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Episode
310

A History of Vampires | Fangs, Fear and Fiction

Oct 28, 2022
History
-
20
minutes

For hundreds of years, people have been afraid of blood-sucking creatures that rise from the dead.

But where does the vampire myth actually come from, what happened to the people accused of being a vampire, and what if there was a simple, biological explanation for it all?

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today it is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time with the theme of “Halloween”.

[00:00:31] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll be diving into the gory history behind one of Halloween’s more modern figures, vampires, and look at how they became the unmistakable blood-sucking creatures we know today.

[00:00:45] Next up, in part two, we will look at werewolves, humans who turn into wolves, and hear strange stories of transformation, trials and terror.

[00:00:56] And in the final part, part 3, we will focus on witches and their equally grim past.

[00:01:03] OK, let’s get started and talk about the spooky world of vampires.

[00:01:10] The year is 1893. Your name is Jonathan Harker, and you are a young English lawyer.

[00:01:19] One of your clients, a man living in Transylvania, has called you to his castle to finalise a property transaction.

[00:01:28] The journey has been very long, cold, and quite frankly, creepy.

[00:01:34] When passers-by learn of your destination, you can sense their terror.

[00:01:39] Their skin turned pale, their eyes widened, and they held up crucifixes while they prayed to God.

[00:01:48] You don’t speak their language, but you think you heard the words ‘devil’, ‘hell’ and ‘vampire’, and you begin to get a sinking feeling in your stomach.

[00:01:59] Your anxiety only increases as you endure your final stretch of the journey in your open horse carriage in the dead of night.

[00:02:08] You can’t see much around you but you are sure you saw your driver’s eyes were a bright red colour, and you can hear the howling of wolves getting closer and closer.

[00:02:21] Cold and tense, you finally see the black silhouette of the giant castle. You might be at your final destination, but you are by no means happy about it.

[00:02:33] When you reach the enormous wooden doors, you are met not by servants, as you expected, but one single old man who introduces himself as Count Dracula and invites you inside.

[00:02:48] He speaks with a strong accent. His face is long and thin.

[00:02:53] When he speaks, his red lips move to reveal sharp fang-like teeth that are in surprisingly good condition for such an old man.

[00:03:03] He has a long pointed nose and chin, a large forehead and bushy arched eyebrows. 

[00:03:10] His hair is dark and thick, not what you expect for a man of his age, and through it you could see his peculiar pointed ears.

[00:03:20] Out from his cape you are shocked to see hairy hands with unusually long nails.

[00:03:27] As he places his hand on your back to guide you through the silent castle, you shiver, unsure if it’s from his unsettling touch or his horrible breath.

[00:03:39] And off you go, taking your first steps through a castle from which you will only just manage to escape alive.

[00:03:49] This is a summary of the beginning of the most famous vampire story of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was written in 1897.

[00:04:01] As the account suggests, Stoker’s novel is full of all the things you’d expect from a vampire story: fangs, sharp teeth, blood sucking and haunted castles, to name but a few.

[00:04:14] These are the fundamentals, the key features, of vampires.

[00:04:20] Vampires are, of course, the undead, people who have died but can come back to life, and who must suck the blood of the living at night in order to survive.

[00:04:32] Stoker’s novel even includes details that have become modern stereotypical characteristics of vampires.

[00:04:38] For example, how they can shape shift [they can change, usually into bats], they can’t be seen in the reflection of mirrors, how garlic can be used to keep them away, and that they can only be killed by stabbing a stake, a wooden post, through their heart.

[00:04:58] With his book, Bram Stoker brought vampires into mainstream popular culture and helped to create those unmistakable Halloween costumes that you may see people dressed up in in late October.

[00:05:13] But although he refined many of their characteristics, Stoker certainly hadn’t invented the concept of vampires.

[00:05:21] So if we are to take for granted that vampires don’t actually exist, where did he get his ideas, where did the inspiration come from?

[00:05:32] Well, legends similar to vampires have existed throughout cultures across the globe for millennia.

[00:05:40] There are the Chinese Jiang Shi, the Australian Yara-ma-yha-who and the Brazilian Jaracas. All of these are creatures that must suck the blood of their victims to survive.

[00:05:54] But it was European folklore which primarily inspired Stoker.

[00:05:59] In Europe, we had Vrykolakas from ancient Greece, a dangerous creature of the undead which feasts in particular on its victims’ livers

[00:06:10] Greek myth also gave us the Strix, a bird, usually an owl, believed to be a bad omen which would feast on human flesh and blood.

[00:06:21] In Slavic folklore, there were the demon creatures, Upiór.

[00:06:26] These creatures could appear if a person was cursed during their life, or if their corpse was desecrated, or abused.

[00:06:34] The Upiór had a detached head, glowing eyes, and they drank human blood which gave them super strength to kill more victims. But they could also kill with their poisonous breath or deafening screams.

[00:06:50] Even closer to Transylvanian Count Dracula was the Romanian mythical creature, the Strigoi.

[00:06:57] These are troubled spirits that have risen from the grave to feast on the blood of victims and gain great strength.

[00:07:05] As you can see, many cultures across the globe have these somewhat similar vampire-like creatures, with slightly different characteristics.

[00:07:15] But they all have one thing in common - they need to drink the blood of the living.

