Vampires and Witches: A Short History

When I was young, about five or six, I was quite superstitious and paranoid. I was so superstitious, in fact, that when I washed my face before going to bed, and I pulled the plug out of the sink, I ran all the way to my bedroom, for fear that if I didn’t get there before the plughole gurgled, something bad would happen. Surprised I had any toes left after all the corridor corners I had to negotiate on the way.

And I was very paranoid. I had so many nightmares about Martians invading after I would listen to Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, or watch the 1950’s film. It didn’t matter how scared I got each time, I would still put myself through the ordeal of listening to the album or watching the film time and time again. Anyway, I was so paranoid, that at one point in my young life I thought that everyone was spying on me – my family were all in on it. All conspiring against me, wearing masks. I think Road Dahl’s The Witches had something to do with that – that, and being the youngest child in a large family who often didn’t understand the things that everyone else understood. I finally plucked up the courage after what seemed like months back then but was probably just a couple of weeks, and I asked my sister.

I said:

“Are you all witches wearing masks and spying on me?”

She started laughing, and I was so relieved.

Two nights ago, I went to see Derren Brown’s show Svengali which was a mayzing. It baffled me so much that I woke up with what I call a “cryptic crossword headache”. In other words, it made me think too hard. And the show itself covered the theme of possession. The word “svengali” refers to someone who can control another with evil intent. That’s about all I can say, though you can probably guess he did his usual freaky stuff.

Today, we see the Middle Ages as being renowned for the age of superstition. Regarding witches, you could pretty much accuse anyone (women mainly) of being a witch or dancing with the devil if they had a wart on their face or a birthmark or seemed possessed. The idea of witches and possession by demons came about through the superstitious elements of religion – Christianity in Britain – with its superstitious roots evident in the Bible and its references to possessed beings – see here for many occasions when Jesus cast out demons. Paganism became synonymous with devil worship in the eye of the church at some point. Of course, some people did practise devil worship and witchcraft and still do. But the medieval times are famous for their women-ducking, stake-burning, back-stabbing masses of witch hunters, such as those led by Vincent Price as epitomised in the film Witchfinder General…okay so it wasn’t actually Vincent Price, but Matthew Hopkins played by Vincent Price.

Sometimes, I wish Vincent Price could read me to sleep with a bedtime story every night.

Right now, I have the DVD menu on the TV screen for The Woman in Black with the freaky music playing in the background over and over, really getting me into this post.

Now, let’s get back to Matthew Hopkins.

He was an immoral lawyer in the 17th century, nicknamed “The Witch-Finder General”, and in just 14 months, around 1645/1646, he was responsible for the deaths of 230 so-called witches. He used to torture people – at that time illegal in Britain – to rouse confessions from his victims, along with his little sidekick John Stearne, a sadistic chap who enjoyed a good old torturous prick and poke, and later a couple of other folk who joined the witch hunting team. Confessions amounted to admitting you were a witch and that you kept and “suckled” imps usually in the forms of animals. And maybe you’d throw in a couple of names of other witches while you were at it. Such as Elizabeth Clarke, Hopkins’ first victim, whose mother was found guilty of witchcraft before her, and who eventually admitted to being a  witch with imps and familiars in the form of her pets. She had been kept without food and sleep for three days though, and ridiculed with strip searches. As seen below:


Women bore the brunt of these searches, having always been seen as either ugly, old hags or seductive, evil temptresses of men as a result of religious, spiritual and, let’s face it, sexist beliefs throughout the Middle Ages. And still today.

Kristen Stewart. She’s one, isn’t she? Cheating on R Patts. Seducing older men. Never the other way round, I’m sure.

Maybe not – never mind, just needed a way to move onto vampires.

Vampires became strongly apparent again in Medieval times. They were everywhere – couldn’t get rid of them. They used to nick milk and orange juice off doorsteps after a late night out, the pests.

Vampires came about through the idea of the “undead” during this superstitious age. The term “vampire” developed around the beginning of the 18th century, but the idea of a vampire has been around for many many centuries, and there is evidence found in other parts of the world to suggest it is prehistoric. The vampire came to the Western world from Eastern Europe, and the term “vampire” has derived from a number of European languages.

The evidence for vampires? Inexplicable deaths caused townsfolk to exhume the bodies of those they believed may not have passed onto the spirit world – usually those who were troublemakers in their living lives.

Signs of a vampire? A bloated body having just fed on a victim, with trails of blood from the mouth or nose.

Way of dealing with a vampire? A stake through the heart in some countries, decapitation in others. Also, a brick in the mouth.

Why a brick in the mouth? I hear you say. Because if they exhumed bodies, they often found a hole in the shroud that covered the corpse’s head in the mouth area, causing the teeth to be bared. They weren’t aware that it was the bacteria in the mouth that created the hole, but rather strangely thought it was something vampires fed on to build their strength up, along with feasting on the blood of fellow corpses in the graveyard before moving onto living human blood. Nor did they understand epidemics, and that it was probably illnesses, not vampires, that struck down many people at a time. So, they drove stakes through their hearts, often pinning them inside their coffins, put rocks in their mouths to jar their jaws, or buried troublemakers in the living world upside down, as they were the ones most likely to become vampires, so that when they tried to dig themselves out of their coffins, they actually dug straight to hell.

Of course, today we understand the processes of decomposition much more than in the good ol’ Middle Ages. Bodies become bloated, not through “feeding”, but through the build up of gases inside, which would inevitably create enough pressure to push blood out of the mouth or nose. Those from the Middle Ages were also unaware of the factors contributing towards decomposition such as cool air temperatures which allowed bodies to rot at a much slower rate, thereby giving the appearance that the body was not really decomposing at all.

The thing I find strange about the belief in vampires, is not all the strange practices and paraphernalia they used to rid themselves of these bloodsucking creatures, but the global spread of this belief. Not only were vampires thought to have existed by people living across Europe, but also in other continents all around the world. Though not necessarily known by the term “vampire”, the folklore of other cultures show belief in these evil beings: ramanga in Madagascar – the outlaw who feasts on the blood and toenail clippings of nobles; and my particular favourite, the manananggal of the Phillippines, who flies at night to prey on pregnant women as they sleep, by eating their foetuses using their long tongues, and also feeding on the entrails and phlegm of sick people. Makes me hungry actually – I imagine the sensation of sucking on phlegm to be like sucking out the last bit of ice cream from the bottom of a Cornetto.

My point is, vampires were a widely spread belief for centuries, even millennia. How did the belief disappear (disregarding those who still belief in vampires and werewolves, of course – I’m referring to the general public)? Well, this wasn’t easy to find out on the net, particularly because so many people’s responses to this question is that they do still believe in some form or another of vampires (I don’t – really there is no more space in my paranoid mind to start getting scared of vampires. I already have masked witches in my family to contend with). But I guess the obvious reason must be the advances in medical science, and the freedom to question the church’s teachings, without being condemned as a blasphemer.

And now to finish with one of my favourite witchy moments:


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