delaying in a good human posture and becoming a immortal.
    A world of vampire were life get easier,we have made so much persons vampires and have turned them rich,you will assured long life and prosperity,you shall be made to be very sensitive to mental alertness,stronger and also very fast,you will not be restricted to walk at night onlyeven at the very middle of broad day light you will be made to walk,this is an opportunity to have the vampire virus to perform in a good posture. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED CONTACT US ON OUR EMAIL VAMPIRETRANSFORMATION42@GMAIL.COM
    lets talk about becoming a vampire.

  • Justin Hill

    Hi Folks, my name is Justin and I’m here to share my testimony on how I got help turned into an original vampire, One thing it’s certain and it works with your beliefs and what you desire to become a greater someone in future, when I met my sire, Mr. Alan Myers, he explained everything to me and at that moment was everything I have ever dreamed of and how it happened it was very fast when I followed all their terms and conditions, and today I’m a greater someone in my society and I’m proud member of Mr. Alan Myers family bloodline as an original vampire and I stand to enjoy all the benefits of a vampire… And if you wanna know what I’m talking about contact Mr. Alan Myers via email ( alanmyers_vampcommunity@reborn.com ) and in 3 working days a vampire blood will be sent to you and you will be initiated into their vampire community and you have dominion and power of wealth and fame

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