[00:07:22] You might think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing for a monstrous creation to want to do but, according to some scholars, the human invention of blood-sucking mythical monsters all comes down to a misunderstanding around how bodies decompose, or break down, essentially, what happens to the human body after death.

[00:07:44] Okay, this next bit is a little graphic, so if you happen to be eating you might want to press pause on this episode, or put down your sandwich.

[00:07:54] When internal organs break down inside a corpse it creates a dark, pungent liquid, called ‘purge fluid’. This fluid can leave the corpse through the nose and the mouth.

[00:08:09] Historians believe that people thought this fluid was blood and a sign that the corpses had been drinking the blood of the living.

[00:08:18] But why were people digging up corpses, digging up dead bodies?

[00:08:23] Well, again this comes down to a misunderstanding about the way that the human body, and in particular, disease, works.

[00:08:32] Especially in the Medieval era, when there were epidemics, such as the plague, the black death, vampires, or vampire-like monsters, were often blamed for spreading disease.

[00:08:46] When there were a large number of deaths happening in one area, instead of saying “this is a disease, it has spread”, people especially in rural communities feared that there was a new supernatural killer on the loose, a vampire being a commonly blamed culprit - though, as we will see in part two, there were instances of this being blamed on werewolves, as well. 

[00:09:11] The villagers would dig up the dead bodies, they would see the purge fluid, they would think that this was proof that the person had drunk the blood of the living, and had spread disease, and this was all the proof they needed. 

[00:09:26] In some cases, they would even take drastic action to stop these dead people from being able to rise again from their graves.

[00:09:35] In Venice, archeologists have uncovered buried plague victims from the 16th century and among them is one body with a brick in its mouth.

[00:09:47] Historians believe this to be an attempt to prevent the individual from rising from their grave and feasting on the living.

[00:09:56] Of course, superstition and the belief in dark magic was common during the Middle Ages and vampires were just one of the many strange beliefs in Europe at this time, as our next episodes will show.

[00:10:09] But across Europe, stories of vampires continued to grow both in volume and in popularity while beliefs in witches and werewolves were starting to fade.

[00:10:21] During the 18th century increasing accounts of vampire sightings were reported, and the period of 1725 to 1755 has been dubbed “The Great Vampire Epidemic”.

[00:10:35] One of the earliest and most sensational instances was in 1725, when a Serbian peasant called Petar Blagojević was accused of having transformed into a vampire and killed nine of his neighbours.

[00:10:51] On their deathbeds, the villagers had insisted that Petar had risen up and choked them in the night.

[00:10:59] Petar, it should be underlined, was dead himself. The accusations were against a dead man.

[00:11:07] After his death, so the allegations went, Petar had returned to his home and demanded food from his son.

[00:11:15] Terrified, the son refused, which led to Petar murdering him by biting him and then drinking his blood.

[00:11:23] Following these stories, the villagers decided to exhume Petar’s body, to dig it up, to inspect it for signs he had become a vampire, such as long fingernails, growing hair and a lack of decomposition.

[00:11:38] These were all signs that people believed were associated with vampirism, with being a vampire, but they are actually signs of people not understanding the process that a body goes through after death.

[00:11:52] Again, this is a little bit gory, but after someone dies, their skin begins to shrink on their body, which makes their fingernails and hair appear longer.

[00:12:03] So, you may not be surprised to find out, that when they dug up Petar’s body the villagers did, in fact, see these signs and also the delightful display of purge fluid, and they had all the evidence they needed that he was a vampire.

[00:12:19] The village then had no options other than to destroy Petar once and for all before he killed every single inhabitant who remained.

[00:12:29] So, they burnt Petar’s body to ashes, ensuring he could never rise again.

[00:12:36] Petar’s story spread rapidly throughout Europe, translated into German, French and English, and it did much to accelerate the contemporary vampire craze, which was particularly strong in rural areas.

[00:12:50] Hysteria grew to such a point that by the mid-18th century, the Pope was forced to declare that vampires were “fictions of human fantasy”.

[00:13:01] The ruler of the Hapsburg Empire, Maria Theresa, was forced to intervene as well and she would send her personal physician to investigate whenever someone was accused of being a vampire.

[00:13:14] He concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that vampires were absolutely not real and so she too announced that vampires were nothing but “superstition and fraud”, and she outlawed the practice of digging up graves and examining the bodies of the dead.

[00:13:31] Many other European countries followed the Hapsburgs’ stance on vampires and developments in science certainly helped to prove that vampires simply didn’t exist.

[00:13:42] But none of this could put a dent in, could damage, the popularity of vampire stories, and though the belief in real vampires did start to decline the popularity of their stories certainly did not.

[00:13:57] And vampires soon became a source for novelists and storytellers.

[00:14:02] The first vampire novel published in English was John Polidori’s 1819 story, The Vampyre, which was inspired by the scandalous life of the famous English poet Lord Byron, who is imagined as the suave, or charming, vampire, Lord Ruthven.

[00:14:20] As a quick side note - if you would like to learn more about the scandalous life of Lord Byron, check out episode 244 if you haven’t done so already.

[00:14:29] OK, back to vampires, and Polidori's The Vampyre. This book was immensely influential and set a trend of other vampire stories coming to press.

