Vampires and the Living Dead

David Pratt

September 2009



Folklore and mythology
Vampire stories
Science and superstition
An occult perspective
Blood-sucking animals and monsters
Psychotic vampires
Vampire subculture

Folklore and mythology

Vampires are traditionally regarded as reanimated corpses – the ‘undead’ or ‘living dead’ – that leave their graves at night to suck the blood of the living. Tales of both living and undead humans and other demonic creatures consuming the blood or flesh, or the life-energy, of the living can be found in virtually every culture around the world. Some phantom beings attack, torment and sometimes kill their victims in other ways.

In Mesopotamian mythology, Lamashtu, daughter of the sky god Anu, was a female demon or malevolent goddess who caused pregnant women to miscarry, kidnapped and slew children, drank the blood of men and ate their flesh, and generally brought disease, sickness and death. Babylonian mythology mentions female vampire-like demons called the lilu, who roamed during the hours of darkness, hunting and killing newborn babies and pregnant women. One of these demons, named Lilitu, was later adapted into Jewish demonology as Lilith. In Talmudic writings Lilith is often depicted as a winged demoness with sharp talons, who comes in the night, primarily to steal infants and fetuses. In Sumer, the ekimmu were demonic, phantom-like beings that roamed the earth, unable to rest. They could possess and suck the life out of sleeping children or adults, and were created when someone died a violent death or proper funeral rites were not observed.

In India, the rakshasas are, among other things, shape-shifting demons or evil spirits, who had often been particularly wicked humans in previous incarnations. They usually appear as humans with animal features (e.g. claws and fangs) or as animals with human features (especially tigers). They haunt cemeteries, animate dead bodies, and devour the flesh and blood of their victims. The vetalas are ghoul-like beings that haunt cemeteries and take possession of dead bodies. Pishachas are shape-shifting, flesh-eating demons, sometimes said to be the returned spirits of evil-doers. They are regarded as the vilest and most malevolent order of beings. They sometimes possess humans, inflicting various maladies, including insanity. Bhutas are described as malignant spirits that haunt cemeteries, lurk in trees, animate dead bodies, and delude and devour humans. Pretas, too, are said to be ghosts or evil spirits that animate corpses and haunt cemeteries and other places. The dakini are female demons that drink blood and feed on human flesh; they are the attendants of the blood-drinking goddess Kali.

Imaginative depiction of a pishacha. (

In Chinese mythology, chiang-shih (or jiangshi) are reanimated corpses that kill living creatures to absorb their life essence (qi or chi). They are said to steal the ‘breath’ of their victims; the idea that they suck blood seems to reflect the influence of western vampire stories. They hop around because of the pain and stiffness of being dead. Some look like normal humans while others have serrated teeth, long talons, and a green phosphorescent glow. They rip the head or limbs off their victims, and also attack and rape women. They are said to be created when a person’s lower soul (p’ai or p’o) fails to leave the deceased’s body, usually due to a particularly violent death or an improper burial. After a while they gain the ability to fly and possibly change into wolves.

The Tibetans, too, believed that the souls of the dead could animate corpses and cause them to rise and attack the living. The khado or khadomas are female demons, equivalent to the dakini of India. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes 58 blood-drinking deities.

In the Philippines, the mandurugo takes the form of an attractive girl by day, but develops wings and a long, hollow, thread-like tongue by night, which it uses to suck up blood from sleeping victims. The manananggal is an older, beautiful woman capable of severing her upper torso in order to fly into the night with huge bat-like wings. They use an elongated proboscis-like tongue to suck foetuses from pregnant women. They also like to eat entrails (specifically the heart and liver) and the phlegm of sick people.

The penanggalan of Malaysia is similar to the manananggal, but detaches only her head, to which her lungs, stomach and intestines are still attached, and is commonly depicted as having fangs. They prefer to feed on the blood of a newborn infant or a woman who recently gave birth, and to eat placentas. The Malaysians also believed that a woman becomes a vampire called a langsuir if she gives birth to a stillborn baby. It appears as a woman with long nails and flying black hair, and may shape-shift into a night owl with red eyes, sharp claws and long fangs. It uses a feeding hole in the back of its neck to slowly suck the blood of infants until they die. The langsuir was believed to become human again if its nails and hair were cut and put into the hole in its neck.

A penanggalan. (

The Australian aborigines believed in the yara-ma-yha-who, a short, furry creature that lived mainly in fig trees and attacked its victims by jumping down and draining their blood with its suction-cup-like fingers and toes. The aborigines performed rituals and kept a fire burning overnight when someone died to prevent evil spirits from entering the body and causing it to rise and harm the living.

Various regions of Africa have folkloric tales of vampiric beings. For instance, the Ewe people of West Africa speak of the adze, a male or female witch that can take the form of a firefly; it hunts children, sucks their blood, and possesses people. Among the Ashanti people of West Africa, the asasabonsam is a tree-dwelling vampire that catches its victims with its hooked feet and uses its iron teeth to bite them on the thumb, while the obayifo is a living witch who can leave his or her body at night and feed off the blood of sleeping victims.

In Mexico, the tlahuelpuchi is a person, usually female, who can shape-shift into animal forms and devour the blood of its victims, commonly infants. The soucouyant of the Caribbean is an old woman who sheds her skin at night and flies through the darkness in the shape of a fireball, looking for a victim to suck the life-blood out of. If too much blood is taken, her victims may die and become soucouyants themselves. The asema of Suriname in South America is likewise a human female during the day, but leaves her skin at night and takes the form of a blue ball of light or a bat or other animal, and feeds off people’s vital energy or blood.

In ancient Greek mythology Empusa, the daughter of the goddess Hecate, was described as a demoness with the head and torso of a woman and the lower body of a snake. She transformed into a young woman and seduced men as they slept before drinking their blood. According to another myth, Hera killed all the offspring of Lamia, Queen of Libya, after discovering that she was a secret lover of her husband, Zeus; Lamia swore vengeance and preyed on young children in their beds at night, sucking their blood. Over time ‘empusa’ and ‘lamia’ became general terms to describe shape-shifting witches and vampires that devour the flesh and blood of their victims.

In Roman mythology, the larvae or lemures are the restless souls of the wicked and those who have died a violent death, who return to frighten and torment the living. The striges (singular: strix) are usually described as witches who transform into screech owls at night and prey on infants and young men by drinking their blood and sometimes eating their internal organs.

In the early 18th century, vampire hysteria swept across Eastern Europe and continued for a generation. The panic began with an outbreak of alleged vampire attacks in East Prussia in 1721 and under the Hapsburg monarchy from 1725 to 1734, which spread to other localities. Vampires were said to be attacking their living relatives; the corpses of the suspected vampires were then often dug up and had a stake driven through them or were cremated. Government officials were often involved in these activities. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria eventually sent her personal physician to investigate the vampire claims. He concluded that vampires did not exist and the Empress passed laws prohibiting the opening of graves and desecration of bodies. This marked the end of the vampire epidemics.

In Poland and Russia vampires are often called upior and upyr respectively. Unlike most other vampires, they tend to carry out their attacks from noon to midnight. Many Russian vampires were not considered to be undead or to drink blood. Vampires in Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania (now Romania) were commonly called moroi or strigoi (from the Roman ‘strix’). Some strigoi were living witches who could leave their bodies and attack others. Others were corpses animated by troubled souls, who left their graves at night, took the form of an animal or phantom apparition, and sucked the blood of family, neighbours and livestock; they were also blamed for deaths during epidemics. Romanian vampires were said to bite their victims over the heart or between the eyes. The Romanians also had a belief in the nosferatu, a blood-drinking vampire that could have sexual relations with the living. In other parts of Eastern Europe, strigoi-type creatures were known as ‘vampir’ or ‘vampyr’, probably a variation on the Russian upyr. Western European countries eventually picked up on this name, and ‘vampyr’ (later ‘vampire’) entered the English language.  

Among the Romani people, the mulo are the spirits of the dead who leave their corpses in the grave at night. They usually prey on sheep and cattle. In the Balkan countries, the adult male mulo would typically resume his relationship with his wife or seek out another woman. He might assume the form of the dead person and help with household tasks, or he might be invisible and rape the woman in question, eventually causing her death.

Some Greeks still believe in restless ghosts of the dead known as vrykolakes (singular: vrykolakas), which are sometimes likened to vampires. Vrykolakes are usually thought to be indistinguishable from living people, and tend to attack people they knew while alive. Sometimes they crush or suffocate their sleeping victims by sitting on them. They are also said to knock on the doors of houses and call out the name of the residents. If someone answers the door at the first call, they will die a few days later and become a vrykolakas.

