The Vampire Myth in Our Culture

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The vampire embodies both man's desire for eternal life and fear of the unnatural. The vampire is an interesting creature. Vampirism itself is a form of a curse usually passed on through the bite of a vampire though some versions believe that one must drink the cursed blood of a vampire to become a vampire oneself. This method of 'reproduction' in sense has naturally connected the vampire with diseases and plagues, However, this was not the only method a vampire could be created. Incorrect burial rituals or the presence of particular animals around graves could also result in the birth of one of these fictional monsters. The methods of identifying and destroying vampires also vary depending on the culture. Usually, the weakness to sunlight and lack of a reflection can easily reveal one of these creatures however distastes to garlic, a natural sense within virgins, and reactions of white-coated animals can reveal a vampire in disguise. As for the killing of a vampire the most popular method is the driving of a stake through the heart. However, sunlight, silver, religious rituals, and fire are frequently used for their disposal. Versions of the vampire myth are almost as numerous as there are differences in human culture. From the Indian Vitalis to the Chinese Yanke, vampires can be found all over the world.

The vampire has changed significantly over the ages. During the 19th century it was simply a walking corpse hungry for the blood of the living, barely aware yet somehow cunning and elusive. It is impossible to catch outside of the coffin where it rested during the day as it is vulnerable to sunlight. Like most humanoid mythical creatures, the vampire was also given the ability to shapeshift, usually changing itself to that of a large wolf and later as the myth evolved a bat. Further, into the development of the myth during the 19th century, the vampire turns into a suave embodying confidence, charm, and elegance. They were mysterious individuals who gained immense wealth over their immortal lifetime. However, during this time the vampire is still a sinister figure as it is connected to Satanism and other feared religious artifacts.

In modern times, the vampire has lost many of its negative connotations and has seen a rebirth of its suave and mysterious characteristics as well as other desirable traits. For example its eternal conflict with its own nature leading the vampire to become a somewhat tragic figure. The abilities of the vampire have surprisingly not changed very much at all. While the weakness to sunlight has taken many forms, the need for human blood, eternal life, immense strength, and increased senses have remained more or less intact throughout the ages. Only the shapeshifting abilities of the vampire have been given less and less attention as the myth has progressed and through ancient vampires are no longer entirely recognizable in the modern myth. Few myths are as dominant to popular culture as the vampire. There is a wide variety of vampire products, literature, and films for people to enjoy and despite the negative connotations this myth originally had people cannot help but be attracted to this creature. The vampire has grown from a symbol of death and disease into something almost universally desirable. Keeping that in mind many wonder how an undead blood-drinking corpse is able to become something so attractive and fashionable.

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Often recognized as a turning point in the vampire legend, Bram Stoker's Dracula tells the story of a series of characters as they deal with arguably the most well-known vampire, Count Dracula. Dracula himself in the novel is depicted differently from previous vampires. For all intents and purposes he holds all traits expected from a vampire. In the novel, Dracula's mind control is one of the more significant change within the vampire myth as he is able to seduce Mina and Lucy using his supernatural abilities. This factor has connected the vampire myth to lust and seduction ever since the publication of the novel and though Bram Stoker's novel was not the first to portray the vampire in this fashion it was without a doubt the most famous. Later, works of vampire fiction, such as the works of Anne Rice, further reinforces the romantic characteristics of the vampire myth and builds on the lore of the vampire by telling stories from their perspective. This romantic side is not the only aspect to have developed as the thrill of the vampire hunt, a common practice in medieval times was also expanded resulting in numerous action films and other media being created to take advantage of this aspect of the vampire myth. Most of that media also had the additional effect of making actually being a vampire desirable. An important aspect of the vampire myth is our own temptation to give in to our darker desires.

The vampire myth is particularly difficult to give one specific origin to because as mentioned the myth is almost universal in its occurrence with many cultures developing vampire myths independent of each other. The best-recorded vampire myths originate from Europe, however other continents and cultures have interesting variations. In Africa, the Impundulu is a large bird-like creature that controls the weather and in Japan, the Nukekubi is a creature with a detachable, blood-sucking head. All of these examples beg the question of how is it possible that a diverse set of cultures create a singular myth with so many similarities and the answer can be found within the concept of the myth itself, in this case, it is blood drinking. Blood is seen as sacred for many cultures across human existence and the consumption of blood is frequently associated with demons and evil spirits. Once the fear takes the form of a creature it usually inherits other fearful aspects as well such as being active during the night and being able to fly out of the reach of ordinary people with unmatched speed. In fact, the human psyche is primed to create such a myth. The European myth from which modern vampires are derived finds its origins around the 17th and 18th centuries where vampires were often used to explain the various outbreaks of disease experienced throughout Europe and were disposed of to prevent plagues from spreading further.