[00:14:41] But none were as popular as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which combined features from all these stories, real and fictional, but with an added sensuality and horror that was clearly a recipe for success in Victorian England and beyond.

[00:14:58] Indeed, Stoker’s novel has never actually been out of print since it was first published in 1897.

[00:15:06] But aside from tales of peasant vampires across Europe, Stoker’s Dracula is believed to be inspired by one more infamous figure from history, Vlad the Impaler, and it is here where some descriptions will get a little graphic again, I’m afraid.

[00:15:22] This brutal ruler of fifteenth century Romania got his nickname from his preferred method of torture, impaling his victims on a wooden or metal pole alive and leaving them there to die, for hours or sometimes even days.

[00:15:39] Truly, a horrific way to go.

[00:15:42] Vlad’s other preferred methods of torture included beheading, skinning or boiling victims alive, and even paying diseased men to infect his enemies.

[00:15:53] There are even stories that Vlad would invite enemy families over for feasts only to stab them all and continue to dine, continue to eat, amongst their dying bodies.

[00:16:05] Some even said that he dipped his bread in their blood, and it is this bloodthirstiness, as well as their shared homeland, that has led to Vlad the Impaler’s identification with the world’s most famous vampire.

[00:16:20] Now, moving to the more present day, with the invention of film, the story of Dracula, and the idea of the vampire would gain an even wider audience.

[00:16:32] In 1931, Stoker’s novel was put on the big screen, with the release of the hugely influential “Dracula” movie.

[00:16:41] It was also around the same time as the Dracula movie that the mass production of Halloween costumes began in the US, which further helped to secure the image of this portrayal of Dracula in the minds of the public.

[00:16:56] And as vampires became better-known figures in Western popular culture, they received more varying treatments in both literature and film.

[00:17:06] In the 1970s, with the boom of science fiction, vampires became a common feature.

[00:17:12] And moving into the 1990s and to the modern day, vampires almost went full circle, becoming human again, or at least with human hopes and dreams, through films and series like Interview with a Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recently the Twilight series. 

[00:17:33] Vampires, along with which we will discuss in our next episode, were rebranded for a teen-girl audience and it was an incredibly successful enterprise.

[00:17:45] No longer were vampires like Stoker’s unsettling description, they were young, attractive and had moral dilemmas.

[00:17:54] Indeed, many of the tropes such as garlic, crucifixes and holy water are totally removed from the modern idea of vampires.

[00:18:04] They are almost unrecognisable when compared to the original portrayal of Dracula on the big screen, back in 1933.

[00:18:13] But despite their modern makeovers, every year for Halloween streets are lined with children dressed as the classic and unmistakable Dracula-like vampire.

[00:18:25] And now you know of the grim history behind these costumes, you may not be able to look at that fake blood the same way again.

[00:18:33] Ultimately, the story of vampires is the story of humans trying to ascribe a spooky, supernatural explanation for something that is completely natural and rational.

[00:18:46] Whether it be decomposition, disease or demonising a neighbour, when people did not fully understand something, vampires offered them an explanation, albeit one that was very gruesome indeed.

[00:19:02] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on vampires, part one of our three-part mini-series with the theme of Halloween.

[00:19:12] In our next episode, we will be delving into the monstrous stories surrounding another Halloween favourite, the werewolf, which much like the blood-sucking protagonists of this episode, also caused some shocking public scares.

[00:19:26] And in our final part, part three, it will be the unfortunate lives of women accused of being witches.

[00:19:34] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:19:37] Have you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

[00:19:40] Why do you think we have this obsession with vampires?

[00:19:43] Are there other vampire-like creatures or myths in your country?

[00:19:48] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:00] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:05] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today it is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time with the theme of “Halloween”.

[00:00:31] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll be diving into the gory history behind one of Halloween’s more modern figures, vampires, and look at how they became the unmistakable blood-sucking creatures we know today.

[00:00:45] Next up, in part two, we will look at werewolves, humans who turn into wolves, and hear strange stories of transformation, trials and terror.

[00:00:56] And in the final part, part 3, we will focus on witches and their equally grim past.

[00:01:03] OK, let’s get started and talk about the spooky world of vampires.

[00:01:10] The year is 1893. Your name is Jonathan Harker, and you are a young English lawyer.

[00:01:19] One of your clients, a man living in Transylvania, has called you to his castle to finalise a property transaction.

[00:01:28] The journey has been very long, cold, and quite frankly, creepy.

[00:01:34] When passers-by learn of your destination, you can sense their terror.

[00:01:39] Their skin turned pale, their eyes widened, and they held up crucifixes while they prayed to God.

[00:01:48] You don’t speak their language, but you think you heard the words ‘devil’, ‘hell’ and ‘vampire’, and you begin to get a sinking feeling in your stomach.

[00:01:59] Your anxiety only increases as you endure your final stretch of the journey in your open horse carriage in the dead of night.

[00:02:08] You can’t see much around you but you are sure you saw your driver’s eyes were a bright red colour, and you can hear the howling of wolves getting closer and closer.

[00:02:21] Cold and tense, you finally see the black silhouette of the giant castle. You might be at your final destination, but you are by no means happy about it.