In Europe and elsewhere, common reasons for suspecting that a person might become a vampire after death included the following: the person had committed suicide, died a violent death, died unbaptized or in a state of unrepentant sin, had been excommunicated by the Church, had died suddenly or soon after another relative, or had been bitten by a vampire. Sometimes a person born with a caul (a bit of foetal membrane tissue attached to the head), teeth, a tail, or an extra nipple was considered at risk of becoming a vampire, as was a person whose corpse or empty grave had been jumped over by an animal or flown over by a bird. In southern Russia, even people who talked to themselves were believed to be at risk of becoming vampires. In Romania this applied to a person with red hair and blue eyes. Among the Romani people, anyone who had an ugly appearance, was missing a finger, or had appendages similar to those of an animal was believed to be a vampire. In Greek folklore, vampirism could also occur through desecrating a religious day, committing a great crime, dying alone, and eating meat from a sheep killed by a werewolf.

If it was feared that a person might become a vampire after death, precautions were sometimes taken. These included stuffing the mouth and nose of the corpse with garlic before burial; turning the corpse face-down so that it could not dig its way out; burying sharp objects, such as sickles, with the corpse, or putting sharpened stakes into the ground so that they would pierce the corpse if it tried to escape from the grave. The Greeks would sometimes pierce the hearts of potential vampires with iron nails while the corpses lay in their graves. Among the Wallachians, a long nail was driven through the skull of the corpse and the thorny stem of a wild rose bush was laid on the body so that its shroud would become entangled with it if it attempted to rise. In England, an ash stake was commonly driven through the breasts of suicides until 1823, when a law was passed forbidding the practice.

Depending on the culture, vampires could be warded off with such things as garlic, a branch of wild rose, a crucifix, holy water, or other sacred objects. Some cultures used a vampire’s blood as a means of protection. In East European folklore, seeds could be scattered on top of the vampire’s grave or on the ground outside a house, as vampires felt a compulsion to count all the seeds. A nail hidden in the seeds would prick the vampire during the count, so that it would drop the seeds and have to start all over again. Chinese myths state that if a vampire comes across a sack of rice, it will have to count all of the grains.

Signs that someone had actually become a vampire included the following: after a person dies, their relatives, neighbours and livestock begin to die; a dark figure visits their former home at night; things go missing from their former house; two or three holes about the size of a finger are found in the grave; or a white horse, black stallion or female goose refuses to walk over their grave. The next step was to exhume the corpse of the person concerned. It was considered to be a vampire if it appeared bloated and well nourished with bright red blood, if it looked like it was in a cataleptic sleep, if it was in a different position than when buried, if it had new skin or longer hair and nails, if it had limp limbs, and if it showed little or no decomposition.

One of the most common methods of destroying suspected vampires was to drive a wooden stake (variously ash, hawthorn or oak) through their heart or sometimes through the mouth or stomach. If that failed to stop the attacks, cremating the body and scattering the ashes usually had the desired effect. Sometimes the corpse’s head would be cut off and buried between its feet, behind its buttocks, or in some other place where it was out of reach of the body; garlic might be stuffed into the head. Other methods included sprinkling holy water on the body; cutting out and burning the heart; shooting the vampire with a silver bullet; exposing it to the sun; cutting the body open and washing it with boiling wine; and having a priest lift an excommunication or perform an exorcism. In 18th- and 19th-century Greece, the deceased were often exhumed three years after death, and wine was poured over them while a priest read from the scriptures. However, if the body had not sufficiently decayed, the corpse would be labelled a vrykolakas and dealt with appropriately.

The vampires of European folklore were often described as bloated and ruddy in appearance, and clad in their burial shrouds. By contrast, the vampires of modern fiction tend to be gaunt and pale, and often charming and aristocratic. This image was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula had an even greater impact in shaping the modern image of the vampire.

Christopher Lee as Dracula.

Nosferatu (Max Schreck), alias Count Orlok, about to take a bite.

Belief in vampires continues to this day. In late 2002 and early 2003, hysteria about alleged vampire attacks swept through the African country of Malawi. Mobs stoned one individual to death and attacked at least four others, including Governor Eric Chiwaya, in the belief that the government was colluding with vampires. The rumours began when the country’s president agreed to collect human blood for international aid agencies in exchange for food to mitigate the severe hunger crisis.  

In 2002, Nicolae Mihut, living in Transylvania, concluded that his dead mother had become a vampire because a cat had jumped over her coffin and her cheeks and lips were very red. To release her soul, he plunged a silver dagger into her heart, after which she was buried. In February 2004 in the Romanian village of Martotinu de Sus, several relatives of Toma Petre dug up his body because after his burial three of his relatives had grown ill. When the coffin was opened, Petre was found on his side, with blood on his mouth. This was seen as proof that he had become a vampire. The relatives removed his heart, burned it, mixed the ashes with water, and then drank the mixture. This is a traditional local ritual for slaying suspected vampires (

Vampire stories

Several ‘vampire’ stories are given below, some of which do not involve blood-sucking. It is impossible to know for certain how much of these stories may be fact and how much may be fiction.

A shoemaker living in the Silesian town of Breslau cut his own throat in 1591. After his death several people reported seeing his ghost at their bedside, so the authorities decided to disinter the seven-month-old corpse. It was found to be entire and not at all putrid, with supple joints and no foul smell; the wound in the throat had not festered. On the big toe of the right foot there was said to be a magical mark – an excrescence in the shape of a rose. The body was kept above ground for six days and the apparitions continued to appear. It was then buried beneath the gallows but the apparition still pinched and suffocated people at night, leaving finger marks on their flesh. A fortnight later the corpse was dug up again and observed to have increased in size. Its head, arms and legs were cut off, and its fresh-looking heart was removed. The body was then burnt and the ashes thrown into the river. The apparition was never seen again. One of the dead man’s servants was said to have acted in a similar way after her death. Her remains were dug up and burned, after which she ceased to trouble the inhabitants. (Wright, 2001, 91-2;

In 1672 in the town of Kringa in present-day Croatia, a man called Jure Grando died and was buried by Father George, but when the monk returned to the widow’s house he saw Grando sitting inside. The monk and neighbours fled. Soon stories began to circulate of a dark figure being seen on the streets at night, stopping now and then to tap at the door of a house but never waiting for an answer. People then began to die mysteriously in the houses at which the spectre had tapped its signal. Grando’s widow complained that her husband’s spirit visited her night after night and threw her into a deep sleep in order to suck her blood. Led by the chief magistrate, a group of neighbours opened the man’s grave and found the body to be perfectly sound and undecomposed; the mouth was smiling pleasantly and the cheeks had a rosy flush. Most of the group fled in terror. A second visit was made with a priest. When he addressed the corpse, tears were allegedly seen rolling down the vampire’s cheeks. Attempts were made to drive a hawthorn stake through the body but each time it rebounded. When someone sprang into the grave and cut off the vampire’s head, the evil spirit departed with a loud shriek and contortion of the limbs. (Wright, 87-9;

The Council of Kringa has put up a sign along the entrance roads
to the village referring to the legendary vampire Jure Grando.

After his death in 1725, Peter Plogojowitz, a peasant who had lived in the Serbian village of Kisilova (now part of Hungary), appeared at night to several villagers and squeezed their throats. Nine people, both young and old, who had suffered this treatment died within 24 hours, apparently of some disease. The man’s widow said he had visited her to demand his shoes, and she was so frightened that she moved to another village. In the presence of the imperial officer of Gradiska and a priest, the corpse was dug up and found to be free from any offensive smell and perfectly sound as if alive except that the tip of the nose was a little dry and withered. The beard and hair had grown and a new set of nails had replaced the old ones that had fallen off. Under the former skin, which looked pale and dead, there was a new one, of a natural fresh colour. The hands and feet were as entire as if they belonged to a person in perfect health. The mouth of the vampire was full of fresh blood, which he was assumed to have sucked from the people he had killed. The official report also speaks of ‘other wild signs which I pass by out of high respect’ – no doubt a reference to the corpse’s bloated penis. When a sharp stake was driven into his breast, a large quantity of fresh, ruddy blood issued from the wound and from his nose and mouth. The peasants then placed the body on a pile of wood and burnt it to ashes, after which the village ceased to be troubled. (Wright, 83-5; Konstantinos, 2002, 43-5;