Due to the lack of knowledge in Europe surrounding disease, people turned to more superstitious explanations for their reasoning. This aspect of the myth became more popular when exhumed corpses were found to have grown hair, nails, and even appearing lifelike as well as bloated with blood trickling down their lips. The only explanation that seemed logical was that these supposed corpses had obviously gotten up and consumed the blood of the living during the night. In modern times we recognize this pattern of decay is normal for those killed by tuberculosis. However, the effect that this experience has had on the Western psyche was intense. Interestingly, creatures are not the only things that may sport vampire attributes. Everyday objects can become possessed by spirits as well. These possessed objects cause incidents to occur in their presence. For example, a bread knife that somehow always cuts its users or a mug with a strangely sharp chip may very well be vampire related in nature with such variety. It is plain to see that a vampire is not so much an individual creature, but more the fear of blood drinking being associated with everyday creatures and objects. With the revival of the vampire myth in Bram Stoker’s romanticized novel, this plague creature eventually evolved through movies into the mysterious monster more commonly known today.

Exploring the possibility of vampires existing is a frequent pastime of many subcultures in many forms, from gaming to literature a surprising amount of media and research has been dedicated to clarifying this myth. Where the vampire was used in place of an understanding of disease theory, one's knowledge of disease can explain how vampires might be created. Since the vampire is supposedly capable of transmitting its condition through its bite or consumption of its blood, we are naturally lead to believe that vampirism would take the form of some kind of disease. The retrovirus is capable of rewriting the DNA of infected cells and it is frequently called upon to explain how changes might come about in humans and other living things in many works of fiction. The retrovirus uses a process known as reverse transcriptase to insert itself into the nucleus of an infected cell. This process is volatile and prone to error as the inserted genes are not exposed to the usual checking by a polymerase to ensure adequate gene encoding thus mutations in the retrovirus are bound making sporadic and absurd evolutions such as the subsistence by blood, not completely unbelievable.

The retrovirus in medicine to treat genetic abnormalities and certain cancers, but due to the alteration of genetic information, many people receiving treatment can have future complications such as further tumor development or a violent autoimmune response as their own immune system fails to recognize their altered cells. The vampire retrovirus should be more easily transmitted by sexual and blood contact while reinforcing the sexualized aspect of the modern vampire myth. Even though the infectious period of vampirism may be explained, other aspects may not. In general, blood is not a very nourishing food source consisting mostly of plasma, up to six liters of blood must be drunk each day to sustain a human-sized creature without any additional speed or strength. Additionally, the six liters have very little nutritional value which means that massive amounts would need to be consumed every day for a vampire to get sufficient amounts of mineral nutrition. This means that a real vampire would have to feed off entire towns to sustain itself. It is for this very reason that creatures that consume blood as a primary food source are significantly smaller than their prey. Ticks, mosquitoes, and leeches take it a step further by turning their bodies into sacks to contain volumes of blood larger than their actual body just to have enough to survive.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to explain vampirism without requiring the vampire to consume other foods in addition to blood. Perhaps the issue can be resolved by making the vampire exclusively carnivorous, feasting only on the flesh of humans, not just our blood. A weakness to sunlight is a disorder known as porphyria that affects few people. The disease leaves its victim highly sensitive to ultraviolet light. Victims will usually have unnaturally pale skin caused by their proneness to radiation burns. More severe cases of porphyria can result in discoloration the teeth and eyes as well as the progressive disappearance of the lips, ears, and nose resulting in a vampiric appearance. Lastly, the immortality of the vampire is an interesting aspect to attempt to make real. The problem with that aspect though is that no one body of research can agree on what causes aging. Some theories say that decay of telomeres at the end of genes causing aging while others link aging to the accumulation of metabolic and genetic insults within the cells and some believe that gradual buildup of irremovable toxins might cause it. Engineering a way in which something might become ageless is very difficult as it is not truly known what exactly causes aging. Despite that disappointing conclusion to the limits of the vampire myth, one thing that will truly remain immortal is our fixation and fascination with the alluring creature.

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