[00:02:33] When you reach the enormous wooden doors, you are met not by servants, as you expected, but one single old man who introduces himself as Count Dracula and invites you inside.

[00:02:48] He speaks with a strong accent. His face is long and thin.

[00:02:53] When he speaks, his red lips move to reveal sharp fang-like teeth that are in surprisingly good condition for such an old man.

[00:03:03] He has a long pointed nose and chin, a large forehead and bushy arched eyebrows. 

[00:03:10] His hair is dark and thick, not what you expect for a man of his age, and through it you could see his peculiar pointed ears.

[00:03:20] Out from his cape you are shocked to see hairy hands with unusually long nails.

[00:03:27] As he places his hand on your back to guide you through the silent castle, you shiver, unsure if it’s from his unsettling touch or his horrible breath.

[00:03:39] And off you go, taking your first steps through a castle from which you will only just manage to escape alive.

[00:03:49] This is a summary of the beginning of the most famous vampire story of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was written in 1897.

[00:04:01] As the account suggests, Stoker’s novel is full of all the things you’d expect from a vampire story: fangs, sharp teeth, blood sucking and haunted castles, to name but a few.

[00:04:14] These are the fundamentals, the key features, of vampires.

[00:04:20] Vampires are, of course, the undead, people who have died but can come back to life, and who must suck the blood of the living at night in order to survive.

[00:04:32] Stoker’s novel even includes details that have become modern stereotypical characteristics of vampires.

[00:04:38] For example, how they can shape shift [they can change, usually into bats], they can’t be seen in the reflection of mirrors, how garlic can be used to keep them away, and that they can only be killed by stabbing a stake, a wooden post, through their heart.

[00:04:58] With his book, Bram Stoker brought vampires into mainstream popular culture and helped to create those unmistakable Halloween costumes that you may see people dressed up in in late October.

[00:05:13] But although he refined many of their characteristics, Stoker certainly hadn’t invented the concept of vampires.

[00:05:21] So if we are to take for granted that vampires don’t actually exist, where did he get his ideas, where did the inspiration come from?

[00:05:32] Well, legends similar to vampires have existed throughout cultures across the globe for millennia.

[00:05:40] There are the Chinese Jiang Shi, the Australian Yara-ma-yha-who and the Brazilian Jaracas. All of these are creatures that must suck the blood of their victims to survive.

[00:05:54] But it was European folklore which primarily inspired Stoker.

[00:05:59] In Europe, we had Vrykolakas from ancient Greece, a dangerous creature of the undead which feasts in particular on its victims’ livers

[00:06:10] Greek myth also gave us the Strix, a bird, usually an owl, believed to be a bad omen which would feast on human flesh and blood.

[00:06:21] In Slavic folklore, there were the demon creatures, Upiór.

[00:06:26] These creatures could appear if a person was cursed during their life, or if their corpse was desecrated, or abused.

[00:06:34] The Upiór had a detached head, glowing eyes, and they drank human blood which gave them super strength to kill more victims. But they could also kill with their poisonous breath or deafening screams.

[00:06:50] Even closer to Transylvanian Count Dracula was the Romanian mythical creature, the Strigoi.

[00:06:57] These are troubled spirits that have risen from the grave to feast on the blood of victims and gain great strength.

[00:07:05] As you can see, many cultures across the globe have these somewhat similar vampire-like creatures, with slightly different characteristics.

[00:07:15] But they all have one thing in common - they need to drink the blood of the living.

[00:07:22] You might think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing for a monstrous creation to want to do but, according to some scholars, the human invention of blood-sucking mythical monsters all comes down to a misunderstanding around how bodies decompose, or break down, essentially, what happens to the human body after death.

[00:07:44] Okay, this next bit is a little graphic, so if you happen to be eating you might want to press pause on this episode, or put down your sandwich.

[00:07:54] When internal organs break down inside a corpse it creates a dark, pungent liquid, called ‘purge fluid’. This fluid can leave the corpse through the nose and the mouth.

[00:08:09] Historians believe that people thought this fluid was blood and a sign that the corpses had been drinking the blood of the living.

[00:08:18] But why were people digging up corpses, digging up dead bodies?

[00:08:23] Well, again this comes down to a misunderstanding about the way that the human body, and in particular, disease, works.

[00:08:32] Especially in the Medieval era, when there were epidemics, such as the plague, the black death, vampires, or vampire-like monsters, were often blamed for spreading disease.

[00:08:46] When there were a large number of deaths happening in one area, instead of saying “this is a disease, it has spread”, people especially in rural communities feared that there was a new supernatural killer on the loose, a vampire being a commonly blamed culprit - though, as we will see in part two, there were instances of this being blamed on werewolves, as well. 

[00:09:11] The villagers would dig up the dead bodies, they would see the purge fluid, they would think that this was proof that the person had drunk the blood of the living, and had spread disease, and this was all the proof they needed. 

[00:09:26] In some cases, they would even take drastic action to stop these dead people from being able to rise again from their graves.

[00:09:35] In Venice, archeologists have uncovered buried plague victims from the 16th century and among them is one body with a brick in its mouth.

[00:09:47] Historians believe this to be an attempt to prevent the individual from rising from their grave and feasting on the living.

[00:09:56] Of course, superstition and the belief in dark magic was common during the Middle Ages and vampires were just one of the many strange beliefs in Europe at this time, as our next episodes will show.