A Serbian soldier, Arnold Paole, claimed to have been attacked by a vampire while he was in Gossowa (in Turkish Serbia). To rid himself of the vampire, he ate some of the earth from its grave and smeared himself with its blood, in accordance with local belief. Paole returned to his native village of Meduegna near Belgrade in 1727. A week after confessing to his fiancée that he had once been attacked by a vampire, he fell from a hay cart and died shortly afterwards. It was not long before several villagers reported that he was assaulting them at night and four victims died. After he had been dead 40 days, it was decided to publicly dig up his body. It was found to be undecayed, the skin and nails had fallen away and been replaced by new ones, and streams of fresh blood were flowing from his orifices. Villagers drove a wooden stake through the body, which reportedly groaned while blood erupted from it. They then burned the body. Paole never bothered anyone again. His four victims were also dug up. As they were found to be in the ‘vampire condition’, they were disposed of in the same way. Several years later, during another epidemic, 16 alleged vampires were dug up in the same graveyard; they, too, were said to be undecomposed, with new skin and nails, and fresh blood. (Wright, 95-102; Konstantinos, 39-40)

In 1738, three days after his death, a 62-year-old man in the Serbian village of Kisilova appeared in the night to his son and asked for something to eat. After he had eaten he disappeared. Two nights later he again appeared and asked for something to eat. The next day his son was found dead in his bed. On the same day five or six villagers suddenly fell ill and died one after the other within a few days. Two officers and an executioner were sent to investigate. They opened the graves of those who had been dead six weeks and found the old man ‘with the eyes open, having a fine colour, with natural respiration, nevertheless motionless as the dead’ and concluded that he was a vampire. The executioner drove a stake into his heart and his corpse was then reduced to ashes. No marks of vampirism were found on the corpses of the son or the other victims. (Wright, 123-5)

At Croglin Grange, a one-storey house in what is now Cumbria, England, in the summer of 1875 a young lady, Amelia Cranswell, was sitting in bed looking out of her bedroom window one night when she noticed two strange lights darting between the trees. She then realized that they were the eyes of a dark, humanoid creature. It began to approach her house. When it disappeared from view she ran to her bedroom door, but then she heard it scratching at her window. It had a hideous brown face with flaming eyes. It broke through the window and stood over her. Grabbing her by the hair, it pulled her head back and bit into her throat. Her screams alerted her two brothers, Edward and Michael, who broke down the door to reach her. They found her unconscious with blood pouring from wounds in her throat and shoulders. One brother pursued the creature into the woods but it disappeared over the wall of the churchyard. To recover, the woman went to Switzerland for a few months. On her return, the creature again tried to enter her bedroom through the window but was chased away by the brothers and shot in the leg. The attacker still made it over the churchyard fence and vanished into an old vault. The next morning the brothers and several other tenants opened the vault and found that all the coffins inside had been opened and their contents ripped out. One coffin was untouched and inside they found the vampire. It was shrivelled, brown and mummified in appearance. On its leg was the mark of a pistol shot. The vampire was taken out and burned. (Konstantinos, 48-52; Keel, 1979, 29;

According to an 18th-century report, the spectre of a village herdsman began appearing to several inhabitants near Kodom in Bavaria, and all of them died during the following week, either from fright or some other cause. Driven to despair, the peasants dug up the corpse, and pinned it to the ground with a long stake. The same night he appeared again, plunging people into convulsions of fright, and suffocating several of them. The village authorities then handed the body over to the executioner, who burned it in a field. The corpse is said to have ‘howled like a madman, kicking and tearing as if he had been alive’. When staked, ‘he uttered piercing cries, and vomited masses of crimson blood’. The apparitions ceased only after the corpse had been reduced to ashes. (Isis 1:451-2)

H.P. Blavatsky records the following case of vampirism in Russia (Isis 1:454-5). In the early 19th century, the cruel and tyrannical governor of the province of Tchernigov, about 60 years old, fell in love with the daughter of a subordinate official. He forced her father to allow him to marry her, even though she was betrothed to a young man whom she loved. The old man beat her, confined her to her room for weeks on end, and prevented her from seeing anyone except in his presence. He finally fell sick and as his end approached, he made her swear never to remarry, threatening that if she did, he would return from his grave and kill her. He was buried in the cemetery across the river.

Later, the young widow and her former lover were again betrothed. On the night of the betrothal feast, after everyone had gone to bed, her deceased husband suddenly entered her room, looking extremely pallid, rebuked her for her inconstancy, and beat and pinched her, leaving black and blue marks on her body. He also left her bleeding from a slight puncture on her neck. The next morning, the guard stationed at the bridge spanning the river reported that, just before midnight, a black coach and six horses had sped past toward the town, without answering his challenge.

Although the new governor disbelieved the story, he doubled the guards across the bridge.

The same thing happened, however, night after night; the soldiers declaring that the toll-bar at their station near the bridge would rise of itself, and the spectral equipage sweep by them despite their efforts to stop it. At the same time every night, the coach would rumble into the courtyard of the house; the watchers, including the widow’s family, and the servants, would be thrown into a heavy sleep; and every morning the young victim would be found bruised, bleeding, and swooning as before. The town was thrown into consternation. The physicians had no explanations to offer; priests came to pass the night in prayer, but as midnight approached, all would be seized with the terrible lethargy. Finally, the archbishop of the province came, and performed the ceremony of exorcism in person, but the following morning the governor’s widow was found worse than ever. She was now brought to death’s door.

The governor finally decided to station 50 Cossacks along the bridge. That night, the ghostly carriage approached from the direction of the cemetery at the usual time. When the officer and a priest shouted out a challenge, the former governor thrust his head out of the coach window and stated his name and office. Everyone on the bridge was flung aside as if by an electric shock as the carriage passed by.

The archbishop then resolved, as a last expedient, to resort to the time-honored plan of exhuming the body, and pinning it to the earth with an oaken stake driven through its heart. This was done with great religious ceremony in the presence of the whole populace. The story is that the body was found gorged with blood, and with red cheeks and lips. At the instant that the first blow was struck upon the stake, a groan issued from the corpse, and a jet of blood spurted high into the air. The archbishop pronounced the usual exorcism, the body was reinterred, and from that time no more was heard of the vampire.

Blavatsky comments: ‘How far the facts of this case may have been exaggerated by tradition, we cannot say. But we had it years ago from an eye-witness; and at the present day there are families in Russia whose elder members will recall the dreadful tale.’

H.S. Olcott (1891) reports the case of a Hindu woman who had allegedly been obsessed by a pishacha (demon). For about a year she would wake up weak, pale and anaemic every morning. Twice she became pregnant, but suffered miscarriages. Finally, she sought the help of a Muslim mantriki, or exorcist, who, by means of occult arts, discovered that the entity responsible was a deceased man of his own faith. He secretly opened the grave of the suspect, who had been buried nearly a year, and found the corpse fresh and life-like. When he made a cut on its hand near the thumb, fresh blood flowed from the wound. He then performed placatory rites, recited mantras, and drove the phantom away from his victim and back to its grave. After this, the woman recovered.

In 1922 in the Greek village of Pyrgos, a depressed young farmer hanged himself from a tree. For this reason he was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church and buried in unconsecrated ground. The wife and several other villagers believed that the young man’s soul would never find rest, but the priest refused to relent. After the two-month mourning period, eight villagers reported that they had been shaken and bitten by something in their beds at night. They were forced to remain in bed due to loss of strength, and two died. No connection was made with the recent suicide. The wife then admitted that her husband had returned to her every night and had ‘lain with her’ until the early morning for the entire past week. The priest gathered some men from the village and exhumed the suspected ‘vrykolakas’. They found it to be shrivelled and hardened as if it were a skeleton with only a thin layer of wrinkled flesh. They began to dismember the corpse, and on opening the creature’s chest, they allegedly found a completely preserved heart that was still beating. The priest poured holy water over it and the heart began to melt until it liquefied entirely. The pieces of the body were then burned. The bodies of the two other people who had died were burned as a precaution. When the group returned to the village, they learned that those who were sick were feeling much better. The widow later gave birth to a baby which she believed to have been fathered by the vrykolakas, but it died seconds after being born. The basic elements of this story were considered factual by local residents as recently as the mid-1970s. (Konstantinos, 52-7)

Science and superstition

The idea of buried human corpses coming back to life, leaving their graves and later reentering them without even disturbing the soil is of course absurd. But what about the claim that the corpses of suspected vampires, when disinterred, often did not look like a ‘normal’ corpse? Their bodies were reportedly bloated and ruddy, blood was often seen seeping from the mouth and nose, their hair seemed to have grown somewhat, and they seemed to have grown new nails and skin. Critics have argued that what were once regarded as signs of vampirism are in fact the results of normal changes undergone by decomposing corpses.

