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Things That Go Bump in the Night: Creatures of Folklore

A look at the myths surrounding vampires, zombies and werewolves, comparing the fiction to the folklore and exploring the truth behind the stories.

We’re all familiar with a wide array of mythical monsters from movies, books and other media, but how much do these have in common with the folklore and stories that inspired these tall tales? This article aims to find out and to trace the evolution of these stories into the movie monsters we know today, looking at three of the most common and familiar creatures: vampires, zombies and werewolves.

 

Vampires

Vampires are one of the most popular and enduring monsters of film-land (to coin a phrase) but the suave aristocrats and wanton seducers of fiction have very little in common with the creatures that plagued the imaginations of ordinary people in previous centuries (and in some cases, even today). The word “vampire” originally comes from German and was first recorded in English in 1734, but that doesn’t mean that England didn’t have vampiric traditions beforehand. In fact, almost all cultures have traditions of blood sucking demons and revenants: Chinese folklore has the Chiang Sitch, a murderous spirit which takes over unburied corpses; Britian had a number of stories about wicked people revived from the dead; Central European tales tell of the sinister strigoi; ancient Greek stories hold that those left on the banks of the Styx unable to cross into the Underworld became vampires; while some cultures even believed in blood-drinking deities, like the ancient Egyptian Sekhmet, the Indian Kali, or the Babylonian Lilitu (later incorporated into Hebrew traditions as the demonic children of Lilith, Adam’s first wife before Eve). Appearance depends on the legend: some stink of rotting flesh, others turn into mists or animals, some are covered in hair, others have bright red hair, stranger stories involve vampires with two hearts, vampires that appear as disembodied heads or ones with barbed, black or hollow tongues.

Aside from divine vampires, most traditions held that the vampire was undead; a walking corpse. How a corpse became a vampire depends on the story: some were created from the graves of suicides or particularly evil individuals, some might appear if someone walked over their grave or a grave was moved or abandoned. Others vulnerable to vampirism include black magicians, the seventh son of a seventh son, unmarried people, anyone born with a caul, an illegitimate person, anyone born on a holiday… in short anyone born, living or dying in unusual circumstances could be suspected.

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  1. Morgana

    On July 21, 2009 at 2:26 am


    I agree with you, I think there is some truth in all the myths. Sometimes the reality can be more shoking than fiction. Who knows what strange creatures exist out there?

  2. Darla Beck

    On July 21, 2009 at 8:17 am


    Wow! This is a very thorough and interesting article. I really enjoyed reading it.

  3. Brenda Nelson

    On July 21, 2009 at 12:03 pm


    good info – all myths had their basis of origin.

  4. Mark Gordon Brown

    On July 21, 2009 at 12:08 pm


    Great information on a favorite subject of mine. Vlad was cool, probably misunderstood too. I;d write a longer comment, but I have to go to work now.

  5. Lauren Axelrod

    On August 10, 2009 at 12:06 am


    Wow emm, fab piece. I have to blog this on the revolution.

  6. Chris Marlowe II

    On September 26, 2009 at 2:37 pm


    My dear Emma,

    This is a very good, in-depth & well written piece.
    It’s a pity you forgot to mention this Creature that goes bumping into the night:

    Yours Truly,
    the One & Only
    Troll of Triond

  7. Vigilant Pariah

    On May 23, 2012 at 1:38 am


    Very nice article. There is just one thing that I’d like to mention on the subject of vampires. The myth of the victorian vampire actually came from a bible story. In it, Judas betrays Christ for 13 pieces of silver, hence the attraction of vampires to silver. Next, Judas realizes what he’s done and hangs himself from an Aspen tree, hence the legend that vampires can only be killed with wooden stakes made of Aspen shoved through the heart. However, God cursed Judas and his family to wander the earth forever until they would thirst for the blood of Christ (in essence, repent and wish to be redeemed). They could obtain the blood of Christ by killing Christians. This is what most scholars agree is the origin of the vampire myth.

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