[00:10:09] But across Europe, stories of vampires continued to grow both in volume and in popularity while beliefs in witches and werewolves were starting to fade.

[00:10:21] During the 18th century increasing accounts of vampire sightings were reported, and the period of 1725 to 1755 has been dubbed “The Great Vampire Epidemic”.

[00:10:35] One of the earliest and most sensational instances was in 1725, when a Serbian peasant called Petar Blagojević was accused of having transformed into a vampire and killed nine of his neighbours.

[00:10:51] On their deathbeds, the villagers had insisted that Petar had risen up and choked them in the night.

[00:10:59] Petar, it should be underlined, was dead himself. The accusations were against a dead man.

[00:11:07] After his death, so the allegations went, Petar had returned to his home and demanded food from his son.

[00:11:15] Terrified, the son refused, which led to Petar murdering him by biting him and then drinking his blood.

[00:11:23] Following these stories, the villagers decided to exhume Petar’s body, to dig it up, to inspect it for signs he had become a vampire, such as long fingernails, growing hair and a lack of decomposition.

[00:11:38] These were all signs that people believed were associated with vampirism, with being a vampire, but they are actually signs of people not understanding the process that a body goes through after death.

[00:11:52] Again, this is a little bit gory, but after someone dies, their skin begins to shrink on their body, which makes their fingernails and hair appear longer.

[00:12:03] So, you may not be surprised to find out, that when they dug up Petar’s body the villagers did, in fact, see these signs and also the delightful display of purge fluid, and they had all the evidence they needed that he was a vampire.

[00:12:19] The village then had no options other than to destroy Petar once and for all before he killed every single inhabitant who remained.

[00:12:29] So, they burnt Petar’s body to ashes, ensuring he could never rise again.

[00:12:36] Petar’s story spread rapidly throughout Europe, translated into German, French and English, and it did much to accelerate the contemporary vampire craze, which was particularly strong in rural areas.

[00:12:50] Hysteria grew to such a point that by the mid-18th century, the Pope was forced to declare that vampires were “fictions of human fantasy”.

[00:13:01] The ruler of the Hapsburg Empire, Maria Theresa, was forced to intervene as well and she would send her personal physician to investigate whenever someone was accused of being a vampire.

[00:13:14] He concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that vampires were absolutely not real and so she too announced that vampires were nothing but “superstition and fraud”, and she outlawed the practice of digging up graves and examining the bodies of the dead.

[00:13:31] Many other European countries followed the Hapsburgs’ stance on vampires and developments in science certainly helped to prove that vampires simply didn’t exist.

[00:13:42] But none of this could put a dent in, could damage, the popularity of vampire stories, and though the belief in real vampires did start to decline the popularity of their stories certainly did not.

[00:13:57] And vampires soon became a source for novelists and storytellers.

[00:14:02] The first vampire novel published in English was John Polidori’s 1819 story, The Vampyre, which was inspired by the scandalous life of the famous English poet Lord Byron, who is imagined as the suave, or charming, vampire, Lord Ruthven.

[00:14:20] As a quick side note - if you would like to learn more about the scandalous life of Lord Byron, check out episode 244 if you haven’t done so already.

[00:14:29] OK, back to vampires, and Polidori's The Vampyre. This book was immensely influential and set a trend of other vampire stories coming to press.

[00:14:41] But none were as popular as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which combined features from all these stories, real and fictional, but with an added sensuality and horror that was clearly a recipe for success in Victorian England and beyond.

[00:14:58] Indeed, Stoker’s novel has never actually been out of print since it was first published in 1897.

[00:15:06] But aside from tales of peasant vampires across Europe, Stoker’s Dracula is believed to be inspired by one more infamous figure from history, Vlad the Impaler, and it is here where some descriptions will get a little graphic again, I’m afraid.

[00:15:22] This brutal ruler of fifteenth century Romania got his nickname from his preferred method of torture, impaling his victims on a wooden or metal pole alive and leaving them there to die, for hours or sometimes even days.

[00:15:39] Truly, a horrific way to go.

[00:15:42] Vlad’s other preferred methods of torture included beheading, skinning or boiling victims alive, and even paying diseased men to infect his enemies.

[00:15:53] There are even stories that Vlad would invite enemy families over for feasts only to stab them all and continue to dine, continue to eat, amongst their dying bodies.

[00:16:05] Some even said that he dipped his bread in their blood, and it is this bloodthirstiness, as well as their shared homeland, that has led to Vlad the Impaler’s identification with the world’s most famous vampire.

[00:16:20] Now, moving to the more present day, with the invention of film, the story of Dracula, and the idea of the vampire would gain an even wider audience.

[00:16:32] In 1931, Stoker’s novel was put on the big screen, with the release of the hugely influential “Dracula” movie.

[00:16:41] It was also around the same time as the Dracula movie that the mass production of Halloween costumes began in the US, which further helped to secure the image of this portrayal of Dracula in the minds of the public.

[00:16:56] And as vampires became better-known figures in Western popular culture, they received more varying treatments in both literature and film.

[00:17:06] In the 1970s, with the boom of science fiction, vampires became a common feature.