When the heart stops beating, the blood settles into whatever parts of the body are closest to the ground. Most of the skin pales and starts to look waxy, while the parts of the body where the blood settles turn pink or purple-red after about 10 hours. As the body cools, the muscles relax, but then the entire body becomes rigid as rigor mortis sets in (it was first documented scientifically in 1811). After one to three days, the body relaxes again as the muscle fibres decompose. As bacteria multiply in the body, putrefaction gathers pace and a foul odour develops. The mouth and nose redden from decomposing lungs. The face becomes swollen and discoloured, and the skin marbles in shades of green and black. Bacteria in the intestines produce gases that bloat the body to nearly twice its normal size and eventually turn the skin mostly black. The build-up of pressure forces blood and other dark liquids to issue from the nose and ears. The bloating makes the tongue and eyes protrude and the lips curl back to reveal the teeth and gums, while the breasts and genitals expand to a grotesque size. The internal organs break open, liquefy, and leak from all the body orifices. Skin peels away, revealing new skin beneath it. Hair stops growing and falls out. The nails also stop growing, and often drop off, leaving fresh skin underneath, which eventually putrefies (Ramsland, 2002, 13-14).

The smiling face of a partially decomposed corpse. (

Sceptics argue that a corpse exhumed when its lips are curled back might seem to have an animalistic smile. The red stuff around the mouth and a coffin filled with liquid would seem sinister, especially if mixed with runny blood. When the nails fall off and the skin peels away, the dermis and nail beds emerging underneath could be interpreted as new skin and nails. As the skin and gums lose fluids and contract, the roots of the hair, nails, and teeth (even teeth that were concealed in the jaw) are exposed, which could produce the illusion that the hair, nails, and teeth have grown. The disappearance of stiffness in a corpse’s limbs could give the impression that it had regained the ability to move around. Bloating makes a corpse looks plump, well fed and ruddy, and can cause an elderly person to look younger. If it causes the body to shift its position in a coffin, this could be mistaken for evidence that it is getting in and out. A stiffened, often enlarged penis could be interpreted as proof of an ongoing interest in sex. The staking of a swollen, decomposing body would cause the emission of a large quantity of blood, while the escaping gases might cause a groan-like sound. The hesitation of animals (such as a horse or goose) to walk over the graves of suspected vampires could be explained by the stench emitted from a shallow grave, especially since animals have a better sense of smell than humans.

‘Le Vampire’, engraving by R. de Moraine, Les tribunaux secrets (1864). (

The old belief that a corpse should fully decompose after 40 days has no scientific standing. It can take several months or even years for a corpse to decompose to skeletal remains. Moreover, certain soil or coffin conditions may preserve bodies well beyond the expected timeframe. There are corpses today that have reportedly lasted hundreds of years with few signs of necrosis. Construction workers unearthed a corpse in the Chinese city of Nanjing that was 500 years old yet still had supple skin and flexible joints. A man whose coffin washed into a Kentucky river in a 1927 flood looked as if he’d been buried very recently but proved to have died 113 years earlier. The body of Medgar Evers, a civil-rights leader who was murdered in 1963, was exhumed three decades later to examine the bullet holes. When the casket was opened everyone was shocked to find that the person looked as though he had died only the day before.

In 1789 in the vault of a monastic chapel in Toulouse, some bodies were found to be perfectly whole and resembled living people although they had been interred for nearly two centuries. The bodies were ranged around the wall, still wearing the garments in which they had been buried. Strangely, when the bodies interred on the opposite side of the chapel were examined a few days later, they were found to have crumbled away.

Other events once interpreted as evidence of vampirism include a series of deaths in the family of a suspected vampire or in the community where he had lived. Why the dead would want to wreak havoc on their former loved ones is unclear; one theory was that the corpse had been taken over by demons or even the devil himself. During cholera epidemics in the 19th century, there were cases of people being burned alive by their neighbours on suspicion of being vampires.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries there was a widespread belief in vampires in parts of New England, particularly in Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut. There are instances of families digging up loved ones and removing their hearts in the belief that the deceased was a vampire who was responsible for sickness and death in the family. The deadly disease of tuberculosis (or ‘consumption’ as it used to be known) was believed to be caused by nightly visitations by a dead family member who had died of tuberculosis. Symptoms included emaciation, an increasingly pale skin, crimson cheeks, and the appearance of blood in the sputum and on the lips. 

In 1896, the New York World reported that belief in vampires was alive and well in Rhode Island. Near Newport, six separate incidents were documented that involved exhuming a recently deceased person, removing the heart, and burning it. This generally occurred when several members of the same family appeared to die from a similar wasting disease. People in that area at that time believed that a vampire fed first on those it was close to before moving on to other people, so it seemed that a family member who died first and became a vampire was now victimizing its kin. (Ramsland, 17)

One of the most famous incidents took place in Exeter, Rhode Island, in 1892. The wife of George Brown died, followed by his eldest daughter. One of his sons, Edwin, then grew ill but moved away, and then another daughter, Mercy, died. When Edwin returned, he again became ill, so George exhumed the bodies of his wife and daughters. The wife and first daughter had decomposed, but Mercy’s body – buried for three months – was fresh and turned sideways in the coffin, and blood dripped from her mouth. They cut her heart out, burned it and dissolved the ashes in a medicine for Edwin to drink. However, he also died and Mercy Brown became known as Exeter’s vampire.

Like tuberculosis, the pneumonic form of bubonic plague was associated with the breakdown of lung tissue which would cause blood to appear at the lips. Rabies, too, has been linked with vampire folklore. Rabies sufferers are hypersensitive to odours and light; hypersexual; experience enormous thirst; do not like to see themselves in mirrors; their muscle spasms can cause bared teeth; they may froth bloody fluid at the mouth; they can engage in ferocious, aggressive behaviour; and they can infect others through a bite, because the virus is transmitted through saliva. Parallels have been found between the outbreak of rabies in certain regions and the increased popularity of vampire tales.

It is very likely that superstition and medical ignorance about bodily decomposition and epidemics have helped to strengthen a belief in vampirism. Materialistically minded people can choose to explain all vampire tales entirely by ‘natural’ phenomena and attribute anything not explicable in this way to exaggeration and fabrication. But to deny the occurrence of any apparitions and phantom attacks, they would have to dismiss an immense body of testimony from across the ages (see Visitors from the twilight zone). Those who recognize the reality of the occult world have a greater range of possible explanations available.

An occult perspective

The theosophic tradition, which is reflected – in more or less distorted form – in all modern orthodox religions, teaches that our physical body is our outermost vehicle through which work a series of more ethereal bodies or souls. The inner parts of our constitution undergo varying fates after death (see Our after-death journey).

The physical body dies when its connection with the astral model-body is broken. The seat of the lower, largely instinctive mind (Sanskrit: manas) is a more ethereal form, sometimes called the animal or lower human soul, or the kama-rupa (Sanskrit for ‘desire body’). After death, the astral body and kama-rupa decay on their own planes, at rates that depend on how materialistic or otherwise the life just lived has been. Cremation of the physical body enables the astral body to disintegrate more quickly. If the body is buried, the astral body hovers around it, and the kama-rupa, too, is drawn to the grave.

The higher mind is seated in the reincarnating soul, which is not subject to the same relatively rapid decay as our lower vehicles. It is overshadowed by our spiritual-divine self. Sometime after the death of the physical body a ‘second death’ occurs, when the reincarnating soul separates from the kama-rupa and rises to higher spheres where it enters a restful, dreamlike state (Sanskrit: devachan), in which it imagines fulfilling all the selfless and noble impulses that had not found full expression during life. After the second death, kama-rupas begin to decay, a process that can take anything from a few months to a few centuries, depending on the quality of the previous life. These astral corpses or shells, largely devoid of active intelligence, and are often mistaken for the true souls of the dead by mediums.

During life, our minds are immersed in the astral realms. We draw in thoughts and desires (which are elemental energies) that resonate with our current state of mind, whether good, bad or indifferent, and then throw them out again in modified form. The kama-rupas of the deceased can also exercise a negative effect on living humans whose defects and weaknesses make them receptive to such influences. The kama-rupas of people who have lived particularly selfish and animalistic lives – known as elementaries – pose the greatest danger. Whereas most people pass through the kama-loka (the plane of the kama-rupas) virtually unconscious after death, this does not apply to elementaries. Those who have died prematurely as a result of accidents or murder (‘legal’ or illegal), and those who have artificially cut short their lives by committing suicide may also retain a degree of consciousness after death if their higher intellectual and spiritual life was relatively undeveloped. In other words, certain kama-rupas can become ‘psychic vampires’ and feed off the vital, emotional, and mental energy of the living.

H.P. Blavatsky describes these kama-rupas as ‘vampire shells, the elementaries who live a posthumous life at the expense of their living victims’ (BCW 6:170). She says that superstitions about ghouls and vampires, when stripped of exaggeration, are based on a belief in these ‘restless, wandering, astral souls’ (Isis 2:564). In cases of insanity, ‘the patient’s astral being is either semi-paralyzed, bewildered, and subject to the influence of every passing spirit of any sort, or it has departed forever, and the body is taken possession of by some vampirish entity near its own disintegration, and clinging desperately to earth, whose sensual pleasures it may enjoy for a brief season longer by this expedient’ (Isis 2:589).

Blavatsky explains what happens to the kama-rupa in the kama-loka after the second death:

Here the pale copy of the man that was, vegetates for a period of time ... Bereft as it is of its higher mind, spirit and physical senses, if left alone to its own senseless devices, it will gradually fade out and disintegrate. But if forcibly drawn back into the terrestrial sphere, whether by the passionate desires and appeals of the surviving friends or by regular necromantic practices – one of the most pernicious of which is mediumship – the ‘spook’ may prevail for a period greatly exceeding the span of the natural life of its body. Once the kama rupa has learnt the way back to living human bodies, it becomes a vampire feeding on the vitality of those who are so anxious for its company. In India these eidolons are called pisachas, – and are much dreaded. (Key 340-1; TG 172)

In one meaning of the term, pishachas are:

Shades, fading remnants or shells of human beings in kama-loka, which become elementaries, or malevolent astral beings, in the cases of people who live a consistently evil life while in incarnation. In southern Indian folklore the pisachas are ghosts, demons, larvae, and vampires – generally female – who haunt men. (ETG, Pisachas)

Another Sanskrit term for kama-rupas is bhuta. G. de Purucker writes:

the bhuta is as much a corpse in the astral realms as is the decaying physical body left behind at physical death; and consequently, astral or psychical intercourse of any kind with these shells is productive only of evil. The bhutas, although belonging in the astral world, are magnetically attracted to physical localities similar in type to the remnants of impulses still inhering in them. The bhuta of a drunkard is attracted to wine cellars and taverns; the bhuta of one who has lived a lewd life is attracted to localities sympathetic to it; the thin and tenuous bhuta of a good man is similarly attracted to less obnoxious and evil places. All over the ancient world and throughout most of even the modern world these eidola or ‘images’ of dead men have been feared and dreaded, and relations of any kind with them have been consistently and universally avoided. (OG 18).

The Tibetan term is ‘ro-lang’ (BCW 6:102-9). A corresponding Latin term is ‘striges’. These are defined as:

Screech owls or some such nocturnal bird of prey; applied in classical mythology to a species of vampire which sucked the blood of children. A distinct mythologic reference to astral entities more or less earthbound, which can at times come into even physical relation with human beings, whether younger or older, at the time in a state of negative receptivity. (ETG, Striges)

‘Larvae’ and ‘lemures’ refer to similar beings (Isis 1:353), as does the Slavonic term ‘vurdalak’ (TG 366; BCW 6:170).

Speaking of suicides and victims of accidents who have lived ‘sinful and sensual’ lives, mahatma KH says that they wander about the astral realms until the time when they would have died a natural death:

Cut off in the full flush of earthly passions which bind them to familiar scenes, they are enticed by the opportunities which mediums afford to gratify them vicariously. They are the pisachas, the incubi and succubi of mediaeval times. The demons of thirst, gluttony, lust and avarice, elementaries of intensified craft, wickedness and cruelty, provoking their victims to horrid crimes, and revelling in their commission! They not only ruin their victims, but these psychic vampires, borne along by the torrent of their hellish impulses, at last, at the close of their natural period of life, ... are carried out of the earth’s aura into regions where for ages they endure exquisite suffering, ending with entire destruction. (ML2 109-10 / MLC 197-8)

In some cases kama-rupic vampires retain a strong connection with the buried corpse of the person they once were, especially if the person was not really dead when buried. H.P. Blavatsky writes:

So long as the astral form is not entirely liberated from the body there is a liability that it may be forced by magnetic attraction to reenter it. Sometimes it will be only half-way out, when the corpse, which presents the appearance of death, is buried. In such cases the terrified astral soul violently reenters its casket; and then, one of two things happens – either the unhappy victim will writhe in the agonizing torture of suffocation, or, if he had been grossly material, he becomes a vampire. The bicorporeal life begins; and these unfortunate buried cataleptics sustain their miserable lives by having their astral bodies rob the life-blood from living persons. The aethereal form can go wherever it pleases; and so long as it does not break the link which attaches it to the body, it is at liberty to wander about, either visible or invisible, and feed on human victims. (Isis 1:449; see also 459)

The ethereal form transmits the nourishment it absorbs to the corpse via a cord of connection, thereby keeping the corpse in a state of catalepsy. It is worth noting that at the end of the 19th century, estimates of the number of people in England and Wales being buried prematurely ranged from 800 to as many as 2700 a year.

Blavatsky sometimes calls kama-rupic vampires ‘magnetic vampires’ (Isis 1:353), because they are attracted to persons and localities sympathetic to their nature. After the second death, the animal soul

has still a more or less indistinct consciousness of its own, and its actions resemble those of a person walking in his sleep. It has also a remnant of will, in a more or less latent condition. But as the higher principles have left this, will is no more guided by any moral considerations and cannot exert itself in any other way than by following its attractions. Its lower passions, animal desires and material attractions, still remain, and in proportion as they have been more or less developed, nursed or fortified, during earth life, in the same proportions will they act more or less powerfully after the death of the physical body. Nothing likes to starve: – each body as well as each principle has a powerful attraction and craving for those elements necessary for its subsistence. The principles of lust, gluttony, envy, avarice, revenge, intemperance, etc., will rush blindly to the place to which they are attracted and where their craving can be temporarily gratified; – either directly as in the case of vampires by imbibing the emanations of fresh blood, or indirectly by establishing magnetic relations with sensitive persons (mediums), whose inclinations correspond with their own.
    If there is still a magnetic relation existing between the vampire (elementary) and its buried physical body, it will return to the grave. If there is no such relation, it will follow other attractions.
    It craves for a body, and if it cannot find a human body, it may be attracted to that of an animal. (BCW 6:210-11)

H.S. Olcott (1891) makes the following comments on ‘the link, or cord of communication between the body and the projected double’:

That there is such a tie or astral current, along which nutriment in the etherealized condition may be transmitted from the one to the other, seems probable, if not certain, from well known data. For example, many frequenters of mediumistic séances have seen liquids drunk by a ‘materialized form’ – glasses of wine or beer, glasses of water or grog, etc – which disappeared from the glass in full view and were passed into the stomach of the medium, sitting at a distance in his cabinet. Ink or aniline liquids have been thrown upon the projected form, and found later staining the medium’s person. (I speak, of course, only of cases where the non-identity of the form and the medium was clearly proven.) Solid food has also been eaten by the form in full sight of the witnesses, and similarly disappeared.

Olcott mentions a well-attested case in which a yogi or fakir in Lahore was buried for six weeks and then resuscitated:

It is, therefore, possible that an apparently dead man may be buried for an indefinite time without extinction of life, if the person be all the time in that state of human hibernation known as samadhi – a state when the lungs need no air, because respiration is suspended, and the heart propels no blood through the arteries, because the human clock is stopped. The vampire’s body may, therefore lie fresh and rosy in the grave, so long as it can draw to itself nutriment to counteract the waste by chemical and subtler actions which operate upon the tissues, even in samadhi.

The blood that circulates through our physical body corresponds to the currents of life-energy (prana, chi) that circulate through the astral model-body and kama-rupa (BCW 12:699-700). The blood is condensed pranas while the nervous fluids are condensed psychomental vital fluids (FSO 428, 463). Blood and its emanations exercise a particular attraction on malignant entities from the astral world (BCW 4:265; ETG, Blood rites).

In the Middle Ages there were numerous reports of people being possessed by and having sexual relations with male and female ‘demons’ – known as incubi and succubi respectively. Reports of phantom sexual molesters have continued to this day (see Visitors from the twilight zone, section 5; UFOs, sections 8 & 9). Although sexual interaction with such entities tends to take the form of an assault, it is sometimes deliberately sought after; for instance, some spiritualist mediums have boasted of having ‘spirit’ husbands and wives. According to theosophy, succubi and incubi are often the astral corpses of discarnate humans of a particularly lustful and malicious nature (i.e. elementaries), who try to cling to material life by vampirizing the living. Such ‘demons’ can become tangible and visible by attracting matter from the surrounding atmosphere, from the body of the victim if the latter is a medium, or from any other person in whom there is little cohesion of the lower elements, sometimes as a result of disease. Ethereal attackers may be attracted and even generated, at least in part, by the victim’s own intense imagination and sexual longings. Some may be sorcerers or black magicians, i.e. people who have acquired occult powers such as the ability to project their astral forms, but use such powers for evil ends (BCW 10:155-7, 12:712-3; ML2 109-10 / MLC 198; Hartmann, 1985, 29, 35, 40, 86-94).