[00:17:12] And moving into the 1990s and to the modern day, vampires almost went full circle, becoming human again, or at least with human hopes and dreams, through films and series like Interview with a Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recently the Twilight series. 

[00:17:33] Vampires, along with which we will discuss in our next episode, were rebranded for a teen-girl audience and it was an incredibly successful enterprise.

[00:17:45] No longer were vampires like Stoker’s unsettling description, they were young, attractive and had moral dilemmas.

[00:17:54] Indeed, many of the tropes such as garlic, crucifixes and holy water are totally removed from the modern idea of vampires.

[00:18:04] They are almost unrecognisable when compared to the original portrayal of Dracula on the big screen, back in 1933.

[00:18:13] But despite their modern makeovers, every year for Halloween streets are lined with children dressed as the classic and unmistakable Dracula-like vampire.

[00:18:25] And now you know of the grim history behind these costumes, you may not be able to look at that fake blood the same way again.

[00:18:33] Ultimately, the story of vampires is the story of humans trying to ascribe a spooky, supernatural explanation for something that is completely natural and rational.

[00:18:46] Whether it be decomposition, disease or demonising a neighbour, when people did not fully understand something, vampires offered them an explanation, albeit one that was very gruesome indeed.

[00:19:02] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on vampires, part one of our three-part mini-series with the theme of Halloween.

[00:19:12] In our next episode, we will be delving into the monstrous stories surrounding another Halloween favourite, the werewolf, which much like the blood-sucking protagonists of this episode, also caused some shocking public scares.

[00:19:26] And in our final part, part three, it will be the unfortunate lives of women accused of being witches.

[00:19:34] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:19:37] Have you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

[00:19:40] Why do you think we have this obsession with vampires?

[00:19:43] Are there other vampire-like creatures or myths in your country?

[00:19:48] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:00] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:05] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today it is the start of another three-part mini-series, this time with the theme of “Halloween”.

[00:00:31] In part one, today’s episode, we’ll be diving into the gory history behind one of Halloween’s more modern figures, vampires, and look at how they became the unmistakable blood-sucking creatures we know today.

[00:00:45] Next up, in part two, we will look at werewolves, humans who turn into wolves, and hear strange stories of transformation, trials and terror.

[00:00:56] And in the final part, part 3, we will focus on witches and their equally grim past.

[00:01:03] OK, let’s get started and talk about the spooky world of vampires.

[00:01:10] The year is 1893. Your name is Jonathan Harker, and you are a young English lawyer.

[00:01:19] One of your clients, a man living in Transylvania, has called you to his castle to finalise a property transaction.

[00:01:28] The journey has been very long, cold, and quite frankly, creepy.

[00:01:34] When passers-by learn of your destination, you can sense their terror.

[00:01:39] Their skin turned pale, their eyes widened, and they held up crucifixes while they prayed to God.

[00:01:48] You don’t speak their language, but you think you heard the words ‘devil’, ‘hell’ and ‘vampire’, and you begin to get a sinking feeling in your stomach.

[00:01:59] Your anxiety only increases as you endure your final stretch of the journey in your open horse carriage in the dead of night.

[00:02:08] You can’t see much around you but you are sure you saw your driver’s eyes were a bright red colour, and you can hear the howling of wolves getting closer and closer.

[00:02:21] Cold and tense, you finally see the black silhouette of the giant castle. You might be at your final destination, but you are by no means happy about it.

[00:02:33] When you reach the enormous wooden doors, you are met not by servants, as you expected, but one single old man who introduces himself as Count Dracula and invites you inside.

[00:02:48] He speaks with a strong accent. His face is long and thin.

[00:02:53] When he speaks, his red lips move to reveal sharp fang-like teeth that are in surprisingly good condition for such an old man.

[00:03:03] He has a long pointed nose and chin, a large forehead and bushy arched eyebrows. 

[00:03:10] His hair is dark and thick, not what you expect for a man of his age, and through it you could see his peculiar pointed ears.

[00:03:20] Out from his cape you are shocked to see hairy hands with unusually long nails.

[00:03:27] As he places his hand on your back to guide you through the silent castle, you shiver, unsure if it’s from his unsettling touch or his horrible breath.

[00:03:39] And off you go, taking your first steps through a castle from which you will only just manage to escape alive.

[00:03:49] This is a summary of the beginning of the most famous vampire story of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was written in 1897.

[00:04:01] As the account suggests, Stoker’s novel is full of all the things you’d expect from a vampire story: fangs, sharp teeth, blood sucking and haunted castles, to name but a few.

[00:04:14] These are the fundamentals, the key features, of vampires.

[00:04:20] Vampires are, of course, the undead, people who have died but can come back to life, and who must suck the blood of the living at night in order to survive.

[00:04:32] Stoker’s novel even includes details that have become modern stereotypical characteristics of vampires.

[00:04:38] For example, how they can shape shift [they can change, usually into bats], they can’t be seen in the reflection of mirrors, how garlic can be used to keep them away, and that they can only be killed by stabbing a stake, a wooden post, through their heart.

[00:04:58] With his book, Bram Stoker brought vampires into mainstream popular culture and helped to create those unmistakable Halloween costumes that you may see people dressed up in in late October.

[00:05:13] But although he refined many of their characteristics, Stoker certainly hadn’t invented the concept of vampires.