Painting of an incubus (1870). (

Commenting on the fact that some mediumistic people believed they were married to male and female ‘spirits’, Blavatsky writes:

Explanations of lunacy and hallucination will never do, when placed face to face with the undeniable facts of spirit-materializations. If there are ‘spirits’ capable of drinking tea and wine, of eating apples and cakes, of kissing and touching the visitors of séance-rooms, all of which facts have been proven as well as the existence of those visitors themselves – why should not those same spirits perform matrimonial duties as well? (BCW 12:193)

[Incubi and succubi are] the spooks of mediaeval demonology, called forth from the invisible regions by human passion and lust. Now called ‘spirit brides’ and ‘spirit husbands’ among some benighted spiritists and spiritual mediums. These poetical names do not prevent them in the least being that which they are: ghools, vampires and soulless elementals, formless centres of life, devoid of sense; in short, subjective protoplasms when left alone, but called into a definite being and form by the creative and diseased imagination of certain mortals. They were known under every clime as in every age, and the Hindus can tell more than one terrible tale of the dramas enacted in the life of young students and mystics by the pisachas, their name in India. (TG 154)

The fact that some western ‘spirit guides’ and materialized ‘angels’ are ‘unclean spirits’, or pisachas, is something Blavatsky stresses on several occasions (BCW 4:138-43). Writing in 1883 she mentions a recent case in India, where ‘the victim was actually killed by his horrid siren, and another in an adjacent country, where a most estimable lady was sacrificed’. She concludes by warning that ‘too close intercourse with these moral vampires of materialized “guides” may lead to spiritual ruin and even physical death’ (BCW 4:300).

Blavatsky notes that many mediums are weak, passive, sickly and neurotic. She adds:

The ancient thaumaturgist and apostle, generally, if not invariably, enjoyed good health; their magnetism never conveyed to the sick patient any physical or moral taint; and they never were accused of vampirism, which a spiritual paper very justly charges upon some medium-healers. (Isis 1:490-1)

Asked why visitors at a séance often felt extremely tired the next day, Blavatsky replied:

 Among other reasons, because mediums absorb the vitality for the use of the ‘spooks,’ and often vile vampire elementaries are present. ...
    The scenes visible – in the astral – at séances are horrible, inasmuch as these ‘spirits’ – bhuts – precipitate themselves upon sitters and mediums alike; and as there is no séance without having present some or many bad elementaries – half dead human beings, – there is much vampirizing going on. These things fall upon the people like a cloud or a big octopus, and disappear within them as if sucked in by a sponge. (BCW 9:107)

She then provides the following description of the different types of elementaries:

Elementaries are not all bad, but, in a general sense, they are not good. They are shells, no doubt of that. Well, they have much automatic and seemingly intelligent action left if they are those of strongly material people who died attached to the things of life. If of people of an opposite character, they are not so strong. Then there is a class which are really not dead, such as suicides, and sudden deaths, and highly wicked people. They are powerful. Elementals enter into all of them, and thus get a fictitious personality and intelligence wholly the property of the shell. They galvanize the shell into action, and by its means can see and hear as if beings themselves, like us. The shells are, in this case, just like a sleep-walking human body. They will through habit exhibit the advancement they got while in the flesh. ... This séance worship is what was called in Old India the worship of the pretas and bhuts and pisachas and gandharvas. (BCW 9:107-8)

Not to be confused with elementaries, ‘elementals’ are primitive ethereal entities, the creatures of the elements (earth, water, air, fire, aether), sometimes called nature-forces or nature-sprites. They can assume all manner of different shapes, generally reflecting the images present on the astral plane, including in human minds (see Visitors from the twilight zone, section 10).

In its broadest, occult sense, the word ‘vampire’ refers to any entity, human or nonhuman, physical or nonphysical, who feeds off the blood, vitality or psychic energy of another being. Vampirism involves the ‘transmission of a portion of one’s vitality, or life-essence, by a kind of occult osmosis from one person to another’.

[This] process may be made beneficent or maleficent, either unconsciously or at will. When a healthy operator mesmerizes a patient with a determined desire to relieve and cure him, the exhaustion felt by the former is proportionate to the relief given: a process of endosmosis has taken place, the healer having parted with a portion of his vital aura to benefit the sick man. Vampirism, on the other hand, is a blind and mechanical process, generally produced without the knowledge of either the absorber, or the vampirized party. It is conscious or unconscious black magic, as the case may be. ...
    [W]henever the motive which actuates the operator is selfish, or detrimental to any living being, all such acts are classed by us as black magic. (BCW 12:396-7)

A mild form of magnetic vampirism is practised every day and hour whenever people are together. H.S. Olcott (1891) writes:

One vampirizes by hand-shaking, by sitting close together, by sleeping in the same bed ... Great minds love isolation, from an instinctive feeling that if they live the life of the crowd, they will be sucked down to the crowd’s low level. It was this sense which dictated to the yogi and the hierophant, that he must seclude himself within the sanctum, or retire to the gupta (yogi’s cave), the jungle, or the mountain summit.

Blavatsky mentions that the Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (1798-1860) was so feeble during her final years that her physicians advised her to keep a robust and healthy young peasant girl in her bed at night. As for Frederika Hauffe (1801-1829), the Seeress of Prevorst, a German mystic and clairvoyant:

She repeatedly stated that she supported life merely on the atmosphere of the people surrounding her and their magnetic emanations, which were quickened in an extraordinary way by her presence. The seeress was very plainly a magnetic vampire, who absorbed by drawing to herself the life of those who were strong enough to spare her their vitality in the shape of volatilized blood. [T]hese persons were all more or less affected by this forcible loss. (Isis 1:463)

Another case involved a very old Parisian woman, who was often seen in the company of young women (Fortin, 1884). They entered her service in perfect health, but soon showed signs of weakening and often died. When their parents complained, they were placated with gifts or money. Rumours began to spread that the old lady was a vampire and ate the girls to prolong her own life. The last young woman to serve her was the daughter of a coachman. As the young woman’s health deteriorated, her father complained to the police. The old lady was fined and forbidden from having any more companions stay with her. She died soon afterwards.

Dr Franz Hartmann (1889) reports a case in which a spiteful and avaricious uncle prevented his niece, Mrs Rose, from inheriting her father’s estate. At one point he offered her a settlement that would have left him in possession of nearly all the property, but an eminent lawyer advised her not to accept it. This enraged the uncle, who swore that he would kill the lawyer if he had the opportunity. The uncle then left Vienna for Meran, as he had long been in the final stages of tuberculosis and wanted to avoid the cold climate. After his departure, the lawyer’s health suddenly began to fail. He rapidly grew thinner and weaker, complaining of extreme fatigue, and died in December 1888. All his organs were found to be in a perfectly normal condition, so his death was recorded as being from emaciation. During his final days he often imagined that a stranger resembling the uncle was troubling him. Meanwhile, the uncle had been gaining strength and making a miraculous recovery. However, after the lawyer’s death, the uncle’s condition worsened rapidly and he was soon dead.

From an occult perspective, then, people can be vampirized by the kama-rupas of deceased humans who led a particularly selfish and sensual life (elementaries) and by the projected astral bodies of living humans of evil intent. These are the vampiric ‘demons’ and the ‘undead’ human vampires of myths and folklore. However, real vampires are more likely to absorb vital, emotional, psychic and sexual energy from their victims than to suck their material blood. As well as weakening their victims, elementaries can obsess and even possess them, and strengthen any base or malevolent impulses they may have. Folkloric stories about shape-shifting entities are probably referring to the ethereal nature of their bodily forms, which in some cases may become visible and tangible. The belief that those who commit suicide or die a violent early death or have led an evil life have a greater chance of becoming ‘vampires’ has an occult rationale behind it.

As Blavatsky explains, buried corpses can receive blood through the vampiric activities of the associated kama-rupa. But it is very likely that some ‘innocent’ corpses have been suspected of vampirism due to limited understanding of bodily decomposition. Epidemics, miscarriages and infant deaths, too, have often been attributed to vampires and other demonic entities. Modern medicine will put this down to ignorance, but it is blind to its own severe limitations. It focuses exclusively on the physical agencies of disease, and has no real understanding of the inner emotional and psychological dimensions of our being and the role of subtler energies and forces (see Health and disease). Moreover, our character, state of health and other life experiences are ultimately the results of our choices, thoughts and deeds over the course of many incarnations.

It is undoubtedly true that superstitious beliefs and fears have played a major role in the vampire legend. But materialistic thinkers fail to recognize that our beliefs, even false ones, can have paranormal effects if they are sufficiently powerful. Our own thoughts and imaginings, individually and collectively, help to mould the forms taken by the entities from the astral world that are sometimes able to intrude into our physical world. A strong belief that the dead can rise to harm the living can increase the chance of a phantom attacker assuming the form of a dead person known to its victims. Mass belief that the soul of an excommunicated person will not find peace may increase the likelihood of paranormal attacks by the deceased or other entities. A sufficiently strong belief that sacred objects such as crucifixes or holy water can ward off ‘demonic’ attackers will in some circumstances have precisely that result. Cremating a corpse will break the link with a kama-rupa that may be keeping it semi-alive through vampiric activities. But even if the corpse in question has no connection with vampiric assaults, a strong and widespread belief that its cremation will put an end to psychic attacks and epidemics may be sufficient to achieve that effect. The true nature and powers of the human mind, and the reality of the astral world and its denizens, are as yet unrecognized and unfathomed by mainstream science.

Blood-sucking animals and monsters

Certain creatures in the animal kingdom are specially adapted to a diet of blood. The best known is the vampire bat.

Vampire bats, which have a wingspan of about eight inches, live mostly in caves in Central and South America. They feed on the blood of large birds, cattle, horses and pigs. After settling on the neck or flank of a sleeping animal, they use heat sensors in their noses to find veins that are close to the skin. They then make tiny cuts with their razor-sharp incisors, often leaving a two-prong bite mark. Chemicals in their saliva keep the blood from clotting and numb the skin to stop the animal waking up. (Studying bat saliva has led to the development of a drug for treating strokes.) The bats do not suck blood, but use their grooved tongues to lap up blood that oozes from the wound. Bat colonies practise altruism: bats that have had a meal on a particular night regurgitate blood to feed other bats that have not fed, as they die within a few days unless they feed regularly.

Common vampire bat.

Vampire bats may occasionally attack humans, but they nearly always bite their victims in their toes, rather than in the neck or face. Being bitten by a vampire bat does not kill, but vampire bats play a major role in the transmission of rabies. Vampire bats only became part of vampire folklore when they were discovered on the South American mainland in the 16th century. Bat gods, associated with death, are found in Mesoamerican culture, but are very rare in other religions.

There are 14,000 species of blood-sucking insects, many of which attack humans and transmit diseases. They include mosquitoes, ticks, assassin bugs, fleas, lice, and bedbugs. There are several species of blood-sucking leech. They are able to store blood for slow digestion by secreting an antibiotic into their digestive system to prevent the growth of bacteria and retard putrefaction.

Blood-sucking leech.

Lamprey eels, which can grow up to 4 feet long, attach themselves to the flesh of other fish and suck their blood. They have a toothed funnel for a mouth, and secrete a powerful anticoagulant that may last for weeks or months. They fall off the host fish when they are either full or the host fish dies. The candiru is a parasitical fish that swims into the gill cavity of larger fish and lodges itself in place with its spines. It then gnaws a hole towards a major blood vessel and gorges itself for a few minutes, sometimes with fatal consequences for its victim. It has a smaller relative, about 25 mm long, known as the ‘vampire’ fish (Paracanthopoma vampyra).


There are also blood-drinking birds. The oxpeckers of Africa drink the blood of the animal whose ticks they remove as well as eating the blood-filled ticks themselves. The vampire finch of the Galapagos Islands occasionally drinks the blood of seabirds after pecking at their skin with their sharp beaks.

There are countless reports of cattle, horses and dogs being attacked by unidentified creatures who drain them of their blood. In some cases vital organs such as eyes, tongues, udders, genitals or rectum have been removed, sometimes with surgical precision (UFOs, section 3). The blame tends to be attributed automatically to natural predators or satanic cults, even when the nature of the injuries or sheer number of cases makes this very unlikely. Some people have blamed the attacks on cryptids, i.e. animal species living on earth that have not yet been catalogued. Others have blamed the US military or experimenting ‘aliens’ from other planets. Some killings may be the work of creatures from the astral world that under certain conditions can manifest on our physical plane.

The chupacabra (Spanish for ‘goat-sucker’) is said to feed on the flesh or blood of domesticated animals. It has been described as about 4 feet tall, covered with short, fine grey fur with spots, with a set of spines running down its back. It has dark, protruding eyes, a slit-like mouth, long, skinny legs with only three toes, long, skinny arms and hands, and three long, skinny fingers that end with claws. In some descriptions, the chupacabra has scales and/or bat-like wings. The creature hunts at night, attacking goats, horses, dogs and cats. In many cases, two small holes were reported in the neck of the dead animal and all the blood had been drained. No human deaths have so far been attributed to a chupacabra, but there are reports of individuals being threatened.

Chupucabra. (

The chupacabra was first widely reported in Puerto Rico in 1995. Soon after came reports from Mexico, Central America and Brazil. By the end of 1996, there were alleged sightings in Spain, Portugal, and in the USA, including the state of Oregon. In 2005 and 2006 there were reports of chupacabras being spotted in Russia. In Central Russia, 32 turkeys were killed and drained of their blood in one night. In neighbouring villages 30 sheep were reported to have suffered the same fate.

Several older reports of unexplained attacks on animals and sometimes humans are given below (Fort, 1974, 643-8; Keel, 1979, 28-31). In 1810, at Ennerdale, near the border between Scotland and England, something was attacking sheep and cattle, biting into their jugular veins and sucking their blood, killing up to eight animals a night. Angry farmers searched the area without success, but that September a dog was shot in a cornfield and the killings reportedly stopped.

For about four months, beginning in January 1874, something killed as many as 30 sheep a night in Cavan, Ireland, making incisions in their throats and spilling their blood. No flesh was eaten. The monster left elongated tracks, similar to a dog’s, but larger and more powerful. The menace spread to other communities and counties, while armed men scoured the countryside, firing on stray dogs. By April 1874 the beast was prowling around Limerick, 100 miles from Cavan, and several people were attacked and bitten. Several victims were placed in an asylum because they were ‘labouring under strange symptoms of insanity’.

In 1905 sheep were being killed by a marauding animal near Badminton, England. The killing continued sporadically, and by December a total of 30 sheep had fallen prey to the creature near Gravesend alone. A police sergeant stated that it could not be the work of a dog because dogs do not suck the blood of a sheep while leaving the flesh almost untouched. There are no known vampire bats in Europe, and the last wolf was killed in 1712 in Ireland. As in previous cases, the killings suddenly stopped and the monster simply vanished.

In March 1906 an unknown creature was prowling around Windsor Castle attacking sheep. 17 miles away near Guildford 51 sheep were slaughtered in a single night. In October 1925 in Edale, Derbyshire, herds of sheep were being destroyed by a huge black animal that ripped its prey to shreds. This one was not a bloodsucker. The killer was never caught or identified.

The killing of a horse called Snippy in Colorado in September 1967 received wide publicity. Something or someone had expertly cut the horse’s throat and neatly removed all the flesh from its head and neck. The owner associated the murder with the flying saucers being seen in the area. The killing set the pattern for a series of animal mutilations across the USA, Canada and South America, in which parts of the bodies were removed, such as the eyes, ears, genitals or anus. In West Virginia and Ohio, where UFOs and monsters were active in the same period, cattle and dogs met a sudden and enigmatic end. In December 1967 a cow in Ohio was sliced neatly in half, as if by a giant pair of scissors. Numerous dogs were found with their blood gone and no trace of injury on their corpses.

Animal mutilations continue to the present day (Perlmutter, 2004). Human involvement is usually suspected, but the culprits are almost never caught, despite extensive investigations.

Psychotic vampires

Some people, mostly males, suffer from a compulsion to drink blood, to which they generally attribute life-enhancing powers. Such people are sometimes said to be suffering from Renfield’s syndrome, traditionally known as clinical vampirism. Renfield’s syndrome is not officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Craving blood is also classified as ‘a delusional symptom of schizophrenia’ or ‘part of a sexual perversion called haematomania’. Such terms may allow people to be placed in a neat category, but they don’t actually explain anything. To truly understand why people act the way they do, it would be necessary to gain insight into how their strengths and weaknesses have developed over a number of past lives.