[00:05:21] So if we are to take for granted that vampires don’t actually exist, where did he get his ideas, where did the inspiration come from?

[00:05:32] Well, legends similar to vampires have existed throughout cultures across the globe for millennia.

[00:05:40] There are the Chinese Jiang Shi, the Australian Yara-ma-yha-who and the Brazilian Jaracas. All of these are creatures that must suck the blood of their victims to survive.

[00:05:54] But it was European folklore which primarily inspired Stoker.

[00:05:59] In Europe, we had Vrykolakas from ancient Greece, a dangerous creature of the undead which feasts in particular on its victims’ livers

[00:06:10] Greek myth also gave us the Strix, a bird, usually an owl, believed to be a bad omen which would feast on human flesh and blood.

[00:06:21] In Slavic folklore, there were the demon creatures, Upiór.

[00:06:26] These creatures could appear if a person was cursed during their life, or if their corpse was desecrated, or abused.

[00:06:34] The Upiór had a detached head, glowing eyes, and they drank human blood which gave them super strength to kill more victims. But they could also kill with their poisonous breath or deafening screams.

[00:06:50] Even closer to Transylvanian Count Dracula was the Romanian mythical creature, the Strigoi.

[00:06:57] These are troubled spirits that have risen from the grave to feast on the blood of victims and gain great strength.

[00:07:05] As you can see, many cultures across the globe have these somewhat similar vampire-like creatures, with slightly different characteristics.

[00:07:15] But they all have one thing in common - they need to drink the blood of the living.

[00:07:22] You might think that this is a perfectly reasonable thing for a monstrous creation to want to do but, according to some scholars, the human invention of blood-sucking mythical monsters all comes down to a misunderstanding around how bodies decompose, or break down, essentially, what happens to the human body after death.

[00:07:44] Okay, this next bit is a little graphic, so if you happen to be eating you might want to press pause on this episode, or put down your sandwich.

[00:07:54] When internal organs break down inside a corpse it creates a dark, pungent liquid, called ‘purge fluid’. This fluid can leave the corpse through the nose and the mouth.

[00:08:09] Historians believe that people thought this fluid was blood and a sign that the corpses had been drinking the blood of the living.

[00:08:18] But why were people digging up corpses, digging up dead bodies?

[00:08:23] Well, again this comes down to a misunderstanding about the way that the human body, and in particular, disease, works.

[00:08:32] Especially in the Medieval era, when there were epidemics, such as the plague, the black death, vampires, or vampire-like monsters, were often blamed for spreading disease.

[00:08:46] When there were a large number of deaths happening in one area, instead of saying “this is a disease, it has spread”, people especially in rural communities feared that there was a new supernatural killer on the loose, a vampire being a commonly blamed culprit - though, as we will see in part two, there were instances of this being blamed on werewolves, as well. 

[00:09:11] The villagers would dig up the dead bodies, they would see the purge fluid, they would think that this was proof that the person had drunk the blood of the living, and had spread disease, and this was all the proof they needed. 

[00:09:26] In some cases, they would even take drastic action to stop these dead people from being able to rise again from their graves.

[00:09:35] In Venice, archeologists have uncovered buried plague victims from the 16th century and among them is one body with a brick in its mouth.

[00:09:47] Historians believe this to be an attempt to prevent the individual from rising from their grave and feasting on the living.

[00:09:56] Of course, superstition and the belief in dark magic was common during the Middle Ages and vampires were just one of the many strange beliefs in Europe at this time, as our next episodes will show.

[00:10:09] But across Europe, stories of vampires continued to grow both in volume and in popularity while beliefs in witches and werewolves were starting to fade.

[00:10:21] During the 18th century increasing accounts of vampire sightings were reported, and the period of 1725 to 1755 has been dubbed “The Great Vampire Epidemic”.

[00:10:35] One of the earliest and most sensational instances was in 1725, when a Serbian peasant called Petar Blagojević was accused of having transformed into a vampire and killed nine of his neighbours.

[00:10:51] On their deathbeds, the villagers had insisted that Petar had risen up and choked them in the night.

[00:10:59] Petar, it should be underlined, was dead himself. The accusations were against a dead man.

[00:11:07] After his death, so the allegations went, Petar had returned to his home and demanded food from his son.

[00:11:15] Terrified, the son refused, which led to Petar murdering him by biting him and then drinking his blood.

[00:11:23] Following these stories, the villagers decided to exhume Petar’s body, to dig it up, to inspect it for signs he had become a vampire, such as long fingernails, growing hair and a lack of decomposition.

[00:11:38] These were all signs that people believed were associated with vampirism, with being a vampire, but they are actually signs of people not understanding the process that a body goes through after death.

[00:11:52] Again, this is a little bit gory, but after someone dies, their skin begins to shrink on their body, which makes their fingernails and hair appear longer.

[00:12:03] So, you may not be surprised to find out, that when they dug up Petar’s body the villagers did, in fact, see these signs and also the delightful display of purge fluid, and they had all the evidence they needed that he was a vampire.

[00:12:19] The village then had no options other than to destroy Petar once and for all before he killed every single inhabitant who remained.

[00:12:29] So, they burnt Petar’s body to ashes, ensuring he could never rise again.