Throughout history there have been deranged, remorseless humans whose obsession with blood has led them to commit gruesome assaults and murders. Some examples of these psychotic, psychopathic and pathological ‘vampires’ are given below.

The Hungarian countess Erzebet Bathory, born in 1560, tortured and killed about 650 people, mostly young women. According to some accounts, she sliced open her victims’ arteries and drank their blood. There were also rumours that she had bathed in the blood of her young victims in the hope of remaining youthful. Eventually she was caught and convicted, but because she was of royal lineage, she was sentenced to solitary confinement in a small room of her castle, where she died a few years later. (Ramsland, 2002, 103-4; Keel, 1979, 36)

Portrait of Countess Bathory.

In the 1920s Peter Kürten, the ‘monster of Düsseldorf’, committed numerous assaults and rapes, and 13 murders with knives and hatchets, drinking the blood from many of his victims because he found it to be sexually exciting. He once drank so much blood that he became ill. He was executed in 1931 for nine counts of murder. (Ramsland, 142-4)

Beginning in 1918, Fritz Haarmann and a prostitute named Hans Grans trapped and killed about 50 men. Grans would lure hungry young men to his home and give them food and alcohol. Haarmann would then have sex with them while chewing through their throats until their heads were virtually severed from their bodies. As he tasted their blood, he achieved orgasm. Afterwards he cut the flesh from their bodies, consumed some of it and sold the rest. Bones, skulls and leftover parts were dumped into a canal. At his own request, he was publicly beheaded in 1924. (Ramsland, 149-50; Konstantinos, 2002, 77-8)

After being released from prison for theft in 1943, Englishman John Haigh murdered and drank the blood of a victim named Donald McSwann, disposing of his body in sulphuric acid. Over the next five years he did the same to McSwann’s parents and three other individuals. He was hanged for his crimes in 1949. (Konstantinos, 79-80)

From a theosophical viewpoint, capital punishment is a big mistake. Killing the physical body not only removes any opportunity for the person concerned to reform him/herself; it also allows the kama-rupa, with all its lusts, passions and vicious impulses, to roam free of the physical body and exercise a poisonous influence on susceptible individuals.

A case of auto-vampirism was documented in the 1960s. An adolescent boy would puncture his carotid artery and force the blood to spurt in such a way that he could catch it in his mouth and drink it, causing him orgasmic sexual excitement. (Ramsland, 106-7)

James Riva was fascinated with vampires since the age of 13. He began to kill animals, including a horse, to drink their blood. He punched a friend in the nose and tried to spear another to obtain blood from them, and also attacked strangers. When he told a psychiatrist that he was hearing voices warning him to watch out for vampires, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. After several hospitalizations, during which he obtained blood from other patients, he tried living with his family again but they were terrified of him, so he moved in with his grandmother. Claiming to hear the voice of a vampire, he shot her four times in the spring of 1980. He then tried to drink the blood from the wound in order to obtain eternal life, before setting the corpse on fire. He claimed he had acted in self-defence because she was drinking his blood while he was asleep. He believed that everyone was a vampire and that he needed to do something to become like everyone else. (Ramsland, 113-15)

In Wales in 2002, 17-year-old art student Matthew Hardman was sentenced to life imprisonment for the savage murder of his 90-year-old neighbour. He stabbed the widow 22 times, then placed two brass pokers below her feet in the form of a cross, and candlesticks by her body and on the mantelpiece. Next he sliced her chest open, ripped out her heart, wrapped it in newspaper, and placed it in a saucepan on a silver platter next to the body. He then drained blood from her leg into the pan and drank it in the hope of becoming immortal. He was said to be obsessed with vampirism and immortality. Sentencing Hardman, the judge said: ‘Why you, an otherwise pleasant and otherwise well regarded young man, should act in this way is difficult to comprehend.’ (Perlmutter, 2004;

Matthew Hardman.

In March 2005, 29-year-old Diana Semenuha was arrested in Odessa, Ukraine, after police discovered that she had lured street children to her home, given them alcohol to drink and glue to sniff, drawn their blood with a syringe, and drunk it from a silver goblet. When a child became too weak, she would send him or her back out onto the streets. She believed that this practice could cure a muscle-wasting condition she had. But she also described herself as a witch, taught witchcraft to others, allowed her students to drink blood from her, and sold any of the children’s blood she did not use to practitioners of black magic. The police raided her flat and rescued seven children, but they disappeared onto the streets again, making it difficult to prosecute her. (

Vampire subculture

In recent decades a thriving vampire subculture has developed worldwide, especially in Europe and North America. Modern vampires may meet at a club or coven, experiment with drugs, exchange blood, or indulge in clandestine sexual rituals, often involving sadomasochism. The vampire lifestyle is based on the image of vampires propagated in popular fiction and horror films. Self-professed vampires (or ‘vampyres’, as they often style themselves) may dress in black, use black or blood-red lipstick, wear prosthetic fangs and coloured contact lenses, sleep in coffins, avoid the sun, and decorate their homes in sombre, Victorian fashion. Some feel it is cool to imitate fictional vampires like Dracula or Lestat, while others have an instinctive need to drink blood, and may find it erotic. Certain people attracted to the vampire world see it as a licence for violence.

A survey of self-declared vampires found that the vast majority were Caucasian, and females outnumbered males. One-third participated in the vampire lifestyle. Most kept being a vampire secret and claimed to wear fangs and drink blood. Few expected to live longer than non-vampires. Three-quarters claimed to have been abused as children (Ramsland, 2002, 191-2).

Blood induces vomiting if too much is consumed. Would-be vampires consume blood only in tiny amounts and often on the basis of a contract between ‘donor’ and ‘vampire’. This protects both sides from prosecution if anything goes wrong: there is of course a serious hygiene risk, including the potential transmission of blood-borne diseases. Biting tends to be frowned upon, as it is likely to cause infection and tissue damage, and may lead to excessive bleeding. A more common method is to use a scalpel, fine razor blade, or syringe. Usually just a few drops or at most a couple of teaspoons are taken. Some people consume their own blood. A few self-confessed vampire predators claim to kill animals and drink their blood.

In addition to sanguinarian vampirism (blood drinking), some would-be vampires claim to indulge in psychic vampirism. Some of them attempt to drain life-energy from others through visualization and concentration, while others claim they can project their astral body in search of sleeping victims. Some clairvoyants who have witnessed such acts say the vampire’s astral form develops tendrils or tentacles up to several feet long to extract energy from the astral bodies of its victims (Konstantinos, 2002, 148). In so far as intentional psychic vampires are not indulging in self-delusion, they are indulging in black magic. As mentioned earlier, unintentional psychic vampirism is an everyday occurrence, but preying on others and deliberately robbing them of their life-energy is entirely unjustifiable. Some writers have extended the concept of ‘vampirism’ to cover any form of exploitation, abuse and illegitimate control of others, in which one person or group grows stronger at the expense of another.

It should be borne in mind that the various phases of our after-death journey are all determined by the quality of our thoughts and deeds during our lives on earth. Every wish to harm others, every unfriendly thought and selfish deed pollutes and coarsens our minds and bodies, delays our passage through the kama-loka, and will negatively impact our future lives on earth. In other words, any abuse of another person will ultimately rebound on the offender. The ancient wisdom tradition is crystal clear about how we should live our lives. The golden rule has always been to love one another, to support and help one another with kind words, thoughts and deeds. Persistent pursuit of this path gradually refines our lower nature and enables our nobler, more spiritual qualities to increasingly illuminate our earthly lives.

Living a clean and altruistic life based on brotherly love is the most reliable way of protecting ourselves against all harm and all evil. H.P. Blavatsky advises students of the occult sciences to purify and elevate their entire nature. By doing so, she says, we may ‘sleep unmolested by vampire, incubus, or succubus. Around the insensible form of such a sleeper the immortal spirit sheds a power divine that protects it from evil approaches, as though it were a crystal wall’ (Isis 1:460).


BCW    H.P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House (TPH), 1950-91
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John A. Keel, Strange Creatures from Time and Space, London: Sphere, 1979

Konstantinos, Vampires: The occult truth, St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2002


H.S. Olcott, ‘The vampire’, The Theosophist, v. 12, April 1891, 385-93,

Dawn Perlmutter, ‘The forensics of sacrifice: a symbolic analysis of ritualistic crime’, Anthropoetics, v. 9, 2003/2004,

Katherine Ramsland, The Science of Vampires, New York: Berkley Boulevard Books, 2002

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Dudley Wright, Vampires and Vampirism: Legends from around the world, Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2001 (1924)

Visitors from the twilight zone

UFOs: the psychic dimension