[00:12:36] Petar’s story spread rapidly throughout Europe, translated into German, French and English, and it did much to accelerate the contemporary vampire craze, which was particularly strong in rural areas.

[00:12:50] Hysteria grew to such a point that by the mid-18th century, the Pope was forced to declare that vampires were “fictions of human fantasy”.

[00:13:01] The ruler of the Hapsburg Empire, Maria Theresa, was forced to intervene as well and she would send her personal physician to investigate whenever someone was accused of being a vampire.

[00:13:14] He concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that vampires were absolutely not real and so she too announced that vampires were nothing but “superstition and fraud”, and she outlawed the practice of digging up graves and examining the bodies of the dead.

[00:13:31] Many other European countries followed the Hapsburgs’ stance on vampires and developments in science certainly helped to prove that vampires simply didn’t exist.

[00:13:42] But none of this could put a dent in, could damage, the popularity of vampire stories, and though the belief in real vampires did start to decline the popularity of their stories certainly did not.

[00:13:57] And vampires soon became a source for novelists and storytellers.

[00:14:02] The first vampire novel published in English was John Polidori’s 1819 story, The Vampyre, which was inspired by the scandalous life of the famous English poet Lord Byron, who is imagined as the suave, or charming, vampire, Lord Ruthven.

[00:14:20] As a quick side note - if you would like to learn more about the scandalous life of Lord Byron, check out episode 244 if you haven’t done so already.

[00:14:29] OK, back to vampires, and Polidori's The Vampyre. This book was immensely influential and set a trend of other vampire stories coming to press.

[00:14:41] But none were as popular as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which combined features from all these stories, real and fictional, but with an added sensuality and horror that was clearly a recipe for success in Victorian England and beyond.

[00:14:58] Indeed, Stoker’s novel has never actually been out of print since it was first published in 1897.

[00:15:06] But aside from tales of peasant vampires across Europe, Stoker’s Dracula is believed to be inspired by one more infamous figure from history, Vlad the Impaler, and it is here where some descriptions will get a little graphic again, I’m afraid.

[00:15:22] This brutal ruler of fifteenth century Romania got his nickname from his preferred method of torture, impaling his victims on a wooden or metal pole alive and leaving them there to die, for hours or sometimes even days.

[00:15:39] Truly, a horrific way to go.

[00:15:42] Vlad’s other preferred methods of torture included beheading, skinning or boiling victims alive, and even paying diseased men to infect his enemies.

[00:15:53] There are even stories that Vlad would invite enemy families over for feasts only to stab them all and continue to dine, continue to eat, amongst their dying bodies.

[00:16:05] Some even said that he dipped his bread in their blood, and it is this bloodthirstiness, as well as their shared homeland, that has led to Vlad the Impaler’s identification with the world’s most famous vampire.

[00:16:20] Now, moving to the more present day, with the invention of film, the story of Dracula, and the idea of the vampire would gain an even wider audience.

[00:16:32] In 1931, Stoker’s novel was put on the big screen, with the release of the hugely influential “Dracula” movie.

[00:16:41] It was also around the same time as the Dracula movie that the mass production of Halloween costumes began in the US, which further helped to secure the image of this portrayal of Dracula in the minds of the public.

[00:16:56] And as vampires became better-known figures in Western popular culture, they received more varying treatments in both literature and film.

[00:17:06] In the 1970s, with the boom of science fiction, vampires became a common feature.

[00:17:12] And moving into the 1990s and to the modern day, vampires almost went full circle, becoming human again, or at least with human hopes and dreams, through films and series like Interview with a Vampire, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more recently the Twilight series. 

[00:17:33] Vampires, along with which we will discuss in our next episode, were rebranded for a teen-girl audience and it was an incredibly successful enterprise.

[00:17:45] No longer were vampires like Stoker’s unsettling description, they were young, attractive and had moral dilemmas.

[00:17:54] Indeed, many of the tropes such as garlic, crucifixes and holy water are totally removed from the modern idea of vampires.

[00:18:04] They are almost unrecognisable when compared to the original portrayal of Dracula on the big screen, back in 1933.

[00:18:13] But despite their modern makeovers, every year for Halloween streets are lined with children dressed as the classic and unmistakable Dracula-like vampire.

[00:18:25] And now you know of the grim history behind these costumes, you may not be able to look at that fake blood the same way again.

[00:18:33] Ultimately, the story of vampires is the story of humans trying to ascribe a spooky, supernatural explanation for something that is completely natural and rational.

[00:18:46] Whether it be decomposition, disease or demonising a neighbour, when people did not fully understand something, vampires offered them an explanation, albeit one that was very gruesome indeed.

[00:19:02] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on vampires, part one of our three-part mini-series with the theme of Halloween.

[00:19:12] In our next episode, we will be delving into the monstrous stories surrounding another Halloween favourite, the werewolf, which much like the blood-sucking protagonists of this episode, also caused some shocking public scares.

[00:19:26] And in our final part, part three, it will be the unfortunate lives of women accused of being witches.

[00:19:34] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:19:37] Have you read Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

[00:19:40] Why do you think we have this obsession with vampires?

[00:19:43] Are there other vampire-like creatures or myths in your country?

[00:19:48] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:19:52] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:20:00] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:20:05] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]